Mark Dickey was more than a half-mile underground when the feeling hit him like a train.
He was dizzy. Nauseated. His insides felt as if they wanted to explode out of him.
He was also more than halfway up the vertical face of a 300-foot circular rock chimney tucked deep inside a cave that he and others were exploring.
Now, he feared, he might pass out, roped high atop the wall.
In the damp chill, lit only by headlamps, Dickey called out to fellow caver Jessica Van Ord – who is also his fiance – as she waited for him on a muddy perch about 30 feet up.
“I’m sick,” he told her.
It marked the start of an 10-day ordeal for the 41-year-old American caver. He was stuck deep in one of the deepest chasms in the world. His internal bleeding would worsen. His fiance would race 3,000 feet to the surface to save him. He would soon be at the center of a multinational rescue effort that captured global headlines.
But in that first moment, he told USA TODAY this week, he had no idea what to expect.
Dickey, an experienced caver who had been the expedition’s rescue leader, had faith in the tight-knit cave rescue community in whose hands his future lay. But he also knew the challenges of such an operation amid the vertical shafts and narrow passages.
As the hours ticked by, he was vomiting more and more blood. With his pulse fading and body weakening, he began fearing the worst.
“I’m probably going to die in here,” he recalled thinking.
A passion for caving leads to Turkey‘s Taurus Mountains
The entrance to the Morca Cave sits at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level in southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, where water once carved deep caverns into limestone.
It’s the third largest cave in Turkey, in a region home to some of the planet’s deepest. At 4,186 feet, it plunges almost three times as deep as the deepest part of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns.
In August, Dickey and Van Ord, 33, who both live in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, had arrived to join a small group of cavers and researchers.
The Turkish-led expedition was designed to map new sections of the Morca Cave and help scientists study biological features.
It was the second trip to the cave for Dickey and Van Ord, a paramedic. They met years ago in their work in emergency medicine. She grew to share his love for caving.
Dickey began caving in the 1990s, a passion that grew out of his love of rock climbing, mountaineering and whitewater kayaking. Over the years, Dickey explored caves in 20 U.S. states and 10 different countries
“If you want to explore the world, where are the final frontiers of exploration? You can head to outer space and you can head to the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “I can’t do either of those. But virtually every time I do any type of deep cave work, I’m going to places no human has ever been before, no human has ever touched. That’s pretty cool.”
He became an instructor with the National Cave Rescue Commission. He served as an officer in the European Cave Rescue Association. And he founded and leads the non-profit Caving Academy. Over time, he participated in a handful of U.S. and European cave rescues, he said. Van Ord also trained in cave rescue.
All that meant Dickey, who also works as chief of the New Jersey Initial Response Team, a local group of volunteers specializing in cave and mine rescue, was designated as the rescue coordinator for the Morca expedition if anything went wrong.
On August 26, Van Ord entered the cave with other members, wearing warm jackets, rubber boots and helmets. Members carried ropes, bolts, camping gear and food. Water would be collected and purified in the cave. Dickey followed with another group a few days later, Van Ord said.
In all, they planned to spend about six days underground but brought along food and supplies to last longer just in case.
Inside, the air was heavy with 100% humidity and the temperature was steady but chilly at 39 degrees. Some of the narrow passages and vertical chimneys were dotted with small waterfalls or areas of trickling water.
“It’s a cold cave,” Dickey said.
Expedition members set up a camp inside the cave, about 3,000 feet below the surface.
Underground, normal cell phones are useless. Because of water’s interference with a telephone cable used to communicate with the surface that far in, the deepest working cable ran to about 1,500 feet.
“If something happens, it’s one day’s worth of travel” to reach the phone line, he said.
Illness hits unexpectedly
Around Sept. 2, Dickey felt tired. But he didn’t think much of it. After all, he was climbing through a deep cave and sleeping amid the mud, dust and dampness.
“Huh. I’m feeling tired,” he later recalled thinking. “Oh well, that’s annoying.” He reminded himself to eat a little more protein and maybe an extra multivitamin later.
On Sept. 2, he and Van Ord were together, roughly an hour’s journey from their camp and more than 400 feet deeper, exploring further reaches of the cave.
Then they set to climbing upward about 300 feet, through the circular rock chimney that widened as it rose toward a ceiling. Their aim was to install more bolts and ropes that would aid in exploration and mapping. Most of the way up, things took a sudden turn.
“It just hit hard and fast,” he said.
Trying to stave off passing out, he clawed his way up toward Van Ord. She could tell he looked ill, which was unusual for him. He quickly blurted out his symptoms.
“If I fell unconscious, she would have something to work with,” he said.
Driving his knees into the muddy perch and crumpling forward, Van Ord soon realized Dickey was not getting better. She helped him rappel down three pitches of rope to the cave floor.
“When we got to the bottom again, there were no emotions involved in any of this. It was pure rescue mode. It was pure survival,” Dickey said.
“What do you need?” she asked immediately.
“Privacy,” he said, stripping off his gear as fast as she could to relieve himself.
What came out was tarry, digested blood. It was his first sign that he was bleeding internally.
“This is bad,” he thought.
He was able to make his way an hour’s journey through the cave to their underground camp at 3,000 feet. There, sleeping bags could stave off hypothermia, he could lie down and others could care for him. He figured he needed to exit the cave and hoped to rest and climb out himself, perhaps with assistance.
Then he started vomiting blood.
Van Ord left to make the arduous climb for help. When she reached the phone line, she spent two hours making calls to medical professionals, trying to figure out whether the symptoms could be treated. She dialed expedition members and the cave rescue community.
