Photographer / Explorer / Innsbruck AUT. Committed to creating unique images of exploration from our extreme subterranean world.
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In January 2016, an international caving expedition traveled to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. The goal? To find and explore the area's last remaining unexplored mega-doline identified during aerial observations. It was decided to split into two teams. Four people would remain in Tolel to explore the caves familiar to the Papuans, which are located in the vicinity of the village, whilst the other four people would hike up to the plateau to look for a good site for the base camp and also locate the mysterious Black Hole. With the support of a small group of Papuans to help break trail, the team headed up into the rainforest on a reconnaissance mission, slipping and sliding on the steep wet ground. The beginning of the trail took the team down into the Wunung gorge and then up the other side. It was soon apparent that they were not going to reach their objective in one single day, so they were forced to bivi out in the forest part way up to the plateau. The Papuans took little time to construct their shelter (pictured). For the rest of us, we strung up hammocks to keep us off the jungle floor. Speaking from experience, in 2006 I once suffered a horrendous night, when I slept out on the jungle floor on the other side of the Nakanai. I got no sleep. I was eaten alive by hundreds of creepy crawlies!
Stay tuned for more from this fascinating story as the team try to unlock yet another secret of Papua New Guineas hidden underworld.
The expedition was sponsored by Petzl, the leading manufacturer of equipment for outdoor sport enthusiasts and professionals, whose roots were founded deep underground in the then deepest cave in the world - The Gouffre Berger. For a more detailed account of this awesome expedition, please download the eBook from the link in my bio. #adventure#exploration#cave#caver#explorer#NewBritain#PapuaNewGuinea#PNG@petzl_official#petzlgram#accesstheinaccessible#blackhole#expedition
Welcome to Tolel - In January 2016, an international caving expedition traveled to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. The goal? To find and explore the areas last remaining unexplored mega-doline identified during aerial observations. After leaving the coastal town of Palmalmal, the team took a truck ride inland, through miles and miles of oil palm, coconut and cocoa plantations, before finally reaching the road head. Here the team was met by fifty or more Papuans from a handful of secluded villages hidden in the forest. Thanks to all the support, the team hiked up into the rainforest, each carrying a load. The heat was stifling and the bags were very heavy. Finally they walked into a wide-open field lined with a few wooden structures. The first was a school, and since the children were on vacation, the Papuans set down their packs and offered to let the team use it during their stay. The rudimentary school building contained three small classrooms with rows of wooden benches. With barely enough time to take off the heavy packs, and eat a little the Papuans invited the team to join them for a welcome ceremony. At the top of a small slope, the entire village came into view. Huts of different shapes and sizes extended over a broad expanse of part grass and part mud. Jean-Paul Sounier, looked to the north of the village, where the primary forest-covered plateau stretched out to the horizon. He knew this area was where the legendary Black Hole lay.
In January 2016, an international caving expedition traveled to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. The goal? To find and explore the areas last remaining unexplored mega-doline identified during aerial observations. The journey up into the Nakanai Mountains was relatively straightforward, especially for these four guys, who have all been to the Nakanai before. Jean-Paul Sounier (red t-shirt) has been on thirteen expeditions exploring the caves of the Nakanai. He has dedicated his entire 30-year long caving career to this tiny island, home to the largest and most wild and ferocious river caves in the world. In caving circles, he is known as ‘The King of the Nakanai’. This is the last remaining cave feature he has not yet been to. Pictured here, the team studies maps and aerial photographs to try and pin point exactly where the mega-doline, the big black hole is and their proposed route up to it. From these maps, they learn that they will have to spend several days following a GPS point, cutting a trail through the dense jungle and camping at several points along the way. From these maps and aerial photographs they also spot other surface features along the line from the black hole to the big resurgence of water on the coast. Could there be a giant river cave in this area that has not yet been discovered…? Stay tuned for more from this fascinating story as the team try to unlock yet another secret of Papua New Guineas hidden underworld.
In the early hours of the morning on the 22nd January 2016, a small team of elite cave explorers from France, Spain and Australia embarked on a twelve-hour boat ride around the coast of East New Britain, from its capital Kokopo, to Palmalmal, in Jacquinot Bay. Led by highly experienced French explorer Jean-Paul Sounier, the team chartered two small boats carrying themselves, their caving equipment and their food supplies for four weeks away from civilisation, camped deep in the Papuan rainforest.
