Dr. Bill Stone On Exploring The World’s Deepest Cave & Why We Need To Complete A Private Expedition To The South Pole Of The Moon
…For me, that would be completing a private expedition to the south pole of the moon and acquiring the resources needed to make space missions more cost-effective and accessible for everyone. If we were to do this, it would cut the cost of space travel by 25% or more, which would open up the opportunity for not just a couple of say, government employees to go up there and come back, it would open up space for all of us.
I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Bill Stone, Expedition Leader and Cave Explorer.
Dr. Bill Stone is recognized as a world authority on cave exploration, diving systems and field robotics. He has led or participated in 80 international caving expeditions in the last 50 years. He has spent ten years in the field, mostly in southern Mexico, working in the extremely deep caves of the Sierra Mazateca (Sistema Huautla) and Sierra Juarez (Cueva Cheve) regions and close to a year in Antarctica on three separate NASA missions. He has logged 807 days based from subterranean camps, many greater than a kilometer deep.
Dr. Stone’s invention of advanced closed-cycle life support systems for cave diving culminated in the historic 1994 National Geographic Society expedition to Huautla and the 1999 expedition to Wakulla Springs, Florida, where the first fully 3D cave map was produced. He is the president of the United States Deep Caving Team, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to fielding multidisciplinary teams to explore the world’s most challenging caves. He most recently led the 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2013, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021 Sistema Cheve expeditions, which discovered nearly 100 kilometers of subterranean tunnels and established Cueve Cheve as the current 10th deepest cave in the world. Many of these expeditions have been chronicled by National Geographic. Dr. Stone is also the author of “Beyond the Deep.”
Our readers would love to get to know a bit about your background. Can you tell us what eventually led you to your fascinating career as a cave diver and expert?
I first fell into cave exploration during my sophomore year of high school. A teacher offered the opportunity to visit caves and once I did that, I was hooked. We traveled to Mexico in 1971 and since then, I have been working on continuously advancing myself through the industry and am now the CEO of Stone Aerospace in Austin, Texas. My company designs and builds the next generation of planetary robotics systems for NASA and is the world leader in the design of subsurface access systems for our planet missions being planned for now, and for the next 20–30 years. Our products are built locally in Austin and tested in locations such as Antarctica.
You have probably had a lot of really interesting experiences. Can you share with us a story of one of the most interesting incidents that occurred to you in the course of your cave exploration?
In 2009, we were wrapping up an international expedition through a place called J2 and were running a bit behind. Before we knew it, a large Gulf storm rolled in, which was surprising due to the time of year and the elevation level we were at.
My team of 7 people, from five different nations, is now trapped in this cave at the 800-meter level. We had previously gone through the section of the tunnel we were using to get out, but with the storm, it quickly filled up with water and we were stuck inside for several days with no food or a way out. During that time, we decided to turn back for the diving equipment we had left behind following the expedition. Turns out, that six of the seven crew members had some form of scuba diving experience, so five of us were able to dive out, while one person stayed back with the final person as she was not versed in diving and didn’t feel comfortable at her first attempt being through 50-degree water into a dark, pitch-black underwater tunnel.
I’m sure you remember this, but back in 2018, there was a group of 12 young men and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand. The emergency procedure that they used during that time, was going to be identical to what we we about to do. The steps were to sedate her, put on a full face mask helmet along with a large capacity scuba tank, set it to free breath, and drag her through. Thankfully, there was a break in the rain which allowed the water level to drop just enough to allow a 2” air space above the water and she was able to get out of the cave without having to use any form of scuba.
The entire situation was quite rare in the fact that we had underground camping equipment which allowed us to stay warm during that time. We were also able to communicate with basecamp and tell them exactly what was going on. While most of my expeditions have been successful, out of the 85 I’ve completed over 10 years, there were 4 times that we lost a member of the team, but it was always due to a mistake that was made of their own accord, and when you are down there, you must remain very vigilant as is it a very unforgiving environment.
So, let’s talk a bit about the documentary the Deepest Cave. What would you say is the main feeling you would like our reader to take away from your experiences?
I believe the takeaway that we are dealing with is that Sierra Juarez (Cueva Cheve) is a very unusual experience and that it is likely going to become the deepest measured cave in the world. We have traces that the depth is there and not just slightly over the world’s current record but by a sizable difference. The problem with this all is proving to people that it’s not only traversable by humans but working with the levels of remoteness and technical difficulty as something like this has never been done before.
