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 Matt Oliphant, pictured here (unpublished photo), is just such an individual.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.
Unpublished photograph from inside Full Moon Hall, Dark Star from our Into The Deep article in the March issue of National Geographic magazine. Surface Hoar is the winter equivalent of morning dew; water vapor in the air condenses and freezes when it comes in contact with the cold walls of the cave. I’ve seen tiny feathers of surface hoar on top of snow on cold mornings in the mountains, but I’ve never seen anything like this—some of these ice crystals are two feet long, their surfaces etched with striated geometric patterns. Why this hoar forms inside of Dark Star is one of the cave’s many mysteries. The Russians still don’t understand Dark Star’s ventilation system, but they do know that some entrances inhale and other’s exhale, and that this respiration reverses during high and low pressure. More evidence of what the Russians told me back in camp—that Dark Star is a living, breathing creature.
The southeast face of Hodja Gur Gur Ata is located in Uzbekistan’s Surkhandarya province, near the common border shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The surrounding mountains are called the Baisun-Tau, and the range consists of two main mountain chains, Ketmen’ Chapty and Hodja Gur Gur Ata. The latter, pictured here, stretches unbroken for more than 20 miles. Another similar mountain range called the Surkhan-Tau lies nine mile to the southeast. Both of these ranges, which run for approximately 30 miles in a southwest to northeast orientation, form the southwestern spur of the Gissar Range. The highest summit is Chul’bair (12,506 feet). These mountains present as a series of wedge-shaped plateaus that rise to 12,000 feet, then end precipitously in 800-1200-foot limestone cliffs. It was 30 years ago that Igor Lavrov, a member of Sverdlosk Speleological Club first discovered the opening within Hodja Gur Gur Ata that would lead into Dark Star. On an exploratory expedition in 1984, following a tip from an itinerant shepherd, he and a companion met the schoolmaster of a small Tajik village named Qayroq. The man told them that he had spent years exploring nearby grottoes with homemade torches. “Where can I find these caves?” asked Igor. “There,” said the schoolmaster, pointing to the monolithic limestone wall at the head of the valley. In the years since, the Russians, in association with cavers from several other nations, have explored 22 different entrances in the face of Hodja Gur Gur Ata. Here, I descend a fixed rope to investigate two openings that had never been entered before. Alas, both were plugged with ice, so where they might lead remains a mystery.
This photograph ties in nicely with the picture that has just been posted on the @NatGeo Instagram account. I took this selfie immediately after talking that one looking along the Baisun-Tau cliff at Mark Synnott, who was descending into a giant cave entrance just a little way along the wall. We were both about 1200ft off the floor and although we were deeply concentrating on our rope work, the view was amazing. Mark rappelled along a narrow ridge and against the backdrop of the pale sky, I had a great opportunity to make a photograph for the story.
The Russians haven’t been the only ones exploring Dark Star. @laventaexploringteam a group of hardcore cavers from Italy, have been involved since the beginning. British cavers have also made significant contributions, and were the ones who named Dark Star after a satirical sci-fi movie of the 1970s. But exploration of Dark Star has been sporadic; it’s remote, the region is politically unstable, and the cave is vast and highly technical. Many expeditions have simply run out of rope. As soon as I entered the cave, I understood why. After a short scramble down a frost-covered slope, we arrived at the first crux, pictured here—a 100-foot rappel into a pit, followed by a steep climb up a rope fastened to the other side of this shaft. This in turn led us into a vertical three foot wide slot in which we pulled ourselves sideways on mud caked ropes between walls covered in ice. Had I known, as I sat in the mud panting beside the rathole through which these ropes had led me, that all this groveling had only gained about 300 feet—in a cave that has 11 miles of such passageways—I probably would have turned back right then.
