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Veryovkina Cave: The Deepest Cave in the World

Any fan of horror films can tell you that there’s something inherently creepy about caves. When it isn’t the tight, claustrophobia-inducing spaces or the perfect darkness where you literally cannot see without a flashlight, it’s the fact that there’s hideous creatures watching you from the darkness, waiting for the moment to strike. (That last part is only if you live in a movie.)

But caves aren’t just dangerous in films; the hazardous nature of spelunking is very real, and people have died while taking risks during caving expeditions. One example was a man named John Edward Jones, who somewhat famously perished after being trapped, upside down, for 28 hours in an unmapped area of “Nutty Putty Cave”. Of all the caves to die in….

Despite the fact that caves have made it very clear that they don’t want people going into them, people keep going, and they keep going deeper. Which brings us to the topic of this video – a cave in the Caucasus Mountains, in a region known as Abkhazia, which as far as we know goes further than all the others. This is the Veryovkina Cave, the deepest known cave on the planet.

A Hole in the Ground

Speleologist Pavel Demidov of the Moscow Perovo-speleo team is climbing the Babatunda shaft (155m), the largest shaft in the Veryovkina chasm. by Petr Lyubimov is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Veryovkina Cave was first discovered in 1968 by the Soviets, who gave it the rather unimaginative name of S-115, later P1-7. And no, the Soviets were not very fun with names. They weren’t fun in general, but you know, especially with names. This first expedition of cavers reached a depth of 115 meters (377 feet), but didn’t go any further, and indeed the cave was largely forgotten after that. However, in 1982, a new expedition was made by a Moscow speleoclub. Side note here, “speleoclub” is an absolutely delightful word to say.

Anyways, this club, named “Perovo”, proceeded to take over most of the major expeditions that would follow in the 40 years after, and by 1986 they had reached a new depth of 440 m (1,440 ft). They did this by finding a second branch in the cave, leading further down. In addition to this, they renamed the cave after a cave diver named Alexander Verëvkin, who died in 1983 while exploring a cave siphon, or a part of the cave that’s underwater. Like we said before, caving can be very dangerous.

After that 1986 expedition, the group left the newly-christened Veryovkina Cave alone for another fourteen years, before they decided to return and conduct more research at the bottom of the cave. Or “bottom”, as we will soon see.

A Lucky Find

Work in the cave halted between 1986 and 2000, when in that year spelunking expeditions resumed. Details are rather spotty because all of the primary sources are in Russian, but we’ll do our best. The cave itself, as we currently understand, consists of three main branches – one short, one middling, and one very, very long. For a while, Perovo only knew about two of them, with the aforementioned maximum depth of 440 meters.

side view of Veryovkina cave map
side view of Veryovkina cave by Павел Демидов is licensed under CC-BY-SA

When spelunking resumed in 2000, expeditions carried on as normal in the medium-length second shaft, until at last on one expedition in August of 2015, the new third shaft in the cave was discovered higher up in the cave system. The fact that finding it took fifteen years should give you an idea of how difficult exploring caves actually is. The cavers lacked rope to explore this new shaft immediately, but soon returned and steadily found out just how consequential this new find was.

From this point on, the depth of the cave just keeps getting bigger: 630 meters in June of 2016, 1,010 meters in August, 1,350 meters in October, and so on. In February of 2017, the cave was declared the second-deepest in the world, behind only the Krubera Cave – also, incidentally, in Abkhazia. Then, finally, in August of 2019, the final depth of the cave was declared to be 2,212 meters, or 7,257 feet – more than a mile underground. The depth was measured in a place that was named “Captain Nemo’s Last Harbor”, as that part of the cave as well the surrounding bits are perpetually underwater.

That’s it for the cave itself, but what do the cavers actually do when they go exploring it? Well, spelunking isn’t just about getting cool pictures of giant pits; it’s also about good old-fashioned science.

First, cavers make sure they have the proper supplies, because you can’t just decide to go a mile underground without making sure you’re prepared. Expeditions into Veryovkina Cave and other caves of similar depth can last as long as two weeks, typically speaking, and it can take up to four days to reach the bottom. So, that means food, water, clothes, toothbrush, and so on. Not my idea of a vacation, but to each their own.

Once that’s all taken care of and you’ve done the difficult part of lowering yourself down hundred-meter drops and squeezing through tiny cracks, you’re ready to have a look around. Despite seeming like rather desolate places, caves are actually very vibrant ecosystems if you know what you’re looking for. The cavers at Veryovkina in particular have in recent years been looking for potentially new species of shrimps and scorpions. As it turns out, life will, quite literally, squeeze into whatever cracks it can fit itself into.

That’s really all there is to say about the cave itself, unless you’re some weirdo who’s super interested in us telling you all about cross sections of rocks or anything similar. So instead, let’s tell you about the time where a bunch of people almost died in it.

Waterfall

In September of 2018, an expedition into Veryovkina was wrapping up when some cavers at one of the bases in the cave noticed a “flood pulse”, a wave of water that floods into the cave as a result of heavy rain. The ground gets saturated with water, and then somewhere in the cave system, something breaks and releases an absolute torrent of water. They notified the lower camp through a set of cable wires they’d installed to communicate with the lower base camps.

Flood pulses are usually not a big deal, and professional cavers know how to deal with them. But this time around, there were signs this was something bigger than usual. Before long, water was rising quickly at the location of the lowest camp, and the team stationed down there realized that they had very little time to get to higher ground. Or, higher underground, rather.

The team quickly gathered what they could, but they were forced to leave a lot of stuff behind. A couple of photographers who had accompanied them ended up having to leave behind all their camera equipment, worth tens of thousands of dollars. They did grab their flash cards, at least.

Anyways, they quickly made their ways up, coming to a shaft around eight meters wide and twenty meters deep. With the flood pulse, this shaft was now completely filled with water, pouring down into the lower regions of the cave. The cavers were forced to climb a rope up through the waterfall, pummeling each of them the entire time. You know that scene in Avatar where Aang tries to climb a ladder in a waterfall? It was basically that, but real.

After the grueling experience of climbing through a waterfall, they reached safer ground. While the American photographers were shaken by the experience, the Russians fired up some coffee and started laughing about the whole thing, because of course they did. Eventually, after the flood pulse had ended, they went back down to survey the damage to their equipment. The cameras, of course, were completely ruined. Must’ve been an interesting call to the insurance company.

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