World’s longest Salt Cave

Malham Cave in Israel’s Mount Sodom has now been surveyed at over 10km long, making it the world’s longest salt cave. This is an account of the expedition by the leader of the 2019 mapping team, Boaz Langford of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

WORLD’S LONGEST SALT CAVE DISCOVERED IN ISRAEL

After Holding the Title for 13 Years, Iran Cedes Title to Israel

Following biblical recounting of Lot’s Wife who was turned into a pillar of salt, Israel’s Dead Sea region is now famous for a second salt phenomenon: Malham Cave, the world’s longest salt cave.

For thirteen years, this title was held by Iran’s Cave of the Three Nudes (3N) on Qeshm Island.  Now, an international expedition led by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU)’s Cave Research Center (CRC), Israel Cave Explorers Club, and Bulgaria’s Sofia Speleo Club, along with 80 cavers from nine countries, has successfully mapped the Malham salt cave in the Dead Sea’s Mount Sodom which, at 10 kilometers long, now bears the title of world’s longest salt cave. 

Salt caves are living things, geologically speaking.   They form mostly in desert regions with salt outcrops, such as Chile’s Atacama Desert, Iran’s Qeshm Island and Israel’s Dead Sea.   What helps them form is water—even arid climates see the occasional rainstorm.  When it does rain, water rushes down cracks in the surface, dissolving salt and creating semi-horizontal channels along the way.  After all the rainwater drains out, these dried out “river beds” remain and salt caves are formed. 

Photo credit: Boaz Langford

Fitting this description is Israel’s Mount Sodom, an 11km long mountain that sits 170 meters below sea level at the southwestern tip of the Dead Sea.   Underneath a thin layer of cap rock, this mountain is made entirely of salt (just like the kind we season our food with).   Two factors protect this mountain from dissolving away: the sturdy cap rock that covers its salt, and the arid climate of the Negev Desert.   Mount Sodom gets roughly 50mm of rain a year, mostly in short but dramatic rain bursts.  As Professor Amos Frumkin, director of the CRC at HU’s Institute of Earth Sciences, explained, “The Malham Salt Cave is a river cave.  Water from a surface stream flowed underground and dissolved the salt, creating caves – a process that is still going on when there is strong rain over Mount Sodom about once a year.”   In this way, the Malham Salt Cave is “alive” and continues to grow.

Malham was initially discovered by the CRC back in the 1980’s.  Later, tens of CRC expeditions surveyed Mount Sodom and found more than 100 salt different caves inside, the longest of which measured 5,685 meters.  Subsequent carbon-14 tests dated the cave as 7,000 years old, give or take, and successive rainstorms created new passages for the cavers to explore.  When the international expeditions returned to Malham in 2018 and 2019, their surveys discovered the cave’s record-breaking, double-digit length. “Thirty years ago, when we surveyed Malham, we used tape measures and compasses.  Now we have laser technology that beams measurements right to our iPhones,” Frumkin recalled.

Notably, Malham is the world’s first salt cave to reach a length in the double-digits.   By comparison, Iran’s Qeshm Island salt cave, now the world’s secondlargest salt cave, measures only 6,580 meters.  In addition to its length, the Malham Cave contains a stunning array of salt stalactites and salt crystals within its chambers.  These salt icicles hang from the cave’s ceiling and grow longer and fatter as each drop of water rolls down before evaporating into the salty air.

Photo credit: Efi Cohen

Currently, the survey team is processing final data from the new Malham Cave surveys to create an electronic map of the cave and to publish its findings.

The international cave expeditions that worked together to map Malham Cave include Israel’s Cave Explorers Club, HU’s Cave Research Center, and Bulgaria’s Sofia Caving Club & Speleo School.  The survey team included cavers from Israel, Bulgaria, France, United Kingdom, Croatia, Romania, Germany and the Czech Republic. 

Boaz Langford, Member of HU’s Cave Research Center and head of the 2019 Malham Cave Mapping Expedition: “Israel’s salt caves are a global phenomenon.  My colleagues around the world are always amazed at what we find here.   Returning to survey Malham Cave allowed us to reveal its full dimensions and rank Israel as first among the world’s longest salt caves.”

Yoav Negev, Chairman, Israel Cave Explorers Club and project leader of the Malham Cave Mapping Expedition: “This entire project began with a call to Antoniya Vlaykova at Bulgaria’s Sofia Caving Club & Speleo School.  From the very beginning they showed real interest in collaborating with us and in taking on a central role in the project.  Soon we had a 50-member delegation—half international, half Israeli. The Malham Cave is a one of kind expedition that demonstrated the power of international caving delegations coming together to achieve something remarkable.  The fact that we came away with a new world record is icing on the cake.”

