The Woman Who Spent Five Hundred Days in a Cave

When Beatriz Flamini was growing up, in Madrid, she spent a lot of time alone in her bedroom. “I really liked being there,” she says. She’d read books to her dolls and write on a chalkboard while giving them lessons in math or history. As she got older, she told me, she sometimes imagined being a professor like Indiana Jones: the kind who slipped away from the classroom to “be who he really was.”

In the early nineteen-nineties, while Flamini was studying to be a sports instructor, she visited a cave for the first time. She and a friend drove north of Madrid to El Reguerillo, a cavern known for its paleolithic engravings. “We stayed until Sunday and came out only because we had classes and work,” Flamini recalls. El Reguerillo was dark but cozy, and inside its walls she experienced an overwhelming sense of love. “There were no words for what I felt,” she says.

After graduating, Flamini taught aerobics in Madrid. She was admired for her charisma and commitment. “Everyone wanted me for their classes,” she says. “They fought over me.” By the time she turned forty, in 2013, she had a partner, a car, and a house. But she felt unsatisfied. She didn’t really care about financial stability, and, unlike most people she knew, she didn’t want children. She experienced an existential crisis. “You know you’re going to die—today, tomorrow, within fifty years,” Flamini told herself. “What is it that you want to do with your life before that happens?” The immediate answer, she remembers, was to “grab my knapsack and go and live in the mountains.”

Flamini moved to the Sierra de Gredos, in central Spain, where she worked as a caretaker at a mountain refuge. She became certified in safety protocols for working on tall structures, and she learned first-aid skills, specializing in retrieving people from deep crevices and other perilous locations. Speed and precision were crucial. She told me, “After a fall, the short elastic cords of the harness hold you in place. They act like a tourniquet. You have twenty minutes to get out.” She sliced the air sideways to indicate what followed if you didn’t: amputation. Flamini was also an avid climber and hiker, and she told me that she’d once helped save someone who’d been buried by an avalanche. Another time, she witnessed the death of a hiker who’d been struck by lightning. “There’s nothing you can do,” she recalls.

Flamini found her work arduous but satisfying. She had moments of intense intimacy with other people but spent most of her time by herself. She even fell out of touch with her family. Flamini began living in a camper van and loved it, especially in the winter, when the doors occasionally froze shut, leaving her trapped inside until the temperature rose. “There were times when I’d be stuck in there for three days, waiting,” she says. To get warm, she’d turn on a small stove in the back of the van; if it was too cold for the stove to work, she’d cocoon herself in blankets, alternating between reading and sleeping.

The outside world wouldn’t always leave her alone. Twice, thieves tried to break into her camper while she was elsewhere in the mountains. After the second attempt, she told me, she dented the side panel of her vehicle—“four kicks, pow-pow-pow-pow”—because “no one would bother a car like that.”

Flamini, an enthusiastic photographer, was proud of her mountain adventures, and she maintained an Instagram feed full of her exploits in rugged locales. “I didn’t do it out of narcissism,” she told me. “I expressed what I felt.” Sometimes she posted photographs that other people took of her. In one image, she is dangling by a purple guide rope hundreds of feet above a rocky cliff bottom. “Coming from where I’ve been lets me decide where I’m going,” she wrote. Her signature hashtag was #autosuficiencia (“self-sufficiency”). She enjoyed social-media interactions: she presented herself the way she wished to be and could ignore responses that made her uneasy.

When the pandemic arrived, in 2020, Flamini drove her camper to the mountains of Catalonia and set herself up in an abandoned pre-Romanesque hermitage. She told me that she loved “its cemetery, its rows of dead, dusk falling,” adding, “It’s a tranquil place.” Flamini would speak on the phone to an old friend and hear how bad the covid-19 situation was in Madrid; then she’d go hiking among wolves.

In July, 2021, just after lockdowns in Spain ended, Flamini thought about coming down from the mountains. But her real desire was to go somewhere more remote: the Gobi Desert, in Mongolia. Only one European had ever crossed it alone on foot, she’d learned. She moved to northern Spain and began training for the Gobi expedition by hiking steep mountain trails while carrying a backpack weighed down by bottles filled with water. She soon decided that she was prepared physically—she could carry twice her weight at six thousand feet—but not mentally. The longest stretch she’d ever spent alone was ninety-five days, in the Cantabrian Mountains. (A passing shepherd had told her to go home.)

Flamini thought about test runs that might prepare her for the extended solitude of the Mongolian desert. Spending time in a cave, she decided, could provide useful lessons in endurance and focus. She’d gone spelunking numerous times since El Reguerillo, and in the late nineties she’d spent longer stints with groups of cave explorers, serving as their photographer. She’d never had a bad time in a cave.

“Forty-minute wait in the next dimension. I say we just stay here.”

Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

She read on the Internet about people who had survived in caves for extended periods. The modern record was four hundred and sixty-three days. It had been set in 1970 by Milutin Veljković, a Serbian man who had gone underground near the town of Svrljig. But nobody had inhabited a cave in the way Flamini was envisaging. “They either wore a watch or talked on the phone every day,” she told me. “Or their families brought them food, or they had a pet for company.” Veljković, for example, had remained in contact with his nearby village, thanks to a phone with an extremely long cord, and he kept up with world events by listening to the radio. Flamini decided to not only beat Veljković’s record but do it in a way that felt right to her. She recalls settling on “five hundred days, just to round it up—because I knew I could, I just knew it.”

Given that autosuficiencia was Flamini’s watchword, she initially imagined that she would identify a cave in Spain that had never had human visitors, bring down more than a year’s worth of food and water, and come back up when she’d consumed it all. Then she’d buy that ticket to Mongolia. But when Flamini sought advice from experienced spelunkers, they told her that it was impossible to furnish a cave for five hundred days in one go—she’d need two thousand rations and more than two hundred and fifty gallons of water. Moreover, how would she get garbage out without seeing daylight? She would need a team to help her. And, once accomplished spelunkers got involved, it would be against their safety codes to allow her to remain underground by herself with no recourse in case of an emergency.

Flamini had not built a life of compromise, but she saw that in this instance some concessions would be necessary. She consented to the installation of two security cameras, a panic button, and a computer at the cave site, for sending one-way communications to people aboveground. To allow for the transmission of data, a Wi-Fi router would have to be installed as well. But Flamini would not take any device that permitted someone to send messages back or to otherwise have real-time contact with her. This left her at some degree of risk: she could break a leg out of reach of the panic button or the cameras and be unable to summon help. But she accepted—even welcomed—the danger in the scenario. She tried to visualize contending with a catastrophe: “how to stay calm in the face of pain, in the face of desperation, as death draws near.”

Her basic goal remained intact: to neither see nor speak to another human being for five hundred days. She didn’t even want to see her own face. “I wanted total disconnection,” she says. If her expedition worked as planned, it would feel somewhat like spending a year and a half inside a sensory-deprivation tank.

She got in touch with a spelunking club near Granada that knew of an ideal cave in the mountains north of Motril, a town overlooking the Andalusian coast. The cave was humid but not wet, and it stayed a habitable temperature year-round. It was protected by a drop near its entrance exceeding two hundred feet: amorous teen-agers, or foxes or weasels looking for shelter, couldn’t stray in. At the cave’s base was a long gallery that was about a hundred feet by thirty feet, with a ceiling forty feet high. Though the space was the size of a luxury loft, it was dark and dank, and the floor was covered in uneven rock shards. The group offered to resupply Flamini via a natural shelf midway down the vertical drop: volunteers from Motril could go down with necessities, and she could then climb up by rope to get them. The volunteers would also monitor her well-being, and rescue her if she became seriously ill. A catering company offered to donate precooked food and deliver it for the course of the expedition.

Flamini packed a lot of clothes; she was curious to see how different fabrics would fare in the underground air. She added a toothbrush and unscented deodorant. She also decided to bring a stick—her “Harry Potter wand,” as she called it—which she had kept in her van, for luck, and two stuffed toys: a little bear and a witch. She promised herself that she would not treat them as confidants in the cave. As she explained to me, “I did not want a Wilson”—a reference to the volleyball that becomes Tom Hanks’s sole companion in the 2000 film “Cast Away.” She was not looking for surrogate company. “I was going to be my own Wilson,” she told me. “Those kinds of conversations—I wanted to have them only with myself. ‘What should we eat today?’ ‘What seems appealing?’ ‘Look, we’ll have beans.’ ‘No, I don’t want beans.’ ‘Come on!’ ‘O.K.’ Everything inside my head.”

Though Flamini had devised an idiosyncratic and deeply personal experiment, she realized that the extremity of the exercise would be of interest to others. She invited researchers at two institutions in Andalusia—the University of Granada and the University of Almería—to monitor her during her prolonged isolation in the dark, in case it could prove beneficial to science. After all, humans might one day travel in space capsules to Mars. The academics were excited by Flamini’s idea, and agreed to collect and analyze data from her experience. The scientists would focus on different aspects of her physical and psychological state: how her cognitive skills fared under extended pressure; how living in darkness affected her circadian rhythms; how she made sense of any mental decline. Julio Santiago, an experimental psychologist at Granada, who planned to examine changes in Flamini’s temporal and spatial perceptions, told me, “You don’t very often find someone who wants to be isolated and disoriented like this.” The scientists subjected her to a battery of interviews and preliminary tests, and gave her a bracelet that would track her circadian rhythms, by measuring her distal body temperature and determining whether she was lying down or standing. To further prepare for the adventure, Flamini met with Débora Godoy Izquierdo, a sports psychologist. Godoy gave her tips on how to recognize hallucinations, so that she wouldn’t be scared by them, and encouraged her to verbalize her thoughts while in the cave, to give herself a greater sense of reality.