Their objective, to locate and explore the last remaining unexplored mega-doline of the Nakanai Mountains. A doline or sinkhole is a collapsed cave feature that breaks the surface. Typically these mega-dolines that are found in the Nakanai, such as Nare, Ora, Minye and Kavakuna, are gateways to the underground world and the only sign of what amazing caves run through this heavily forested island.
Stay tuned for more from this fascinating story as the team try to unlock yet another secret of Papua New Guineas hidden underworld.
The expedition was sponsored by Petzl, the leading manufacturer of equipment for outdoor sport enthusiasts and professionals, whose roots were founded deep underground in the then deepest cave in the world - The Gouffre Berger. For a more detailed account of this awesome expedition, please download the eBook from the link in my bio. #adventure#exploration#cave#caver#explorer#NewBritain#PapuaNewGuinea#PNG@petzl_official#petzlgram#blackhole#accesstheinaccessible#expedition
In 1988, French cave explorer Jean-Paul Sounier took an interesting helicopter reconnaissance flight over an area of the Nakanai Mountains in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. The pilot told him that on a previous flight he had looked down into a huge black hole, an unexplored sinkhole and one of the Nakanai’s many ‘mega-dolines’. Later during the flight they discovered a large volume of water resurging from a cave along the coast. Could this be the downstream end of the mysterious black hole the pilot had spotted during his flight? The following years were spent exploring other objectives that this vast karst landscape contains, Muruk, Ora, Mageni, and Wowo. The mysterious ghost river slowly faded from his memory… until, the summer of 2014, and after an expedition to another karst area in New Britain, he began looking for a worthy objective to take him back to the Nakanai Mountains. After studying aerial photos he noticed, on a plateau along the left bank of Wunung Gorge, a black and white mark indicating a surface sinkhole. Could this be the very chasm that the helicopter pilot from 1988 spotted? Venturing to a plateau that has never been explored and mapping its underground passageways, what an enticing proposition!
Over the next week I will publish a photograph a day telling this fascinating story of the teams journey to explore the last remaining mega-doline of the Nakanai Mountains and their quest to unlock yet another secret of Papua New Guineas hidden underworld.
I am truly honoured to be awarded the Best Storyteller 2017 award by the International Adventure and Exploration Festival in Garda Trentino, Italy. It's a big shock! I hope to see some of you this next weekend in Arco.
The Abyss of Cenote (cave) in the Italian Dolomites is mainly one large chamber (pictured here) with a narrow shaft that enters from the top containing a 165m deep ice plug. The ‘tongue' of the ice plug can be seen in the top of this picture with a striking black and white appearance in which the folds can clearly be seen. At the bottom of the cave, 285m below the surface, the floor is covered in a slope of breakdown blocks that have fallen from the roof and walls. These rocks cover another large mass of ice, the thickness of which is unknown. The laser scan of this lower part of the cave was carried out in November 2015 and tied into the scans of the upper part of the cave, which were taken in October/November 2016. The La Venta exploration team will return to this cave in a few years time to repeat the scan and monitor at high resolution the changes in the ice plug and ice floor. #AbyssOfCenote#science#scientist #exploration#research#climatechange#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#leica@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam@leicageosystemsag
The Abyss of Cenote (cave) at nearly 3,000m in the Italian Dolomites is a unique cave 285 m deep with a large ice plug in its entrance. The ice plug extends down the first 165 m, finishing in a large ‘tongue’ seen here on the right. Up until this point, the route through the cave is down the side and through the middle of the ice plug. At this point when the ice plug finishes, the cave turns into a normal limestone shaft down which one must rappel, mostly free-hanging (i.e., away from the wall in empty space), in a constant shower of water from the melting ice up way above. Pictured here, the scanning team are making their way slowly but surely down the ice tongue, and into the huge void below. It gets more and more epic with every step that's taken. Each step with the crampons cuts into the ice and sends tiny shards of glass-like pieces falling into the blackness below. Tommaso Santagata (left) of the La Venta Exploration team and Farouk Kadded (right) of Leica Geosystems, France, have set up one of Leica’s state-of-the-art 3D laser scanning devices. They have secured it partly to the ice and partly to the rock behind from which they can scan in nearly all directions. From my lofty position a few feet above them, I watched every movement hoping they didn’t drop anything. This team is at the forefront of 3D laser scanning in caves, they’re using really cutting edge stuff in very complex and technically challenging environments to map caves. #AbyssOfCenote#science#scientist#leica#exploration#research#climatechange#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam@leicageosystemsag
