Under Pressure: What happens when disaster strikes
Explorer Martin Robson went to Russia on a quest to find a cave system rumoured to lie hidden in the depths of a mysterious lake. A team of top technical divers joined him on the multi-national Blue Lake project, sponsored by Fourth Element. On the final day of the expedition, Robson’s search took him more than 200 metres beneath the surface.
As he returned from the bottom disaster struck. Just 23 metres down, Robson was ambushed by the bends. His epic fight for survival is now the subject of a new book, Between the Devil and the Deep. Writer Mark Cowan tells the story of that final dive.
Cherek-Köl, Kabardino-Balkaria Russia, January 2012. On a grey winter afternoon in southern Russia, Martin Robson prepared to dive deeper into the mysterious lake than anyone had gone before. It was an audacious plan, to descend more than 200 metres into the unknown, but Robson knew the risks. He had contemplated all manner of things that could go wrong and then rehearsed how he would respond to such emergencies, to prevent a foreseeable threat becoming a foregone conclusion. For safety.
Sat at the water’s edge, his equipment was not even wet, and Robson had already completed the dive in his head. He had conjured up an image of the two divers checking his equipment for bubbles at nine metres; he had imagined descending the shot line, past the point where the bright blue water gave way to blackness and it felt like he was spacewalking; he had visualised himself fixing a strobe light to the line to illuminate the way home. There was scant information about what he would find in the dark, but Robson knew precisely what he would do when he arrived there: he would go off exploring.
Shortly before 1 pm, he left the surface and began his long descent. On his back, he wore a closed circuit rebreather. Clipped to his side were four cylinders of bail-out gas. On the surface, the weight of all that equipment was enough to make one’s legs buckle. In the water, Robson was weightless as he drifted down the shot line that led to the bottom.
For years, tourists had been making the journey to the remote corner of Russia, closer as the crow flies to Bagdad than Moscow, to visit the mountain lake. Stories of her history and beauty drew them. In the sunlight of a windless day, the surface shimmered super-natural cobalt, a 27,000 square metre oval mirror to the mountain skies above. Cherek-Köl was the name locals give to the lake. To Russian speakers, the lake was known as Goluboye Ozero. In English, Blue Lake.
At the beginning of 2012, divers had gathered there for another reason, the chance to find a submerged cave system not seen by the human eye. According to scientists, an outflowing river carried almost seventy-million cubic litres of water away from the lake each day, yet her depth remained constant. She was an endlessly overflowing basin. Only there was no river carrying water her way, not on the surface at least.
Robson, one of the world’s leading instructors on technical, cave and rebreather diving, had been recruited to lead a multi-national diving expedition to go in search of a cave system scientists theorised might lie beneath the surface. Fourth Element had sponsored the team. Progress had been slow, and after two weeks’ in Russia, Robson’s opportunity to explore the lake had come down to this last dive.
Sixteen minutes in, Robson reached the end of the line. Two lumps of lead hung there, gently swaying in the emptiness 193 metres down. This can’t be it, he thought. He clipped the strobe to the line, switched it on and decided to go and scout around. Shining his high-intensity light downwards, Robson continued his descent, hoping for a glimpse of rock or silt.
Passing 200 metres, Robson saw the bottom emerge from the darkness. Flicking his fins, he glided over the silent moonscape of silt and rock. Alone in the ice-box grip of the lake, Robson was relaxed. The bottom sloped gradually deeper, and Robson followed, a bubble of light and life gliding over a lunar surface in a sea of tranquillity.
Robson looked at the two computers on his wrist. One had malfunctioned, the digits on the depth reading frozen at 214 metres, the other showed his depth as 209 metres. Two-oh-nine would be the number he would write down in his log book, Robson told himself. Two-oh-nine. The equivalent of 47 London double-decker buses stacked one on top of another, or the height of two Big Bens, with 17 metres to spare.
With the slightest movement of his legs, Robson kicked on a short distance further. At that moment, he was a happy man, revelling in the fact he was the first human ever to cast his eyes down there. Looking ahead, he could see the bottom continued to slope downwards, beyond the last tendrils of light from his torch. He was not ready to turn. He wanted to carry on, but another minute on the bottom would add thirty minutes to his decompression time on the way back to the surface, and that was not the plan agreed with the support divers.
Reluctantly, Robson turned for the shot line to begin his ascent. Almost ten hours and more than 50 decompression stops, lay between him and the surface. Twenty-five minutes into the dive, he finally left the bottom. All told, he had spent just seven minutes there.
Levelling off at 23 metres after almost four hours underwater Robson settled in for his latest decompression stop. He was calm. And then it hit. A wave of explosions carpeted Robson’s spinal cord; sudden detonations along a quiet front as bubbles erupted in his spine. It was as if his body had uncorked.
Immediately, Robson’s world turned, and his legs flopped beneath him. The momentum whipped him through almost ninety degrees. There was no crack, no rip, no warning, just a sheer change like one gets when flicking off a power switch. At a stroke, Robson’s memory went from being able to use his legs to not. In the post-mortem that would follow, he described the moment as like being “shot in the back”.
Tipped beyond the point of balance, Robson began to sink. He tried to kick with his legs, but he couldn’t feel them, and they didn’t respond. They just dangled beneath him, useless at supporting his body. Instinctively, Robson reached for the shot line. He had not foreseen something like this. He needed to respond. For survival.
To read the full story, click here to buy your copy of Between the Devil and the Deep, by Mark Cowan and Martin Robson.
Mark Cowan is a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience in newspapers and television. He spent twelve years as a crime correspondent for daily newspapers in Birmingham, and was embedded with the British Army during peace-keeping efforts in war-torn Kosovo. Cowan has also worked on crime documentaries, including the BAFTA-winning film, Gun Number 6, based on one of his stories.
Martin Robson is one of the world’s leading instructors on technical, cave and rebreather diving. A former Royal Marine Commando and senior Fire Officer with both Kent and London fire brigades, he has been cave diving for more than 20 years, leading explorations and tours of systems in France, North America and Mexico. He is one of the IANTD’s leading Instructor Trainers and also works as a Technical Field Consultant and Designated Instructor Trainer for PADI.