PATAL BHUVANESHWAR CAVE – and a guide to Safe Caving.

In March 2014, French cave explorer Maurice Duchene and his team became the first group to do a preliminary exploration of Patal Bhuvaneshwar. Don’t get mixed up with a similar named cave in Uttarakhand state, India.

Duchene’s report and at a news conference by the Tourism Promotion Centre, Dhangadhi, stated the cave was 160 metres deep and 800 metres long at the point he turned back. The cave continued, but Duchene says this was as far as he went because of the very narrow continuation and lack of rescue.

This information led to the cave being regarded as the deepest cave in Nepal, surpassing the 65-metre-deep Siddha Gufa near Bandipur, Tanahun District, Gandaki Province. However, most online sites in January 2024 still state that Siddha Gufa is the deepest in Nepal.

Herbert Gebauer was the first to survey Siddha Gufa in 1990, and again in 1991 with more vertical gear. Known as a tourist cave, it was unmanaged. A small Hindu shrine and a bell adorned the mouth. No lighting or other artefacts spoiled the interior. You could wander where you like inside until a ticket and guide system was introduced by January 2020.

Unfortunately, the remote location of Patal Bhuvaneshwar in the far west of Nepal away from tourist trails starting from Kathmandu and Pokhara have continued to cloak the cave in obscurity online. In the local area, it’s well known.

Villagers have had no reason to go into the cave, and deeper exploration scared them. After Duchene’s push, Patal Bhuvaneshwar remained undisturbed for about three years until an incident occurred.

Some six years ago, in 2017, a villager last seen near the cave during a festival went missing. Under the effects of some hallucinogenic substances and with psychological problems, he intended to enter Patal Bhuvaneshwar. He had purchased many cigarette lighters for the trip. After he didn’t return, they assembled a large group of locals to look for him in the cave.

The searching party allegedly extended Duchene’s limit after finding nobody and continued deeper down. Following the main passage, they passed multiple side passages in the further section until at last they found the corpse of the man. He had no signs of injury. Even though he was becoming bloated, the cool environment had helped preserve the body. One rescuer estimated they had travelled 2,000 metres (though this was just his uncalculated feeling of the arduous journey).

The operation to retrieve the corpse intact without damaging it or leaving any traces on the passage walls took some two to three days.

This unfortunate incident meant some villagers had now experienced the deeper parts in the cave. Arun thought it might be possible to find one of them willing to guide us up to the point they had found the body.

Arun rang around until he contacted one shopkeeper friend who had been there and coerced him to kindly temporarily close his business for the day and accompany us. He would be our guide. I said I had a headlamp for him.

Our group would be Arun, Arif, the shopkeeper guide, and myself. Four is an ideal size. If there’s an accident, one person can stay with the casualty whilst the other two go for help.

On 24 December 2023, the guide came to meet us. A brave reporter friend turned up, who was also interested in coming inside even though he had no light and was happy to make his way down between those who had illumination.

The first two most important prerequisites for safe caving are proper headlamps and helmets. I had my Petzl Boreo caving helmet with a fixed mount. Fixed on the mount is a Petzl DUO S headlamp. This is waterproof to IP67 standard. In the lowest setting, which is quite adequate for most caves in Nepal, the battery lasts 23 hours. Above it I attached my Fenix HL 55 headlamp, waterproof to IPX-8 standard. The lowest setting lasts for 30 hours with an eco 10 lumens for 150 hours. In addition, I carried a spare Fenix 3500mAh battery.

The advantage of two mounted headlamps is that you can rotate beams in different directions. In caverns with many small bugs associated with bat guano, I’ve found the single Fenix pointing upwards in the lowest setting avoids flying bugs entering my eyes, though this hasn’t been a problem so far in Nepal caves. Lastly, in the unlikely failure of a light in an awkward position, it’s easy to switch on the other. Psychologically, it makes me feel safe during squeezes, on overhangs or steep descents.

For safety, it’s vital to always carry a spare headlamp as capable as your primary light. Better still, is to have to spare. I had two good lights on my helmet. Because of the need to share my equipment, my other two capable headlamps were on Arif and Arun’s helmets.

Arif had the Fenix HM70R attached to a helmet. It’s waterproof to IP68 standard. In the lowest setting, the battery lasts for 100 hours (the red bulb for 400 hours). I carried a spare 5000mAh battery for this. Normally, this doubles as a source for ‘painting with light’ cave photography. I wouldn’t be using this technique in the cave because it was so narrow and required a tripod. Inferior flash photography is only possible.

