People drawn to exploring caves are a different breed from regular humans. We ordinary folk — particularly those with the least bit of claustrophobia or aversion to tight spaces — might look at a deep, dark hole in the ground and quite reasonably say, “Nope!”
The teams of spelunkers profiled in Subterranean are bold and brave. They’re unafraid of mud, trolls, squeezing into tiny cracks in solid rock or even pooping in plastic baggies. With those images in mind, onwards (more accurately downwards) we go.
The film follows two expeditions — one on Vancouver Island to find the longest cave in Canada, and the other in B.C.’s remote Mount Bisaro plateau to discover the deepest. Full props to the camera people who follow closely behind the cave explorers as they squirm, worm, clamber, rappel and even scuba dive into the rocky depths.
On Vancouver Island, Franck Tuot fell into caving (not quite like it sounds) with his wife. But the couple’s casual exploring turned into an obsession for Tuot, who was soon spending every weekend scrabbling deep underground while his two young children and increasingly irritated wife waited at home. As a more senior spelunker notes, such devotion to the caving habit comes with the incipient threat of divorce.
Meanwhile in the Mount Bisaro plateau, Katie Graham and her team attempt to find the deepest cave in Canada. The Bisaro Anima cave system, named for Pte. Torindo John Bisaro, a war hero from the nearby town of Fernie, poses some considerable challenges. In addition to its remote and rugged location, there are extremely tight passages, long descents, steep avens (vertical shafts) and finally at the end, almost 700 metres below ground, a flooded sump (an underground channel filled with water) called Dieppe. The war hero namesake is not without reason.
After a series of earlier expeditions, 13 cavers enter Bisaro in November 2019, eager to establish that the cave system is indeed the deepest hole in the entire country. They come with bags of equipment, each weighing up to 40 pounds. To reach the lowest point means carrying delicate diving equipment along with everything else that might be needed including food, shelter and safety gear. Given the difficulty in reaching the site, the team makes the decision to camp underground for a week, setting up camps at different sections of the route. This is where pooping in bags comes in. As one caver explains, camping underground is not like camping outdoors, but more akin to sleeping on boulders in a refrigerator. Also, everything that is packed in must be packed back out.
Graham’s team becomes separated from their goal by a measly 1.5 metres, but that last stretch is underwater. To claim the record, Graham must learn how to scuba dive in a cave. It’s no mean feat even in simpler circumstances, but in the lowest pitch, located in the deepest and most inaccessible part of the cave, the danger is considerable. Most underwater pools contain silt; if divers disturb this stuff, visibility quickly reduces to nothing. Without a safety line or a method to retrace their path, divers can get stuck, enduring an agonizing, tragic wait in the water until their air runs out.
This is nothing compared with the GLORP passage in the Argo cave system on Vancouver Island. The acronym stands for everything gross about caving — or, as one caver puts it, “it’s like crawling into a digestive tube that has diarrhea.” The further the team goes, the grosser things get. Wiggling flat on their stomachs in dun-coloured mud is so grim that it inspired a song from the original cave explorers who, in addition to their spelunking ways, were also musicians. The tradition in entering the GLORP passage was to make good use of its acoustics by breaking out the harmonica and making some happy noise before descending into the mucky murk.
Despite all the care and planning invested in these missions, things can still go terribly wrong. Suffice to say, the triumphant endings that you might be expecting don’t necessarily work out the way that one might hope. The long-awaited “Connection Day,” wherein two passages are joined together and which Tuot is hoping for, is always just slightly out of reach. Despite her meticulous planning, things also take an unexpected turn for Graham.
This is the heartbreak of spelunking. But it seems once the caving bug has bit, there is nothing else that soothes the itch but to be the first person to step foot in a place that no human has been before.
From clear underground pools to stalagmites glistening like so many stone ice sculptures, some of the sights are unforgettable. After crawling through the GLORP, the cavers are greeted by the sight of the “Wedding Cake,” a limestone formation that towers above the cave floor, a wondrous concoction of time, accretion and the magical stuff that takes place in the deepest parts of the world.
As one interviewee notes, exploring caves is quite unlike climbing a mountain. When alpinists reach a summit, they get to enjoy epic vistas and inspiring scenery. With caving, explorers reach a dead end at the apex of their quest. They are forced to crawl back up the way that they came.
Considering all the struggle — the mud, the dark, the dank cold, the screaming claustrophobia — is it worth it?
I guess it depends on whether the urge to merge with the earth drives you to go darker, deeper and down into the bowels of the planet.
I’ll stay above ground, thanks very much.
‘Subterranean’ screens at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre until Nov. 5 and will be broadcast on the Knowledge Network on Nov. 7.