Efraim Cohen, Member of HU’s Cave Research Center: “Mapping Malham Cave took hard work.  We cavers worked 10-hour days underground, crawling through icy salt channels, narrowly avoiding salt stalactites and jaw-dropping salt crystals.  Down there it felt like another planet.   Our next and final step is to map the tightest spots and the most difficult ones to reach.  When we’re all done, it’s likely we’ll add a few hundred meters to Malham’s impressive 10 kilometer length.”

The 2018 and 2019 Malham Cave expeditions were supported by the Bulgarian Federation of Speleology, the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Bulgaria, the European Federation of Speleology (FSE) and its sponsors Aventure Verticale, Korda’s, Scurion, and Bulgaria Air.

Photo credit: Boaz Langford

Tony the Super Jellyfish

This is Tony being a super jellyfish in a cave in Wales. Art courtesy of Paul Fairman.

Diving in the Lot

Tony has been diving in the Lot this week. Here are some pictures from Pou Meyssen – a 2400m round trip with canals and dry cave at the end.

Necessary supplies (tin of shandy for scale)

 

Pou Meyssen entrance

 

Dive base, post dive. A frog lives by the ladder!

Northern Caves III – out now

The long-awaited guidebook to the Three Counties and the North-West is launched today – this is the geographical area of the old Volume 3. Congratulations to Sam, Beardy, and their army of helpers!

That time, when the words don’t need to

As Google Translate would have us believe!

-560 in Banka Cave, Sneznya System, Abkhasia. Dina Pimanova, Yulia Yatsusenko and Tony Seddon. Photo: Andrey Shuvalov

Thoughts on warmwear

Just a small consideration of undersuits and general insulation, in the wake of my recent trip to Snezhnaja Cave in Abkhazia, and thinking about the differences between my trips of winter 2016 and 2017.

The cave itself is a steady 6C, so not too cold. However the trip itself lasted eight days, with some of the individual working days in excess of sixteen hours. Also the surface was significantly colder, with lots of snow. All these factors played a part in the selection of kit for this year’s trip.

Last year I used an MTDE Butron, and was miserably cold for days on end. Normally I find this thin, very flexible and wicking garment fine for British and most European trips, including ones lasting several days and involving underground camps. Trying to work out why it had been such a problem in 2016, I came to the conclusion that it was a combination of two factors: caving style and physical attrition.

In the first case, Russian caving is sometimes a communal affair. Especially in this cave, where each person had at least a couple of heavy tackle bags, and some parts of the cave are a little awkward or tortuous, there is a tendency to cave as a group and move kit through obstacles using a human chain. This has some benefits but it does mean that there may be periods of five to ten minutes where there is little movement, and some of these locations may be damp or very, very draughty. Also both these trips used “pod” camps, where all stoves, food, tents and sleeping bags moved with the team, so the beginning and end of each caving day involved being pretty static while bags were unpacked, tents strung up and so on. If you rely on steady movement and burning calories to keep comfortable when caving, then you’re going to have a hard time on a trip like this.

Secondly – related but not identical – it is not easy to maintain full health on a multi-day caving trip, especially in a cold cave. Nutrition is hard to manage, even with vitamin tablets, and as a veggie getting enough protein can be especially difficult. The overall effect of hard work on a stressed body seems to be to make it more prone to cold, and the effect is increased the longer the stress goes on. In the case of these particular trips, the stress begins before the cave is ever reached; as time is short, moderately strenuous kit-carries bringing equipment up to the entrance – in conditions comfortably below freezing – are taxing, and there is not time for proper recovery before the caving starts.

So this year I opted for the significantly heavier and warmer AV Illamina, which is made of full-weight Powerstretch. This proved ideal for this trip. Slightly too warm at the start of the day, but nothing too bad; as the days progressed, the body deteriorated and the fabric became more vile and unwashed, even this problem disappeared. And at the end of the day, the cold was noticeable but perfectly bearable.

The other key elements were threefold: a Powerstretch balaclava, a thin basic waterproof and a mid-weight thermal top. None of these was required while actually moving in the cave (even the balaclava – a Buff was worn at all times to maintain head warmth), but the first two fitted into a drybag and could easily be stowed into the top of a tackle bag. Thus, at the taking down and putting up of the camp, extra warmth could be added with no appreciable delay; also at the base of a large pitch on the way out. The waterproof (Decathlon’s cheapest) was sized to fit over all kit, including oversuit and SRT kit, for mid-trip pauses.

For sleeping, adding the fleece to the Illamina gave sufficiently warm nights that the balaclava could generally be used as a pillow, rather than worn. The fleece was kept with the sleeping bag, as the other two items covered all the requirements of the working day.

This system worked well, and I’d use it again in similar circumstances; all I’d add would be a dedicated set of thick warm socks for tent life – drying your caving socks over the stove is effective but not perfectly so, and in trying circumstances a little luxury is welcome.

The only caveat. This minimum amount of clothing for effective warmth will leave you smelling like a dead badger after the first week, as there’s no allowance for changing kit, but that’s the price of efficiency!

Tony