Just reaching one of Dark Star’s seven known entrances is tough. The monstrous remote cave in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s deepest high-altitude cave systems, can’t be attained without rock-climbing skills and equipment.
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An expedition team included an ensemble of world-class cavers and scientists ages 22 to 54, with Russians, Italians, Israelis, one German, and National Geographic writer Mark Synott. After meeting up with the team in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, his journey was far from over.
From there they traveled together a little over a hundred miles by bus, with hundreds of pounds of food and gear for three weeks in the field, across the arid plains. They took a popular tourist route that follows the ancient Silk Road to Samarqand. Then they turned off the beaten path, heading south toward the Afghan border to Boysun, where they loaded everything into a six-wheeled Soviet-era troop transport. As they lumbered into the Boysuntov (also known as Baysun-Tau) Range, the mountains gradually rose to 12,000 feet and then dropped off in a jagged line of spectacular cliffs. Once the route became too steep for the truck, the team hiked for two days with 15 donkeys to haul their supplies up to the base camp, perched on sloping terraces at the foot of the limestone escarpment. It took several days of rigging ropes to access the cave and haul up gear. In the article Synott remembers, “But finally I hoisted myself up a 450-foot rope to the cave’s main entrance (dubbed Izhevskaya, or R21). I began to see why cavers think of Dark Star as a living, breathing entity. Down at base camp, the temperature hovered around 100°F, but up here I was shocked to find myself bracing against a freezing wind blasting out of Dark Star’s mouth.”
Read more about the expedition in “Is This the Underground Everest?” from National Geographic Magazine.
Watch These Cave Divers’ Epic Climb to Dark Star | National Geographic