Science at the Extreme: Scientists on the Cutting Edge of Discoveryby Peter Lane Taylor, Thomas E. Lovejoy (Foreword by)
With a fascinating narrative and stunning photography, Science at the Extreme destroys the stereotypes of the scientist as a white-coated laboratory hermit cut off from the real world. This dazzling new breed of candid, impassioned, and risk-taking explorers has emerged to tackle today's most bewildering scientific mysteries, and are the practitioners of what Taylor has dubbed "extreme science." Framing the adventures within the larger context of science's enduring mission to test the limits of human knowledge, Taylor vividly relates his exploits alongside nine extreme scientists. Together they hang from suspension bridges, climb the tallest trees on earth, crawl into the cores of glaciers, and explore the cauldrons of active volcanoes. These stories hold tight to the axiom that there is no substitute for firsthand experience -- and absolutely no room for mistakes. Featuring over 140 striking photographs and a foreword by Thomas E. Lovejoy -- biodiversity counselor to the Smithsonian Institution and the United Nations -- Science at the Extreme is a finely wrought, rich narrative; a consistently eye-opening achievement, transporting readers to realms as exotic and endangered as any that could be imagined.
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This Is Your Brain.... This Is Your Brain onSulfur
The Other Buzzing Passage is deep underground and as dark as a coffin. Over a half-mile from the last breath of fresh air, it's a place so tight, so toxic, so inhuman, it's hard to find a logical reason to be there-which, given my circumstances, is exactly what I'm trying to do.
I'm pinned on my belly in an underground river beneath 70 to 90 feet of solid limestone bedrock. My feet and legs are soaking in a gruel-like acid mud. Through my rusting respirator, near-lethal concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) burn into my lungs with the vile stench of raw sewage. Lost and alone, I hyperventilate against the resistance of my gas mask and try to bury the upwellings of panic.
Suddenly, the far wall of crystallized gypsum begins to glow. Each tiny prism catches a distant flame and ignites from within like an oil lamp. The light grows steadily from rust to orange, then finally to a blinding yellow.
"Is Villa Luz incredible or what!"
Louise Hose pokes her head around the corner and crawls toward me through the darkness and mud. Her words echo down the passage like so many soaring angels, and her carbide headlight illuminates the walls in a tormented netherworld of tones, chromes, and sparkling crystal refractions. For a fleeting moment, the cave ceases to be the planet's purest source of evil.
"You should see what's in there!" she exclaims. "There's a deep spring I never noticed before. And the folia and biovermiculations! Want to go back in?"
"Uh...no thanks," I stammer. "There's so much to see right here."
"Couldn't find your way out, huh?" Louise snickers. "Looks like Villa Luz is getting to you."
Villa Luz, known officially in Southern Mexico as Cueva de las Sardinas, is the most biorich of a dozen known sulfur caves on earth-a rare underworld so biologically active, it's more animal than mineral. Few other global environments, in fact, offer a comparable phantasmagoria of bacteria, slimes, and slithering microbial unknowns-which is exactly why Louise is here. Louise is one of a handful of speleologists on the planet with the technical skills, scientific expertise, and undiluted audacity to drop inside and figure out what's really going on.
Villa Luz is also deadly. The sulfuric acid (H2SO4) on the cave walls can bring flesh to a boil. With pH levels rivaling battery acid, the cave muds and sediments can inflict third-degree skin burns on contact. In some rooms, carbon monoxide (CO) levels rev so high, it's the equivalent of running a NASCAR race in a toolshed. In others, oxygen (O2) concentrations are lower than at the summit of Mount Everest, threatening cavers with anemic blood, bloated brain tissue, and even death from a dangerous cardiovascular condition called hypoxia. Although currently unsubstantiated, Louise also suspects that volcanic trace gases like sulfur dioxide (SO2) and hydrogen fluoride (HF) may lurk in the cave's farthest rooms, threatening cavers with an even more mysterious miasma.
Of greatest concern to explorers, however, are the cave's high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which can exceed 150 parts per million (ppm). According to recent data, exposure to H2S concentrations above just 10 ppm for any period of time is a "significant health hazard." General symptoms of H2S poisoning run the gamut from skin discoloration to death. Some effects are external, like rashes, welts, and boils. Others are unnervingly internal, like nausea, loss of balance and dexterity, bronchial inflammation, and deteriorating short-term memory. By taking the place of calcium and potassium in the brain's nerve cells, H2S penetrates to the core of the body's neurological systems and affects vital autonomic functions just when they're needed most, such as chest deep in a crawl space two kilometers back in a cave. Researchers from last year's expedition vividly recall instances of such cerebral congestion that they couldn't find their way out of Villa Luz just 50 feet from the entrance.