Deep underground and inside the giant ice plug that sits wedged in the upper part of the Abyss of Cenote (cave) like a cork in a bottle, Professor Christoph Spötl from the Innsbruck University Quaternary Research Group and Andreas Treyer scrape the dirty layer away from the surface of the ice before drilling samples of clean ice for stable isotopes and pollen analysis. Only recently has this cave been open to scientists like Christoph to take such important samples. For many decades a lake was present in the depression at the entrance. Then in 1994 some divers hiked up the mountain to take a closer look at the lake only to find that it had disappeared! Subsequent investigation revealed a giant cave 285m deep with a large ice plug in the entrance, that for many years had prevented the wonders that lie beneath from being discovered. #AbyssOfCenote#science#scientist #exploration#research#climatechange#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam
The Abyss of Cenote (cave) in the heart of the Italian Dolomites is predominately a vertical cave with very few areas of flat ground to stand up on. To get around in such a cave, cavers typically use SRT (single rope technique), which involves abseiling (descending) or prussiking (ascending), down and up one rope. All members of this expedition were very competent at SRT and enjoyed swinging around on the ropes suspended hundreds of feet above the ground. Pictured here, GEO magazine writer Lars Abromeit reaches the top of one of many rope pitches, which is anchored to the rock, though in other parts of the cave ice screws had to be used instead. At nearly 3000m elevation, the first signs of being at altitude start to affect some people, and climbing up 285 m up ropes from the bottom of the cave can be quite tiring. Thankfully it is possible to relax and just back in the harness if a break is needed, which is especially a good thing when doing this wearing crampons. #AbyssOfCenote #exploration#research#climatechange#science#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#Leica#leicageosystems#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam
One of the main objectives of the Abyss of Cenote expedition was to produce a highly precise laser scan survey of the cave. Here, Farouk Kadded (left) of Leica Geosystems, France, and Tommaso Santagata (right) of the La Venta Exploration team are working in the ‘wind tunnel’ in the centre of the ice plug. Up until this point, the route through the cave is largely vertical, on ropes, between the cave wall and the outside of the ice plug. Here, the route turns horizontal for a short distance before resuming its vertical nature. Due to the change in size of the passage here as compared to the much larger chamber at the bottom of the cave, a strong wind blows through this tunnel, which changes direction depending on the temperature at the surface. Combining the already cold temperature of the cave with the strong wind makes working in this part of the cave rather challenging, especially when sat around for extended periods of time working the laser scanner. #AbyssOfCenote #exploration#research#climatechange#science#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#Leica#leicageosystems#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam@leicageosystemsag
Unfortunately, after a couple of days into the Abyss of Cenote expedition, the weather took a turn for the worse and trapped the team members inside their tents, where they sheltered from the cold blizzard that battered the thin nylon fabric between a comfortable world curled up inside warm sleeping bags and a world of hurt outside in the maelstrom. Only occasionally did they brave the elements, running across camp to join others cooped inside the communal tent for meals and discussions mostly about the weather. Thankfully, after a day, the clouds cleared and carried with them the snow storm, which revealed a beautiful fresh landscape with a wind swept skittering of snow that covered all tracks up to the entrance of the cave. The teams' agenda inside the Abyss of Cenote cave was back on track, but with less time a new plan had to be followed. An advance team entered the cave and began surveying the upper parts using Leica’s state-of-the-art 3D laser scanner, whilst a second team follow later on to carry out the scientific investigations of the cave. #AbyssOfCenote #exploration#research#climatechange#science#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#landscape#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam
