Bill Stone, an explorer who journeys below the surface of the earth, describes how it is to negotiate the “last terrestrial frontier” for humans.
We have heard so much about exploration into outer space. Have we ever thought about explorations that go into the earth, a la Jules Verne? Bill Stone, caver, explorer and CEO of Stone Aerospace, says, “…these are gigantic puzzles. They’re three-dimensional chess games inside a mountain. And the game is played out over decades. This is the rationalisation that has come. But why do it? I’ll tell you why. It’s because it is the real frontier on earth. It is the last terrestrial frontier for humans. Now you could say, wow, what about the oceans? Well, what about the oceans? We know what’s down there. What we don’t know, for example, is where the deepest point you can get inside the earth is. That is still, just like in Jules Verne’s age, an unknown, open question. And there are people now armed with technology that never existed before that is allowing us to do things that would have been pure science fiction just 40, 50 years ago…We can now descend thousands of meters into the earth with relative impunity. Along the way, we’ve discovered fantastic abysses and chambers so large that you can see for hundreds of meters without a break in the line of sight. When you go on a thing like this, we can usually be in the field for anywhere from two to four months with a team of as small as 20 or 30 to as big as 150.”
As Stone describes how it is down there (“We’re going to be shooting from minus 2,600 meters. That’s a little over 8,600 feet down at 30 kilometres from the entrance. The lead crews will be underground for pushing 30 days straight”), you feel your stomach constricting and throat suffocating, “.. it’s sensory deprivation is what it is. Imagine going into a world that consists of nothing but blacks and browns and some occasional tans and maybe, if you’re really lucky, you know, a dash of white here and there by, you know, calcite in a vein of a rock or something like that. So it’s monotonous colour accompanied by the low rumble or hiss of water. Ubiquitous, it’s just kind of rattling around sonically through all these chambers, because the river is always there. You can be a level or two above it or you can be right into it. If you’re into it, it’s loud. It’s loud enough that it’s shaking the walls as if you were standing beside a locomotive. You can physically feel the acoustic, you know, resonates. And so the longer you spend down there, the more you get acclimated to that sensory deprived environment, such that when you come back to the surface, there’s a period of about 15 to 20 minutes where you’re in sensory overload. Colours that are hot colours just leap out, almost in 3D. You can hear things like buzzing insects from farther away. And the other thing is you can usually smell the entrance from within anywhere from 500 meters to 800 meters inside, just because the wind is carrying that subtle scent down into the cave. It’s this heightened state of sense until you reach the point of saturation.”
Once you are several metres below the surface, the worry of being able to come up does torment, particularly the first-timers. “The deeper you go, the more you run into a conflict with water. It’s basically like a tree collecting water coming down. And eventually, you get to places where it is formidable and dangerous. If there is a monster underground, it’s the crushing psychological remoteness that begins to hit every member of the team once you cross about three days inbound from the nearest entrance… you still feel this every time you go beyond a personal experience limit.”
Describing the dangers under the earth, Stone says, “Typically, the two that people worry about are moving water and rock fall. Rocks that have sat there for millennia can be sitting right precariously teetered, such that you can walk onto a piece of rock that’s the size of a gigantic truck, and the thing will just rock over a couple of degrees.”
For the future, Stone plans to dig into the ground on the moon…a truly ambitious and courageous man!