"H2S is one of nature's most dangerous gases," Louise admits. "We just have no idea what we're dealing with. The effects of hydrogen sulfide also aren't just due to the concentrations you breathe. It's also how long you breathe it and how much you absorb through your skin. In Villa Luz, you're literally being soaked with H2S inside and out. We also don't know anything about the long-term consequences of cumulative exposure. We know the short-term effects are immediately hazardous. But what happens weeks later, months later? What are we carrying around in our brains, internal organs, and other tissues?"
Given hydrogen sulfide's obvious toxicity, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Hazards Agency (OSHA) have come down crystal clear on industrial H2S protocols: No Tolerance. In the unfortunate instances when direct exposure must occur, personal self-contained breathing equipment is considered mandatory. For Louise and her team, such extensive safeguards are rarely employed, for both logistical and financial reasons. Instead, they rely on the cheapest life support available: a four-gas monitor, Tyvek chemical suits for the most toxic passages, and over-the-counter chemical respirators guaranteed for "evacuation only." Not surprisingly, Louise worries about a survival scenario. Should a spike of carbon dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, or sulfur dioxide occur in a tight back passage, the consequences might very well involve a body bag.
"The good news," she jokes, when we talk about the dangers, "is that no one's keeled over yet. The bad news is that we don't know why." Ultimately, rather than trust suspect safety equipment on an uncertain frontier, Louise and her team rely on the one thing every caver believes in: experience. Safety equipment is designed to get you out of a possibly fatal jam. Experience keeps you from getting into one in the first place.
For every way that Villa Luz endangers the life of Homo sapiens, however, it nurtures a subsurface biological community that exists nowhere else on earth. Villa Luz is one of the only caves with hanging microbial veils, colonial "snottites," and gill-to-gill concentrations of the troglophylic (cave-adapted) fish, Poecilia mexicana. It is the only cave with "copious" energy inputs, "abundant" biota, and a "robust" food web. It is the only cave where the limestone walls are being chemically metamorphosed so fast that maps need to change with each expedition. DNA analyses of samples taken during last year's expedition, in fact, indicate that much of the microbial life in the cave exists nowhere else on earth. With such a diverse biological inventory, some scientists believe Villa Luz may be one of the only global habitats to contain all six of life's taxonomic kingdoms. Many microbiologists on this year's expedition joke that it may also be the source of a seventh.
"Most of all," Louise explains with visible joy, "it's the only cave where every time you go in, you notice something new." In a world largely "known and explored" by science, that's nothing less than miraculous. Although speleologists have known for years of the existence of historic paleosulfur caves, active sulfur speleogenesis happens about as often as an asteroid strike, and few have ever seen the process actually occur. Yet, in Villa Luz, it's happening right now, in real-time, offering Louise the once-in-a-lifetime chance to study the geological "now" instead of the paleo "then"; to see "genesis" happening in human time instead of earth time. In the process, Louise and her team are learning about much more than just gases, bacteria, and rock. They're learning about the life histories of caves all over the world, and despite the possibly fatal risks, the potential of life itself.
The mouth of Villa Luz erupts from the earth like a ruptured gas pipe, two miles south-southeast of Tapijulapa, a restored colonial village tucked in at the confluence of the Amatan and Oxocotlan rivers in south central Tabasco. Rugged and ruled largely by cattle ranchers, the surrounding region is almost suburban by rural Mexican standards. Unlike most Mexican settlements, main roads are largely pothole-free, and mail often arrives unopened. As far as the rest of Mexico is concerned, however, the southern states of Tabasco and Chiapas might as well be annexed to Central America. Chronically neglected, inexcusably poor, and politically impotent, they're the part of Mexico no one seems to want, and as a result, they are custom-tailored for revolutionaries, on-the-run expatriates, and cavers.
"Villa Luz is right in the heart of Mexico's karst kingdom," expedition member Dave Lester explains as we pack equipment for my first day in Villa Luz, "and karst means caves-lots of them."
