Mark Dickey was ready to die. In the near-freezing temperatures of a damp, pitch black cave 1,040 metres below the Earth’s surface, he was curled up in the foetal position, shivering.
Severe internal bleeding was sapping what little strength he had left, and the two men at his side had neither the knowledge nor the medicines to heal him. He knew a rescue party was on its way, but whether they would reach him in time was another question.
“The pulse on my wrist was becoming extremely, extremely difficult to feel, and it reached the point where it was impossible to count,” he says. “The thought transitioned to ‘I am probably going to die here’.
“But it wasn’t an emotional thought, it wasn’t a panic thought, it was purely ‘time is running short and I have already done every possible thing that I could have done to maximise survival’.”
Five days earlier, on August 29, Dickey had set out in a team of nine experienced cavers on a six-day expedition to explore the dark uncharted depths of southern Turkey’s Morca cave, which at 1,276 metres is the third deepest in the country.
On the fourth day, he suddenly started vomiting and defecating dark tar-like globules of blood; 24 hours later, he was on the brink of death.
His fiancée, Jessica Van Ord, was with him when he fell ill and then climbed out of the cave to raise the alarm, kickstarting a mammoth 200-person rescue effort, coordinated by the European Cave Rescue Organisation, that would make headlines around the world. When she returned in the early hours of September 4, he knew she had saved his life.
“The moment Jessica got there, I knew I was going to be living,” Dickey says. “And as the rescuers started to arrive, to me it was a foregone conclusion: I knew I would get back to the surface.”
Dickey, 41, is an American researcher, search and rescue specialist and caving enthusiast who has ventured to depths of 1,000 metres at least 20 times over the past two decades.
Van Ord, 33, is a paramedic and fellow search and rescuer who met Dickey in 2012 when he interviewed her for a role at a volunteer ambulance agency in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where they now live together after getting engaged in June 2019.
Dickey had visited Morca for the first time last year and was returning to explore uncharted caverns and passages – which at times are just two feet high – and judge whether it would be suitable for training novice Turkish cavers.
The multi-day expedition would see his team sleep in tents at a base camp 1,000 metres below ground, collect and purify their own water, and subsist on a diet of rice, pasta, lentils, beans and instant soup.
On September 2, Dickey and Van Ord set out from the base camp as a pair to explore a particularly intriguing cliff face where the ceiling above had a window-like hole in the middle. Halfway through the cavern, his symptoms struck.
“What I can remember is an immediate and sudden increase in exhaustion,” Dickey recalls, his memories hazy. “I had been feeling slightly more lethargic earlier in the day but then suddenly I got really, really tired. My consciousness actually felt like it was diminished, like it suddenly got harder to think. I needed to vomit. I needed to go to the bathroom. I had hot and cold flushes rapidly, and broke out into a sweat. I felt like I was going to pass out.”
All of the couple’s medical and rescue knowledge told them to stay calm, methodical and not to panic. Initially thinking he had a bad bout of food poisoning, Van Ord immediately rushed off to retrieve medicine from two members of the expedition who were nearby. But by the time she returned, Dickey was no longer there.
“I knew he was trying to save time and move back to the camp while he was still well,” Van Ord says. “I instantly recognised what looked like a pile of black tar on the ground. I knew then that he was suffering from internal bleeding.” Her worst fear was that Dickey could pass out alone in the dark, murky depths of the cave, his location unknown to her and their companions.
Thankfully, however, she found Dickey on the route back to the camp just 15 minutes later, from where it took another hour to reach the camp. There, his condition deteriorated rapidly. “I was vomiting fresh blood and could not keep food down,” Dickey says.
“Blood was coming out of both ends and the vomit eventually became 100 per cent fresh blood. It was a lot of blood loss, about two or three decilitres at a time every six to eight hours.” (Dickey believes he lost as much as 15lb in body weight over the course of his ordeal.)
The situation was perilous. The team had taken several precautions before the trip, one of which was placing a telephone link to a surface support team at a staging camp 500 metres below ground. Since she had the expertise to describe Dickey’s condition accurately, the plan was for Van Ord to climb up to the camp accompanied by Fabian Botond, a fellow caver from Romania, and raise the alarm.
Four more expedition members would eventually depart for the surface in pairs over the next two days, leaving Dickey with just two others – Peter Zsigmond and Agnes Berentes – at base camp.
However, when Van Ord and Botond reached the telephone, it was not working, so they had to climb all the way to the surface to make contact. All told, it took six hours. Doctors were summoned, rescue teams flew in from across Europe and, soon enough, Van Ord and Botond were heading back in.
“He was sweaty, which is a sign of going into shock, weak, in the foetal position but thank goodness he was still conscious,” Van Ord remembers of seeing Dickey again. “We got an IV drip into him straight away and soon he said he could feel himself getting better.
“After three litres he was speaking in sentences again. Twenty-four hours later, Zsofia Zador, a Hungarian doctor arrived and Mark was then, after a four-litre blood transfusion, able to lay comfortably on his back and participate more fully in conversation.”
“I spent three-and-a-half days straight by Mark’s side and it was definitely one of the most difficult places I have ever worked,” explains Zador, an alumnus of Hungary’s Semmelweis University.
After a few days’ rest, it was time for Dickey to be extracted. It took three days for a series of rescue teams working in relay to get him out, navigating vertiginous cliffs and achingly narrow passages.
He was recovering so well that he was at times able to walk on foot, but at others he would be carried on a stretcher and use his hands to help it over nooks and crannies. When he was winched out of the cave entrance by cable just after midnight on September 12, the international press was there to capture the moment.
“When you spend so long steadily moving towards the surface, it’s not like this huge ‘BAM, you’re there, my God I just got out!’,” Dickey says. “Every single minute of every single hour you are just slowly making metre by metre progress. From that peace of the cave and the stability of the cave, the moment the people at the surface got their hands on me, it became this huge whirlwind of activity.”
At the surface, Dickey was airlifted by helicopter to hospital in Ankara, the Turkish capital, where tests and biopsies identified his illness as gastrointestinal bleeding triggered by a lesion in his intestine, although the cause of the lesion is not yet known. He has since been discharged and is keen to go caving as soon as the middle of next month, despite the risk it might strike again.
“It is not really like there’s a worry or concern, it is just premature to say that because testing is still ongoing,” he says, unmoved by my suggestion that the idea of going caving again would be anathema to most of us if we went through what he did.
“Caving is one of the final frontiers of exploration,” he explains. “We are pushing the exploration of the world in one of the few places where humans have never been. Is there anything to do differently? No. I can make sure I have no pre-existing medical condition and as long as I have no increased risks of recurrence then I’ll go caving.
“If a football player breaks his leg during a game, it’s not like everyone is sitting there going, ‘Oh my God are you OK? Are you going to play football again or are you going to stay away from the game because it is so dangerous?’.”
True or not, there remains a need for the experienced, cool-headed cave rescuers who proved so pivotal in saving Dickey’s life. He and Van Ord are supporting a GoFundMe for the volunteers who helped them which has already reached £55,000 ($69,000). They estimate the total rescue cost at least six-figures, potentially closer to seven.
“It’s about paying forward the spotlight that is on me and just a couple of us to the rescuers as a whole,” says Dickey. “They did all the work.”