I gave Arun my extra red Petzl caving helmet. Attached to this was a Petzl Pixa 3 headlamp. The lowest setting lasts for 26 hours. I carried two sets of spare batteries for this. In addition, I had three non-caving simple LED headlamps for others who might accompany us or to use if I took my helmet off.

The guide took my Eurohike 6 LED head torch. The battery run time and brightness are quite good for a simple emergency torch, though its construction is flimsy, and it’s not at all suitable for caving. However, the guide’s torch was inferior and handheld, a risk when hands should be free.

The statistics (data-driven, not opinion-driven) are that far more people get injured or die in traffic than in caves. The greatest danger is going into a cave unprepared. Serious and sensible cavers go prepared; they are well aware of the risks.

The Shree Siddhanath Patal Bhuvaneshwar Religious Forest Committee has built concrete steps from the road up to near the pond above the cave. It’s a short steep walk up from the arch beside the Mahakali Highway at 2,035 metres to the pond at 2,145 metres, an ascent of 110 metres. Nearby is a locked changing room, which is very useful to leave any gear you don’t want to bring into the cave.

The cave is at a height of 2,145 metres. It’s nearly at the top of the nearby mountain peak, which rises to 2,200 metres. The immediate surrounding land is at 2,150 metres.

The orientation of the descending cave through the mountain slope is towards the Ranighat Gad River, a few kilometres away. If you plot a straight line in the direction the cave goes, it reaches the river at a point which is at an elevation of 1,600 metres. This means the cave’s depth could potentially be a maximum of 550 metres.

No local villager knows of an exit further down the mountainside. The way to detect where the water emerges during rainy months is to put coloured dye into the stream at the cave mouth when it’s flowing strongly and to see where the coloured water emerges.

Compare this with Siddha Gufa, located at about 670 metres altitude. Although there’s no large descending streamway passage, if we draw a straight line down to the nearby Marshangdi River, it’s a drop of just 300 metres (though, as everyone knows, Siddha Gufa’s depth is 65 metres).

The point is, the higher the surrounding land and the altitude of the cave mouth, the deeper a cave might be. This makes the Baitadi District and west Nepal in general an attractive caving area of Nepal.

As of January 2024, the deepest known cave on Earth is Veryovkina Cave in Georgia. Its entrance is at 2,285 metres and has a depth of 2,223 metres. The deepest cave in Asia is Boybuloq Cave in Uzbekistan, with an entrance at 8,684 metres and a depth of 1,430 metres.

24 December 2023: Arun had had no breakfast to keep to the religious prescriptions for entry. I was apprehensive about this because a proper breakfast with slow digesting carbohydrates gives energy, needed when exploring.

In my bag, I carried some cereal and nutty chocolate bars for a glucose boost. There were also two packets of unsalted nuts and half a rich fruit cake for boosting energy levels.

Avoiding dehydration by drinking plenty of water before entry and bringing in enough water (a water bottle or two) is vital. Dehydration will affect critical thinking and this can even lead to hypotension and fainting in some individuals.

A good night’s sleep beforehand is another perquisite to avoid fatigue as caving is physically demanding.

The entrance is next to the holy Hindu Nagarjun Temple. Further restrictions for cave entry include the need to enter barefoot. Arun was aware he would find long underground exploration very difficult using bare feet. As the Chairman of the committee, he was going to get around this and wear trainers.

Arun had informed locals that my boots were new, which would fulfil admission requirements. This is true; I had recently purchased them in Pokhara (reducing aeroplane bulk and weight). The guide and reporter went in bare feet.

Another plus for me was that I don’t normally eat meat unless it’s unavoidable. This is a further entry requirement, which Arun conveyed to the accompanying religious dignitaries.

The entrance to Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave is down a small forested depression with a streambed valley running from the right side that was dry in late December. The valley comes from the direction of the local peak, so is larger than others which feed some local caves.

There’s a dark opening a few metres tall at the base of a vegetated limestone rock face. During the rainy season, water fills the stream from higher up the mountain and this pours into the cave, making exploration impossible.

Our party reached the cave mouth at about 12.45 p.m. Once inside, I walked down and around a descending slope until the primary passage joined a large, damp opening from the right. This funnels in more water during rains.