Karst is a technical geological term referring to landscapes sculpted by chemical dissolution and "breakdown" rather than mechanical erosion from wind and water. Trademark karst features, such as haystack hills, sinkholes, underground rivers, and caves, typically form in soft, soluble bedrock, like dolomite and limestone, in regions with abundant rainfall and active subterranean hydrology. Thankfully for cavers, southern Mexico happens to have all of these in excess.
"Geologically," Dave continues, "you couldn't have better conditions for speleogenesis (cave formation): deep limestone bedrock; rugged, uplifting topography; and aggressive hydrology." Dave is a director of the National Speleological Society, a caver of humbling credentials, and an expert on prime cave country, if ever there was one. He gestures out and upward, pulling pieces of tortilla from his snarled beard, and fades into a deep, almost religious reverie.
"So much karst," he sighs, "and so little time."
The speleological miracles of karst country, however, come at a dangerous price. Malaria and dengue fever, the latter of which is fatal in one out of three cases, are epidemic. Pit vipers lurk head-high in the canopy and can stop a grown person's heart before you can say "antivenom." And killer bees swarm the grasslands like locusts. There is also, Dave reminds me casually, this little problem of a revolution.
Just 50 kilometers south of Villa Luz, over a soaring cornice of mountains marking the border between the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, thrums the heart of the Zapatista rebellion. Unfortunately for Louise's team, the same landscape that gives birth to so many caves also happens to be the ideal venue for an uprising. With its rugged mountains, thick jungle, and deep caves, southern Mexico is the perfect place to duck out and dissolve away. As a result, since the now-famous New Year's 1995 uprising, robberies, stabbings, shootings, and abductions have become a regrettable adjunct to the Chiapas caving package. Testy, unpaid guerrillas prowl the outer perimeters of the jungle, while on the roads themselves, armored personnel carriers and military roadblocks are permanent installations. As far as most tour companies and U.S. diplomats are concerned, Chiapas is about as gringo-friendly as Sudan and Serbia.
"Things are still red hot down here," Louise explains, "and it's open season on anyone for any reason. Innocent situations can escalate quickly. And remember, it's New Year's too. It's the anniversary of the uprising, and if anything's going to happen, it's going to happen now." She pauses, pointing to the military encampment across the river, "And it's going to happen right here."
To the south of us, the looming, emerald flanks of the Chiapas Highlands rear up so high they block out the morning sun. To the north, the landscape flattens out into a broad plain serrated with square, knuckled hills. Silhouetted in the day's early light, they take on the distinct shapes of ankles, elbows, and knees. In many places, the cliffs and vegetation have sloughed away like skin shaved from the bone, and smears of pitted limestone seem to yell out: "CAVES ARE HERE."
Given such ideal geology, Mexico is just about the most logical place to find a cave as unique as Villa Luz. Speleologically speaking, if a karst feature doesn't exist here, it probably doesn't exist anywhere at all, a distinction that has earned Mexico the reputation of being the world's underground Himalaya. In a handful of different locations in southern Mexico, it's possible to travel a dozen horizontal miles underground and still not reach the end of anything. In Purificacion, Huautla, and Cheve, you can drop over a thousand meters down into the earth's crust, to the point where you'd swear it was starting to get hot. Not surprisingly, Mexico has long generated a kind of vortex in speleological circles, drawing cavers by the truckload to drop deep, push far, set records, and flirt with death. Like climbers across Nepal, they fan out and conquer, converging only long enough over rice and beer to up the exploratory ante another notch toward the truly insane.
Given such a voracious appetite for unspoiled caves, the greatest mystery of Villa Luz, ironically, is not so much its biological diversity, but its long-standing geographic anonymity. Cavers, like most explorers, spend a disproportionate amount of time looking for new frontiers. In developing and often war-torn countries, they snoop in places "white people" don't normally go and interrogate locals that tourists don't usually talk to. In short, they do just about anything necessary to find virgin holes. In light of such obsessive efforts, discovering a cave as scientifically significant as Villa Luz, with stairs and boat access, was as delightful as it was embarrassing for many veteran Mexico cavers.
"The fact is," Louise explains, "no one was looking for a cave like Villa Luz. Cavers come to Mexico for length and depth, not for acid holes in a war zone. If they're going to risk their lives, they want to write themselves into the record books. But that's just not what Villa Luz is about."
