In caves, it is exactly the opposite.
I have been exploring caves for 5 years since 2016, but I have never thought of exploring the world’s deepest cave, Krubera Voronya located in Abkhazia.
Over a casual catchup with my buddy Rayan Zgheib, an experienced and passionate Lebanese caver, he mentioned his previous exploration experience couple of years back to Krubera. The curious in me did not resist his stories, I wanted a share of this privilege, and an idea was born: to explore Krubera reaching the deepest possible point and be amongst the very few people who managed to do so…but I had 2 challenges; one, my caving experience goes only to dry and warm caves situated in the Sultanate of Oman, while Krubera is a wet, humid and a very cold cave. And two, I had no team to go with me, and caving is not an individual sport, it has a lot to do with the team you are part of.
Krubera’s depth is more than 2km vertical below earth, its temperature fluctuates between 2 and 7 degree Celsius, the humidity level is high, it consists of running underground streams and waterfall that you can’t avoid but to walk in, very tight and narrow spaces, tunnels and multiple claustrophobic meanders. To put it into perspective, imagine a 17km of hard obstacle course abseiling & climbing down from the top of Burj Khalifa then ascend back to the top; and to complete the entire depth of Krubera, you have to repeat it nearly 3 times. To put it more into perspective, imagine yourself doing 7 to 10 CrossFit sessions daily over 9 consecutive days, with minimal food and water, carrying 2 to 3 bags totaling to 30kgs-40kgs in very uncomfortable conditions, total darkness, no room for any human error, and no access to communication with the outside world. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, it is mentally challenging and tiring.
So how can someone living in the UAE that has only 1 inaccessible vertical cave train for such conditions? The plan was simple, don’t sweat the uncontrollable and be in charge of all other factors. Such as my fitness level and my caving technique on ropes. So I set myself a routine of hard training over 3 months prior to the expedition in summer 2016, hoping to offer myself as a strong reliable caver to a potential international team in return of being a member.
The training consisted of few different practices. During the week, I do 3 to 4 CrossFit classes at Innerfight, daily cardio training such as running and rowing, and 2 sessions with a fitness coach to assess and improve my weakest points. And occasionally I add 1 or 2 yoga classes to enhance my flexibility (though my flexibility was a hopeless case) as it will help in very tight spaces. In addition I installed a rope, and kept ascending and descending over and over again, in order to increase my technical rope work efficiency, to avoid any human error in the cave or any delays. Every second I save on the rope-work counts; but it was not about seconds, it was about being safe and going thru the cave with no human error, as one mistake can be my last.
Fast forward to the 30 day expedition. These 30 days consisted of multiple expedition work. We had 2 main objectives continue the exploration carried by previous teams in 2 caves: Krubera and another adjacent cave, hoping the 2 caves link at one point and making a new discovery. And the second objective was reaching Krubera’s deepest accessible point. The daily work consisted of multiple tasks:
Whilst most of the work involved squeezing in tiny holes hoping to find the next big discovery at the other side.
And last but not least, exploring Krubera.
Since cave explorations are not a guided tour teamwork is everything. In order to explore caves, one is in need for a very trustworthy team to rely on. The team dynamic is essential; however the most crucial part is trust. Each member has to trust the others to be self-supported, independent, able to self-rescue and play an important role in team rescue if needed; hence why great teams form over years of experience together. Most of the teams consisted of 5 to 6 members. Prior to the expedition, I contacted one of the teams offering to carry communal gear in exchange to joining them. The Hungarian team, also known as “Inverse Everest Team” lead by Gergely Ambrus, had 1 main goal, to be the first team to document Krubera professionally for the first time. So I thought it would be great to offer to carry camera gear down the cave, however our communication didn’t seal positively, which is understandable given how team dynamics work in caves.
Soon enough I met the team at basecamp and we shared few days of different work. Once they got to know me and my caving background, I was welcomed in the team! Great relief…
We started prepping for our 9 day underground endeavor. Prepping includes packing personal gear, emergency essentials (such as rescue & first aid kits), food and communal gear. Every item must be sealed properly making it rugged and as waterproof as possible. The trickiest part is space and weight limitations; due to caves architectural nature, one cannot use a normal hiking backpack. The only option is a cylindrical shaped bag made out of hard PVC material with few handles on the sides. These bags are meant to take a lot of beating in the cave due to the repetitive acts of wedging, dragging, pushing, pulling and throwing them around. Each of us had a 2 x 40L bags each, and the entire team had 3 extra bags which we took turns in carrying them.
The 9 day journey began on a sunny midday, kissing-goodbye the natural light and welcoming the total darkness hereinafter. The first 4 days consisted of descending to the deepest accessible point in the cave, whilst the remaining 5 days were spent battling against gravity ascending out of the cave. In addition to the rope work, we spent most of each day climbing boulders, squeezing in meanders, crawling in long & tight tunnels, avoiding getting wet from waterfalls and streams (which is impossible), and often setting up the camera gear to take the perfect picture. Unlike the outdoors, in caves there is no natural light for photos, which means every photo has to be taken at a very specific accuracy. Every flash has to be perfectly placed, every caver in the picture has to be standing still (regardless how tired and how awkward your position is). On average, each day was 10 hours work, with very limited access to food and water. Then we celebrate the end of the day with a hot meal, tea and warmth at each underground-camp. Each underground-camp consisted of 1 tent we squeezed, laughed, cooked, and slept in.
After few hours of sleep, it is time to pack camp, put on the smelly wet caving suit and repeat all over again. Very simple life, we had nothing on our minds except the basic form of our nature: moving, eating, and sleeping. People often ask me “how did it feel reaching the deepest point of the world’s deepest cave?”, the answer is: nothing to be proud of yet, well, there are 2 answers:
The objective answer: “The longer and harder part of the journey is yet ahead.”
The emotional answer: “stillness, very few people have ever stepped foot in this place, yet it is not made public and not scalable on social media, it is only about me and enjoying the moment by myself, no crowd, no followers, and no ego boosters…”. Of course a lot more goes through one’s mind, but that’s mainly it.
The real celebration is once you are out of the cave safe and sound, seeing natural light, being able to stretch your body, the luxury of just looking at far distances… so quickly enough we set course to get out of the cave.
If I would to leave you with one lesson I learnt in that cave, and as cliché as it sounds, you can achieve whatever you truly want. ■
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Words by: Toufic Abou Nader
Photos by: Gergely Ambrus – Inverse Everest