The passage then abruptly descends steeply 45 degrees down through a narrow fissure cut through the limestone, which extends up to 20 to metres and higher in places. The sides have layers of jagged rock that scraped against my body, necessitating care to avoid tearing clothes or causing injury. There’s a short, straight bit where you can walk almost upright for the last time until a horizontal part, a long way deeper in the cave.

Because the continual spiky limestone brushed against me, I had to twist and turn, often at an angle, bending and stooping. Appropriate clothing is necessary. I had thicker waterproof trousers and an abrasion-proof top. A full body suit would have been better, avoiding any ingress around my waist. The cave structure and later crawls pull at your clothing, easily exposing your midriff during the latter squeezes.

Wellington boots helped avoid ankle and calf scrapes and were ideal in the damp or through puddles. Their grip wasn’t too bad. They weren’t adequate on steep slippery rock where a Vibram sole would have given the best traction.

Caving gloves were essential, though I now realised I must bring a longer version to cover my wrists, which kept on getting exposed, especially in the later hauling and scraping parts when using my arms and hands. I had underestimated the need for elbow pads, another important piece of kit for tight sections and crawls.

Companions who enter with trekking boots or trainers should tie a double knot to avoid the lace becoming undone in an inconvenient place.

The temperature in the cave felt similar to the shade outside and not more than a few degrees above it. My digital thermometer had measured a maximum of 10.1ºC during the day, so I imagine the cave was around 10ºC during late December.

I wore a thick pair of woollen socks over thin wicking socks (neoprene is best). This felt perfect in the boots, certainly not too warm. I had my polyester top under my abrasion jacket, but I soon started sweating. Once removed, only one layer was adequate.

I was only slightly chilly during a prolonged stop later on. But it’s important to remember, any injury requiring someone to stay still risks hypothermia. I had my silver emergency survival blanket to buy time during such a scenario. The extra top was another safeguard. I also carried a very thin balaclava to prevent heat loss from my head, should I become immobile.

My medical kit was small because an accident is minor or needs the help of others. You don’t want your emergency kit weighing you down. Inside a separate dry bag were long finger plasters, large square plasters, a sterile pad, medical tape, antiseptic cream, paracetamol, and a survival blanket. Wet wipes are handy to clean hands (useful before photography too).

The base of the passage was fairly smooth, damp, and slippery from the trickle of descending water with some footholds in the layered rock. It wasn’t easy to scramble down, even when holding the cracked projecting sides, because of the steep slanted downward slope.

Sometimes, I was traversing across a tilted layer sloping 50 degrees or more into a deep crack to one side, where I wouldn’t want to slip into. Often, I had to tilt my head and body continually for many metres whilst shuffling sidewards to pass constrictions, stoop under projections or climb up and over rocks.

The ground and edges had some signs of bat guano in thin layers of soil-like material deposited on a few side ledges. However, there was no sign of bats. It’s probable there were bats roosting higher up where the beam of my light couldn’t penetrate past the obstructing rock.

It’s advisable not to disturb the guano – even though the risk of histoplasmosis (a fungal infection associated with spores released from decaying bat guano) is probably low, considering the deposits aren’t in a dry dusty cave.

The cave has other life if you look carefully. Small millipedes and beetles live on the cave floor amongst some of the debris accumulations. There will be bacteria and fungi too, though we won’t see much of this with our unaided eyes.

I felt a strong, noticeable draught blowing inwards when passing through the narrow parts. This shows there must be another exit. The air was fresh and breathable.

The passage led to a much longer steep slippery bit where the French cave explorer Maurice Duchene had presumably attached his rope. With apprehension, I saw the top strand only just remained in the knot. The end may have slipped in during the ensuing years because of no safety knot. It presents a danger of future failure. Everyone should inspect it before descent. Ideally, a competent person skilled in caving knots needs to redo this.

A little further down, the rope went around a piece of thin, protruding limestone. It wasn’t as thick a support as I would have liked, but I saw there was no other suitable place to put the attachment.

When I descended, I noticed how stretchy it was. This wasn’t caving rope or even climbing rope. They probably purchased it locally. For safety, it’s best if only one person descends (and ascends) the rope at a time, otherwise the jerking vibrations of others can make one lose grip. The weight of several people may also put too much strain on the attached rock.

It’s quite a long descent. Water flow must have smoothened the rocks.

Past this bit, the cave became more challenging. I had to be careful to avoid slipping into holes and deeper cracks. There were some pools of water and muddy parts. Underfoot, the rock was mostly damp, only becoming drier when climbing up over the streamway or along higher bits. The onward passage was quite clear, narrow and tall, without many side passages to confuse me. I made a mental note to return following the watercourse.