Right now, it is a minimum of five and half days of one-way travel to get there from the entrance and at this point, it would make climbing Mt. Everest look like child’s play. We have looked at 3D maps of this cave and we’re only seeing a third of the distance that this cave is estimated to be. Of course, the further down you go, the more remote it is going to become, which poses a challenge as well.
With your background and expertise in robotics, is it possible to create an object that would be able to reach the very bottom?
You know, that’s a great question and I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who can answer that. I’ve spent my entire life in exploratory circumstances and even with the types of robots we are using now to explore other areas such as space, Mars, etc. this type of situation would be pretty hard to match. The robots are built to think about their environments and are equipped with software that allows them to replicate human behavior. But when you’re talking about caves of this scale, there is not a robot today that could prevail with all the challenges you face. You would need a nuclear-powered robot at a minimum, and even then, they would likely only be able to handle 50% of the obstacles it would encounter. There are only so many obstacles that you can set up for a robot to be able to work around and if you’re constantly changing those up, it would be completely useless rather quickly.
Also, you have to take into consideration the power levels as well. While humans are adaptable to running on low power, a robot doesn’t have the option to eat something and be able to recharge themselves as we do. Our company is working very hard on making cave divers obsolete with our new vehicle, Sunfish.
There is a video of our vehicle in action on YouTube in which it shows it exploring down to depths of upwards of 600 meters of a cave in Namibia. It’s truly fascinating to see how much the robot we created can do versus a human diver. The robot doesn’t care about visibility or currents, it just needs more power to keep going.
Are there five things you wish someone would have told you when you began your career?
To be honest, not really. The journey of it all is what has kept me excited about it all. Cave diving is such a unique experience in the sense of you’re constantly finding new places and frontiers to explore. The unknown is what I believe makes this career so fascinating. Every expedition is stepping into something new, and many of these places are somewhere no one has been before, which is not something a lot of people can say they’ve done. Think about Neil Armstrong when he was stepping off the ladder onto the surface of the moon. I’m guessing his mind was racing with what all was needing to be done, but there for even a second, he had to have thought to himself, ‘holy cow, I am walking on the moon!’ I feel very lucky to have fallen into this career and the path that it has taken me on. And I believe all of these experiences are better than any sort of advice someone could have given me.
It has been said that our greatest teachers are through the mistakes we make. Do you have a story of a mistake you made and the lesson you learned from that?
When you are training for an expedition, there are a lot of things that you spend time preparing for, and sometimes, even with all the training, you still might encounter an issue that will cause you to be stopped in your tracks.
On one trip, we were working in a full tunnel and someone on my team decided they were going to take a diving mask, hold their breath and see what was going on because we ran into a snag while trying to explore this particular cave. Well, the problem with that is the tunnel kept on going and it’s pretty hard to travel to those depths with limited equipment. So over time and through watching various issues come up along the way, that’s been a big motivation for me to continue brainstorming and coming up with new technologies that will continue to improve these expeditions for myself and my team, but also companies such as NASA as well. Over the last 40 years, I’ve created a plethora of devices, 36 of them are patented, with 8 more pending. Each one of them has stemmed from an idea that would solve an obstacle that we ran into while exploring.
Bill, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea could trigger.
For me, that would be completing a private expedition to the south pole of the moon and acquiring the resources needed to make space missions more cost-effective and accessible for everyone. If we were to do this, it would cut the cost of space travel by 25% or more, which would open up the opportunity for not just a couple of say, government employees to go up there and come back, it would open up space for all of us. If your readers would like to learn more about this, I invite them to check out my TedTalk from 2007, which is still on YouTube.
If someone is considering a career as a cave explorer, where would you recommend they start?
There are two ways of going about it, and the first one would be that if you’re looking for this to be an avocation, look up the national physiological society. Find your local chapter, and attend meetings. These meetings will help you get started with the basics, including rope work. Another great resource would be the United States Deep Cave Team website and which can be found at www.USDCT.org
Through that site, you can even apply to be involved in expeditions, and get the process started by being able to attend an event.
Since the world of cave explorers is rather small and on a professional level you’re talking more about working with more geologists, hydrogeologists, microbiologists, etc., who do more academic work when it comes to studying caves, that path might be a bit hard to get the experience you are likely looking for.
Anyone interested is welcome to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy to refer you over to various professionals in those particular fields.
Thank you for these amazing insights
Dr. Bill Stone On Exploring The World’s Deepest Cave & Why We Need To Complete A Private… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.