Amazing scenes like this make all the hard work of caving worthwhile.
In the Ternopil region of the Ukraine lies a cave considered one of the most beautiful in the country: Mlynki. The cave not only boasts almost 45 kilometers of twisting, turning passages, but is lined with wondrous gypsum crystals – creating a galaxy of beautiful sparkling stars for those willing to brave the dirt, narrow spaces and perilous chasms.
A wrongly placed foot can lead to a long fall down – thought to be the number one cause of caving fatalities.
Photographer Oleg Grigoryev and a team of other cavers set out to explore the Mlynki cave complex in early March 2012. Like the many cave visitors before them, they were greeted at its entrance by the statue of a caver known as "Wasi." Legend has it that Wasi brings luck to those who touch or have their photograph taken with him at the beginning of an expedition. Luck is, of course, a valuable commodity on a trip that holds as many potential dangers as exploring a cave system carved out of the Earth’s crust.
No supermarkets down here! Cavers must carry their own supplies.
As the expedition was to be carried out overnight, the team had to bring a certain amount of provisions with them. In addition to standard gear such as hard hats and ropes, cavers often take first aid kits, as well as emergency equipment and rations. Environmentally conscious cavers even carry containers in which to store their bodily waste, so as not to pollute the caves.
A huddle of hibernating cave bats.
At various points during their journey the cavers encountered hibernating bats. If the slumber of the bats in these images is anything to go by, the team proceeded as cautiously and quietly as possible so as not to awaken the sleeping cave dwellers. Bats hibernating during the winter are in a vulnerable state: if awoken, they will most likely be unable to find food above ground, and may well die.
Strong nerves are required to traverse some of the cave's deep fissures.
On the first day, Grigoryev and his team spent three hours crawling toward their underground campsite, dehydrated and beleaguered by dust. During this initial journey, they encountered a deep pit, giant chambers and helictites (small stalactite-like growths that emerge in fragile curved shapes from cave walls), as well as various deep chasms in the ground that would swallow them if they should but fall.
The cave tunnels vary from those which one can walk, to those through which one must crawl.
For the first hour, the team had made quick and promising progress. After that, however, Grigoryev reveals his enthusiasm was smothered under a thick layer of dirt and dust. Before he would get any rest, he and the rest of the group had to crawl over a steep precipice that left the photographer’s knees shaking violently. The reward, though, was worth it: the sight of millions of glittering crystals sparkling wildly by the light of the cavers’ candles and torches.
No room to carry too much equipment through these passages.
Contending with grime and thirst, the team crawled through many tight, cramped passages. In some places, the squeeze was so tight that Grigoryev feared for his camera and lenses. This is certainly not a place for the claustrophobic!
Crunch time: Another tight fit.
Strangely enough, the expedition leader says that at the time he never considered the notion that he might have gotten stuck while crawling through a narrow space and end up trapped in the cave. The fears of photographers are idiosyncratic indeed!
A bat continues to enjoy its slumber, oblivious to the intruders in its cave.
According to Bat Conservation International, of the 30 known species of bats in Europe, all but three are endangered, rare or vulnerable. Bat conservationists are, however, hopeful that they can restore the numbers of bats through measures such as changing legislation and educating the public. In many places, people are discouraged from visiting caves where bats are hibernating.
A close-up look at the beautiful and fragile gypsum crystals.
Despite the tight squeeze through some parts of the cave, the team made a conscious effort not to touch the sparkling rocks lining the walls. They were told that contact with the crystals could cause a type of fungus to grow on them that would end up destroying the formations.
The stunningly beautiful Mlynki cave attracts visitors with its twinkling crystal walls.
Throughout their trip through the cave, the team were continually enthralled by the beauty of the crystals. Grigoryev, for one, was spellbound by them, describing his feeling of wonder at one orange-tinged formation as like seeing "the dawn on Mars." After their arduous journey into the heart of the cave complex, it was time for the team to have a candlelit supper and discuss their plans for the following day.
A well-earned meal after a long journey.
In the glow, they did their cooking on a gas burner they had brought with them. Apart from the supplies and equipment they carry with them, cavers typically need to wear protective clothing suitable for the environment they're exploring.
Cave water collects for thirsty travelers.
Carrying enough water for a two-day trip underground would have been extremely difficult. Fortunately the team didn't have to. Water was collected from the ceiling of the cave complex, from where it dripped down into a depression in the floor that was lined with a plastic sheet.
Crystals come in different colors owing to the presence of different minerals.
Dripping water was practically the only sound the cavers heard as they made their way through the cave. Other than this, silence reigned. Although it can come in handy for drinking, the presence of water in caves can also be dangerous in other cases. Rainwater can quickly descend into underground caverns, flooding them with little warning. Indeed, this is said to be the second most common cause of caving fatalities, after falling.
Cavers are not above asking for a little supernatural help!
Around their sleeping chamber, previous explorers appear to have left little handmade fetishes, or talismans, to protect them through their night in the pitch-blackness of the cave. This one resembles a mouse. Or maybe even, more appropriately, a bat.
Maps are an essential part of navigating through long cave systems.
Early the next morning, the cavers prepared to continue their expedition. Here in the "universe under the ground," as Grigoryev calls it, there is, of course, little indication of the passing of time. It is, as the photographer puts it, forever “a starry night." As this image shows, the team carried maps to help them find their way through the labyrinthine tunnels.
Flying spaghetti monster? No, just playing with light.
After breakfast, torches were distributed. Grigoryev then took a photo of some team members playing with the sources of light, to create the pleasing effect of the light trails seen in this photograph.
Another close look at the crystals.
Here we can see a large cluster of the gypsum crystals that give the cave its beauty. The different colors in the crystals are derived from their ingredients – like manganese and iron. Because of gypsum’s water-soluble nature, gypsum caves are young, geologically speaking, not to mention rare and large in size.
Visitors to the cave leave entranced by its beauty.
Clambering out of the cave was no less tiring than the climb inside it the day before. The cavers were sometimes required to contort themselves into awkward positions to make progress, occasionally leaning against walls and sliding along with their legs stretched out in front of them in order to cross deep fissures.
Keeping it cool: courage in high places.
Accidents in caves are of course a serious matter and may require the help of dozens of specially trained rescue workers.
When the team reached the cave exit they were exhausted. However, despite barely being able to move his feet, Grigoryev was already looking forward to his return visit to this stunning and unusual cave complex.