There was another feeder inlet coming down from the left which had a damp bottom indicating a tributary sends in more water during wetter periods.

In unmapped caves with multiple branches, it’s confusing to retrace one’s steps when coming back, because the cave structure looks different after the 180-degree turn. It’s also easy to miss on entry small side passages coming down behind you at an angle. For this reason, I took scissors and a long coil of bright orange thick thread to tie at any junction to mark the correct way back. It wasn’t really necessary to use this until much further on after the crawly bits.

The sharp indented sides were continually brushing against my body, a risk to my head and legs too as I twisted and turned. Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave isn’t a place you can stride through or face comfortably forward. It’s not for those with any underlying health problems that are exacerbated by physical exercise or those with back pain.

This difficulty makes it a rewarding experience if you are fit. Every unhurried step needs care, perfect balance, and secure handholds. Sometimes I had to use my back, shoulders and other body parts to press firmly against the rock to secure a stable position before letting go of one hand or leg to proceed. For safety, always keep three points of contact on an immovable part of the cave to prevent slipping and falling.

At a certain higher traverse, the only way ahead was several metres above the streamway, which now looked a long distance down a narrow rocky crack. We had to edge over the drop by leaning our bodies over and against the side, using our backs or hands, and carefully stepping on tiny ledges on the rock on the opposite part.

Arun and I were quite hesitant to continue when the fall became much deeper and the footholds almost non-existent. Stretching and bracing without firm solid foot support invites slipping. A slip down the deep crack might break a leg, arm, or cause internal injuries.

I’ve taken some photos of us at this point. After removing the lens cap, it took a few minutes for the glass to reach the same temperature as the cave surroundings and for condensation on the lens to evaporate. High humidity in caves compared to outside always means I have to delay the first photos, often to the frustration of people pausing in awkward positions. The camera and spare batteries were in a small dry bag to avoid them getting wet or muddy through my daypack.

I had to wipe the glass several times with a lens cloth to remove the thin layer of water, which would blur and ruin the pictures. Ideally, I should have opened my equipment earlier to acclimatise so I wouldn’t miss crucial photos later on (or stress my models), but this wasn’t possible today with the eager downward progression of the group.

Luckily, Arif discovered another way to continue past the risky upward traverse. By stepping carefully down a series of boulders and hanging onto cracks with our hands whilst twisting, we descended into the lower parts of the dry streamway.

The cave passage continued downwards with a new challenge every few minutes. The variety of obstacles made for an excellent workout and a satisfying caving experience. I had to maintain utmost vigilance – there would be no easy rescue this deep down, requiring an exit through so many tight twisting sections both up and down, where anybody had to contort multiple times to get through.

The next section of the cave continued in the same varied fashion. The long narrow limestone passage, eroded down slowly over innumerable years from a higher elevation, presented numerous challenges needing utmost concentration. There were short, steep, slippery sections, climbing and clambering, stooping and squeezing.

It’s best to be in a group where the rules are to talk quietly about necessary instructions and focus on the surroundings. People who habitually shout are very distracting. It is also a safety issue: others can’t hear advice or alert someone so easily.

It’s rewarding to experience the pleasant peace and quiet of caves, something difficult in the noisy environment above ground.

However, I realise culturally loud talk is a learnt unconscious habit, like playing your mobile noisily without headphones near others (acceptable noise pollution) or shouting when making a call without stepping away, and mere advice may not help.

It’s best to know your companions and select carefully beforehand. Cavers should express honest feelings about their physical and psychological state. Pretending you are fine or hiding behind machoism leads to a situation where ignoring minor difficulties later suddenly dishabilitates you, endangering not just yourself but others.

The group should also keep to the rule of not defacing the cave by showing off and writing on the sides. Remember, it’s most probably taken over 100,000 years and up to over 1,000,000 years to create this unique environment. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous habit of scrawling on cave walls, similar to a dog who urinates to mark their territory, has already damaged the first flowstone and other internal pristine parts during and after my first visit.

Lastly, take out what you bring in: everyone should remove their litter back to be deposited properly outside. It’s sad to see the entrance spoilt by rubbish and unsightly wrappers discarded within the cave.

One consolation is that this solution cave must have been stable and survived Nepal’s previous mega earthquakes. The time to create this sort of structure far exceeds the multiple earlier large earthquakes to have affected the area.

