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An 11-person team of Ukrainian cavers were wading through the snow on the way down from the Arabika massif in the western Caucasus on a January night. They had just descended the Krubera Cave to a depth of 1710 metres, thus breaking the world record. As they neared an avalanche zone above the tree-line, they split into two groups, so that if one was snowed under, the other would be able to attempt a rescue. Snow thundered down and the youngest member, Anatoli Povykalo, just 18, was overwhelmed. The others dug him out, unharmed. They spent the night in the forest, where hundreds of trees had been snapped off a few metres above the ground. Next day they reached the trail-head and were trucked out to triumphant receptions in Kiev and Moscow.

Some months later, I sat with six of the cavers in a garden sixty kilometres south of Kiev. Hazed sun shone mildly on Alexander Klimchouk’s house in the village of Grebenyi. Klimchouk is an authority on limestone aquifers and Senior Scientist of the Geological Institute at the National Academy of the Ukraine. He is a short, fit man in his early fifties with a dense bandido moustache, a speaker of lucid English and a fluent interpreter. From the outside his house looked deserted. One end was half built. A tin chimney poked through a plastic roof. On the northern gable, a 12 mm perlon rope was hanging, placed there so the Klimchouk family could practise single-rope technique, ascending and descending with jumar clamps. Alexander’s son was on the Krubera expedition. His wife, Natalia, takes children underground from the age of four, including her own grandson. They go especially to the gypsum caves of Moldova, which are largely horizontal, and the second-longest system in the world after the Mammoth Caves in Tennessee. ‘The entrance to them is so tortuous and tight,’ she told me, ‘that we call it Chinese Communist Party.’ Inside the house, in an upstairs office with a bed in it for me, a caving archive is housed on grey metal shelves and cabinets. The wooden walls are covered with colour photos of limestone grottoes and finely printed maps of cave systems wriggling through the earth like intestines.

The garden where we sat eating whole salted fish brought by the team and pizzas baked by Natalia was dishevelled end-of-summer. Tired marigolds drooped between patches of cabbage and salad. In the drought the well had failed, and Alexander slid twenty feet down in his caving harness to fix the pump. The Dnieper seemed unaffected by drought: on the way from Kiev Alexander had driven down a rutted clay track to show me the river. A straggle of bungalows ended in a fine villa, much better painted and curtained than any other house we passed; a burly caretaker lurked in a doorway: the British Ambassador’s out-of-town pad. The river powered slowly past, lazy currents ruffling its dove-grey and pearly surface. The banks were thick with trees, with one hut among the bushes on the far side. Alexander likes to paddle across at night in a rubber dinghy and fish for catfish by torchlight. Beyond, the Ukraine stretched away in calm immensity. At the roadsides women offered buckets of earthy carrots and potatoes for sale. The fields are as scruffy as those of central Ireland fifty years ago because nobody has the capital to buy or hire agricultural machinery since the dissolution of the collective farms.

I wanted to know the attraction of the black and lifeless world undergound. Klimchouk and his colleagues liked the opportunity to travel, they told me; they enjoyed ‘extreme climbing’, which they had gone in for in the Carpathians when they were students; caving was ‘like geology’; it was romantic camping in the forest at night; it was good to go to absolutely untrodden places; it could be as beautiful underground as anywhere on the surface. Alexander also saw caving in its historical context: ‘Really, in the Soviet time, caving for us was a shelter. And things were well organised. Things were cheaper, and people could not lose their homes. We could make three expeditions to Central Asia. Now when you talk to people you see the dollar signs in their eyes. This bandit capitalism, they don’t do sponsorship. The businessmen throw away thousands in the casino.’ So the Ukrainian cavers set up a company called Paritet (‘Equality’) to carry out repairs on bridges and high buildings. The profits pay for expeditions.

The cavers didn’t interrupt each other. They listened closely, although much of this must have been mulled over dozens of times. The leader of the record-breaking team, Yuri Kasian from Poltava, was the spokesman (translated by Alexander). He was perhaps 35, tall and broad with healthy skin and introspective blue eyes. ‘Among cavers,’ he said, ‘it is bad form to discuss the furthest limits too openly. If you bring too much equipment, the cave will be scared, and stop. So the record was only almost openly discussed. Alexander had told us it could be a record. First we create a cave in our imagination. Then by our efforts we create it to correspond.’ Both he and Alexander were intent on defining the ethos of caving, its special style and demands. ‘In mountaineering you know your goal – the peak is on the map. Cavers have not so much preliminary information – this comes with exploration. So, when we descend, we have no horizon we are making for – there is only an apparent horizon.’ The effect on logistics is crucial. If there is no known terminus, how much gear should be carried? They took 2000 metres of rope and 300 bolts. They also knew that if anything went wrong, they couldn’t be rescued.

