This story appears in the August 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
I had just begun breakfast on September 16, 2018, when we received the radio call. A flood pulse was coming. It would reach us in 30 minutes.
Photo assistant Jeff Wade and I were camped some 6,890 feet below ground with members of the Perovo-Speleo caving team, an elite group of Russian cavers who are pushing the boundaries of exploration. We’d been underground for 11 days in the deepest known cave in the world: the Veryovkina system in Abkhazia, a self-declared republic in the country of Georgia. Two days earlier I’d taken the photograph you see above of expedition leader Pavel Demidov climbing out of the terminal sump, the cave’s deepest point. (See more photos from this expedition.)
Flood pulses—when a sudden accumulation of water bursts through any opening it can find—happen often in caves, and at first we weren’t concerned. (We learned later that there’d been a week of rain above ground.) Our eight-person tent was pitched in a side passage halfway up a chasm. We thought we’d be out of the way of the main flow of water. We continued with our breakfast.
I will never forget the sound, as if a freight train were about to crash through camp. It got louder and louder. Everyone stood open-mouthed staring upward, wondering what was going to appear out of the darkness. Then an enormous torrent cascaded past our camp and plummeted deeper into the chasm. We decided to wait and see how it would develop. Sometimes flood pulses pass quickly.
After a couple of hours, Petr Lyubimov, one of the Russian cavers, noticed gurgling coming from a deep hole on the edge of camp where we’d been spitting our toothpaste. Pavel and Andrey Shuvalov left to check the water levels deeper in the cave system.
Shortly after they’d gone, Petr inspected the toothpaste hole again. When he turned around, his white face said it all. The hole was full of water. The water was rising. We had to act fast. In camp we wore only base layers, fleecy onesies to keep us warm. Over them we hurriedly put on latex dry suits, Cordura oversuits, harnesses, and climbing gear. The others were used to this gear and were quick. But in the panic, Jeff and I had to help each other seal our dry suits. My equipment was spread all over the ground. I grabbed the memory cards from the camera, put them in a Ziploc bag and into my chest pocket. I left the rest.
Reaching the bottom
Using a series of camps, it took expedition
members more than four days to reach the
Flooded cave passage
After quickly evacuating the deepest camp,
expedition members waited for 16 hours at the
next camp, between an impassable waterfall
and the potential for rising floodwaters.
DAVID L. LAMBERT, NG STAFF
SOURCE: PAVEL DEMIDOV, THE PEROVO-SPELEO TEAM
Expedition members waited for 16
hours at the higher camp, between
an impassable waterfall and the
potential for rising floodwaters.
Floodwaters quickly rose 100 feet
higher than the camp where
expedition members were just
minutes before escape.
Flooded cave passage
First ever photo
The photo of the terminal sump,
the deepest point in the deepest
cave on Earth, was taken only a few
DAVID L. LAMBERT, NG STAFF
days prior to flooding.
SOURCE: PAVEL DEMIDOV, PEROVO-SPELEO
Every single hole around camp was bubbling.
“We’re leaving right now,” I said to Jeff.
We hurried across a traverse that had skirted a 50-foot drop. That drop was now a lake, and we were only three feet above the water. I turned to Petr and shouted, “Come on, Petr, we have to evacuate camp.”
He said he would wait for Pavel and Andrey to come back. I thought I would never see him again.
Using ascenders, we climbed ropes dangling through shafts that had become raging waterfalls. I don’t know whether I was more scared of the rising water below or the torrent of water pummeling us from above. To breathe, we kept our heads down and tucked in our chins, creating a small air space under the front of the helmet. It took every ounce of effort to move an inch at a time, and we had nearly 600 vertical feet to go.
I was in the lead. If I couldn’t get past an obstacle, everyone behind me would be stuck with no way out while the water rose. I panicked. I climbed so quickly that I lost sight of Jeff. I honestly thought that he and the others were dead. Then I heard a very angry voice behind me. Jeff was yelling at me to slow down. I was so relieved to hear him. Finally, we reached a temporary bivouac in a side passage where we could wait safely, out of the water and cold wind.
The first of the other cavers appeared. We asked him if he’d seen anyone else. He said no. We assumed the rest were dead, though we didn’t say it. We continued on to the next camp and waited.
Then others started to appear. They’d managed to grab sleeping bags and a stove. Everyone had survived, though Petr had injured his knee badly.
We couldn’t climb further because the next waterfall led to a narrow horizontal passage that would be completely flooded. We waited 16 hours, trapped between the floodwaters below and an impassable waterfall above.
The Russian cavers, feeling relatively safe, were soon laughing among themselves in the tent. Jeff and I paced outside, watching to see if the waters would rise again. We didn’t take off our harnesses or any clothes; we wanted to be ready if anything happened.
But finally, the flood died down. Jeff and I escorted the injured Petr to the next camp. The others went back down to try to salvage what they could from below. They came back with my camera and tripod but said that one of my waterproof containers was wedged into the cave roof.
It took us four days to get to the surface. We each reached the top alone. My senses are usually heightened after I emerge from a caving trip: Smells are stronger, colors more vivid, and sounds clearer. This time, everything seemed strangely dampened. I felt like a ghost living out my life as it would have been. But I have also never felt such relief. I remember a blood-red moon sinking on the horizon of the Black Sea.
One year later, Pavel and team member Kostia Zverev arrived at my home in Innsbruck, Austria. They put two bottles of vodka in the freezer and asked me to close my eyes. When I opened them, there on my kitchen table was some of the equipment I had left behind.
Robbie Shone has been photographing and exploring caves for 20 years. His most recent story for the magazine was the March 2017 feature “Is This the Underground Everest?,” about the Dark Star cave system in Uzbekistan.
The nonprofit National Geographic Society, working to conserve Earth’s resources, helped fund this article.