The entrance isn’t under a high mountain or slope where landslides after an earthquake could completely block the entrance. Though, of course, a rockfall or small blockage at the mouth is still possible after a large shallow earthquake with a nearby epicentre.

It’s only much later in the more difficult narrow breakdown sections I became a little apprehensive about stability during an earthquake.

The cave appears to cut through an extensive area of limestone within the local mountain. Unlike the caves located around Pokhara city, which are in unstable conglomerate or a mixture of conglomerate and limestone, Patal Bhumeswor’s upper structure is less prone to short-term breakdown. In most parts, there’s minimal water seepage or dripping from above during the dry months, another factor which contributes to stability.

The lack of noticeable active stalactites or stalagmites in the first 400 metres is a further sign of little water percolation from the roof. There was one larger dry flowstone just over two metres high below a blocked higher passage, created in wetter months by water running down from the upper opening. Another beautiful active flowstone with a continuous water source is located past the first crawly section. From here there are more stalactites caused by water seepage.

We reached a sharp drop where the French cave explorer Maurice Duchene had attached a second rope to the overhead rock face by a single bolt. Arun, the guide and reporter, happily descended. Arif and I inspected the area around the anchor. It seemed to be in a solid layer (bedrock) with no surrounding fractures. Nor had the bolt become corroded or the anchor point in the rock degraded by water acting on limestone.

When I held the rope, I again noticed how stretchy it was. It’s like the long section near the entrance. I needed to be careful when using it. The unsuitable stretchiness meant it wasn’t easy to slot into a secure foothold when my arms were moving on such a springy support. As before, one person at a time should hold the rope. I could see it scraped and caught against the sides and floor of the rock, a risk for future wear and failure.

At the bottom, the gradient of the descent was less than the first extensive dip near the entrance. The tall eroded, spiky rectangular passageway continued with multiple interesting simple scrambles, drops and sidewards squeezes until it reached a long horizontal section heading left for about 50 metres.

This was distinctly different from the previous parts we had covered. A solid bedding plane without faults and fractures probably allowed the water to erode the base uniformly rather than down through pervious weak points. The fairly level passage was a relief from all the bending and scrambling. I could stretch upright and walk comfortably or twist slightly for the first time since the entrance. Unbeknown to me, this was the last time such a luxury was possible.

At the end of the bedding plane, water erosion into limestone faults made the cave dip, and we were clambering down the usual challenging obstacles. Eventually, after what must have been around 400 metres, the passage reached a slightly larger dipping chamber, which funnelled into a small constriction. Here, leaves, mud and debris brought down by the stream in wetter months had piled up into the bottom of a narrow hole leading further up into a tiny low horizontal continuation. Hardened mud caked the limestone sides.

Maurice Duchene and his team must have passed this constriction because he said he had stopped after 800 metres. Earlier, the further part of the cave was more accessible. The guide said the villagers hunting for the missing person had traversed this bit by crawling. Now, crawling was impossible. There was only room to squeeze by sliding on my stomach, head bent sidewards.

Since five years ago, when a large monsoonal deluge brought in the debris, nobody had passed this point.

Arun, the guide, and the reporter, didn’t want to slither into the recess. They were of larger proportions and were realistically worried about getting stuck. The guide emphasised this was the way ahead to reach lots more cavern, saying the rescue group had definitely passed this when it was just a crawly section. He said there were three crawls before the cave again widened out. After that, there was another crawly bit, until the cave enlarged into a huge cavern where you could drive a lorry through.

Anyone who is claustrophobic should stop at this point. It’s also a place to avoid if there’s any chance of flooding from a sudden downpour outside the cave. The weather in late December was ideal: settled and sunny for days on end. I always check and other weather sites for several days prior to caving and on the day of departure.

Arif, always happy in narrow crawly caves, relished the challenge to find a way through. He instructed us to remain where we were whilst he attempted to find a route through. I asked him to try to stay within earshot. If he found a larger part where he could turn around, to return and inform me so I could enter next.

Arif slipped in and said it was passable. What’s possible for him isn’t always traversable for others with more stout bodies. And a place to turn was important for me to catch up and keep in contact by informing Arun and the guide about a wider part.

Some puffing, then silence. After a while, Arif shouted down the tunnel that there was a turning chamber up ahead. I pulled myself in. So much mud and debris filled the bottom of the continuation that it was only possible to enter by twisting my head and pulling myself forward on my stomach with my outstretched hands, and pushing with my legs, with no possibility of turning around. As I wasn’t able to see how long the belly wriggle would last or whether it might get too tight to advance, I realised how chancy it had been for Arif. Returning feet first would have been difficult.