It had been discovered that there was a continuous channel from the entrance to the Krubera at 2200 metres above sea level to the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Fluorescein dye put in at the top had resurfaced a fortnight later in a cliff spring that fed a rock pool on the Black Sea shore 20 kilometres away. (The world record is in Turkey, where dye reappeared 130 km away after 366 days.) A geologist called Kruber was the first to look for caves in the Arabika massif in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, Georgian cavers found an open-mouthed shaft and went 60 metres down before they were stopped by a squeeze that looked impassable. In the 1980s and 1990s Klimchouk’s team spent three seasons, with six people working every day for four weeks each year, attempting to force their way down between the jammed rocks and the wall of the shaft. The blockage went on for a hundred metres. ‘It was really terrible. The water trickling down is at 1.5° Celsius. We were drilling and planting charges for hours, day after day. For it to work, you must drill the hole in exactly the right place, then plug it thoroughly.’

By the autumn of 2000, ‘we clearly heard the “call of the abyss” and sensed the smell of extreme depth.’ They had reached 1410 metres and could feel no draught: it looked like a dead end. Removing the fixed ropes on his way up, Yuri found a crack leading to a passage that meandered, blocking the light from his torch. Might this be a way further down? They decided on a winter expedition, when everything above would be frozen and the waterfalls would have dried up. The cave mouth is on a ridge of mountain where rocks crop out above valleys of wild grass. Here in summer shepherds carry Kalashnikovs left over from Georgia’s war of independence from Russia, in case they have to use them in aid of Abkhazia’s current struggle for independence from Georgia. It’s a dangerous place: as the cavers waited to cross into Abkhazia, among rooting pigs and cars with bootfuls of tangerines for sale, everyone assumed that they were drug smugglers. Finally, on 28 December the cavers were put down on the high snowfield by helicopter, and began digging out the entrance with shovels. In the unedited black and white film of the expedition, someone shouts, ‘Jump on it!’ when the caked snow won’t collapse. Two days later they brought in the millennium with champagne and fireworks. Five days of hard work followed, spidering down into the darkness of the big vertical pitches, wriggling through hundreds of metres of fairly level passageway. The rock was so sharply sculpted that it tore their boots.

Camps were set up at depths of 500 and 1200 metres. A photograph shows Yuri and his wife Julia Timoshevskaya sitting in their nylon igloo tent, cooking and reading by the light of their carbide lamps, content in their frail bubble of blue fabric which glows like a lantern in the horned and groined imprisonment of the rock. ‘It was a dream cave, ideal,’ Yuri said. ‘What I like is lots of vertical pitches and as few meanders as possible. We found no great difficulties, just plenty of technical work, which is a pleasure for cavers.’ He came over as wonderfully cool. Describing a long abseil in the neighbouring cave, the Kubishevskaya, he said: ‘We were in the cosmos – in total darkness, rotating. It abolished fear, because there was no visible bottom to the fall.’ I could imagine, dimly, what this must have been like from my own experiences underground. I once crawled and downclimbed to the foot of the enormous chamber called Gaping Ghyll inside Ingleborough in Yorkshire, and stood on the shingle of a shallow river looking at the hole down which you can be winched by the Bradford Caving Club each Whitsun week. It is far higher above your head than a cathedral roof. A full moon was shining, making icy shimmers on the cascade that fell in pulses onto the stones at our feet. Quite different was a struggle into the other flank of Ingleborough, through a route called Millipede Crawl in Southerscales Pot. The rock roof angled lower and lower. We walked crouching. We began to creep along on our knees. Sharp fallen stones bit into our legs. At the terminus we stood up inside a bell of rock, and looked down into a perfectly circular sump of perfectly still, perfectly black water.

In the great dark atrium in the Kubishevskaya, Yuri had walked for three hours round the edge of the chamber before realising that it might be very difficult to find the hanging rope-end which was his only way back out. When they reached a depth of 1710 metres in the Krubera, the cavers were dangling above a lake and had to throw a spare rope for some time before they managed to reach a beach. They could feel no draughts and boulders plugged all the visible exits, so they had to conclude that this was the end of that particular route.

There may be other ways to penetrate still lower in the Arabika. For the time being, however, the Ukrainian cavers are concentrating on a new possibility, in the Aladaglar massif in the Taurus Mountains of eastern Turkey. A difficult, even dangerous place, either above or below ground, it is also very beautiful. In one of their photographs of the mountainside, three white cascades burst and pour from three mouths all level with each other. The water enters the ground two thousand metres above, so there is a possibility of a new record descent here.

On the drive back to Kiev, Nikolai Soloviov, a veteran of 17 Arabika expeditions, curled up in the closed car boot to make room for me, and then climbed out in town grinning. He and Yuri showed me the old town where Bulgakov lived in an ornate brick house now adorned with a big black cat with a pink spotted bow-tie. We finished up in McDonald’s, the first in the Ukraine, opened in the 1990s to queues of thousands. It was my birthday, although I kept this to myself.

On the way to the airport we passed two cows on the motorway verge, herded by two women in drab coats and headscarves, wearing boots and talking hard to each other. Road-signs pointed to Kharkov and other places I remember from the war maps on which my brother and I drew red arrows in 1942 to plot the Nazi Army’s push for the Baku oilfields. One of the last trucks I saw before we turned off was from Barrow in Furness, 15 miles from where I live.

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