Louise credits the rediscovery of Villa Luz to a lifelong caver and a Ph.D. psychologist named Jim Piszarowisc. Since 1972, Jim has braved bandits, rebel roadblocks, bad water, potent tequila, and remote Mexican jails for the sole purpose of finding new holes in the karst kingdom. On one such reconnaissance trip a few years back, Jim was approached by an old woman in a church square in Teapa, just north of Tapijulapa, who spoke to him the only four words of Spanish he knew: "Hay muchas cuevas aqui." There are many caves here.
Over the next few days, the closer Jim got to Tapijulapa and the Chiapas Highlands, the more he heard locals talking about azufre-sulfur. They held their noses, pointed upstream, and mumbled something about white water and an angry God. Not quite sure whether he would find a mass grave or a massive opening in the earth, Jim followed his nose, literally, and within a week, he had found the entrance to Villa Luz. In his mind, he had hit the mother lode. With fellow caver Warren Netherton, he dropped inside, snapped a few photos, and got sick. Jim went home a few days later with a lingering headache and a deep chest cough.
"The problem at that point," he recalls, "was getting people interested in a foul, poisonous hole. We knew nothing about the risks, or even what we were looking at. Most people were just scared."
Finally, however, Jim showed his photos to Louise, and his life hasn't been the same since. Neither, of course, has Louise's. Within weeks, applications were filed and expedition permits received; cartographers, microbiologists, and biochemists were summoned; ropes, lights, vials, and smears were mobilized. With support from the Explorer's Club, Westminster College, and a host of others, the exploration pot was at a rolling boil by the fall of 1997, for a full-fledged Christmas expedition.
"That first trip cracked the Pandora's box for many of us," Louise recalls of the inaugural trip. "As soon as we got into the first room, I knew this was the beginning of something big. I just didn't know how big. If Jim hadn't been so dedicated, Villa Luz might have been one of the greatest missed opportunities in the history of science.... There's just nothing else like it on earth."
Physically, caves are as diverse as human beings. Some yawn open into sky-like amphitheaters that would need stadium lights to illuminate them. Others twist, taper, and truncate for hundreds of miles as if on a mission to the very core of the earth. Some are predominantly dry-vadose. Others are fully submerged-phreatic. Some exceptionally complex caves are both-epiphreatic-fluctuating with seasonal rains or snowmelt, and changing in an instant from silent tunnels to stone-scouring torrents. Caves are found in glaciers near the top of the world, and branching off from the deep trenches of the sea. They form in temporary cliffs and banks of mud and in the oldest bedrock on earth. They are filled with freshwater, salt water, radon, sulfur, and in exceptional circumstances in outer space, possibly nothing at all.
Despite geology's proven artistry, however, no one had ever seen anything like Villa Luz before: a geologic phenomenon with a biological clock. Normally, caves are carved out by carbonic acid, the compound that forms when water reacts with carbon dioxide in the air or soil. Unfortunately for scientists, the process works like climate change-in atomic steps imperceptible to the human eye. Villa Luz, by contrast, seems to change every day. By metabolizing H2S and O2 into sulfuric acid (H2SO4) instead, the cave's bacteria, mucks, and slimes facilitate a far more aggressive and largely visible biochemical erosion. The process, though rare, is surprisingly simple. H2SO4, the acid commonly found in car batteries, reacts with the cave's bare limestone (calcium carbonate) bedrock, quickly converting it to microcrystalline gypsum (calcium sulfate). Highly soluble in water, the gypsum eventually sloughs off into the stream and is swept out of the cave for good. As this process exposes additional bedrock, it too is attacked by H2SO4, and the erosional cycle begins anew. As a result of this ongoing process, Villa Luz is literally caving in.
Due to such aggressive speleogenesis, an active sulfur cave like Villa Luz bears more resemblance physically to a clogged small intestine than a subway tunnel. From a bird's-eye view, called a plan view in technical cartographic parlance, the cave curves gently from southwest to northeast. Tip-to-tip, the official length is just under a mile and a half; vertical height in most rooms averages 60 feet from streambed to surface. At the cave's upstream end, a spigot from a dam break in the back wall feeds the main current year-round, while from the southwest, two additional streams pour in from passages too small to penetrate. Downstream, outside, the current leaps from an anonymous pile of stones like a blue winter brook, and the sulfur precipitating out from the water clings to the rocks and hanging vegetation in a delicate frost.