On day one of the Abyss of Cenote expedition the advance team set up base camp at nearly 3000m (9800ft) altitude in the Italian Dolomites. Amongst the members of the La Venta exploration team, it was decided that even for a short expedition lasting only a week, a helicopter was required to transport several cargo nets full of equipment to base camp. Generally, the use of helicopters for transporting cargo (and people) in this National Park is not allowed, hence special permission had to be sought from the authorities. Thankfully, on the first day of our expedition the weather was good, so there were no delays in getting started (in previous years we have had to spend a day or two passing time in a ristorante in the valley bottom waiting for the weather to clear). The flight takes no more than 5 minutes to get the gear from the valley bottom to base camp, but it is well worth it, as the hike up takes 6-8 hours depending on the weather to do the same thing. The cargo nets allow a lot more equipment to be taken though, including a state-of-the-art 3D laser scanner for use in surveying the cave. If you look closely at this net, you can see my blue drum that I use to transport old-style magnesium wire flash bulbs. #AbyssOfCenote #exploration#research#climatechange#science#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#landscape#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#helicopter#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam
Following on from the opening photograph I posted yesterday, allow me to introduce you to Lars Abromeit, the writer of the GEO magazine feature titled “Die Untermessung der Unterwelt” (translation: the measurement of the underworld) from which this current photograph series originates. At 2940m (9678ft) a.s.l the cave known as Abyss of Cenote is located in the heart of the mountain called Conturines Spitze in the Italian Dolomites. It is characterised by a rather strange shape, somewhat like a wine bottle, which is narrow at the top and opens up into a huge chamber at the base. The narrow ‘neck’ of the cave is corked with a huge ice plug that has started to melt in recent years allowing cave explorers to work their way down around its sides, through the middle, and out of the bottom into the rest of the cave, Here, Lars is returning up through the ice plug after a trip underground with the scientists working in the cave. Many different layers can clearly be seen in the ice above his head, with some parts having a lot of detritus and organic material giving the dirty look, whilst other parts are cleaner and white. At the moment, the reason behind the dirty layers versus clean layers in unknown. Scientists are currently working on its interpretation. #AbyssOfCenote #exploration#research#climatechange#science#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#landscape#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam
The latest issue of GEO magazine features a scientific research expedition that I photographed in November 2016, in a very special cave at 2940m (9678ft) altitude in the Italian Dolomites. For many decades a lake was present in the depression you see here in the photograph. Then in 1994 some divers hiked up the mountain to take a closer look at the lake only to find that it had disappeared! Subsequent investigation revealed a giant cave 285m deep with a large ice plug in the entrance, that for many years had prevented the wonders that lie beneath from being discovered. Pictured here, two explorers return to the surface after a ten-hour trip underground to rig the ropes inside the cave for the remainder of the expedition members. Over the next few days I’ll be posting images from the story of the scientists and the cave explorers as they journey into Abyss of Cenote. #AbyssOfCenote #exploration#research#climatechange#science#Conturines#SanCassiano#Dolomites#Italy#landscape#icecave#cave#expedition#explorer#InsideTheGlaciers@geomagazin@uniinnsbruck@laventaexploringteam
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Words by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott) - We arrived on a grassy ridgetop where fifteen donkeys and a few local men were waiting for us. Hodja Gur Gur Ata, the 21-mile-long cliff that is home to Dark Star, loomed in the hazy sky two days walk to the north. Several of the team vaulted over the truck’s wooden sideboards to greet a middle-aged Tajik named Zhuraev “Sadik” Miraminu, chief of a nearby village called Dehibolo. Zhenya, our expedition’s elder statesman, embraced Sadik warmly—it was obvious they are old friends. In 1987, two Russians were exploring a massive cave system called Boy-Bulok, that lies within a cliff several kilometers to the south of Hodja Gur Gur Ata. Not far from the entrance to the cave, but past a vertical drop that can only be passed with a rope, the cavers found a skeleton. Based on the tattered clothing draped over the old bones, and the home made lamp lying nearby, the Russians assumed they had found the remains of a villager who had fallen into the cave. So they packed up the bones and carried them out of the cave. When they emerged they were engulfed in a raging blizzard. Frozen, staggering through the dark, the Russians found their way to Dehibolo, where fate led them to the home of Sadik’s family. Sadik was a teenage boy at the time, and he was sitting on the floor when the Russian’s pulled the bones and the battered lamp from their caving rucksacks. Sadik’s father, realizing these were the remains of an old friend who had gone missing 16 years ago, was deeply moved. Ever since, the Russians have remained close with Sadik’s family, and Sadik has provided logistical support for their expeditions. Pictured here and perched on the only semi-flat sloping ground for miles, is the teams base camp. All trips underground inside Dark Star began from this camp.