For more stories and photos from our feature article Into The Deep, check out the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine or follow link in my bio to the online version. Photographs by Robbie Shone, text by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott) #underground#exploration#expedition#cave#nationalgeographic#uzbekistan#ice#icecave#DarkStar#BaisunTau#explorer
I duck under an arch of translucent blue ice and enter the Full Moon Hall—the largest chamber yet discovered in Dark Star. It’s 820 feet long and 100 feet tall. The walls are covered in feathers of hoar frost that scintillate like millions of tiny mirrors on a disco ball, scattering the beams from my headlamp around the room. Rationally, I know it’s an illusion, but I’d swear the light is emanating from within the walls, like stars in a crystal-clear night sky. My caving companion, Tonya Votintseva, a 35-year-old Russian microbiologist, explains that the surface hoar covering the walls and ceiling is the winter version of morning dew; water vapor in the air condenses and freezes when it comes in contact with the cold walls of the cave. I’ve seen tiny feathers of surface hoar on top of snow on cold mornings in the mountains, but I’ve never seen anything like this—some of these ice crystals are two feet long, their surfaces etched with striated geometric patterns. Why this hoar forms inside of Dark Star is one of the cave’s many mysteries. The Russians still don’t understand Dark Star’s ventilation system, but they do know that some entrances inhale and other’s exhale, and that this respiration reverses during high and low pressure. More evidence of what the Russians told me back in camp—that Dark Star is a living, breathing creature.
Please stay tuned for more photos and stories from our feature article Into The Deep, which you can find in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Photos by Robbie Shone, text by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott) #underground#exploration#expedition#cave#nationalgeographic#uzbekistan#ice#icecave#DarkStar#BaisunTau#underground#explorer
The Russians have identified more than 100 cave openings in the 21-mile-long southeast face of Hodja Gur Gur Ata, but to date, only 22 have been explored. Seven of them lead into the subterranean labyrinth known as Dark Star. Look carefully, and in the top right center of this image you can see one of these entrances. Caving exploration in this isolated corner of Central Asia began in the early 1980s after members of the USSR’s Sverdlosk Speleological Club identified this region’s vast limestone topography from geologic maps. The club had been searching for a place to pursue the Holy Grail of caving—to go deeper into the earth than anyone had gone before—and the Baisun-Tau Mountains, at least on paper, appeared to have all the right ingredients. Mountaineers will never find a peak higher than Everest, but the potential to find new and deeper caves is virtually unlimited. The crux is finding them, and as any caver will tell you: we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about what lies hidden beneath the ground here on earth.
"Misha, p-l-e-a-s-e l-i-s-t-e-n c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y,” I say, holding up the old frayed rope to which we are tied. “I don’t want to climb any higher. If you won’t go down with me, I will untie and solo to the bottom.” With his brawny arms crossed over his chest, Misha locks me in an icy stare and mutters something in Russian. We’ve been arguing on this tiny ledge for nearly an hour, which, considering we don’t share a common language, is becoming ridiculous. What’s clear is that he adamantly refuses to bail. Earlier in the day, when we surveyed this 1200-foot cliff from the base, I realized there was no way we could safely climb it with the motley assortment of old Russian caving gear we had scrounged up in camp. I said as much to Misha and thought he had agreed, but somehow he has cajoled me halfway up the cliff. Peering down at the hundreds of feet of crumbling limestone we’ve already scaled, it dawns on me that I’m bluffing—and Misha knows it. My only option is to give in and go for the top. Though Misha is a world-class caver (and more stubborn than the donkeys that carried our gear into these mountains), he has little climbing experience. This leaves the dangerous job of leading the upper headwall to me, but I’m here to go caving not climbing, so I don’t even have sticky-soled rock shoes. When we finally top out late in the day—not far from where this photo was taken—Misha just shrugs and gives me a look as if to say, “See, I told you it was no problem.” And that’s how I accidentally made the first ascent of Hodga Gur Gur Ata, in a remote corner of Uzbekistan—on the very first day of our expedition to Dark Star. I haven’t discussed it with Misha, but I was thinking we could call our route Russian Roulette.