Sometimes I could turn my head to the other side to ease the strain. In other parts, I had to keep an awkward horizontal twisted neck position as the top was just too low to change position or rotate my head.

The belly haul went around a bend before several metres further on it reached a small circular cavity where, stooping, I could at last turn. Arif was now ahead, exploring the next part.

I shouted for the others to follow. There was no movement. They wanted reassurance it would become larger. After a while Arif returned, saying he had found a bigger chamber up ahead.

Arif and I shouted back from the first cavity for everyone to follow. After repeating lots of encouragement, I could hear gasping and panting. Hands and flickering lights appeared from down the tiny aperture. There wasn’t room for us all to stay.

Arif disappeared back down the tunnel and I squeezed into the second tiny crack to allow room for the emerging group to enter the cavity. Ahead was another low belly pull along the leaf and soil floor with no sign of a bigger, walkable part. I continued sliding and wriggling until I passed into a slightly larger chamber where I could sit and stand. Arif, sitting there and pointing excitedly to the next hole, said he wasn’t sure we could continue.

We gave more reassurance from the next chamber, calling for Arun, the guide and reporter, to come on through.

The other three slowly emerged, breathing fast but nervously eager, with a sense of achieving something past their comfort zone.

Once rested, the further continuation was down a slippery slope into another tiny hole. Arif popped in. This soon ended in an extremely tight part filled with debris, which invited anyone who tried to enter foolishly to be wedged firmly in. We had to call it a day.

We exited the cave after 6 p.m., having been inside for about five and a half hours. Although an exhilarating experience, it was frustrating not to have got as far as Maurice Duchene or the part where the villagers had discovered the corpse.

On the way back, Arun discussed the possibility of getting some local people to dig out and enlarge the blocked section. This seemed an arduous task, but the only solution which would allow further access into the cave.

If nobody removed the debris, there was also the risk the blockage may become higher and more solidified. Arun thought now was the best chance to motivate individuals when we were actively exploring – later on, people may lose interest.

Arun scheduled the big dig for 29 December 2023. A team of volunteer locals with digging tools and sacks assembled at the entrance of Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave. The diggers and Arun went in before me at 11.20 a.m. whilst I was waiting for my caving gloves to be brought from nearby Chand Hotel – a rare omission because of the early 6 a.m. rise and a rush in the morning to get ready and have as much time as possible should the diggers accomplish a breakthrough.

When gloves arrived, I went in with Arif, the shopkeeper guide and an engineer who had also previously passed the constriction when it had been wider.

When we reached the first tight hole where Arun, the guide and reporter, had to be coaxed through on our last visit, the engineer began to worry about oxygen levels. He poked his body into the slot, soon shooting back to declare he couldn’t continue. The engineer was panting and talking rapidly and appeared to be suffering from claustrophobia. He gabbled at the shopkeeper, persuading him to stop, saying oxygen levels were low.

A panic attack results in anxious and irrational thoughts. My reasoning using a scientific explanation had no impact on the engineers’ fears. Although a person who suffers claustrophobia won’t overcome this, I couldn’t undo his unfounded worry about oxygen levels. He began a train of subjective, reasonable thought, saying when lots of people came into the cave, it would deplete the breathable air. However, he ignored my counterargument about the continual fresh breeze entering the cave replenishing levels and that the enormous volume of air in the cave wouldn’t get exhausted by our party.

A panic attack makes breathing difficult, increases the heart rate and produces sweating and trembling. It can even make you feel like you are having a heart attack. Some symptoms mimic the effects of high CO2 or low O2.

I carried two sets of cigarette lighters and matchboxes in plastic bags to test for high CO2 levels (a proxy for low O2) that are found in some caves in neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Thailand, where the heavier CO2 gas can pool at the bottom of narrow dead ends when there’s no air circulation. If a flame goes out, you need to get out. The large passage of Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave, coupled with a strong breeze blowing through at the point we had now reached, presents no safety issues.

A person with claustrophobia might realise that the fear isn’t rational, but they may not be able to stop it. It was an unavoidable pity to leave two people who had reached the body and knew the way through the next part to wait for our return. Up ahead, Arun and the diggers were waiting for me, so Arif and I had no option but to press on.