From our featured article entitled Into The Deep, that was published inside the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photographs by Robbie Shone, text my @m_synnott (Mark Synnott). #DarkStar#underground#BaisunTau#icecave#Uzbekistan#explore#explorer#expedition#cave#exploration
I am currently curating an assignment with @natgeoyourshot called "Facing Your Fears," inviting you to use your photography as a creative canvas to understand and express your fears. To submit your photos and stories, go to natgeoyourshot.com. There are only 6 days left!
Following a college art project in which I painted giant oil, acrylic and linseed oil canvases of the view looking down skyscrapers in Manhattan, NYC, I had faced and overcome my fear of heights, enabling me to take photographs like this one deep underground in China in one of the worlds largest vertical pits. At over 1500ft (500m) deep, Miao Keng in Wulong, China is taller than the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Link in my bio #natgeoyourshot
Great behind the scenes shot of my assistant, Matt Oliphant and I working on the @NatGeo magazine assignment, entitled Into The Deep, from Dark Star (cave) in Uzbekistan. Thanks Boaz Langford for the pic! Great memories from a great expedition, exploring one of the worlds deepest caves at over 3500m (11500ft) above sea level. The Baisun Tau cliff, where the caves are, is very close to the Afghanistan border, and several times we had visits from armed men with fully automatic machine guns and their dogs, who had hiked for two days to check up on us. One time Matt, the writer Mark Synnott (@m_synnott) and I emerged from inside Dark Star only to be told over the PMR walkie talkie radio to stay at the cave and not hike back to camp until the men had left. I used my long 200mm lens to see what they were up to by taking pictures and zooming in on the screen on the back of the camera. However, that day they didn't leave and after several hours of hanging around the cave entrance, we were invited back to camp by Vadim, the team leader. We were strictly told to head straight to our tent, hide away all our camera gear and not speak to the men. They stayed the night and left the following day. A little disconcerting to say the least. #underground#BaisunTau#icecave#Uzbekistan#explore#explorer#expedition#cave#exploration#photographer#DarkStar
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Words by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott) - Every sport has an unsung hero, some quiet badass that operates under the radar, pushing the boundaries of their chosen field of endeavor without giving a whit if anyone knows about it—or cares. Matt Oliphant, pictured here (unpublished photo), is just such an individual. Matt served as Robbie's photo assistant/rigger/schlepper/safety guy on the Dark Star assignment. And I'm embarrassed that we've made it this far down the road without calling out the massive contribution he made to the overall success of the project. When things got gnarly down in Dark Star, in other words, shortly after I stepped into the mouth of the cave, I turned to Matt and said, “Hey man, can you keep an eye on me, and make sure I get out of this cave alive?” Matt just chuckled and said, “You got it man.” Matt’s not one to boast, but over the course of three weeks we spent together in Uzbekistan, including at least one session sitting on a rock in base camp drinking scotch, he shared enough stories for me to wonder: who the heck is this guy? During one particularly harrowing tale, involving some horrendously deep cave in Mexico, I held up my hand for him to stop. “Wait a second,” I said. “Are you a famous caver?” “No, no, no,” replied Matt. “Nope, that’s not me.” Then he proceeded to rattle off a bunch of names of people that he considers to be the real icons of the sport. The thing is, I could swear I'd heard those same names in many of the stories Matt had been telling me. If you're a caver, you probably already know about Matt. If you're not, let me introduce you to my hero. And, in case you’re wondering: no, I won't be going underground again unless Matt is by my side. #soulbrother#darkstar#myhero
Words by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott). Inside Dark Star, Tonya Votintseva, A Russian molecular biologist, stops to attach a small white disk to the wall. This data-logger is one of several she will install throughout the cave to record temperature, humidity, CO2, and barometric pressure. She will also collect the data-loggers left from the last expedition and ship them to Dr. Sebastian Breitenbach, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. After the expedition, Breitenbach explained how he uses the data collected from Dark Star. “The only paleoclimate data we have from this region comes from tree rings, which only go back a couple hundred years. So we have no clue what was happening with the climate in this part of the world 10,000-20,000 years ago. The isotopes tell us whether the water in Dark Star came from the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean, and this can help us to better understand the history of the Indian monsoon. Ultimately, the goal is to understand how global warming will impact the future availability of water in Central Asia.” The drilling of ice cores in Greenland and the Antarctic are iconic examples of paleoclimate proxies, but these ice cores can only be found in polar regions, whereas speleothems represent a terrestrial archive that can be found virtually anywhere, from the tropics to the high latitudes and everywhere in between. Speleothems also have the potential to be orders of magnitude older than what can found in an ice core—the oldest stalagmite is 293 million years old.
