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Bill Stone is featured in "The Battle for the Black Lagoon," in the Summer 1999 ADVENTURE.
  adventure profile
Bill Stone
Favorite Place
Dream Job
High-tech Explorer
Gaithersburg, Maryland
Huautla Plateau, Mexico
Industrial Astronaut
  Skinner's Head   "I am not an ‘adventurer.' Modern, high-tech exploration, which is what I do, is quite different."
As the founder of the U.S. Deep Caving Team, Bill Stone has led the exploration and mapping of the seemingly endless underwater cave system beneath Florida's Wakulla Springs. He has taken part in 27 scientific expeditions—both wet and dry—and invented numerous systems for space and underwater exploration.

  Below are highlights from our e-mail conversation with Bill Stone. For more of Dr. Stone's thoughts, read the full text.

How do you describe your brand of adventure?

Let's first dispense with the adventure label. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, one of the last great polar explorers, is credited with the definitive statement on this subject. To paraphrase him, adventure is what befalls explorers who fail to properly plan. Like Stefansson, I am not an "adventurer."

Modern, high-tech exploration, which is what I do, is quite different. The objective is to advance our knowledge of the frontiers by bringing back new data in the safest possible manner.

  Given the danger, why explore?

We do it for the enormous satisfaction one achieves in learning firsthand something new about our planet and our universe.

Exploration by remote control is no less true and valid than exploration in person. But I can tell you from profound personal experience that there is simply no comparison. The well-meaning, dedicated scientists who make those claims have never personally placed their foot where no human has ever gone. I have.

  How important is technology/gear to what you do?

When I first started exploring caves, all you needed was a hard hat and a light. When the caves we were exploring became so remote that we exceeded the limits of human endurance for getting to the exploration front and then back out, we developed techniques for living for weeks at a time underground.

I've been privileged to have the opportunity to branch out and attempt some really wild stuff. The 3-D digital autonomous wall mapper first used at Wakulla 2 was in that vein. [And] we spent an enormous amount of effort building decompression chambers that would allow those mapping crews to routinely conduct five-hour missions inside the cave at 100 meters (328 feet) underwater. We showed that humans and machines could complement each other in an extraordinarily hostile environment.

  How did you get started?

I was 15 years old and attending high school in Pennsylvania. A flyer came around at the beginning of the fall semester announcing clubs. One was entitled "Spelunking." Not really understanding what that word meant, I attended the first meeting.

Seeing people rappelling into deep, dark shafts in the Earth was incredibly thrilling, so I signed on. It was probably the most pivotal day of my life—saved me from being a terminal nerd.

  What was your happiest moment?
  The evening of May 6, 1994, toward the end of the four-and-a-half-month San Agustin Expedition. That was when, after 11 days underground in the Sistema Huautla caves in Mexico, my colleague Barb am Ende and I managed to make it back to Camp 3. We were still 710 meters (2,330 feet) beneath the surface, but it felt like home to us.
  What was your most frightening moment?

My most memorable bout with fear and panic came long ago, when I was training to become a cave diver. In the fall of 1980 I traveled to Florida as an apprentice to Sheck Exley, arguably the world's finest cave diver. I was there specifically to learn about deep diving on compressed air, since we anticipated having to deal with exploring through deep underwater tunnels on an upcoming expedition.

Back then we didn't know about helium, advanced decompression theory, or rebreathers. So you had to learn to deal with nitrogen narcosis (a euphoria that clouds judgment at great depths).

On the final dive we reached 75 meters (246 feet) depth. Exley, who was in the lead, turned and gave the thumbs-up—the signal for us to turn back.

As I turned to head out with him it never occurred to me that I was still descending. Suddenly, before I could force my hand to add gas to the buoyancy control system, I landed in the deep silt on the floor. The tan mushroom cloud that boiled up enveloped me instantly, obscuring the guideline—the only sure route out of this maze and back to air.

