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Going Deep with One of Canada’s Most Extreme Young Cavers

Nicholaus Vieira has spent nearly two-thirds of the past several years underground.

Exploring in Mexico. All photos courtesy Nicholaus Vieira

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

It was near the seventh day into a massive cave system in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and Nicholaus Vieira was lost. The 34-year-old caver had joined an expedition into the J2 cave system in the Sierra Juarez Mountains that would push into areas never before seen by a human.

They'd squeezed through an extremely tight fissure in a cloud forest called the Last Bash on a mountain side nearly 10,000 above sea level and then lowered themselves 1,650 feet down a series of vertical shafts, banging against the walls like pendulums. Around five horizontal miles inside and more than a half-mile below the surface, Vieira hung back to let the others get ahead of him—it's not always easy to find a bathroom in a hole that deep. He got his gear on and looked for the phone line they'd been following. He began in the direction he believed was the right way, but soon realized he was wrong and strayed from the line.


Earlier in the passage he had seen stalactites and other calcite formations. Vieira had come along as a glorified pack mule, carrying supplies, fixing telephone lines, and setting up rigging for the numerous climbs and underwater passages called "sumps." The cave was close to the Cueva Cheve system, where in 2003 a team had explored one of the most remote underground spots in the world—5.8 miles from the nearest entrance. The progress on that expedition had been halted due to an old tunnel collapse and the principle explorers on Vieira's trip were hoping the J2 system would connect with the Cheve system at some point.

But now Vieira was lost.

He wandered through caverns large enough to put a strip mall in, complete with car-sized boulders fit for a parking lot, in search of a passage that could be as small as a squeeze through two rocks on the ground. At one point what he thought was a floor ended up being several boulders perched between walls—a crack allowed him to see he was suspended above a cavern so deep he couldn't see its bottom.

"It's a three-dimensional maze," Vieira said. "Some caves are pretty simple and you can't get lost in them. Others are literally a maze on a maze on a maze on a maze."

After looking through the massive passageways for 30 minutes, he finally found the phone line again. He knew he was going the right way this time, but was still completely disoriented when he finally caught up to one of the team members who had started to come back in search of him.


"Even if you have a map, a compass, and colored flagging for specific routes, people still get lost in these things," he said.

"Some caves are pretty simple and you can't get lost in them. Others are literally a maze on a maze on a maze on a maze."

The ASS Club

Caves offer some of Earth's least-explored areas outside the ocean, and Vieira occupies a good deal of his time finding and mapping the caves that either haven't been fully examined or haven't been found at all. He's journeyed through caves made of tufa—a type of limestone created near geothermal hot springs—and seen paleo-permafrost crystals the size of dinner plates that have been preserved since the last ice age. But by spending much of his time in dark, hidden, and sometimes dangerous spots, exploring what few have seen before, he's especially learned about himself.

Vieira was born in Smithers in northwest British Columbia, but grew up all over the place. While he'd "done some poking around in holes" with his brothers before, he didn't open his eyes to the darkness until 2007, when a coworker took him to explore a cave near Canmore, Alberta. Vieira was hooked instantly. He harassed his coworker to go on another trip and eventually the coworker introduced him to the Alberta Speleological Society (ASS—"They're a fun group").

His addiction grew over the following years. By 2008 he was already making discoveries in well-explored caves like Rat's Nest, near Canmore. At the back of the cave near the end of his trip, Vieira posed for a selfie when he noticed something moving around in the water. A closer look revealed translucent isopods—a troglodyte crustacean that resembles wood lice—100 miles from their closest known habitat. They collected samples that are now in the Smithsonian crustacean collection.


Rat's Nest Cave in Alberta

"The interesting thing that I took away from that is you can be in a cave that people have been to thousands and thousands of times and still discover something nobody's ever seen before," Vieira said.

He continued to explore caves on almost every continent and in approximately 20 countries. Until last fall he was mostly a troglodyte, spending around 200 days underground on average. This year he thinks he'll spend only around a third of the year underground. The bio on his website, Crazy Caver, says: "Nicholaus Vieira is definitely not one of us, or normal… He has dedicated his life to the underground."

But the life Vieira's chosen isn't cheap. When he's not camping underground or in foreign countries on expeditions, he saves money by keeping his gear in a storage locker and, for the past four or five years, sleeping in the back of his 1990 Jeep Cherokee.