For more stories and photos from our feature article Into The Deep, check out the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photographs by Robbie Shone, text my @m_synnott (Mark Synnott). #DarkStar#underground#BaisunTau#icecave#Uzbekistan#explore#explorer#expedition#cave#exploration#cavern#painting#art
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Words by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott) - As time runs out on the expedition, most of the hoped-for new passages have proved to be dead ends. The team has exited the cave and is preparing for the long journey back to Tashkent, but Zhenya, along with an ambitious young Russian named Lyosha, insist on making one more push to explore Dark Star’s last possible new lead. They’ve been shuffling sideways for hours in a tight meander, and now they’re braced in a knee-butt squeeze-chimney between two icy walls of limestone. “I think we’ve reached the end of the line,” says Lyosha, gesturing to the nine-inch-wide slot in front of him. Experienced cavers know that the limiting factor in a squeeze passage is not your chest or your hips, but your skull. Your rib cage and belly can be compressed, but your head cannot. Handing his helmet to Lyosha, Zhenya slides head first into the icy fissure. Tilting his shoulders back and forth, his temples scraping against the flowstone, he slithers inch by painstaking inch into the squeeze. Thirty minutes later, Zhenya pops through the crack into a borehole the size of a Moscow subway tunnel that reverberates with the roar of a fast-flowing river. Is this the passage that he’s been seeking, the one that will finally make Dark Star the Everest of caves? He desperately wants to keep going, to see where it leads. But alas, the expedition’s time has run out. Zhenya turns to face the grueling multi-day trip back to the surface, with a smile that lights up his craggy face, because this is exactly how every great caving expedition should end: with a mysterious passage snaking into the unknown, and an adventure that will have to wait for another day.
For more stories and photos from our feature article Into The Deep, check out the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photographs by Robbie Shone, text my @m_synnott (Mark Synnott). #DarkStar#underground#BaisunTau#icecave#Uzbekistan#explore#explorer#expedition#cave#exploration
Words by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott) - A wave of anxiety washes over me when I arrive at an intersection of several passages with absolutely no indication which one leads to the Red Lakes. Cavers love to tell you that you can’t get lost in a cave, but actually you can—quite easily, in fact. I choose the least worst option: a tube about the size of an air duct filled with four inches of water. I shove my backpack in and nudge it forward with my head. I hold my torso out of the water by perching on my forearms and toes, inching forward in a gut-crushing plank position. The ceiling lowers until I’m forced to slither on my belly. Suddenly the tube turns almost straight down. It’s so tight that just flexing my muscles keeps me from diving down the shaft. A few minutes later, I fall from the tube into a tall, narrow chamber draped in vertically-ribbed curtains of bloodred flowstone. The passage is filled with red-hued water. I know I have found the Red Lakes when I hear the telltale sound of cave-suits scraping against rock. Yuri appears, then stops to peer into a small hole in the floor. But before he can take another step, Vova pushes him aside, yelling “It’s mine,” as he dives headfirst into the hole like a rat going for a piece of cheese. I burst out laughing at the madness of it: these guys have been underground for nearly a week, and they’re fighting like toddlers over who gets to be first to wedge themselves into a dark, slimy hole that surely leads nowhere good.
