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September/October 2013

Why go low? Darkness, claustrophobia, little visible life: for most people, a trip to this under-world offers more hazard than reward. You descend far from day. You risk death by falling, crushing and drowning. You entomb yourself. Whereas mountains yield to those who climb them, offering acute beauty and exhilarating freedom, caves can seem reticent in their disclosures and tyrannous in their confinement. Their appeal is, you might say, niche.

To certain people the allure is self-evident, though, and it grips them with the force of an obsession. Like many cavers, Robbie Shone began as a rock-climber, then swapped ascent for descent. He first entered a cave aged 19, when a friend took him down Long Churn, part of the famous Alum Pot system in the limestone of the Yorkshire Dales. "I was bitten by the bug that day," he says. "It was intense and immediate." Then a fine-arts student at Sheffield Hallam University, he started caving most weekends. Around the same time, he moved away from painting towards photography. Now 33, he has joined caving expeditions in Spain, France, Vietnam, Borneo and China, and has won international renown for his images.

Low-light photography is a notoriously difficult art in any circumstances. In the extreme environments of cave systems, it requires patience, logistical precision and courage. Some of Shone's images take hours to set up. Communication is carried out by walkie-talkie, because the echoey acoustics make shouting impossible. In vast chambers, such as Cloud-Ladder Hall in China—which has a volume of almost 6m cubic metres—he uses one-time flash-bulbs filled with magnesium wire wool to light the space. Each bulb blazes for a sixtieth of a second when triggered remotely by radio transmitter. In the Gouffre Berger in France, where the Starless River flows through the system to form lakes and pools, he sank bulbs underwater and fired them to give the lagoon a ghostly green-blue hue.

Shone has learnt to make darkness his ally rather than his enemy. His images imply volume without exposing it, and allude to depth instead of plumbing it. In this respect his photography belongs to the aesthetic tradition of the sublime, that species of sensation induced by encounter with phenomena that somehow exceed the perceptive capacity of the viewer. For Edmund Burke, an early theorist of the sublime, darkness and shadow were key elements of its power. He wrote in 1757 of "the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things…in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity". Shone knows this secret; judicious obscurity is his forte.

Cave photographers need to be immune not just to claustrophobia and taphophobia, but also to vertigo. Almost all serious cave systems require you to abseil your way in. The Pierre St Martin in the western Pyrenees is reached via a 300-metre vertical tube of glossy water-worn limestone. The Miao Keng shaft in China is more than half a kilometre. "People sometimes assume that abseiling into darkness isn't frightening, because you can't see the drop," Shone says with a grin, "but seeing the ladder snake off into the black beneath you brings a special kind of fear." And claustrophobia? "I'm just not really susceptible to it underground. In fact, the last time I felt it was in the crush of a huge crowd at Glastonbury."

On a planet whose surface regions have been so thoroughly mapped, the underworld represents one of the last refuges of the unknown. Cave exploration is cutting-edge. New spaces and systems are being recorded each year. On New Year's Day 1999, a group of hungover cavers forced their way into a natural cavern in the English Peak District, and found the deepest shaft ever in Britain (they named it Titan). In 1994 three French speleologists exploring in the Ardèche cleared a boulder-choke, crawled down a rift, and found themselves in a long chamber whose walls were covered in cave art, 32,000 years old. It became the subject of Werner Herzog's great film "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams".

Some of Robbie Shone's most astonishing images come not from caves of rock but from caves of ice. Big glaciers are vertically perforated by shafts called "moulins", bored into them by the action of meltwater. "Up to a depth of about 30 metres," Shone says, "light still penetrates the ice, creating an uncanny blue glow. After that, it fades to blackness."

For two years now, a team of young British climber-cavers has been going to the Gorner Glacier in Switzerland, abseiling down the polished moulins that pock its surface, and exploring the rifts and tunnels that spread out laterally within the belly of the glacier. Shone has twice accompanied them, returning with images of an eerie realm: halls of scalloped ice, turquoise meltwater lagoons. The peaks and passes of the European Alps were bagged and mapped in the golden age of Alpinism, 150 years ago. Now, deep within the glaciers that lap at the feet of the mountains, Shone and his companions are busy discovering another new world. ~ ROBERT MACFARLANE

CHINA
Looking back towards the entrance of a river-cut cave-system in Wulong, central China. Daylight washes the walls in the distance; two members of the Hong Meigui expedition lend scale to the vastness of the chamber   

SWITZERLAND
An explorer begins the descent into a moulin shaft on the Gorner Glacier. Meltwater has scalloped and burnished the ice of the shaft

FRANCE
The Gouffre Berger system, a little over 1km below the surface near Grenoble. The dinghy is needed because of a flood

PORTUGAL
A self-portrait. Robbie Shone stands beneath the iron-stained flowstone spears that dangle in their hundreds from the ceiling of a cave chamber in the Estremenho region

BORNEO
Deer Cave, in Sarawak, is one of the largest cave passages in the world, and the roost-space for around 3m bats. Every day at dusk, they fly out of the entrance to find insects for their evening meal

CHINA
The Miao Keng shaft, in Chongqing province, drops 509 metres to a boulder-field. Shone captures the cavers as they ascend it, hauling themselves up half a kilometre of rope. It takes two hours to abseil down, and four to go up again 

BORNEO
The Clearwater River cave, underneath Mulu national park, a world heritage site in Sarawak. Explorers head upstream on an expedition to survey and photograph the largest cave chamber in the world. The river has cut curves into the tunnel walls; limestone blocks hang menacingly from the roof

SWITZERLAND
Deep within the Gorner Glacier, near Zermatt: two British ice-cave explorers rig a rope traverse to skirt an unstable pool of ice 

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