"I can't exactly lie down in the back," he said. "I have to sleep in semi-fetal position." He has a pass at the local recreation center for modern-day pampering like warm showers and internet access. But he said the sacrifice to personal comfort has paid out hugely: It's allowed him to travel the world and pay off around $20,000 in student loans and credit card debt.

He also funds his troglodytism by teaching caving techniques for tourists and putting in a different kind of underground labor at a limestone mine near Canmore.


In March, Vieira will head to Colombia to look for unexplored cave systems in a few areas north of Bogotá. Finding these unexplored holes takes some groundwork, though, and usually it begins with reconnaissance at home.

"You're going into places where nobody's ever looked for caves, so you're basically starting from scratch," he said. First, cavers look for regions that have a lot of limestone or other good host rocks. Then they use local contacts and pour over Google maps and aerial photographs looking for particular geographical clues like sinkholes, disappearing and reappearing creeks or rivers, or even a dark spot that could be an opening.

Once they have good leads, they set out to the field for "traditional ground-pounding" in which they bring some rope to poke into potential vertical entries, or use diving gear to investigate sumps.

"You'll map everything you come across, every cave you travel down," he said.

In some ways the mapping is the more tedious side of the enterprise. Cavers measure the distance between points on walls, ceiling, floors, and other things, the slope of passages, and the azimuth, roughly a clockwise measure of the deviation of passages from a fixed point.

And it all came tumbling down

These trips can be exciting, but they aren't always pleasant. There's mud, glacial waters, and darkness—always darkness. There are murky, tight swims through sumps of a cave that must be traversed with the help of scuba equipment. There are ducks—a term describing a passageway filled with water except for an inch or two of air at the top. "Your nose scrapes along the ceiling, allowing you to breath," Vieira said.

And then there are potential collapses.


Vieira was five days into what was touted as one of the most difficult caving trips on Vancouver Island last October. He was serving as part of a support team on ten-day expedition to push into new areas of Thanksgiving Cave.

They were walking through a roughly 40-foot horizontal passage toward a climb that sat at the end of the rising hallway. Looking up at the shaft at the end, Vieira could see several rocks jammed between the opposing walls with a ledge ten to 13 feet above them—"a really sketchy climb."

The principle explorer on the trip, John Lay, had gone up, and just as Vieira was reaching for the lowered rope, the upper ledge collapsed and came crashing down on top of him. He put his hands up to protect himself but pieces of rock, some as big as his head, knocked him to the ground, half burying his legs. "It didn't knock me out, but I was pretty stunned," he said.

He pulled himself out of the rocks to assess the damage. There was blood everywhere, and his helmet had deep gouges in it. "It wasn't a giant thing like the hood of car," he said of the ledge that collapsed. "I'd be dead if that were the case."

He had deep lacerations in his hand, but "the thing that hurt the most was knowing that was my participation for now. The rest of the trip for me was leaving the cave."

He cleaned himself up but it was clear he would need stitches—a lot of them, if he could get to a doctor fast enough to even make it worthwhile. The trouble was their base camp was two days into the cave. A resupply team was due to arrive with more food and gear sometime toward the end of the sixth day. He decided to push out, meet the resupply team, and join them when they headed back to the surface.


The way in had been physically challenging, especially for the six-foot-two, 240-pound Vieira. It involved any number of tight squeezes, free climbs, and traverses through fissures with mud-covered hallways with the 40 of food and gear each of them were carrying. Even without the injury, he'd had some struggles, particularly with one squeeze called "The Ogre Choker."

The resupply team spelunked its way through until nighttime and spent a considerable amount of time trying to find suitable places to lie their sleeping bags for the night. On the way in, there had been some crawls through muddy water, but once the resupply team arrived, Vieira's bad luck on the expedition began to flood back to him—literally. The water washed away their beds and "thoroughly soaked" everyone as "people were getting sprayed by newly appeared waterfalls."

They decided to get up and make for the surface in one large push. "I was concerned with the water because there's one section closer to the entrance, [where we could be] trapped on the side of a waterfall," he said. But after a 20-hour effort, the resupply team made it to the surface in the middle of a huge rainstorm that was responsible for all the flooding.

They were still a day's drive from the nearest hospital, but Vieira had got out in the nick of time. The rain washed away part of the remote road that lay somewhere between Gold River and Tahsis. When Lay and the others who had continued on in the cave reached the entrance, their cars were trapped.


All in all, it took Vieira about three days to reach the hospital after getting hurt, but by the time he got there it was clear his injury wasn't going to get infected, so he didn't bother. "I have a really cool-looking scar now," he said.

