Drawing by E.A. Martel.
In the summer of 1859, in a small suburb to the northwest of Paris, one of the foremost badasses in the history of modern adventure came into this world. Édouard-Alfred Martel, born to a family of lawyers, was to become the father of modern speleology: cave exploration. Fascinated by geography and mapmaking as a child, Martel spent much of his adolescence exploring the mountainous terrain of the Pyrenees, where his family would vacation. In 1888, after a brief service in the military, he began exploring the caves around his home in France, publishing observations and illustrations from his adventures and inventing a new career as a spelunker.
In the next six years, Martel visited more than 230 different cave sites in France. After publishing his findings in a work titled The Abyss, Martel then moved his studies abroad, making first descents into caves across Europe, including Marble Arch, the underground lake in Northern Ireland, and the Gaping Gill, near Yorkshire in England.
Among Martel’s most renowned accomplishments was his first descent into the Gouffre de Padirac, the Padirac Chasm, outside of Gramat in southwestern France. The chasm, which is over 100 meters deep, leads to a subterranean waterway system navigable by boat. The enormous cavern had housed soldiers during the Hundred Years War, and hordes of treasure was said to be hidden underground. Local legend held that the spot marked where Lucifer challenged Saint Martin to a jumping contest to determine the fate of thousands of local peasants.
Into this abyss, and many others, Martel descended in the name of science. What drove him to explore the unknown was the fascination that has always gripped the human mind as to the question of what lies underground – what is beneath us is inherently a part of us.
“No human being has gone into these depths before us, no one knows where we are going or what we are seeing, nothing so strangely beautiful has ever before been presented to us, spontaneously we all ask ourselves the same reciprocal question: Are we not dreaming?”