Inside, some passages and rooms in Villa Luz are high and wide enough to hangar an airplane. Large boulders sheared from the roof lie haphazardly about, as if a glacier had retreated through the cave only weeks before. Other passages are so small, only stream water can follow them. There are also 27 skylights, 24 springs, and at least 17 additional unpenetrated leads that begin as hallways, taper to crawlways, and ultimately end as wormholes no wider than a toilet bowl.
What makes Villa Luz such a speleological anomaly, though, is not its physical architecture, it's the biological architects themselves. Unlike the rest of planet Earth, Villa Luz doesn't run on solar energy, and the food chain doesn't begin with photosynthesis. The cave's high octane ecology runs exclusively on energy from sulfur oxidation (H2S ? 2O2), and due to the seemingly endless sulfur inputs, life in Villa Luz literally leaps, flies, and drips into your face. It thrives in nameless, faceless colonies in every crack, under every rock, along every wall and ceiling. Technically, the sludges and slimes are called microbes, and they're some of the smallest, simplest life forms on earth. Taxonomically, they occupy the very bottom of the evolutionary ladder, kingdoms Bacteria and Protista to be exact. We know them more commonly as bacteria, algae, and amoebas. Microbes make topsoil fertile, recycle sewage at the bottom of the ocean, help animals digest each other, and kill mercilessly when nature designs them to do so. There are millions of them in your own body, and billions of them in a single room in Villa Luz.
In general, microbes tend to look like they came from a shower drain rather than the artful chisels of natural selection. Yet, not all the biota so far identified in Villa Luz lacks charisma. Down at stream level, swarms of midges graze the rocky breakdown for bacteria, and in the water itself reside rare albino crabs, assassin beetles, and eels. Huddled in small rock pockets, P. mexicana vie like feasting trout for the best feeding spots. Their bodies are stout and tapered like comets, their eyes wide, beady, and blue. Lacking pigmented skin, their veins and hearts show through like meticulous anatomical models. Preliminary sampling expeditions over the past two years have also revealed five species of bat, planktonic microbial phlegm, multiple fungi, a turtle, a transient local rodent called a tepiscuentl, tarantulas, black widows, and at least seven other species of arachnid.
"Villa Luz is simply the most active, dynamic, and biodiverse cave we know of," Louise confirms. "The first thing we noticed on our initial expedition was the sheer quantity of life. It was the first time we had ever seen such aggressive sulfur speleogenesis, and also so much chemoautotrophic life. Villa Luz is an energy free-for-all, and everything appears to run off of the sulfur."
It is precisely this fact that makes Villa Luz headline news. Typically, caves are the exclusive abiotic territory of geologists, but Villa Luz has turned that logic squarely on its head. In just two years of blitzkrieg investigation, Louise and her colleagues have found that Villa Luz is in fact a boiling evolutionary pot, stewing with life in many of it's most primitive and endemic forms.
"Villa Luz is literally a planet unto itself," says Louise. "It's a real example of a Gaia environment and what we call 'biogenesis': a situation where organisms actually create and regulate their own world, where everything is totally interdependent-the rocks, the water cycle, the atmosphere, the biota, all of it."
Not surprisingly, the attraction of Villa Luz for some scientists is other planets, most notably Mars.
"Mars is a sulfur-based system like Villa Luz," explains Penny Boston, a Ph.D. scientist at Complex Systems Research, Inc., "and so far our best shot at finding extraterrestrial life. But at this point we don't even know what to look for. That's why we're so interested in the microbial life in Villa Luz. It might show us what to expect and where to look." Penny's findings here will ultimately pass directly into the hands of the scientists and planners at Mars mission control. If we can get an idea how sulfur ecosystems operate down here, the logic goes, we just might be able to recognize a similar system up there.
At this point, however, the only characteristic the two environments seem to share with any certainty is the existence of sulfur itself. On virtually every taxonomic level, Villa Luz remains as unstudied as the Red Planet itself, and the potential for original scientific discovery in every field is oceanic. Villa Luz is one of only a handful of places left on earth that doesn't fall into the already established taxonomic paradigms of science-and where first-time discoveries are often a matter of just showing up and pulling something off the wall.