The others weren't able to make any further progress on the Thanksgiving system because of the water. "They basically got chased out of the cave by a flood," Vieira said.

This isn't an isolated incident, either. "I've got photos of me bleeding all over the place in all different parts of the world," Vieira said, listing off various injuries of his including broken fingers, being cut on sharp rocks, and losing feeling in his legs for three months. On the J2 expedition, he was rappelling down a pitch when a rock he'd anchored to, weighing around 150 pounds, came loose and nearly hit him on the way down. Another person on the J2 expedition had it worse, though, with a serious leg cut: "a typical injury on an expedition in the jungle. Somebody generally always cuts himself with a machete."

J2 in Mexico

Fighting disease in Raspberry Rising

Some injuries can be serious if they affect a climber's legs or hands, which they need to climb out of difficult spots. But Vieira shrugs most of his own mishaps off as "nothing terrible—just enough to keep you very aware of what's going on" and proceed with care. And at the end of the day, it's all worth it for the thrill of discovery.

One of his ongoing projects is the Raspberry Rising system in BC's Glacier National Park—a cave he can only usually explore in the winter due to excessive melt-water flooding from the east Tupper Glacier during other seasons.


While the initial parts of the cave had been explored before, Vieira has free-climbed up a 80-foot waterfall and spent the past two years exploring a series of caverns and several sumps. Vieira has mapped nearly 3 miles of the system, partly on grants from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, and made it past the first three sumps. He's been foiled from passing the fourth due to a regulator failure and hand injuries, among other problems.

Inside, he says he discovered some of the "most beautifully decorated passageways" he'd ever seen in Canada. There were stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, and draperies in pink, orange, blue, and white, as well as translucent ones. The areas was so beautiful, in fact, that the team's respect for its aesthetic value outweighed their desire to explore. Even though it was clear the passage continued in a certain direction, there was no way to move further in that area without destroying the cave's beauty. The team roped off the passageway and moved on.

Since Vieira is the first person to go into some caves, he's drawn interest from more than just fellow cavers and explorers. During the Raspberry Rising expedition, he brought back petri dish samples for a microbiologist seeking a potential cure for deadly pathogens. Apparently, the microbes extracted from chambers in extreme systems that have never hosted a human before have a higher chance of containing microbes that could be developed into drugs to stop antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Due to his help on the project, Vieira will coauthor a paper with the scientist. When I interviewed him for a related article last year about the collaboration, he was on the side of the highway hitchhiking to Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, to guest lecture about gathering extreme microbes to her class.


It's not always easy to find the right people to explore cave systems with—there's more cave space to explore than there are people crazy and skilled enough to do it. Vieira taught some climbing skills to a friend who specialized in underwater caving to help him get to the fourth sump in the Raspberry Rising cave, and he found a fifth sump. Vieira's been itching to tackle it—he has been foiled several times by serious cuts and even a failed regulator. He was ready to make a risky solo trip in early February, but the area was closed by Parks Canada's avalanche control.

To bring new talent into the game, Vieira is launching a company called Caving Solutions to teach advanced caving and cave-rescuing techniques, as well as doing some guiding in interesting locations "for more adventurous and fit individuals."

Last man out alive

Vieira was doing reconnaissance in different parts of the Peruvian Andes. He discovered a cavern at around 16,000 feet in altitude in the country's southeast with a polished and indented entrance floor that looked as if thousands of feet had passed through the area before.

The cave was short—only about 160 feet long and 50 feet deep—and they quickly discovered they weren't alone. On the floor of the cave were skulls, femurs, and old wooden torches, and by the look of them, they were old. "They could have been going there for water, they could have been going there for whatever. No idea," Vieira said.

He contacted the appropriate people but didn't tell anyone else about the location in order to protect the site from potential grave robbers.

"Once you start seeing things like that you just stop, take some photos, back out and leave it alone," Vieira said. "Don't disturb anything because then you take things out of [archaeological] context."

On his website, Vieira writes that "everything you could imagine and more is involved with caving and caves. These places I venture into are important to everyone—we have been tied to them from our beginnings and we will be tied to them to our ends."

In some ways, his encounter in the Andes could be compared to a sizing-up of his troglodyte predecessors. But, at 34 and with new pushes planned in Raspberry Rising, Colombia, and a trip to Australia on the horizon, there will be many more caves to explore before Vieira ends up as a pile of bones.

Follow Joshua Rapp Learn on Twitter.