RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 44 Number 1 Article 3
October 2007

'Les Speleonauts'

The long-stay endurance caver - nicknamed 'les speleonauts' by the French - are strange characters. They are bent on staying underground, isolated and out of contact, for as long as they can stand it. The reason behind such behaviour varies: survival, solitude and science are often given as the motive, but for most the object is to stay longer than the rest - to be the 'record breaker.' A list of these heroes is below:

Caver's name(s) No. days Cave name Year
Nathaniel Kleitman 30 Mammoth Cave 1938
Stermer family 344 Priest's Grotto 1943/44
Geoff Workman 14 Gaping Gill 1953
Michel Siffre 62 Scarrasson Cave 1962
Geoff Workman 105 Stump Cross Cavern 1963
Josie Laurès 88 Aven Vigneron 1965
Antoine Senni 125 Aven Ollivier 1965
R & G Valentes/Mouleyre 20 Aven Vigneron 1965
Gérard Bicenko 20 Aven Vigneron 1965
David Lafferty 130 Cheddar Caves 1966
Jean-Pierre Mairetet 174 Aven Ollivier 1966
J Chabert/P Englender 150 Aven Ollivier 1968/69
Hélène Brobecker 28 Aven Ollivier 1969
Cappa/Chabert/Englender 20 Aven Ollivier 1969
Milutin Veljkovich 463 Samar Cave 1969/70
Michel Siffre 205 Midnight Cave 1972
Mauritizo Montalbini 210 Grotta di Frasassi 1986/87
Véronique Le Guen 111 Gouffre du Valat Nègre 1988
Stefania Follini 121 Carlsbad Cavern 1989
Mauritizo Montalbini 365 Grotta di Nerone 1992/93
Michel Siffre 75 Grotte de Clamouse 1999/2000

Name(s) of the endurance caver(s), days spent underground, and name of the cave, in date order. The number of days shown in the table is the most accurate that I can find, however the numbers do vary slightly in different accounts.

A full account of the speleonauts and their sojourns can be found in British Caver 128 (2006) and only a few highlights are given in the present article. You'll see from the list that the present record of a staggering 463 days is held by Milutin Veljkovich who, as a member of the Belgrade Cave Club, was sealed in to the Samar Cave, in the former Yugoslavia, on 24 June 1969 for his record breaking stay. His book, evocatively entitled, Under the Sky of Stone (1972), is unfortunately only available in Serbo-Croat, however the tale is also told in the British Caver (1985). He was not alone; apart from a 1,000 packets of cigarettes, he also took a dog, a cat, some ducks and chickens! He had hallucinations for months but most of the animals adjusted to cave life, only the cat seemed to go a bit crazy. Veljkovich heroic exploit was followed closely by the Russian Cosmonauts, however further endurance attempts were curtailed by political unrest; eventually he had to leave Serbia and has now settled in California.

It is difficult to compare one attempt with another. Most were totally isolated, but others had a telephone link. Some lived in tents or shelters, making it a 'home from home', while others like it as tough as possible. Some had calendars and watches, others deliberately lost track of time to test their 'biological clock.' Nathaniel Kleitman (1895-1999), professor of physiology at Chicago University, was the first to try this. He spent a rather unpleasant month in Mammoth Cave to see if he could alter his natural 'circadian rhythm.'

Esther and Zaida Stermer, their six children and other relatives were not scientists or sports cavers, nevertheless their ordeal of 344 days hidden underground has to be saluted. The Stermer family now live in Montreal, but in 1942 they were in the western Ukraine trying to escape the Holocaust. They hid a little known cave, the Priest's Grotto, a complex gypsum cavern with a 120 kilometres of passage. They moved in on 5 May 1943. The women and children never left the cave, but the men sometimes crept out at night to scavenge for oil, matches and food. When they finally emerged on 12 April 1944 they were temporarily blinding by the sunlight.

In 1953 Geoffrey Workman, 'a small, wiry man dedicated to speleology,' decided to set an endurance record in Gaping Gill. His motive was to counter suggestions that a lone caver would be driven insane by the isolation and lack of daylight. James Lovelock, caver and journalist, encouraged him with a promise of an exclusive interview and an appearance on 'what's my line?' Workman set up his tent in Sands Cavern and for two weeks he slept and explored the cave without problem. Lovelock met him, finding his own way out, in good form and looking forward to his interview.