Then she continued climbing to the surface. Close to the entrance, she paused in the peaceful dark for a brief moment, bracing for what was ahead.
By this time, other cavers had left for the surface to bring an updated message. Dickey made it clear he needed not just a doctor, but a full rescue.
He knew that it would be a huge undertaking and probably garner news headlines. But Dickey didn’t hesitate or feel guilty.
You can always call it off, he said. But it takes time to perform a rescue. And waiting might mean it’s too late: “You don’t have ego in something like this,” he said.
About six hours later, attended to by two other cavers, he was vomiting increasing amounts of fresh and coagulated blood. Eventually, he stopped being able to move from his tent, instead vomiting in the bucket next to him.
He felt himself getting weaker. His mind grew foggy and eventually, his pulse couldn’t be felt. He knew help was on the way. But would it arrive in time?
“It was getting harder and harder to hold on to consciousness. I went from speaking in sentences down to like phrases until I was down to just single words at a time,” he said. “At that point, like I’m, I’m on the edge.”
Ágnes Berentés, Hungarian geologist and photographer who stayed with Dickey, said in a message that at one point Dickey lay in his lap, vomiting every 15 minutes.
“In the eternal darkness, every moment seemed like an endless hour,” he said.
More than 36 hours after she’d left him, Van Ord said, she returned. She found him in a fetal position, pale, eyes closed and barely speaking.
She had a saline IV that would boost his blood volume to stabilize him.
Still, Dickey said, “I just remember (thinking), ‘She’s here. I’m going to live.’”
Rather than tears and hugs, the conversation was mostly about his condition, she said.
On Sept. 3, a, Hungarian Cave Rescue Service team with a doctor arrived by helicopter at Morca. They trekked inside the cave, eventually reaching Dickey with pints of blood they had to warm over a camp stove.
The risk of perishing had faded. But he still had to get out.
Mark Dickey’s rescue presents complex challenges
Outside the cave’s entrance, a small but closely connected international community gathered.
“Rescue missions from such deepness are very rare, extremely difficult and need many very experienced cave rescuers,” according to a statement from the European Cave Rescue Association, which helped organize the rescue.
Eventually, more than 150 people from seven countries, including Turkey, Hungary and Bulgaria, joined the effort.
Many were volunteers, as much of the caving world is – taking time off of work and using their own personal caving gear, Dickey said.
But extracting him would be complex, requiring moving a stretcher through narrow passages and up vertical walls by ropes and pulleys.
In a large tent filled with maps and rescuers, detailed plans were drawn up to add rope lines, set up new lines of communications and medical stations along the way in case Dickey needed care. Different teams would be responsible for specific sections of the cave.
Rescuers set off small blasts and used chisels and hammers to widen some narrow sections of the cave to make it easier to get his stretcher through, according to a National Geographic report.
On Sept. 9, a week after Dickey fell ill, rescuers began to move him nearly 3,000 feet to the surface. Photographs show him wrapped in a puffy jacket, strapped tight to a stretcher. In some spots, rescuers connected it to ropes hung from ceiling bolts, pulling him up vertical shafts or guiding him through horizontal passageways. All the way, he was watched by medical professionals.
Along the way, he had a relapse of vomiting but had a doctor and medical supplies to treat him. Another time, he got off of the stretcher to make it easier to clear narrow passages, he said.
Finally, after more than two days of arduous work, he reached the surface in the early morning hours of Sept. 12th.
Dickey breathed in the fresh air and looked up at the stars in the dark.
More heartening was “the amount of people that were up there waiting, cheering, hoping that I would get there safely,” he said.
Along with news media, several people held sleeping mats on which they’d scrawled “Welcome to 0 Meters.”
Van Ord was there, too. After days of waiting, she grabbed the stretcher and helped carry it.
They were soon on a helicopter to a hospital in Mersin, Turkey – the cause of his internal bleeding was still unknown.
Will the ordeal deter Dickey from caving?
Earlier this week, the couple traveled to Ankara after Dickey was discharged from the hospital. They attended a U.S. Embassy reception thanking rescuers and juggled multiple media interviews.
Amid the global spotlight, it remained unclear exactly what caused the internal bleeding. Van Ord said a lesion was found but more tests would be performed once it further healed.
Rather than head to their small New York town, Dickey said they made plans to visit cavers in Hungary – longtime friends – who helped rescue him.
He said his ordeal helped highlight that often-volunteer community – such as some of those who rescued a youth soccer team trapped in a cave in northern Thailand in 2018. Many will drop what they’re doing and go to a rescue on their own dime.
That’s one reason they are supporting a GoFundMe page to help defray costs for his rescuers.
“To think about the level of difficulty and complexity, the disciplines involved in these rescues, cave rescue teams are an amazing bunch of people,” he said.
He’ll take a temporary break from caving to ensure he’s not a medical risk. But he hopes that won’t last long.
Dickey has been getting a lot of questions about whether his brush with death will change his plans. Deep in a cave, help is often days away.
“For everyone else, going caving seems crazy, seems odd, seems strange,” he said, citing fears of the dark and unknown. “They’re like, Well, I wouldn’t have been going caving in the first place. So wouldn’t this change your mind?”
His answer is unequivocal. And Van Ord agrees.
“That medical issue is unrelated to caving and caves. And once it’s healed, I’m going to go back caving,” he said. ”If anything, I’m more excited to do it.”
Together, the couple has tested their ability to handle adversity. So when are they getting married?
They’re not focused on that right now, Van Ord said.
Read Nore:Mark Dickey’s story of survival