For more stories and photos from our featured article Into The Deep, check out the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photographs by Robbie Shone, text by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott). #underground#BaisunTau#DarkStar#icecave#uzbekistan#explorer#expedition#nationalgeographic#exploration#cave#icecaves#petzlgram@petzl_official
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Three in the bed... Robbie Shone and Matt Oliphant are veteran cavers, but they had never used the Russian bivouac system: two sleeping bags zipped together for three people. Getting the three of us tucked in for the night would have been comical if it wasn’t so painfully grim. Of course, I ended up with the zipper on my side. Every time anyone moved, the tension pulled the bag open, and I spent most of the night wide awake, my body pressed against the cold wet fabric of the tent. I spent that sleepless night (if it was even night) contemplating how hard pressed I’d be to find a place on planet earth further from my home… unless I were to go deeper into the cave, which, of course, was the plan. In a cave, darkness is absolute and eternal, and the diurnal cycle that rules life above ground is irrelevant. For this reason many cavers don’t wear watches. In Dark Star, the team rested when they were tired, and explored when they weren’t. It sounds pleasant, but never knowing what time it was left me feeling disoriented and uncomfortable. Should I try to go back to sleep, or is it almost morning? As my bag mates snored way, I thought about something horrible Robbie and Matt had told me about before bedding down. They called it “the rapture of the deep” and described it as a mental breakdown that sometimes afflicts cavers. There was a story, of course— a caver from Texas who simply gave up when he was deep underground. Rescuers spent days dragging him out of the cave, even though the only thing wrong with him was that he had lost his will to live.
For more stories and photos from our featured article Into The Deep, check out the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photographs by Robbie Shone, text by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott). #underground#BaisunTau#DarkStar#icecave#uzbekistan#explorer#expedition#nationalgeographic#exploration#camping#cave#icecaves#threeinthebed
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Zhenya slapped me on the back good-naturedly and led me toward a brightly-colored, box-shaped tent tied to the surrounding walls with strings coming off its vertices. The shelter was aglow, with steam pouring from its door. As I lay flat on my back just inside, I looked up into the faces of cackling Russians. For a few seconds I had no idea where I was. “You better go to sleep,” said Tonya. “You’ve been assigned to the other tent.” Robbie, Matt and I grabbed our stuff from the cook tent and shuffled over to a smaller shelter erected atop a jumbled pile of boulders a few feet away. As I unzipped the door and crawled inside, my nose was assaulted by a powerful aroma—body odor and stale cigarette smoke. It was nauseating and claustrophobic in the tent, but we hadn’t eaten all day, so I rooted into a pile of detritus at our feet where Tonya said I might find some food. I dug past a pair of heavily soiled long johns, a dirty sock, a dead power drill battery, some bolts, and a plastic baggie containing several packs of cigarettes. Finally, on the very bottom, I wrapped my hand around a dusty sausage covered in something fuzzy that I hoped was lint. “Five second rule,” I exclaimed, holding it up proudly. After days of eating only what the Russians would give us, mainly thin gruel and Uzbek saltines, I could hardly believe our luck. An entire sausage. Protein we badly needed to fuel our bodies for probing deeper into Dark Star. And there were no Russians on hand to tell us not to eat it. Sometimes, I told myself, as I divided it into three equal chunks with my knife, it is better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.
When I was a teenager, I had a fear of heights. In college, our class visited the Empire State Building in NYC and we joined other tourists in admiring the breathtaking view over Manhattan. I was comfortable gazing ahead into the skyline and horizon, but looking straight down at the streets below was petrifying. My fear of heights inspired a series of art works I made while in the college. At the time, I was painting giant canvases with oils, acrylics, turpentine, and linseed oil. I would lay the canvas on the floor and brush the paints around to create my art, which ultimately helped me creatively cope, understand, and express my experiences and feelings around my fear of heights. I focused on the perspective, and exaggerated it ever so slightly so the viewer felt a sense of vertigo when they looked at my paintings on a wall, in an almost overpowering and unnerving way as they towered over the viewer. Because I spent so many weeks working on this art project, each of my paintings helped me overcome my fear of heights. These two pictures presented here are two paintings from the portfolio.
Years later, I am now a cave photographer, where I often find myself suspended on a thin length of rope hundreds and hundreds of feet above the floor, concentrating on making pictures in total darkness, no longer afraid of heights, just aware of them.