"For all of us, this is shotgun investigation," Louise admits. "We're on the tip of a scientific iceberg and observing these things the first time. To be honest, we're still in what I would call a 'reconnaissance' mode.... We don't really even know what to study yet!"
Even after two full-scale expeditions, Villa Luz remains a black hole of mostly anecdotal speculations, which makes it no different from virtually every other cave in the world. Caves, as a general rule, aren't warm and fuzzy places. There are no slow-burning sunsets, no warbling songbirds. Caves, in fact, are the very essence of many people's most bowel-opening phobias: fear of the dark; fear of cramped, crushing spaces; fear of entrapment; fear of suffocation; fear of drowning; fear of vampire bats, tarantulas, snakes, skinless rodents, and other albino trolls. And, of course, fear of a torturous, anonymous death. Ask anyone, especially cavers, about their worst death scenario and it will often take place in a cave. Without daylight visual references, every room looks alike, and objective risks quickly become impossible to assess. For even the most experienced caver, the regular fear and disorientation are humbling reminders of how visual the human world has become, of how, without the sun, sea, and sky for reference, we are as paralyzed in our own medium as fish deprived of their fins.
Villa Luz's toxic biological stew only makes matters worse. Not only has the cave's ecology turned out to be far more complex than originally thought, but the more scientists learn about the gases, the more they realize they shouldn't be in the cave at all. As an unfortunate consequence, the chronology of original science in Villa Luz has evolved more like a game of Twenty Questions. Vast pastures of observation are only occasionally broken by revelation, and even the most basic accumulations of scientific data have come with geologic sloth. Everything must be noted, described, sampled, and sealed before exhaustive laboratory analysis can commence. No stone, literally, goes unturned, because assassin beetles, crabs, eels, and centipedes gather on the underside. The process, essentially one of detection and description, is very much like what a curious child might do in the woods. Significant features are scrutinized, and sample vials are placed into "like" piles, with one or two specimens reserved for especially obsessive focus.
In the most isolated and scientifically significant areas of Villa Luz, research has amounted to little more than "see-it-and-run" observation. Here, concentrations of H2S often rev so high that respirators and new filters can clog in less than an hour. In still other areas, like the aptly named Itchy Passage, Tyvek chemical suits are mandatory to protect researchers from what Jim and Louise believe is a fungal-based histamine reaction. Thus far, those who have ventured in without protection emerged with full body welts and feeling like they were wrapped in a hot fiberglass blanket. In the few tight passage leads left to push, squeezes are so small you can't even get in without exhaling. As passage volume shrinks, gas concentrations soar proportionately. It's here that worst-case scenarios begin to rear their heads: What if the O2 level drops below 10 percent? What if I twist an ankle in a crack? Could I evacuate before my brain shuts down?
In addition to hindering basic mapping and sampling regimes, worst-case scenarios like these have also kept Louise out of Villa Luz's last frontier. Since systematic penetrations began two years ago, only the squirmholes that lie beyond a sedan-sized room called Yellow Roses-named for the rare gold florets on the walls-have remained out of reach. On even the most current map, the area is still marked by a single question mark. Despite repeated attempts, all previous pushes beyond the room's last limestone lip have been thwarted by soaring gas concentrations, bottomless springs, and six-inch airspaces between the water and ceiling. Cavers have registered H2S levels as high as 156 ppm, O2 levels as low as 9.5 percent. To top it all, Yellow Roses is so far removed from the Main Passage that should a fatal convergence of gases occur inside, timely evacuation to clean air would be uncertain at best.
Yet, Yellow Roses is the most scientifically unique area of the cave. It is the only place in the world where Louise has observed the yellow roses, technically called sulfur folia, which are stacked, subaqueous formations she suspects were deposited by the stream like geologic bathtub rings as it receded in the distant past. It is the only place she has seen a mammal-a bat-thriving in a fatally hypoxic environment. And it is one of two places in Villa Luz where she has heard the "buzzing," a barely detectable harmonic hum whose source is still totally unknown. For veteran cave junkies like Louise, such a frontier is dangerous-scientific heroin. Despite the known risks, the temptation to go for it is all-consuming.
Given the regular risks and irregular rewards, why speleologize, then? Why would anyone with Ph.D. intelligence endure the fatal risks of the underworld for the dark, indecipherable company of microbes and stone? And why here, in a war zone?