The view looking straight down the entrance shaft into Devils Hole #2 in Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, Nevada. The cave is 200m (600ft) away from Devils Hole proper, where an endemic species of pupfish live. However fish do not live in DH2, which means that geologists can access the cave for research. Accessing the cave involves negotiating this 60ft vertical entrance pitch. #research#exploration#science#Nevada#scientist#underground#fieldwork@uniinnsbruck@umnpics
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We're here in Nevada with scientists from the University of Innsbruck, Austria to drill core samples from calcite deposited on the walls of Devils Hole #2 cave in Ash Meadows close to Death Valley. The calcite, known as mammillary calcite, has been depositing out of the water for hundreds of thousands of years. Analysis of the calcite will enable the scientists to construct a record of past changes in the climate in this area. Here, Dr. Yuri Dublyansky drills a core sample underwater using a custom made drilling set-up. #cave#research#exploration#science#scientist#underground#underwater#scuba#fieldwork@uniinnsbruck@umnpics
Scientists from the University of Innsbruck in Austria work in the lower chamber of Devils Hole #2 cave in Ash Meadows, Nevada. The scientists are attempting to reconstruct past changes in the elevation of the water table in this region, which in previous different climate states has been much higher. Here a diver collects calcite samples from below the water table to work out how far it has dropped in the past, whilst a caver ascends the slope out of the chamber. #climatechange#science#innsbruck#fieldwork#exploration#research#cave@uniinnsbruck@umnpics
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We're here in Nevada with scientists from the University of Innsbruck, Austria to drill core samples from calcite deposited on the walls of Devils Hole #2 cave in Ash Meadows, Nevada. The calcite, known as mammillary calcite, was deposited out of the water at a time when the water table was higher. Dating the age of the calcite will enable the scientists to construct a record of elevation changes in the water table over the last half a million years. #science#scientist#research#climatechange#Nevada#cave#DevilsHole#speleo#fieldwork@uniinnsbruck@umnpics
NEW PORTFOLIO on my website!!! If anyone would like to see photographs from our amazing expedition (March 2016) to explore the lost world on top of Tepuis in Venezuela, supported by the world leaders in cave exploration @laventaexploringteam, @theraphosavenezuela and assigned by @geomagazin then please take a look. Link in my bio.
I'm starting out on a six-week long multiple assignment here in the States. We're travelling to two caves, Lechuguilla in New Mexico and Devils Hole in Nevada.
The first stop is Lechuguilla in Carlsbad National Park, New Mexico. The cave is 138.3 miles (222.6 km) long, making it the seventh longest in the world. However, it offers much more than extreme size. It holds a variety of rare cave formations, including lemon-yellow sulphur deposits, 20 feet high gypsum chandeliers, 15 feet (4.6 m) long soda straw like formations, cave pearls and delicate helictites. It has been on my personal bucket list ever since I first read about it and saw the late Urs Widmer’s beautiful book - Jewel of the Underground.
It's been almost five years to the day since I was underground with American speleologist Erin Lynch, who as far as I’m concerned is one of the world’s leading cave explorers. Her 15-year long work exploring China’s cave network is unrivalled by anyone! I can’t wait to catch up with Erin in Lechuguilla, as part of a five person team.
This is a picture of Erin Lynch deep underground in one of her favourite caves in China called San Wan Dong. #explore#exploration#adventure#China#cave#underground#waterfall#expedition
Thanks to everyone who has supported me over the years. These are my top nine photographs on #Instagram for 2016 based on the number of likes. Always interesting to see what works for you guys. Bring on 2017. Happy New Year! #2016bestnine
I'm absolutely honoured to share a few pages with some of the worlds greatest photographers inside the latest book from @NatGeo!
If you need a stocking filler, It'll make a neat little Christmas present
The caves of the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Borneo, contain many beautiful calcite formations such as stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones and curtains. However, on occasion a cave explorer may stumble upon a formation that is completely unique and rare, such as this ‘pom pom’. Imagine the surprise and awe when this explorer popped his head up through this hole to find this beautiful formation above his head. He was certainly very pleased to see it! #ClearwaterCave#adventure#explorer#Sarawak#Mulu#Malaysia#speleothem#exploration#cave#underground#grotto#Borneo
Photo no.2 - This is the second of two back-to-back photographs from the same location. The first is the pic previous.
Clearwater Cave in Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysia, is currently recorded as the 8th longest cave in the world. This enormous cave system, which has many levels of passages at different elevations, has developed over millions of years. The highest levels are the oldest ones, and have long since been abandoned by the underground river that carved them out. Photographed here is the youngest and lowest level, which is being formed and modified by the present day river level. The large notch that is seen on both the left and right hand side of the passage formed when an impenetrable bed lay at the base of the river, preventing it from cutting downwards and causing the river to cut sideways instead. As the climate changed, so did the input to the cave system, and the impenetrable bed was removed allowing the river to once again cut down into the limestone. #cave#underground#Malaysia#Sarawak#Mulu#explore#explorer#river#adventure#ClearwaterCave#Borneo
Photo no.1 - At 134 miles long (215.3km), the mighty Clearwater cave is believed to be the largest interconnected cave system in the world by volume and the 8th longest cave in the world. The cave lies on the western margins of Gunung (Mount) Api in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. The park encompasses many giant caves and karst formations in a mountainous equatorial rainforest that is home to an abundance of flora and fauna that is protected under UNESCO world heritage status.