The cave divers who went back for their friends

Patrik GronqvistImage copyright
Jarkko Virtanen

In February 2014 two divers died at a depth of more than 100m in a huge cave system in Norway. The authorities said it was too dangerous to retrieve their bodies, but four friends of the men decided to take the risk – and seven weeks later they descended into the dark and glacial waters.

At the end of the Plurdalen valley in central Norway a 35m-wide river rises abruptly out of the ground.

If you dive into this strange pond, known as Plura, and swim underground for half a kilometre, you will emerge into a long, colourful cave.

Diving hobbyists can climb out of the water here to admire the grotto, before returning to Plura. But if you are highly trained and experienced – and an insatiably curious individual – you might continue on a course that quickly plunges much deeper, becoming narrow and difficult, through ice-cold, pitch-black water.

After negotiating this “sump” – an underground pocket of water – you will finally ascend to the cave of Steinugleflaget. And about 90m above the cave’s vaulted ceiling lies your exit – a crack in the collapsed side of a hill.

On 6 February 2014, two divers cut a triangular hole in the ice at Plura, and, encased in waterproof dry suits and diving equipment, slipped into the water. Two hours later, after the first divers’ dust had been allowed to settle, three of their friends followed behind.

The destination for all five men was Steinugleflaget. They were Finnish divers who knew one another from explorations they had made of the Ojamo mine, west of Helsinki. As was the custom of the group, no-one was in overall command, but the first diver to set off was Patrik Gronqvist, one of a trio of Finns who had discovered the passage between the caves the year before. He was diving with his good friend Jari Huotarinen, who was attempting the traverse for the first time.

Image copyright
Monami Agency

Image caption

The Plura caves, a still from the recent documentary Diving into the Unknown

The trip was at the extreme end of a dangerous sport. While most amateur divers might restrict themselves to dives of between 30 minutes and an hour, at a depth of 30m or so, the trip to Steinugleflaget would be a five-hour dive, with the aid of underwater scooters, to depths of more than 130m.

“The deeper part is very demanding, very cold water and narrow tunnels, and deep as well – it is the world’s deepest sump that has been dived through,” says Gronqvist.

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