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Eulogy for an Explorer
by Rodger Ling

"Most of the small percentage of accidents involving experienced cave divers have occurring during deep cave dives."

-- Sheck Exley
   Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival

It would be interesting to know what, if anything, Reinhold Messner would have to say about the death of Sheck Exley. Exley, a 45 year old mathematics teacher from Live Oak, Florida, died on April 6, 1994 as he attempted to descend to a depth of over 1,000 feet in a cave in Mexico.

It is tempting to draw comparisons between the two men, Exley the cave diver and Messner the mountain climber. Each had a well-earned reputation for being the best in their chosen endeavor. Over the years both men saw contemporaries perish; early in their careers, both watched their own brothers die in front of them, Messner's high in the mountains and Exley's deep in the clear waters of Wakulla spring. Today Messner, although very much alive, suffers the effects of oxygen deprivation from breathing the rarified air of the upper atmosphere; while Exley is dead from breathing the thick air of great depth.

Open the books to the longest and deepest underwater caves in America, and Exley's name will inevitably appear. While no one would argue that cave diving is without risk, Exley demonstrated that it could be done safely if practiced with knowledge, care, and skill. He literally "wrote the book" (several books, actually) on safe cave diving practices. He was the first in the world to log over 1,000 cave dives. In over 29 years of cave diving, he made over 4,000.

Like Reinhold Messner, Exley seemed to have a sixth sense, an uncanny ability to know when to push on and when to retreat. Like Messner, there were times when he seemed almost invulnerable, too smart to be caught in the traps that killed others.

Sheck Exley particularly excelled at pushing back the traditional cave diving barriers of distance and depth. At Cathedral Canyon Spring in Florida, a site which had such potential that Exley bought the property and moved there, he achieved a world record penetration of over two underwater miles during an eleven and a half hour solo dive in 1990.

Exley was equally famous for his expertise at deep diving, an even more technical and formidable challenge. As depth increases, divers must breath air at ever higher pressures. Under pressure, the nitrogen in ordinary air causes narcosis, a kind of drunkenness that increases with depth. Even life-giving oxygen becomes poisonous at depths greater than 200 feet (although Exley, one of the few to dive below 400 feet on compressed air and live through the experience, had a demonstrated tolerance to it).

The most practical solution for those who must dive at great depth is the use of special gas mixes such as Trimix, which lower the oxygen and nitrogen content while substituting another inert gas such as helium. While early experiments using mixed gases in the U.S. had tragic outcomes (Exley's friend Louis Holtzendorf died on one such dive), Exley's deep dives at a Mexican spring known as Nacimiento del Rio Mante soon proved the worth of Trimix for cave diving. Not only could these mixtures allow a diver to go deeper without succumbing to narcosis or oxygen poisoning, but they also reduced the amount of time spent at decompression stops during the ascent.

Beginning in 1979, Exley methodically worked his way deeper into the cave at Rio Mante. In March of 1989, using Trimix, he descended to a world record depth of 881 feet, returning to the surface after 14 hours of decompression with no harmful effects. Only commercial divers, working from diving bells which supplied their breathing mixture through umbilical tubes and provided shelter for days or weeks of decompression (a level of support not possible in a cave) had ever been deeper.

In recent years Exley and his team continued their explorations of deep caves and springs. In August of 1993, Exley reached 863 feet in Bushmansgat, South Africa. Soon after, his team focused their efforts on a cave known as Pit 6350, north of Tampico, Mexico. In September, Jim Bowden dove to 774 feet in the dark, murky waters of the spring. Ann Kristovich, the team physician, descended to 541 feet, a new depth record for women (the old record had been set at Rio Mante by Mary Ellen Eckoff, Exley's wife). Following the September expedition, the team announced that despite over 30 dives at great depth, they had encountered no pressure-related problems. Dives of over 1,000 feet, it was said, were planned for the future.

The number has a nice ring to it. A thousand feet would be a milestone, a major advance. And yet it was close enough to be attainable for Exley, only 119 feet beyond the depth he'd reached in 1989. By the time Exley returned to Mexico in the spring of 1994, the number 1,000 must have been etched into his brain.

On April 6, Jim Bowden and Sheck Exley entered the water at Pit 6350. After months of meticulous calculations and planning, their descent would be over within a few moments. In 11 minutes, Bowden had reached a new record depth of 925 feet, and turned upward to begin 8 1/2 hours of decompression at shallower depths. In the murky water, Bowden saw Exley only once, as he passed him and continued downward, deeper still. Kristovich, acting as a support diver, was hanging in the water high above, watching the two streams of bubbles. Eighteen minutes into the dive, she saw that the bubbles coming from Exley had stopped. Exley's wife Mary Ellen descended to 279 feet, where a ledge might have blocked the flow of bubbles. There were none.

What happened to Sheck Exley? One possible cause of death would be violent tremors resulting from the helium in his air mix. Compelled toward the magic number of 1,000 feet, Exley may have continued his descent despite the onset of tremors. Perhaps there were no warning signs; the physiology of making such a rapid descent to great depth is not yet completely known or understood. We can only speculate that somewhere in the darkness--how deep we may never know--Exley passed out and drowned.

Following the accident, it was assumed that Exley's body would never be recovered. However, when the guideline was pulled from the cave three days later, his body was found wrapped in it. Those who knew him well are certain of one thing: whatever happened, Exley did not panic. More than once in the past Exley had jeopardized his own life to save another, his steel nerves prevailing over the most nightmarish of conditions. "He was the ultimate cool," Bowden told a Texas newspaper.

So how do you mourn a man who died pushing the limits of a sport most people consider foolhardy at best? What can you say about a person who knew the immensity of the risks and yet went anyway? "He died doing something he loved and did better than anyone else in the world," Bowden said later. Perhaps that's all that anyone can or should say. The Sheck Exleys and Reinhold Messners of this world weigh the risks, consider the consequences, and make their choices without asking for our consent or our pity.

Did Exley die in the mindless pursuit of a meaningless record, or was he a pioneer who was advancing our understanding of diving at great depths? I'd like to think Reinhold Messner would be inclined to say the latter. One of Exley's friends described him as a man who was always trying to see around the next corner. He dove to ever-greater depths because the caves he explored demanded it, because something that most of us will never quite understand compelled him forward.

There are so few unexplored places left in the world, so few true explorers!

Photograph: Sheck Exley

Copyright © 1995 by Rodger Ling.
All rights reserved.

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