Mark Jenkins: National Geographic Writer and Explorer

This month the University of Wyoming hosted a guest speaker in my humble little town of Torrington and my office with the University was engaged to help! So there I stood, star-struck and sweaty because Mark Jenkins, author, explorer, and National Geographic Correspondence Writer, was letting me take a selfie with him.

I helped tape on his hands-free microphone, discussed his exploits, and explained my aspirations of making a career out of my writing, briefly mentioning my novel.

He said, "Wow! I've never written a novel!" Genuinely impressed.

This from a man who has summited Everest. Excuse me while I swoon over in the corner.  

I tried to keep my cool around him and he made it rather easy. See, Mark is a Wyoming man, born and raised, and now makes his home in Laramie, Wyoming with his wife and children. He's actually taken a position with the University. This time through Torrington he spoke on his adventure through the largest cave in the worldSơn Đoòng Cave.

Mark began his presentation informing the crowd of the culture and warm sense of welcome he, an American, received by the Vietnamese community upon his arrival. Rather than a poverty stricken country as many might believe, Vietnam has a thriving economy where "everyone drives scooters." Vietnam is a 1/4 size bigger than Wyoming, but boasts a population of 100 million people! Mark explained that although there were still physical reminders in the country of the Vietnam War (or their American War), 75% of the population were born after the war and so knew only the benefits of the American businesses who are based in their communities and of American aid which came after the war. 

Overall, Mark concluded, it was a lovely country filled with gracious, inspiring people. 

He gave a brief explanation of what spelunking was and that a caver's biggest fear was drowning rather than claustrophobia. You wouldn't know it unless you were a caver, but it makes sense. Once it begins to rain on the surface, the water flows into the cave from all different directions pooling and flooding within minutes. It's a dangerous sport and after his thorough presentation I can officially say that caving is just not for me. I'll stick to being a tourist in this arena.

The Sơn Đoòng Cave is located in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National ParkBố Trạch DistrictQuảng Bình Province,Vietnam. Equipped with two dolines and its largest chamber a staggering 3.1 miles long, 660 feet high, and 490 feet wide this cave knocks down Deer Cave in Malaysia which was once the reigning champion in the cave world. 

The cave was discovered by a young man, Hồ-Khanh, in 1991 and later explored by a British team of cavers who spent 18 years exploring the cave off and on until the 14th expedition which Mark was invited to participate in - the one where they were going to search for the end! (See, for cavers, it's about finding the end of a cave just as much as it is reaching the top of a mountain for climbers.) So this was going to be a monumental experience for all involved. Expedition members included 10 cavers, 20 porters, National Geographic Photographer Carston Peterson, and Mark.

Here is a quick map of the cave. Cavers are taking surveys and making maps of the caves as they go along - naming everything! Mark stated that his British counterparts were particularly fond of puns such as "Hand of Paw" and "The Great Wall of Vietnam" for example.

Click on all the "Source" captions in the bottom left corner to read more information about the pictures.
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Prepping to enter the cave. It was a trek to get to the opening, having to go though an enormous "smaller" cave to get to the beginning of their journey.

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Looking out from the inside of the mouth of the cave, they set up camp for the night and then headed into darkness with only their headlamps to guide them. Mark explained it was complete and total darkness. So dark that your hand in front of your face could not be seen. Cavers have four backup headlamps with them always because to be alone in the dark in a cave can mean getting lost and death.

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Sơn Đoòng Cave is home to some of the largest stalactites in the world! Some reaching to over 200 feet tall. 

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After days in darkness there came a surprise and a gut wrenching feeling of disappointment when they reached their second doline, mistaking it for the exit. Once they realised it was only a skylight, they rejoiced and explored, spending a few additional days camping in the area. This is where Mark became close with the porters who each carried roughly 80 lbs of equipment, batteries, and food for the expedition. The porters packed meat in their own food supply whereas the expedition leaders had packed vegetables and noodles! 

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Dolines are created when the cave roofs collapse, leaving a jungle of vegetation and animal life growing in stark contrast to the sterile environment of the interiors of the cave. This doline was about 1000 feet tall! 

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To see this incredible space in motion, check out the following video from a later expedition by travel photographer Ryan Deboodt:


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Mark noted they did find a few bugs, most notably, a white spider who had evolved beyond the need for eyes, within the caves. (Um, no thank you!)

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This 200 feet tall calcite wall was dubbed "The Great Wall of Vietnam" and it stood in their way of the end. The task fell to two of the cavers to climb up, drilling holes for loops of fabric which acted as a ladder for the rest of the team to follow them up. Power drills were employed along with grit and manpower to get the team up. It took more than a day's work to accomplish the feat.

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Out. The end. The exit of the cave. For scale purposes, you see the little white dot to the right of the mass in the middle? Yep. That's a person.

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Recently, the Sơn Đoòng Cave has opened to tourists, allowing guided tours at $3000 per person! Permits must be obtained to visit the cave and only 500 were issued for the 2015 season. 

Mark's most recent article in National Geographic is about his climb of a mountain in Myanmar!

You can find Mark's travel and adventure books below, click on the book title caption to go to Amazon:
A Man's Life                                            To Timbukto                                    The Hard Way                             Off the Map