By the time I wriggled up to the furthest point on 24 December, there was no sign or sound of the workers. To the right, up a slightly higher bank of mud inside an alcove in the small chamber, the diggers had wrapped plastic piping that had washed down into the blockage around several bulging white sacks. These were closed and tied, held above the onward continuation slope by jamming the piping into the mud sides. A few empty sacks on the left, lying on the mud and rock, were a favourable sign that they had extracted enough material to clear the passage.

The diggers had done a fantastic job. It was still a slithery descent and a part crawl, pull and wriggle along the bottom until the tunnel took a short slippery ascent up into a higher continuation, which again dipped down. The depression is a natural area for deposition and likely to fill with mud, leaves and debris whenever water flow passes through.

We heard the faint shouts of the diggers up ahead. The cave widened out into a larger chamber where there were signs of breakdown. The fractured roof was a mosaic of slabs and weathered layers. Some rocks had fallen onto the ground. Although secure at present, this area is more likely to suffer some collapse during a powerful earthquake.

The diggers were excitedly explaining how the way forward went left down a sloping crack in the slabs, under a long, thin, cracked ceiling. They said they had explored it a short distance, but it became too narrow to continue.

I was dubious this was the main continuation, because the damp, puddle-filled streambed forked right. It passed under and through a small jagged opening before steeply descending over smoother rocky layers, down out of sight. I’ve taken some photos of Arun coming up in the aperture. It looked tricky to attempt clambering down without a rope. Arif was willing to try the drop, but I wanted him to wait until we had explored other easier sections first.

The diggers said the left crack led around to join the right drop. This persuaded me to suggest to Arun and Arif we first explore left, in case they had missed anything.

The diggers, their job done, and a little bored by the wait, didn’t want to hang around. Convinced they had reached the termination, they began their return.

Arun, Arif and I paused at 3.40 p.m. for some snacks to boost our energy before a more systematic exploration. If the shopkeeper’s memory of where he had found the dead body was correct, the cave must continue. Maurice Duchene said the cave was at least 800 metres long. Arun’s rope measurements today recorded 400 metres to the place the engineer stopped. We were now at least 450 metres inside.

Now we tackled the layers of low sloping rock. By leaning sidewards, almost lying down to probe carefully for footholds, we crept down the side of long slippery angled blocks in the wider part of the crack.

At the bottom of this fissure, the ground sloped into a small passageway which soon funneled into a T-junction. On the side where we came down was a red arrow inscribed on the rock, showing the way back from the junction. Well, at least some people had made it this far.

Left, the rectangular passage led up, which didn’t seem favourable for a continuation. Arif explored this and said it narrowed down to become impassable.

Taking the downward tunnel soon reached another area of low cracked roof with signs of a continuation up to the right. This might be the link to the earlier wet streamway passage, though it didn’t look damp enough.

We continued down left until we reached a tiny opening in the rock. Ahead was an extremely tight squeeze, too small for anyone with a large stature. This was where the diggers thought the cave ended. But it obviously went on.

We had to overcome our fear of getting stuck, imprisoned deep underground. I also brushed aside my thoughts that an earthquake might collapse some part of the vulnerable-looking ceiling. Rock falls in places indicated localised collapses were possible.

The next section of the cave became much more challenging than anything we had encountered so far. It was a continuous arduous squeeze through the most narrow solid rock openings, often on our belly on hard rock, sidewards at awkward uncomfortable angles.

The way ahead was in such tight passages it was impossible to turn around during long risky unknown belly pulls using knees, elbows, hands and legs to slither forwards. We were often progressing down slopes with unpleasant, cramped, tortuous side angles. Forward progress was very laborious.

This area matched Maurice Duchene and his team’s description of a place where he stopped after 800 metres because of the narrowness and lack of rescue facilities. How far he went through was unknown.

I think we were in uncharted territory. I can’t imagine the rescuers had taken this route; it was just too tight and with a tiny body punishing push with no end in sight. It’s certainly not a place for casual tourists or those with bigger dimensions to enter.

About one and a half hours after leaving the diggers, at 5.20 pm, we squashed ourselves through yet another tricky angled passage (see photo of us in here). It was getting so tight that Arif, the slimmest of our group, squeezed ahead to see if the crack was passable.

We reminded Arif to remain in earshot. Sounds of puffing and gasping meant it got tougher. He said he wasn’t sure he could continue. I was worried he might get stuck or couldn’t reverse because Arif is the sort of caver who will push himself to the limit, not satisfied if there’s any chance of discovering and exploring unknown passages. He’s happy to squeeze into the tiniest spaces if it may lead further, a plus for an unexplored extension but a minus if others can’t reach him to help. This courage spurs him on.

