Photo by @shonephoto (Robbie Shone) with words by @m_synnott (Mark Synnott) – As time runs out on the expedition, most of the hoped-for new passages have proved to be dead ends. The team has exited the cave and is preparing for the long journey back to Tashkent, but Zhenya, along with an ambitious young Russian named Lyosha, insist on making one more push to explore Dark Star’s last possible new lead. They’ve been shuffling sideways for hours in a tight meander, and now they’re braced in a knee-butt squeeze-chimney between two icy walls of limestone. “I think we’ve reached the end of the line,” says Lyosha, gesturing to the nine-inch-wide slot in front of him. Experienced cavers know that the limiting factor in a squeeze passage is not your chest or your hips, but your skull. Your rib cage and belly can be compressed, but your head cannot. Handing his helmet to Lyosha, Zhenya slides head first into the icy fissure. Tilting his shoulders back and forth, his temples scraping against the flowstone, he slithers inch by painstaking inch into the squeeze. Thirty minutes later, Zhenya pops through the crack into a borehole the size of a Moscow subway tunnel that reverberates with the roar of a fast-flowing river. Is this the passage that he’s been seeking, the one that will finally make Dark Star the Everest of caves? He desperately wants to keep going, to see where it leads. But alas, the expedition’s time has run out. Zhenya turns to face the grueling multi-day trip back to the surface, with a smile that lights up his craggy face, because this is exactly how every great caving expedition should end: with a mysterious passage snaking into the unknown, and an adventure that will have to wait for another day.
For more stories and photos from our feature article Into The Deep, check out the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. #DarkStar