"Caves are the Earth's last frontiers," Louise argues, "and the underground wilderness is the only real wilderness left to study. There's more cave passage yet undiscovered than passage that has been explored. You just can't say that about forests, mountains, or oceans."
Recent discoveries seem to support Louise's view. Specialists in new fields such as geomicrobiology now speculate that more surface area and biomass-more raw "dark life"-exists underground in semisubmerged caverns and deep ocean vents than on terra firma. With respect to sulfur caves in particular, it has even been postulated that the first forms of life on earth were in fact chemoautotrophic, percolating in sulfur-charged cracks deep underground before boiling over into the famous primordial soup. Commercial investigations have also shown that the world's sulfur caves possess a wealth of possibly valuable species and compounds that could cure everything from cancer to oil shortages.
"We're not just finding out about extreme life or paleocaves here," explains Louise. "Villa Luz has a lot of wider applications to economically valuable industries, like lead and zinc mining, petroleum exploration, chemical and genetic engineering, and pharmaceuticals. Any inventory of new and exotic species tends to lead to the discovery of valuable compounds, and in Villa Luz, just about anything is possible."
Caves are also ecological backbones wherever they exist, and any long-term terrestrial habitat management must necessarily take into account their presence. In many karst landscapes, caves are literally the plumbing upon which all other habitats are based. They act as water and nutrient sinks, aerate soils, regulate stream flow and aquifer discharge, and filter out contaminants and sedimentation. Many, although none to the extent of Villa Luz, also harbor species that are critical to surrounding habitats in other, not so obvious ways.
Unfortunately, caves are regarded as nature's dive bars. Like swamps, they have been plugged, poisoned, and paved with little regard for long-term ecological consequences. Some have been pumped so full of sewage, they have literally overflowed like toilets. Others have been so shot-up by Saturday night rednecks that few living things ever returned. Inherently, caves are also low-energy systems. Without the primary active ingredients for decay and regeneration, like water, sunlight, nutrients, and detritivors (microbes that break down organic matter), caves are extremely slow to recover from even the most well-intentioned impact. In some caves, a pile of human feces can sit for a hundred years before even changing shape. In others without hydrological flushing, handprints and footprints can remain on the walls for millennia. When we make the decision to affect a cave in even the most circuitous way, we are necessarily gambling with extinction.
"Caves are also the places no one else wants to study," Louise adds. "As a scientist and explorer, can you imagine a more perfect working environment? I like to get more out of my adventures than just adrenaline. What motivates me is virgin exploration in scientifically fascinating caves and finding things that no one else has seen or described before. That's what we're getting here."
Given Louise's example, it should come as no surprise that world-class speleologists aren't the silk sheet types. Any cave explorer who can't take care of business chest deep in a river of guano three days back in a cave is about as productive scientifically as a marine biologist who refuses to get wet. To work effectively, survivalist nonchalance must be automatic. Days of darkness, near-drowning, death threats, and disease must be brushed aside like nuisance insects.
"Cavers are unique among adventurers," insists Louise, who has spent an estimated four years of her life underground, "and speleologists are different from other scientists. We don't just climb, ski, or dive. We're true explorers. We're obsessed with seeing what's around the next corner, and we're prepared to do whatever necessary to push those limits underground. On many expeditions, we're not just squeezing through holes. We're also rappelling in the darkness, lead climbing, swimming, and even scuba diving." Unlike climbers, cavers also aren't into graduating their limits with numerical ratings.
"You either have the balls to do it," Dave Lester likes to say, "or you don't."
Among certain speleological crowds, it's not uncommon to find that everyone has spent at least a week underground. On our expedition, the minimum rite of passage is six days-144 hours without sunshine, fresh air, or flattering afternoon light. On such extended expeditions, feces and urine must be packed out in "Burrito Bags," and food is minimized to such an extent that cavers joke about their wrists shrinking. On the most extreme pushes, mandated prerequisites include effective body recovery skills and the willingness to amputate your own limb in the event it's got you anchored to a certain demise between a rock and a hard place.
The grim reality of extreme caving and speleology, however, is not just that people die; it's how they die. The number-one cause of death is free-falling and splattering on the rocks below, due most often to bad handholds or breaking through a "false" floor. Second is drowning in a flash flood, an experience survivors compare with being trapped under lake ice. The third most frequent, and perhaps most preferable way to go is having your head smashed in by a runaway boulder. It's one of the few ways to die in a cave that doesn't involve prolonged suffering.