Actually, getting stuck or lost in a cave isn’t a common risk for cavers. Falls and drowning account for about half of caving deaths. And accidents happen because of bad preparation, incorrect equipment or having poor skills.

Arif called out that he didn’t think it was passable. A pause, then he shouted he thought he could make it. This wasn’t ideal information. I knew it meant Arun and I were unlikely to pass, whereas Arif was pushing himself to the extreme, as usual.

I repeated, he shouldn’t go on if it’s risky; we wouldn’t be able to help him. Arif snapped back that he wanted us to be quiet; it was making him nervous, and he was going to try because the cave continued.

More grunts followed. Arif yelled. He was stuck. I said to reverse carefully. Take a rest too. There were some sharp cries before Arif called out he was free. He made his way slowly along the incline back towards us.

I chastised him slightly, saying he shouldn’t have gone on if it wasn’t possible. He replied nonchalantly that the rock had pinned his arms behind him and that was his mistake. He said if he went with his arms in front, he might make it.

Now recovered, Arif wanted another try. I said the risks were too much. Even if he got through, he could only safely continue a short way to remain within earshot, because we couldn’t follow.

Arif’s face fell, saying he thought he could get through. I know the feeling. Some cavers are driven by the lure of the unknown. But without backup, it was too risky.

It was lucky he didn’t go again because, unknown to him, he had bruised himself during extraction. This resulted in a painful side during the following day, necessitating rest.

Arif explained how the crack reached a place where a rock blocked forward progress. It may have come off the ceiling, but now looks to have been part of the cave structure from many decades before. A dwarf (or Arif) might squeeze by if they didn’t mind retreating backwards if it became tighter further on.

This was the furthest any adult could go. It was likely to be past Duchene’s limit because there was no mention of onward progress being impeded.

I can’t envisage this was the route any corpse hunter had taken – a party of villagers wouldn’t have been here and it didn’t match their description of crawling. This was solid rock, which hadn’t changed since they came to the cave, and we did not crawl – it was too constricted and slanted for that.

Was this the only way forward? Whilst waiting for Arif, I noticed there wasn’t the same distinct breeze blowing past me. The air seemed to be still. It’s possible the draught had dissipated amongst other linked fissures or had a different exit than the water if it went into a sump. Another possibility is we hadn’t discovered the main onward passage. Although unlikely, the supposed link up passageway from where the diggers departed was the only chance.

It was now 5.20 p.m. We gradually slithered and crawled towards the final low constriction, with two brief rest stops for energy boosting refreshments, the last where we had left the shopkeeper and engineer. They were still waiting for us, anxious about why we had been so long. It’s good they had the resilience not to make their way out because if we hadn’t appeared, one of them could have raised the alarm.

On our upward exit, I was mindful to be extra careful. Although I felt fine, my energy was likely depleted. Arun was tired. Fatigue leading to a misstep, and falling causing an injury, is one of the most common accidents cavers face. The other is lack of preparation, something I think we had under control.

Eventually, after I performed a slow, cautious climb (with the others ahead), I finally exited Patal Bhuvaneshwar at 8.25 p.m. It was as dark outside as in. We had been underground for 8 hours.

Orange and red lights flickered to my left. A warm welcome fire was cracking, keeping the chill of the night at bay. And a delicious milky rice-pudding snack awaited me at the cave mouth which Arun had purchased earlier from a local shop.

I felt satisfied and energised by a successful day of caving. Tonight, I and the others would sleep soundly, perhaps dreaming about the other unexplored caves dotted in the area.

Arun was tired and cold, his clothing inadequate for damp, cold squeezy caves. He planned to purchase more suitable attire to accompany Arif and me until the tight section for a final reconnoitre and mapping of the cave. I was dubious about the guide’s story of a larger cavern big enough to drive a lorry through. He hadn’t gone past the first low part on both of our trips.

Caves can unexpectedly enlarge into massive chambers, but first you have to reach them. What we had encountered so far didn’t match up with the capabilities or description of the guide’s journey to retrieve the body.

The third and final exploration of Patal Bhuvaneshwar would have to wait for another time. Arun’s clothing and the ensuing time off work were delaying things too much. However, this won’t be the last… There are still too many unexplored caves in the area for me to remain away for long.

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