The Timavo River (which flows from Slovenia, through Italy, and into the Gulf of Trieste) is only one of many starless rivers and flooded underlands to have beckoned people into them, sometimes fatally. “A peak can exercise the same irresistible power of attraction as an abyss,” wrote Théophile Gautier in 1868, and the reverse is also true.
The fallen angel of French speleology is a man called Marcel Loubens, who was seized from a young age by what the British caver James Lovelock called “a passion for depth . . . He wanted to go deeper and further into the rocky heart of the earth than any man had been before.” Under the tutelage of the father of modern French cave exploration, Norbert Casteret, Loubens led numerous mid 20th-century explorations in the Pyrenees, which were at that time considered “the Himalayas” of the caving world.
In the summers of 1951 and 1952 Loubens took part in the expeditions to descend the chasm of Pierre Saint-Martin, a shaft of water-worn limestone that, from its modest mouth in the western Pyrenees, drops more than 1,100 feet to its base. The Saint-Martin chasm proved to be the entry point to what was thought then to be the deepest-reached cave system in the world—a series of chambers leading down at last to an underground river—and it became the focus of intense speleological activity. In 1952, to speed up the movement of people up and down the shaft, an electric winch was devised and cemented in place at the mouth of the chasm.
Loubens was one of the most committed explorers of Pierre Saint-Martin, and he volunteered to make the first winch-powered descent of the shaft himself. He clipped himself onto the wire, backed over the edge of the chasm, and called out a farewell to Casteret—”Au revoir, papa”—as he disappeared from view. Then the winch lowered him down the shaft, and he saw the blue circle of sky dwindle from disc to dot, until its watching eye winked out. The sides of the shaft were in places polished glass-smooth by the action of water.
Loubens made it safely to the base, and spent the subsequent five days underground, leading the exploration of the further reaches of the system, down towards the starless river, astonished by what he and his companions were discovering. “The show has hardly begun,” he said to his friends as he prepared to be winched back up.
Loubens was around 35 feet up when the clip that held him to the wire buckled. He cried out as he slipped from the line, fell, and then smashed into the boulder field at the base of the shaft, bouncing for more than 100 feet from rock to rock.
When Loubens’s companions reached him, he was barely alive. Great efforts were made to rescue him, but his injuries were so many and so severe—among them a broken spine and a fractured skull—that it proved impossible to move him. He died 36 hours after first falling.
Loubens’s friends on the surface used an acetylene lamp to burn onto a nearby rock the words “Ici Marcel Loubens a vécu les derniers jours de sa vie courageuse ”—”Here Marcel Loubens passed the last days of his courageous life.” Those still at the base of the gouffre buried his body beneath a pile of boulders, and marked the site with an iron cross covered with luminous paint. Loubens had fulfilled his own wish to find his resting place deep underground.Extreme cavers jokingly modify Mallory’s answer when asked why they risk their lives for an ultra-deep cave system, with the words “Because it’s not there.”
Two years after Loubens’s death, on August 12, 1954, a young Belgian priest called Jacques Attout volunteered to be lowered to the bottom of the Pierre Saint-Martin. Using a medicine chest as his altar, and with Norbert Casteret as his server, Attout celebrated Mass in memory of Loubens. He later recalled the service, in what has become among the most celebrated passages of caving literature for its convergence of theology and geology:
Never again shall I celebrate such a Mass in a setting that was so closely united to the Divine Sacrament . . . In this vast cave we must have looked more like insects than human beings. And yet—our souls were on fire. We were so far from our surroundings, or if we sensed them at all it was because they had lost something of their material quality and become vast and luminous.
Loubens’s avid striving after underland knowledge is not, of course, a recent invention. Classical sources record the use of pine cones or wooden cups as marker objects—floated into disappearing streams and rivers in the karst, their reappearance watched for elsewhere—in order to trace the submerged flow patterns of the landscape. It is in the modern period, though, that these practices of deep-mapping have reached their most extreme and hazardous expressions.
