Interviews

Touching The Bottom of The World – An Interview with Explorer: The Deepest Cave’s Kasia Biernacka

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Continuing National Geographic’s legacy of pushing the unknown frontiers to deliver bold and powerful stories is Explorer: The Deepest Cave, which follows renowned cave explorer Bill Stone as he and his team push the boundaries of modern exploration to set a new world record by venturing into the bottom of what is thought to be the deepest cave in the world, Chevé Cave in Mexico.

Through this harrowing and nail-biting expedition, viewers will witness a team of explorers navigating through over 20 miles of unexplored, tight, twisting passages, sometimes in complete darkness, where one mistake can be deadly.

Not only is Bill and the team trying to set a new world record by finding a passage beyond a depth of 7,208 feet, proving once and for all his theory Chevé is the deepest cave in the world, but the expedition’s other goal is to map everything the team sees so others can study the Cave and discover what its future holds.

Joining Bill Stone on the literal deep dive of a lifetime is Kasia Biernacka, Director of Photography and Cave Explorer, whose lifelong quest is to go deeper beneath the earth than any human has ever ventured. The expedition has been compared to climbing Everest — but in reverse. The three-month underground journey is a dangerous and highly technical adventure through over 12 miles of tight, twisting passages. The pressure to conquer the cave will push Bill and the team to the absolute limits of survival and sanity.

Team members inside Cheve Cave organizing packs which contain all their food and gear while staying inside the cave. (National Geographic/Pablo Durana)

In celebration of The Deepest Cave and to learn more about what it actually takes to reach the bottommost of the bottom, The Koalition spoke to Kasia about her journey, filming in the impossible, trying to make history and more.

“I accidentally ran into Bill Stone 20 years ago, 21 years ago, so we had a little anniversary in a cave last year and it completely changed my mind. I’ve been on this Chevé project for 20 years and it has become the main part of my life because of people and because of what we see underground. So, it’s just mind-blowing and you meet passionate people. Last year was not my first experience. I knew this cave. I was on almost every expedition he organized in Mexico.”

Chevé starts at almost 3,000 meters above sea level, which makes it unlike a lot of tropical caves. Surrounded by darkness, life forms like bats, plants, snakes and other ground critters do not thrive in this environment. There just isn’t a lot of food up there. In fact, there aren’t a whole lot of surface creatures either. Despite the warmth of the sinkhole, it also serves as a cold trap where Camp 1 (which is 400 meters deep) is located and the temperature can drop to the near low 40s or high 30s if there’s a big storm outside.  

The landscape of mountains above the Cheve Cave system. (National Geographic/Kasia Biernacka)

“[While there is always an opportunity to discover new species], it happens [but] I don’t think we found a new species in this cave. It usually happens in the entrance area, which is where most life is. The deeper you go, the fewer living creatures you will find, because there are no plants out there, because there is no light, and nothing will grow. The living creatures need something to eat, [so they will be at] the entrance area in the first hundred meters, but we went five days into the cave, and there was nothing.”

Most interesting, the deeper into the cave, the warmer it gets, making Camp 3 around 55 Fahrenheit, or 12C, where the wind is one of the biggest environmental factors. “Everybody who works in this place quickly recognizes there’s an amazing torrent of wind flowing into this cave. In fact, it’s one of the key symbols used to guide exploration if the wind is going in that direction.” This can stop an expedition in its tracks.

Then there are the tight unexplored spaces the crew and Kasia had to navigate through that could cause sudden panic or even worse death. Being so far down into the cave, rescue is not easy to come by and a basic injury can become deadly.

Bill Stone, caver and expedition leader, checks in on a cave radio to take notes on the days’ happenings at Cheve Cave. (National Geographic/Kasia Biernacka)

“I’m a small person and this is my handicap. I am not a big fan of tight places, but I can mentally deal with them knowing somebody has been through it helps a lot. Going [multiple times] through the same place, helps. It looks bigger and feels bigger. It’s all mental, it’s all in your head. Some people don’t like it. Some people are bigger than me, so I have this one easy.”

“Crawling is [also] a nice feeling for me, because in our daily life we spend most of our time sitting, standing or lying down. I feel like we don’t move enough. In the cave and especially in tight spaces, you can work with all your body. It’s a very nice physical sensation. I feel at least 20 years younger after so much physical effort.”

Cavers walk into the entrance of Cheve Cave. (National Geographic/Pablo Durana)

“For me, it’s a very good physical experience to go through tight spaces, unless I’m carrying a very heavy load, which happens a lot during big expeditions. We just need lots of stuff down there. We need food, gear, ropes, filming gear, so we usually carry big bags. They don’t make our life easier, but it’s necessary.”

For the team exploring Chevé, there are definitely areas that open up into expansive rooms, but much of the struggle comes in the form of puzzle solving, physical perseverance and overcoming obstacles where dead ends and working tirelessly to find a different way is a daily occurrence.

“I remember I was in some caves which were so unstable that we said, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t be done. We’ll just leave it as it is.’ It’s not a place anybody wants to be. So, it wasn’t even fear. We were absolutely sure we had to get out of there. And I couldn’t call it fear either. Maybe a better name for what I feel is like being constantly focused and being aware of what’s around me, and — yeah, being focused.”

A Cheve caving team member lights up the cavern in front of him deep beneath the cave’s entrance. (National Geographic/Pablo Durana)

The ability to focus is one of Kasia’s strongest abilities because constant dampness from the cave can be overwhelming as it sips though every crevasse of clothing. “In the cave nothing smells except for our socks, maybe. But there are no bad smells, good smells, so it’s neutral, smelling neutral. So that’s the first thing that strikes us in our face when we are getting out of the cave is the smell of the pine forest around the entrance. It’s so beautiful. You’re getting back to real life. You see the leaves, the forest, and the smells.”

The expedition shown in this documentary spans months of preparation and exploration. Showcasing historical moments and heartbreak as the lead explorers squeeze, swing and walk their way down the cave. Kasia and the team spent weeks digging underground and searching to find new paths deeper into the cave without even knowing if their struggles would be successful. While anyone would be deterred by all the backtrack and start anew from a previous trail, Kaisa loves each and every moment. “It’s a huge part of my life. 20 years of my life I put into this project. Of course, I will go back next year to continue the exploration.”

The Deepest Cave is now available on National Geographic.

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