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From Issue #56 November 20, 2014

Delve Deep

A caver finds new secrets hidden down below.

By Naomi Arnold Twitter icon 

At some point, when talking to New Zealand professional caver Kieran Mckay, you can’t help but blurt out: “Why?”

Why wedge your fragile body between tons of rock, through passages so pinched that one of them is dubbed “Castration Gap”?

Why camp underground in the wet and filth for days on end, sucking dank air, aware that you could be drowned or crushed at any second? Why risk death when you have no communication with the outside world, and rescue is days away?

Mckay has two different responses to all of that. During The Cave Connection, a new documentary that follows his successful search for the southern hemisphere’s deepest known cave — and the second-deepest known cave in the world — he tells the camera that if he really answered that question, he might not return underground. He nearly didn’t, after a mate drowned in 1999 while caving, and Mckay had the horrific task of trying — and failing — to drag out his body.

But today, stationed in Wales on the film’s European tour, he has a ready answer to all of those whys: Because underground is all that’s left. Because with every landmass mapped, every mountain topped, and even the moon’s dusty surface strewn with footprints, the labyrinth of dark passages in the bones of Earth are the last places for the curious to explore, beyond even the eye of Google.

A dark obsession

Like the dozen or so top cavers pushing the boundaries of the sport, Mckay spends about a third of his year underground, squeezing between cracks and passing through enormous rock cathedrals where nobody has ever been before. The outdoor instructor — a wiry man with a sunny demeanor — slips easily into long stories. He has many to tell.

Earlier this year, in antipodean summertime January, Mckay and his team made an elusive connection between two New Zealand limestone cave systems — Nettlebed and Stormy Pot — creating one of the deepest through-trips in the world. It’s a 22-mile-long labyrinth nearly 4,000 feet below the surface. Starting in the sump-pocked alpine meadows of Mt. Arthur, in New Zealand’s upper South Island, the expedition finishes in the lush rainforest of Kahurangi National Park.

The connection brought excitement and disbelief from the international caving world. “It’s a really major connection — something people have been looking for for 60 years,” Mckay says. “We thought we’d be beating our heads against the wall for the rest of our lives.”

It’s taken three years and five attempts to nail the link, since the day when Mckay and his team first suspected these two systems could be one. In 2011, trapped in a storm on Mt. Arthur, they sheltered in what they thought was a small cave. But the shallow depression, which they called Stormy Pot, kept going, deep down into the earth. On more trips, he and other cavers mapped the system, exploring enormous caverns and jewel-colored underground lakes — and, like explorers, named the features they discovered as they went. The passage eventually terminated in a rockfall, but when they laid the Stormy Pot map over the Nettlebed map, they realized the two systems were very close neighbors. In fact, they’d missed connecting them by just a few hundred feet, a step short of a record.

It was a short enough gap to launch an obsession. Mckay and his team would spend the next three years testing their theory. They tipped dye into a Stormy Pot creek and saw it flow into a waterway in Nettlebed; they lit a kerosene fire in Stormy Pot, the fumes of which could be smelt in Nettlebed. If air and water could get through, they reasoned, a person could surely follow. Over the next few years, they progressively closed the gap between the two systems.

On the day he broke through piles of rubble to connect the caves, Mckay had been crushed into a crack for hours, working on his stomach to lever rocks away with a crowbar. He was days away from sunlight, trying to widen a two-inch crack into one big enough to admit a caver. When it was ready, he breathed out, twisted his body into the gap, and emerged into the floor of a large chamber. In front of him was a scar on the rock ahead. He thought, “I haven’t done that.”

He looked around. Thirty feet away, there was a rock he’d tied a rope to on an earlier trip — and it was then that he recognized he’d been there before, and that there was a campsite just above him. He was standing in the shaft they’d been using as a toilet. (Cavers carry out their solid waste, but not urine.) No matter. They’d done it. They’d broken through, and entered the record books.

He felt a flood of elation. A deep sense of satisfaction. And then, not long after: “Well, what’s the next project?” Mckay says, with a laugh.

Bringing the underground to light

Mckay has had an extended run on his most recent effort, traveling and showing the documentary. The film has been a hit at outdoor film festivals. He says that’s because the half-million or so people who have seen it are used to showy, expensive ski flicks and BASE-jumping slo-mos. They’ve never seen a story as gritty as this before, the camera up close to clenched teeth and muddy, bruised bodies contorting through impossible gaps. As one filmgoer told him after a viewing, it’s refreshing to see no sponsorship logos — just a bunch of people covered in dirt doing what they love.

“It feels like something that’s a real tough, hard adventure, and I think people really like that,” Mckay says. He likes to sit back and watch the audience squirm at the scenes onscreen. The confined dark — the stuff of nightmares for so many — elicits in him a sense of contentment. The surface, he says, is what’s mad.

“There are vehicles, noise, people, all these kinds of stresses and pressure on you, and you don’t realize it until you get underground and there’s none of it.”

Underground, you stick to simple rules. You eat. You drink. You look after your mates. And you go exploring. “You realize you don’t need all that crap up there. It’s really relaxing. You realize this team is working well together, and it takes you right back to your basic needs.”

Speak friend and enter

Mckay’s next project, this summer, is exploring the Mines of Moria. Beneath the limestone pavements of Mt. Owen, which formed Dimrill Dale in the Lord of the Rings films, is New Zealand’s longest cave system: the 41-mile-long Bulmer Cavern. It’s where in 1999 Mckay fell down a rock wall and became stranded, the left side of his body smashed. Getting out required a 50-man rescue operation, at the time the biggest in the country.

He’s not daunted. There’s likely to be a mega cave system underneath Mt. Owen just waiting to be discovered, and that’s why he’s going back to a place that nearly became his grave. Dye dumped in the water at one end came out at a place called Blue Creek, five miles and a day and a half later, which indicates a big streamway. They’re hoping to map it up to 74.5 miles, making it the longest cave system in the southern hemisphere. Again, it’s brand-new territory: team members are going to have to learn to dive to get through the sump and explore the rest of the underworld.

But Mckay says they’re only finishing what others have started. “It’s a nice, real, true expedition, in the same vein as when people were doing polar expeditions,” he says. “We’re doing the same thing. Exploring the unknown, unsupported, and totally isolated.”

Photos by Neil Silverwood.

Naomi Arnold has covered climate change from Antarctica, the Winter Olympics from Vancouver, and also reported from Thailand, Australia, and South Korea. She writes a column for her hometown daily, the Nelson Mail, and runs New Zealand longform collection

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