Workman made a second attempt in 1963 when he set up camp in Stump Cross Caverns. He wanted to break the record setup by the French speleogist, Michael Siffre. Workman boasted he could stay a 100 days, and was encouraged by John Mills (1914-1977), professor of physiology at the Manchester Medical School, who was studying biological rhythms and recognised the potential of long-stay cavers as experimental subjects. Workman remained totally isolated, but agreed to leave urine samples for collection by Prof. Mills. After 105 days Workman emerged to cheers from hundreds of supporters, the press and radio. He attributed his success to the 'discipline' that he learnt in the RAF.

Michael Siffre was born in 1939 and started caving when he was 10. In 1962 he spent 62 days alone in the Alpine cave of Scarrasson. This was a major expedition to measure the changes in the cycle of waking and sleeping without a sense of day or night. He was lucky to survive; the ice in the cave kept him on the edge of hypothermia. When he surfaced on 17 September 1962 he thought it was 20 August. Siffre became the doyen of cave endurance. He personally made two further endurance stays, and during the 1960s-70s he built-up a team of a dozen or more cavers trained to carry out endurance attempts - he called these heroes, les speleonautes. The French Armed Forces were keen on scientific cave endurance studies, and equipped two caves in the Alpes-Maritime area, north of Nice, to monitor the cavers during the isolation experiments. Siffre supervised most of these missions in the Aven Vigneron and Aven Ollivier. Laurès, Senni, the Valente brothers and others (listed in the table) spent between 7 and 174 days in special underground camps. In 1972 Siffre himself spent 205 days in Midnight Cave, Texas, sponsored by NASA as part of their space programme. His third sojourn was in 1999, at the age of 60 when he spent 75 days in the Grotte de Clamouse.

In 1966 the Daily Telegraph offered a £500 reward to any caver who could break 'the record held by a French speleogist, Antoine Senni.' The lucky winner was David Lafferty, 27 years, an ex-RAF officer and experienced potholer. He set up his base in the Cheddar Caves on 27 March 1966. He took canned foods, 100 gallons of water, and a lot of candles! His wife went on holiday. Prof. Mills persuaded him to make body temperature records and provide urine samples. After 127 days, Mills also collected four-hourly blood samples, which were then centrifuged in the show-cave's café! Lafferty emerged on day 130 to a gruelling press conference, which he found harder than any underground stress. He certainly earned his £500.

In 1986-87 an Italian caver, Maurizio Montalbini, spent 210 days in Grotta Grande del Vento; he was closely monitored by medical scientists. The following year he spent 48 days underground with a group of 14 other cavers. This was claimed as a record for a group (but see the Stermer family above.) In 1989 he organised Miss Stefania Follini's stay in Carlsbad Cavern. She was a 25 year old interior decorator who volunteered to live in a Plexiglas cell for over four months! She was in complete isolation but was covertly monitored as part of an astronaut survival study. She lost complete track of time. At times she was awake for 40 hours, and sometimes slept for 20 hours. On 4 May 1989, she thought it was 7 March. She passed time by learning the guitar and reading. In 1992-93 Montalbini made a further major attempt on the record with a stay of 365 days in the Grotta di Neurone near Pesaro - the second longest attempt - yet it seemed to escape the attention of the caving press. He lived alone in a special 'cave laboratory' built by NASA. He coped with the isolation by playing the harmonica, although his sense of time became very confused - when he emerged on 10 December 1993 he thought it was only June 1992!

Long-stay cave endurance is not without risk. Injury, hypothermia, dietary problems, visual damage are obvious risks. Several of the speleonauts lost weight and developed muscle weakness. Circadian rhythms became deranged and the 'daily cycle' expanded to 26 to 28 hours, and in few subjects, almost doubled to 48 hours! Some did become introspective and depressed. Siffre himself became depressed after his 1972 stay. He called it 'my crack-up,' and attributed it to delusions of aging: 'my God, I'm 33! Am I almost really washed up?'

In 1988 Véronique Le Guen, a 33-years-old French speleologist, spent 111 days in the Gouffre du Valat Nègre, near Millau. She was subjected to intense monitoring with thousands of blood and urine samples. She complained that she was so busy with tests that she had no time for herself. Later her stay took a darker turn when she complained that she no longer knew her value and purpose in life. A year later she sadly took an overdose of barbiturates. Some thought it was due to personal reasons, but others, including her husband, thought that her isolation had contributed to her depression; certainly this tragedy turned opinion against endurance attempts.

The record could probably be broken with modern survival equipment, but what's the point? The raison d'etre for cave endurance has gone; the study of circadian rhythms is now beyond the simple cave dweller. 'Les speleonauts' had had their day - the International Space Station use real astronauts now.

Peter & Julie Mohr

(If you know of other attempts, or if you have contact details for anyone in the list, please let me know)

Volume Contents

Main Contents