Photo by @shonephoto (Robbie Shone with words by @M_Synnott (Mark Synnott) - “Misha, p-l-e-a-s-e l-i-s-t-e-n c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y,” I say, holding up the old frayed rope to which we are tied. “I don’t want to climb any higher. If you won’t go down with me, I will untie and solo to the bottom.” With his brawny arms crossed over his chest, Misha locks me in an icy stare and mutters something in Russian. We’ve been arguing on this tiny ledge for nearly an hour, which, considering we don’t share a common language, is becoming ridiculous. What’s clear is that he adamantly refuses to bail. Earlier in the day, when we surveyed this 1200-foot cliff from the base, I realized there was no way we could safely climb it with the motley assortment of old Russian caving gear we had scrounged up in camp. I said as much to Misha and thought he had agreed, but somehow he has cajoled me halfway up the cliff. Peering down at the hundreds of feet of crumbling limestone we’ve already scaled, it dawns on me that I’m bluffing—and Misha knows it. My only option is to give in and go for the top. Though Misha is a world-class caver (and more stubborn than the donkeys that carried our gear into these mountains), he has little climbing experience. This leaves the dangerous job of leading the upper headwall to me, but I’m here to go caving not climbing, so I don’t even have sticky-soled rock shoes. When we finally top out late in the day—not far from where this photo was taken—Misha just shrugs and gives me a look as if to say, “See, I told you it was no problem.” And that’s how I accidentally made the first ascent of Hodga Gur Gur Ata, in a remote corner of Uzbekistan—on the very first day of our expedition to Dark Star. I haven’t discussed it with Misha, but I was thinking we could call our route Russian Roulette.
Over the next few weeks we will upload a series of photographs on the Nat Geo Instagram feed from our recently published magazine story featured inside the March 2017 issue about a team of daring Russian explorers hoping to find the underground Everest - Dark Star (cave) inside the mighty Baisun Tau cliff in southern Uzbekistan. Stay tuned to see more.