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  • It all begins with water and rock.

  • As water seeks its level, it becomes acidic.

  • And when it flows over limestone, it etches a path into the rock.

  • Given eons of time, water will burrow and carve,

  • with incredible force, the veins and arteries of planet Earth

  • So the underworld of caves is born.

  • And after torrents have done their work,

  • patient drops do more wonders in a million years or so.

  • Look now on a landscape no one dreamed existed just a few years ago.

  • Here are bizarre and fantastic treasures that stun the eye

  • and strain the imagination.

  • Here is discovery and danger.

  • Here is adventure.

  • In New Mexico, members of a National Geographic Society expedition

  • explore the world's newest and most exotic major cave.

  • They are following one of man's most ancient imperatives

  • to see and understand the unknown.

  • Join us now as we embark on

  • an extraordinary journey deep into the earth

  • to confront MYSTERIES UNDERGROUND.

  • In the Guadalupe Mountains of southern New Mexico,

  • an awesome giant has lain hidden for a million years.

  • Sometimes, in the desert silence,

  • the monster could be heard breathing.

  • The sound came from a yawning chasm in the rocks.

  • In 1986 a trio of weekend explorers broke through a layer of rubble

  • and discovered a new cave only a few miles

  • from famous Carlsbad Cavern.

  • Although the cave entrance lay inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park,

  • park officials allowed qualified cavers to explore it.

  • One of them was Rick Bridges, an oil and gas prospector.

  • Now Bridges leads a hand-picked team of experts,

  • like rock climber Dave Jones, on the 25th expedition to Lechuguilla.

  • You got the survey gear, Anne?

  • Research geologist kiym Cunningham

  • will handle the science studies for the expedition.

  • Nuclear test engineer Anne Strait is an expert

  • in surveying and mapping caves.

  • And specialist cameraman from England, Sid Perou,

  • will be the first to document Lechuguilla on motion picture film.

  • The journey begins with a deceptively ordinary hike.

  • The cave is named after a desert plant that grows in this harsh,

  • dry environment-Lechuguilla-Spanish for little lettuce.

  • Forty people will support the venture,

  • including two support teams to pack in supplies

  • and batteries for photographic lights.

  • On high rope.

  • We tend to have this feeling that

  • the surface of the earth is the life of the earth.

  • But we're just this small,

  • thin little shell that we choose to call our world,

  • and beneath it there's an entire realm that we know very little about.

  • And we can, if we choose,

  • enter that realm and we can learn something from it.

  • I will never go to the moon,

  • but I can go to a cave the nobody else has been to

  • and have the same elation of exploration in the sense

  • that I have gone where no one's gone before.

  • Bombs away.

  • I would like to think that had I lived in another time

  • I would have been an explorer.

  • You know, had I lived in the late 1700s,

  • I would have wanted to know what was across the Appalachian Mountains.

  • If I'd been around when Lewis and Clark went to the coast,

  • I'd liked to have gone with them, you know.

  • And I think most people that cave

  • at this level and do this kind of exploration feel that way.

  • Here, Bridges and his companions

  • excavated to break into Lechuguilla for the first time.

  • Now the entrance is protected by a lockable hatchway.

  • Through this tiny aperture the cave breathes

  • blowing air out or sucking

  • it in to equalize with the barometric pressure above ground.

  • Winds up to 60 miles an hour howl out of here,

  • hinting at the vast underworld below.

  • Today, this is Lechuguilla's only known entrance,

  • and there may have never been another.

  • For a million years this place has lain undisturbed.

  • In a real sense, it is a primordial world,

  • untouched by all but microscopic forms of life.

  • On rope!

  • It's a long ways down.

  • See you guys on the bottom.

  • Dave Jones starts down

  • the 150 foot pit called Boulder Falls

  • It was here that the first explorers realized

  • what a vast place they had discovered.

  • As you progress down,

  • it gets steeper and steeper and pretty soon you're free hanging,

  • but your feet are still against the rock

  • And all of a sudden you rappel

  • by this little ledge

  • and there's no more rock. There's nothing in any direction.

  • Beyond the base of the pit

  • the cave branches off in all directions.

  • Only computer imagery can portray this labyrinth.

  • After the May 1986 exploration

  • the cave was known to be 700 feet deep

  • and more than half a mile long.

  • Today the system totals 60 miles and plummets more than 1,600 feet.

  • Twisting capillaries and veins pierce the earth in all directions.

  • This is a gigantic maze in three dimensions,

  • defying conventional ideas of direction and scale.

  • Footprints remain forever in this fragile environment.

  • Plastic ribbons keep cavers on main trails.

  • Expeditions into Lechuguilla have been likened to exploring Everest

  • only in reverse.

  • The team is headed for Base Camp still hours away.

  • The trail leads on into inky blackness

  • Often they traverse chambers so vast

  • the cave walls are barely discernible.

  • Gypsum crystals sparkle along the route.

  • Now, cavers encounter Lechuguilla's fantastic decorations

  • for the first time.

  • Helictites and gypsum flowers extrude from the walls

  • fragile gardens that have taken centuries to blossom,

  • as minerals have been squeezed from the rocks like toothpaste from a tube.

  • Beauty abounds.

  • These jewels of the underground

  • are exquisitely delicate needles of selenite.

  • With the constant maneuvering up down

  • and through the cave's difficult terrain,

  • 50 pound backpacks become painful burdens.

  • Always, in Lechuguills, danger is not far away.

  • Okay, on three. One, two, three.