In the Picos de Europa of northern Spain, 40 years of expeditions have been spent trying to forge the connections that would result in the completion of the Ario System, which in theory might extend almost 6,000 vertical feet. The project—shared across generations of cavers from many countries—is known as “The Ario Dream,” and its aim is to create the world’s deepest through-trip, whereby one might abseil into a chasm amid mountain peaks, and then emerge several days later into the twilight of a gorge. The Ario System is so extensive that its exploration requires expedition-style caving, where base camps and advance camps are established far underground as sites where equipment can be cached and sleep can be taken in tents—just as mountaineers attempting Everest move between successive camps while they gain height. Cave-diving skills are key to the Ario expeditions, for the further reaches of the system are flooded. Divers push on into the blackness with fine margins for error—often turned back by chokes or deadings-out—entering unmapped areas of the mountain’s interior that are referred to, in an echo of 19th-century imperial cartography, as “blank space.” George Mallory famously answered the question of “Why climb Everest?” with “Because it’s there.” Extreme cavers jokingly modify Mallory’s answer when asked why they risk their lives for an ultra-deep cave system, with the words “Because it’s not there.”
Among the driving ambitions for many of these speleonauts are connection and completion: to prove through-flow and join‑up. In The Darkness Beckons, Martyn Farr tells the story of the four years that the cave divers Geoff Yeadon and Oliver “Bear” Statham spent trying to connect Kingsdale Master Cave and Keld Head in the Yorkshire Dales: two chambers a mile and a quarter apart, linked by a series of submerged passages. The route became known as the Underground Eiger in recognition of its severity. Visibility in the very cold water was poor due to its silt content, and there were few air pockets where the men could surface to swap oxygen cylinders. Early in their exploration of the system, Yeadon and Statham found—and recovered—the body of a diver who had died there five years earlier. The two men finally completed the traverse successfully on January 16, 1979—a remarkable achievement in desperate conditions. Eight months later Bear Statham took his own life in his pottery workshop in Sedburgh. He put on a full-face diving mask and regulator, connected it up to the gas supply for his kiln, then lay down on his sofa and died.“You are absolutely, completely in a void, like being in outer space . . . You get to the point where there is no God, no past, no future, just now and the next millisecond.”
Many of the longest submerged systems are entered via modest pools that rise in open ground. There is one such system entered via a small lake called the Blautopf in Germany; another in central Norway known as the Plura that has claimed the lives of two divers. And in the Northern Cape of South Africa, on the fringe of the Kalahari Desert, is Boesmansgat, or Bushman’s Hole. There, what seems little more than a pond offers entrance to a flooded chamber 885 feet deep.
Fewer than 12 people in history have dived below a depth of 790 feet using scuba equipment. Such ultra-diving exerts an awful toll on the bodies of those who survive, including lung damage and hearing loss, and the fatality rate among those attempting such depths is high. In 1994 a young cave diver called Deon Dreyer died deep in the Boesmansgat system. His body was not located until ten years later, embedded in silt on the chamber floor. Painstaking plans were made to retrieve his corpse, in order to bring closure for his grieving family. But the lead diver on the retrieval dive, a British man called Dave Shaw, became tangled in his own safety cord while seeking to place Dreyer’s body in the silk bag he had brought down with him for that purpose. Shaw’s breathing and heart rate increased as his anxiety rose. Dreyer’s neck had become softened by his decade in the water, and when Shaw sought to move Dreyer’s head, it loosened from his body, then detached completely and floated past Shaw, turning to gaze at him through blackened goggles—the moment caught on Shaw’s head camera. Shortly afterwards Shaw himself succumbed to asphyxiation brought about by carbon dioxide build‑up.
Four days after Shaw’s death, divers returned to the cave. To their amazement, they found Shaw’s body floating near the roof of the chamber, with his torch hanging beneath him, still on. Illuminated in its beam was Dreyer’s headless corpse. Shaw had—after death—achieved what he set out to do and retrieved the body of his predecessor from the blackness.