I lost focus and the narcosis smashed in, producing tunnel vision and creating thunderous echoes with every exhalation of bubbles from my regulator. My breathing rate skyrocketed. I could see the gas going down on my pressure gauge with each breath. I was going to die.

Quite fortunately for me, Exley, who had worked at much greater depths and was in complete control, reached down, took my hand, and towed me up to a depth of 60 meters (197 feet). There I suddenly snapped out of the stupor and, quite chastised, completed the dive.

This entire exercise had been staged as a controlled way for me to determine my tolerance limit to narcosis. Today, given the widespread availability of helium mixes [which limit narcosis], few people dive deep on compressed air.

  How do you make a living?
  I lead the Construction Metrology and Automation Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. We're a ragtag group of engineers, computer geeks, and robotics designers who develop systems to bring automation to the average construction site.
  What, for you, would be the ultimate accomplishment?

Being the first to explore Peary Crater at the lunar south pole and scoop up with my own space-suit-covered hands a handful of ice crystals. The discovery of water on the moon would change the course of human exploration in the inner solar system.

The main factor keeping humans from exploring farther out in space is the sheer weight and expense of the fuel needed. Water can be used as both a means of life support and—after being split into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen—a fuel. So if you have water on the moon, you don't need to transport water or fuel from Earth;you've got a fueling station in space.

  How do you respond to being labeled "controversial" in "The Battle for the Black Lagoon" in the Summer 1999 ADVENTURE?

The thing a potential expedition leader has to realize in the 1990s is that the media seeks, and even fabricates, controversy to sell papers. The truth is, being "controversial" detracts from your effectiveness as a leader.

Often controversy is spurred by a teammate who has left an expedition. In most cases, unfortunately, these people seek to avoid probing themselves. They select a safe target for criticism, someone who is conveniently unavailable to offer rebuttal. That target invariably is the expedition leader.

There is, unfortunately, another path to controversy, and that is through old-fashioned jealousy on the part of individuals not even involved in the mission. Exploration history is replete with examples of different teams trying to reach a common objective.

Until quite recently subterranean exploration remained a game ruled by gentleman's ethics, in which civility reigned and grievances between different exploration teams, if there really were any, were kept private. The Internet appears to have changed all that. A single, disenfranchised individual can now rapidly poison the spirit of a project, and even an entire discipline.

  Any advice for potential expedition leaders?
  First, lead by example, not by decree. Second, never complain. Third, always allow those with the drive and desire (particularly younger members of the team) to be out front, exploring new territory—within the limits of reason and safety. Fourth, be prepared, as a last resort, to step up to the plate and do the job yourself.
  How do you prepare your teams?

On any serious expedition—and I'm not referring to those pay-for-a-trip-to-Everest-or-the-Poles deals—there will be real danger that, if everyone is not completely prepared, can and often does claim lives. That fact forces you to train extensively. You need to know your teammates, how they think, how they act, their strengths and weaknesses.

A serious expedition typically involves three or four months—sometimes longer—of working with a very small group of often eccentric people in remote places. In my experience, [expedition] veterans have a long fuse. It takes something truly momentous to rattle them—more, even, than the death of a teammate.

  What do you do for fun?
  I relish a challenging rock climb with good friends on a sublime, sunny day. And it's great fun to get my kids into the outdoors and teach them the tools of the trade. Finally, in my copious free time, I study quantum gravity theory. I'm hoping that maybe, just maybe, I'll stumble over a few crumbs of knowledge and figure out a way to circumvent the limitations of Newtonian spacecraft propulsion.
  Any advice for armchair adventurers?
  Get involved in any outdoor pursuit, be it rock climbing, caving, mountaineering, kayaking, diving, backpacking. They build self-confidence and the ability to work as a member of a team—both of which will serve you well throughout the rest of your life.

Portrait with hat by Girl Ray

Portrait with mask by Wes Skiles


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