Given what she's endured, Louise's own track record of accomplishments is especially humbling. She's been trapped behind a flash flood overnight and lost for hours almost a thousand meters beneath her surface support team. She earned her Master's degree by investigating Mexico's longest cave virtually unassisted, working alone dozens of kilometers in for days at a time. In helping to push Mexico's deepest cave in the early 1990s, she became one of the few people on the planet to squirm, crawl, and climb a full vertical kilometer from the last breath of fresh air. But like most explorers and scientists, Louise is unimpressed with her own accomplishments.
"Risk is a reality for any explorer," she explains. "It's an inevitable part of the adventure. Just think about Columbus, Marco Polo, or John Wesley Powell. Without people throughout history who were willing to accept the challenges of original exploration, we'd all still be living on tiny islands of civilization and culture. If you don't want to see what's out there, you might as well stay home, have babies, and get cable."
Louise pauses, as if reconsidering the decision one last time.
"I'm just doing what my Mom told me to do," she finally adds. "I'm getting it all out while I'm young. I guess I'm just having trouble growing up."
With such an awesome track record of high-risk achievements, one would think Louise had no demons left to conquer.
"Not so," she admits. "If you can believe it, my greatest fear is of bats. They're beady-eyed, repulsive, and everywhere. I understand their importance to a cave ecosystem, but I don't have to like them."
Louise's second fear is scuba diving in underwater caves.
"The world's number-one recreational killer," she affirms without even inviting debate, "and a one-way ticket to the grave. In the last 10 years, over 300 people have died cave diving-more than 30 people a year. It's the most seductive thing I've ever done, but it's just too fatal. I already do too many dangerous things. When I'm 83 and have a terminal disease, maybe I'll get into it. Until then, I'd like to stay off the statistical list."
Compared to such extreme penetrations in the past, Villa Luz would seem to be little more than a walk-in closet by comparison. There are no technical free climbs, exposure swims, or 30 rope rappels into the darkness. It's not even particularly deep or long. There's a boat launch to the trail, a trail to the cave mouth, and a set of concrete stairs down to the beginning of the Main Passage. Nevertheless, the nonchalant rating is perilously deceptive. Villa Luz has more potential to kill than most other caves in the world, and unlike Mexico's more technically demanding caves, Villa Luz doesn't kill with avalanches, floods, and thousand-foot free-falls. With a Martian mixture of deadly gases, it steals life like high cholesterol and loneliness-quietly and invisibly.
At this early stage in the research, only one thing about the cave's toxicity seems clear: it's not what researchers know that's terrifying, it's what they don't know. And unfortunately, no one knows enough at this point to make an informed decision about whether anyone should be in the cave at all. In the absence of such certainty, Louise and her colleagues throttle back and stay conservative. They assume death is likely, change filters hourly, and treat gas spikes like puffs of the plague.
Finally outside of the Other Buzzing Passage, under the vaulted dome of Sala Grande, the cave's largest room, Louise and I stand erect and stretch for an unseen sky. The effects of the gases have hit hard and linger ominously. Alone in my own body, I focus on what it's like to overdose on a toxic gas, wondering if what I feel is normal and hoping silently that Louise feels the same way. My head feels too heavy for my neck, my arms and legs as if they're moving through water instead of air. Around my toe, a third-degree flesh burn has spread in a raw, amebic explosion.
Louise soon admits that she too is suffering from a quick onset of symptoms: tunnel vision, nausea, and the distinct feeling she's swallowed a handful of fiberglass.
"I had new filters, too," she adds. "There's something going on in there."
Back in Tapijulapa, cold showers do little to wash away the effects of the hydrogen sulfide. With a total exposure time in Yellow Roses room of over two hours, Louise and I violated every mathematical rule of H2S saturation to the extreme. Our lung tissue should already be sweet, red puree.
"Today was an intense H2S experience," Louise acknowledges later over dinner. "I feel like I've been soaked in the stuff."
"One of my cartridges was wet also," I admit, knowing that means I'm even worse off than everyone else.
"Well, you got in and got out alive. That's what counts." She pauses, then smiles slightly. "And we did push the cave a little further. At the very least, we know there's more to explore next year...."
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