For years I could only understand these pursuits of shadowed water, blind rivers and terrible depths as fierce versions of the death drive—fiercer even than what drove the most fearless mountaineers. The language of extreme caving is often openly mortal and tacitly mythic: stretches of passageway “dead out,” one reaches “terminal sumps” and “chokes,” the furthest-down regions are known as “the dead zone.” But over time I saw that—as with extreme mountaineering—there was another aspect to the thanatos at work. Divers and cave divers often describe their experiences in terms of ecstasy and transcendence. “I have had such beautiful moments in the water,” says the British diver Don Shirley, who dived below 790 feet in Boesmansgat. “You are absolutely, completely in a void, like being in outer space . . . You get to the point where there is no God, no past, no future, just now and the next millisecond. It’s not a threatening environment—just total serenity.”The water was uncannily clear and my limbs moved in it as though they were another’s.
The free-diver Natalia Molchanova similarly described her time below the surface as self-dissolving. Molchanova was one of the first people to free-dive the Blue Hole, a 390-foot-deep sinkhole in the Red Sea containing “the Arch,” an opening in the sinkhole’s wall that runs through to open ocean. More than 100 free-divers and scuba divers have allegedly died in the Blue Hole, drawn into its depths by complex longings. Molchanova dived the Blue Hole on a single breath, safely: an astonishing achievement. But on an August day in 2015, she dived recreationally off the coast of Ibiza to between 100 and 130 feet—a shallow dive for someone of her rare abilities and experience. She did not resurface, and her body has never been recovered.
“I have perceived non-existence,” Molchanova wrote in a poem called “The Depth”
The silence of eternal dark,
And the infinity.
I went beyond the time,
Time poured into me
And we became
I lost my body in the waves
. . . Becoming like its blue abyss
And touching on the oceanic secret.
Only once in the course of my years in the underland did I approach a flooded labyrinth, and there I had an experience that helped me comprehend a fraction of the serenity of which Shirley spoke. The labyrinth ran under the center of Budapest, on the Buda side of the river, and I entered it in the company of a Hungarian geologist, caver and climber called Szabolcs Leél-Ossy. Budapest is built in part on limestone, and its invisible city contains both mine networks and cave systems caused by the upwelling of warm, dissolving water. On a hot summer night with insects singing from the street trees, Szabolcs and I slipped through a gap in a heavy steel gate, unlocked a door set into bedrock, followed a tunnel that had been blasted into the limestone, and emerged into a flooded cave chamber below the city. The chamber—which was more than 450,000 cubic feet in volume—was the access point to a submerged network of tunnels below the city. It was from here that, for years, cave divers had set out to map Budapest’s underwater maze.
Szabolcs and I lowered ourselves into the water at the edge of the chamber, and we floated there convivially for a night-hour in that lost space below the city. When I recall the experience now it feels dream-like. The water, rising as it did from far within the earth, was a steady 27°C. I had the sense of great depth opening below and around me in the darkness, but felt no vertigo, only occasional swoops of the spirit. The water was uncannily clear and my limbs moved in it as though they were another’s.
“Here,” said Szabolcs at one point, “I am at peace within the rock.”
Our conversation was occasional. There were long periods of silence. I have rarely felt more relaxed than in that amniotic space.
“Before we leave, you should see the true entrance to the maze,” said Szabolcs. He sculled across to a distant wall of the chamber. I followed. “Now,” he said. “Sink, and open your eyes. The water will not harm them.”
I took a series of deep breaths, lifted my arms above my head, joined my legs, expelled the air from my lungs in a rush of bubbles, and slowly sank. At a depth of ten feet or so, the weight of water building on skull and skin, I fanned my hands to keep myself steady, and opened my eyes. Pressure pushed gently against my eyeballs. Ahead of me in the water was the black mouth of a tunnel entrance, leading away into the rock, more than wide enough to engulf me, its stone edges smooth. The pull of the mouth through that eerily clear water was huge. Just as standing on the edge of a tower one feels drawn to fall, so I experienced a powerful longing to swim into the mouth and on, until my air ran beautifully out.
Excerpted from “Starless Rivers (The Carso, Italy)” of Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Macfarlane. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.