  • In 1991 seasoned caver Emily Mobley slipped and broke her leg

  • while working on a surveying expedition in the cave's western sector.

  • A mile and a half from the entrance,

  • 900 feet below the surface,

  • this accident would trigger the largest and most publicized cave rescue

  • in U.S. History.

  • A hundred experienced cavers

  • summoned to the scene would labor four arduous days

  • to bring her to safety.

  • The bond of comradeship that unites

  • the caving community was seldommore evident than during this emergency.

  • Every caver knows and instinctively responds to the code of the underground

  • that only cavers can save and protect each other.

  • After almost four hours, the expedition reaches Lake Lebarge,

  • the first sizeable body of water to be discovered inthis branch of Lechuguilla.

  • Beautiful!

  • One of the greatest sights in caving, isn't it?

  • Yes. Fantastic. Is this Lake Lebarge?

  • Yeah. Lebarge Borehole looks easier now.

  • Beautiful!

  • On rope!

  • The lake completely blocks the way ahead.

  • Cavers had to wade it until they found a detour

  • tricky, but possible.

  • Well, I think of particular moves like dancing around the edge of Lebarge

  • as almost a ballet, an underground ballet.

  • I know where my footholds are; I know where my handholds are.

  • I know if I hit them just right and move just right

  • some of them are kind of dynamic in so much as you leave one handhold

  • while you're going for the next foothold.

  • And if you do that just right and you have your pack balanced

  • just right, you flow through it real smoothly.

  • And so I think it's very much like doing a dance,

  • a very intricate dance.

  • And you want to do it perfectly,

  • you know, and it's very beautiful when you do.

  • Deeper into the cave,

  • mineral formations become more fantastic and delicate.

  • Cavers must move among them with great care.

  • Spikes of aragonite,

  • one form of calcium carbonate, grow in fragile bushes.

  • The gentlest touch could damage them.

  • There is infinite contrast here.

  • The now famous Chandelier Ballroom is one of caving's classic beauty spots

  • Plumes of gypsum sprout from the ceiling,

  • some as long as 20 feet

  • the most dazzing examples of their type ever found.

  • Utter silence pervades Lechuguilla.

  • The only sound is made by the intruder

  • In the constant 68-degree temperature and high humidity,

  • dehydration is always a threat.

  • Anybody else need any hot water?

  • For some, the notion of life

  • with almost a quarter mile of rock overhead

  • can be oppressive, even terrifying.

  • But cavers like Bridges relish the experience.

  • It's almost like coming back to home after you've been gone for a while.

  • It's a very comfortable feeling to me, particularly in that particular cave.

  • And you know it's a sense of isolation

  • The world becomes very simple

  • Here there is no day or night.

  • If they ignore the time, cavers tend to stay awake,

  • and sleep, for longer and longer periods.

  • In Lechuguilla Cave,

  • there is little evidence of life.

  • But this is rare.

  • Many caves harbor a hidden kingdom of creatures, dominated by bats.

  • Bats thrive in darkness.

  • They navigate not by sight,

  • but by subtle patterns of reflected sound.

  • Some caves are home to millions of bats,

  • the greatest concentration of mammals anywhere.

  • Their nitrogen-rich droppings, or guano,

  • are harvested as a fertilizer.

  • Large deposits produce a toxic gas, which can be lethal.

  • Mountains of bat guano support the intricate food chain underground.

  • Sometimes, an injured bat, or a baby,

  • falls into the guano and itself becomes food.

  • Within minutes the bat is reduced to a skeleton.

  • Abundant underground, the cave cricket

  • Crickets spend much of their time gathering food outside their caves,

  • but inside they perform a vital role as scavengers.

  • In mute testament to their environment fish have evolved here without eyes.

  • The salamander has dispensed with eyes, too,

  • and has no need of skin pigment in a world without sunlight.

  • People have probably always found shelter in aves.

  • Thousands of years ago,

  • as much of the world still lay in the grip of the last Ice Age,

  • prehistoric hunters left spectacular evidence behind them.

  • The human spirit was born and nurtured here,

  • its expression etched on walls of stone.

  • By the early 20th century most people lived elsewhere.

  • But science and curiosity drove some to explore deeper underground.

  • Magnesium flares lit the way, filling dark voids with light.

  • Geologists squeezed into subterranean chambers

  • seeking to understand their origin and structure.

  • And soon the ancient lure of caves turned to profit.

  • Tourists went underground.

  • Then and now,

  • humans have been compelled to seek out caves,

  • and to combat the gloom with gay defiance.

  • In the United States, New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns

  • was declared a national park in 1930.

  • But natural wonders were not enough.

  • Carlsbad and other caves promoted all sorts of attractions,

  • some a bit farfetched.

  • The time will come when some master musician

  • in the Carlsbad Cavern will be able to create s symphony in stone

  • Many parts of the world are known for caves.

  • Because most lie on limestone bedrock,

  • the soil is often thin and life is hard

  • So it has often been in the remote uplands of Kentucky.

  • But the automobile brought a new source of wealth

  • city folks, eager for amusement.

  • Everyone who owned a cave hung up a sign.

  • Each was touted as being bigger and better than the others.

  • The so-called Cave Wars spurred bitter feuds and even violence

  • Crystal Cave belonged to the Collins family,

  • but it was too far from the beaten path to prosper.

  • Thirty-seven-year-old Floyd, one of the Collins boys,

  • was determined to find a cave closer to the highway.

  • He set off alone on a cold winter morning in January 1925

  • and squeezed into a narrow, twisting crack in the earth,

  • never before explored.