‘Don’t worry, you can’t get lost down here.’ Larisa Pozdnyakova’s words, in her thick Russian accent, float to me from within the cave’s seemingly endless black void. Apparently, she can read my mind: All I can think about is not getting lost a mile inside the Earth. For the past several hours I’ve struggled to keep up as she leads me deeper into a frozen underworld known as Dark Star.
Larisa, a 30-something veteran caver from the Ural Mountains, moves with fluid, snakelike ease along our twisting route, while I grunt and heave my way after her like the clumsy rookie that I am. The cold blackness swallows the light of our headlamps just a few feet from our heads, forcing us to move like moles, scuttling, slithering, feeling our way along hundreds of feet of stiff, mud-caked ropes that help guide us through myriad passages known in caving argot as “squeezes,” “meanders,” and “shafts.”
These passages have already been mapped, but as we crawl up and down, side to side, I feel disoriented by the nightmarish spiral of icy mud and wet gravel. For a climber and mountaineer like me, this is an altogether different kind of navigation. I’m accustomed to moving across dangerous terrain, but down here printed maps are often useless, GPS doesn’t work, and there are no celestial guides to offer reassurance. And despite what Larisa tells me, I know I could never find my way out of this soul-sucking labyrinth on my own.