In Russian, the word proval means “a fall into.” So perhaps fate deemed that Denis Provalov, 32, would “fall into a cave” and become a spelunker—a “cave diver”.
Provalov has in fact “fallen” all the way to the top of the world’s list of elite spelunkers. Late in 2000, his expedition to the Voronya cavern in Abkhazia set a world record for spelunking (surpassing the previous record by 80 meters), with a descent to 1710 meters (5610 feet).
It is an unlikely fate for a boy who grew up in Moscow’s Krasnopresnensky district, who dreamed of becoming a firefighter and who spent the better part of his youth training as a boxer. In fact, it was not until he was intrigued by a radio announcement calling for young spelunkers that he discovered the sport. He has been crawling around underground ever since.
Since there are no pots of gold in underground caves, Provalov decided to pursue an honest living teaching—teaching spelunking, that is, at Moscow’s Center for Creativity of Youth. His achievements on this front point out his exceptional gifts: in 1997 Provalov won the prestigious annual award for Russia’s Teacher of the Year in the category “Complementary Education.” He is philosophical about his role as a teacher: for him it is a way to pass on values and knowledge to the next generation. “If one doesn’t do it, it will all end with us,” he said.
Tenacious and fun loving, Provalov is serious about his sport, even to the point of superstition. For him, every cave is a living, breathing entity. The cave sees it all, he says. It is like a human being that watches over those who invade her. Why “her”? Because, for Provalov, the cavern is a “she,” and he seeks to treat each one tenderly. In fact, so as not to “scare away the cave” and show too much confidence about how deep you might go, he says you always take along less rope than you think you might need.
More than anything, Provalov believes in people, in his team. Once, crawling through a narrow passage above a well 1370 meters underground, Provalov found himself hopelessly trapped. His partner Oleg Klimchuk had gone through the passage with him and was able to crawl back out, but Provalov was stuck. “Spelunkers are fond of saying—if you get in, then you can get out. But now I know it’s not true,” he said.
Klimchuk did not abandon Provalov and spent six hours banging away at the rock with his hammer, chipping away pieces of rock. The pair had been underground for 25 hours. “For six hours I tried everything,” Provalov said. “I even undressed to get through—and felt the cold water falling on me from the waterfall above, while beneath me there was that well.” Finally, in a last ditch attempt, Provalov squeezed through the narrow slot and got back to the surface, but his body still bears the scars of this risky descent.
It is comraderie like that which Provalov says distinguishes Russian spelunkers from their foreign colleagues. “Our spelunkers are strong thanks to a common idea,” he said, “and the whole team is working to make it happen, to make sure two men go to the needed depth, and it doesn’t matter who it will be, as long as it is someone from the team ... When I joined an American expedition in Mexico, I just went nuts! Can you imagine? Each morning, everyone is on his own, packing up things, cooking food for oneself, each one with his own stove! During short breaks in a cave everyone takes out his own Snickers and begins eating! But when we [Russians] are in a majority, we give these foreigners a hard time. To begin with, we take everything away from them and say, ‘Okay, we will all eat at noon, and no earlier, period! Everybody!’ They agree halfheartedly. For all my respect for their high professionalism, I am just amazed at some things they do. One even brought along a sack of tangerines below the earth. How do you like that?! And there he was with his sack of tangerines, eating all alone in his corner!”
Provalov’s life partner is his wife Zhenya, with whom he has two children. “As a rule,” he said, “all our wives are connected to spelunkering. They either sympathize or are spelunkers themselves.” And Provalov is proud of how involved Zhenya is with spelunkering. “‘Your Zhenya is great, she understands everything!’ my friends say. And we solve all our problems the simple way. Sometimes she says: ‘I crave strawberries.’ So I say: ‘It’s either strawberries or we spend money on the expedition!’ And she understands it all immediately and replies, ‘I would rather join you on the expedition!’”
“Of course,” Provalov concludes, “I am the one who is in charge in the family. But it is always Zhenya who gets the new [spelunkering] boots first. I come second.”
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