María Dolores Roldán-Tapia, a neuropsychologist at Almería, invited Flamini to visit her laboratory for two days. Flamini, wearing skin sensors and a virtual-reality headset, guided a spaceship and searched for planets while dealing with mechanical breakdowns and overcoming other hurdles. These simulations helped establish her baseline states, from stress and surprise to boredom and fatigue. In addition, Roldán-Tapia gave Flamini something called the Iowa Gambling Task, in which a subject chooses cards from a set of decks. The goal is to infer which decks are more advantageous than the others and thereby maximize winnings. Flamini scored well, winding up with fifty dollars in thirty minutes. Roldán-Tapia found Flamini “a very decisive person—very motivated and disciplined.”

Flamini also invited Dokumalia, a Spanish production company that specializes in outdoor-adventure series, to create a video record of her experience. Dokumalia provided her with two GoPro cameras, whose screens had been removed, to make a diary of her time in the cave. The footage could be mined by both Dokumalia and the scientists. Electricity would be supplied by solar-charged batteries sent down the vertical shaft with other provisions, allowing Flamini to turn on a couple of lights, and the Wi-Fi router would be placed on a wall at the bottom of the shaft. Flamini gave her project the name Time Cave.

In mid-November, 2021, Flamini posted on Instagram, “On Saturday, November 20th, the boat sets sail again,” adding coyly, “We’ll be in touch again in April/May 2023.” By this point, the Motril volunteers had cleared a space for a helicopter to land by the cave’s mouth, in case an emergency evacuation became necessary. In a nod to the many people who were helping her now, Flamini added, “#ni_sola_ni_en_autosuficiencia”—“neither alone nor in self-sufficiency.”

When it came time to descend, she and a small group of volunteers gathered at the cave’s mouth. Joy and anxiety flitted across her face, as though she wasn’t sure if she was going on vacation or to jail. Using her phone a final time, she left a voice mail for a friend who had wanted to wish her well; her eyes glistened as she said, “Enjoy the Internet and Pinterest and your videos. Thanks for crossing my path.”

She put on a spelunking helmet, slung a large duffelbag on her back, hooked a carabiner to a guide rope, and prepared to rappel down the vertical shaft. The cave’s opening was such a small slit that Flamini had to struggle to fit inside. As she lowered herself down the long, narrow chute, she looked up at the volunteers, stuck out her tongue, and joked, “See you in just a night.”

Her Instagram account was silent for the next five hundred days.

I first met Flamini in May, 2023, at the Hospital Universitario Puerta de Hierro Majadahonda, in a suburb northwest of Madrid. She had emerged from the cave on April 14th, almost exactly five hundred days after she’d entered it. “Who bought the beers last Friday?” she had joked on exiting. The baby fat on her cheeks was gone—she had lost twelve pounds—but the sparkle in her brown eyes was still there.

The initial impression she gave off was that her stay on the cave floor had been a breeze. At a press conference, she described her time in the cave as “excellent” and “unbeatable,” and she told me that she’d enjoyed the experience so much that she had “left the cave singing.” She had read dozens of books, drawn pictures, knit hats, and exercised—it could practically be called a staycation. Underground, she had turned forty-nine, and then fifty, alone, but she told me that she’d never really celebrated her birthday anyway. “My mother loved it—she could save money,” Flamini joked.

Some professional spelunkers had expressed incredulity at the notion that the experience had been easy. They’d looked for holes in Flamini’s narrative. A veteran caver named Miguel Caramés told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that he would never attempt such an adventure “in the most inhospitable environment a human can experience” and urged Flamini to “explain with more detail the logistics of the challenge.” Others dismissed the stay as a stunt. As one extreme-sports authority pointed out to me, “The fact of being in a cave doesn’t turn you into an expert spelunker.” (Flamini has always acknowledged that she is not a caving expert.)

On Instagram, she posted a list of favorite songs that she’d played in the cave, among them tracks by Joe Bonamassa and Jon Bon Jovi. All told, her story felt like a heightened version of many people’s lives during the pandemic—which she hadn’t even known had receded until she resurfaced. Her cave adventure seemed to suggest that humans were naturally resilient and built to survive.

In the hospital, Flamini was ebullient as doctors ran tests on her. “Blood pressure, normal—nutritional levels, ideal,” she told me. “Electrocardiogram perfect. And the psychiatrists said nothing was wrong.” She laughed and said, “Everyone thought I’d come out a zombie, but no!”

She had on the same sunglasses that she had worn after emerging from the cave, and they gave her a glamorous Alpine look. I noticed that she walked unevenly, and that she was stooped. She told me that her balance was still off after five hundred days in a place where normal walking wasn’t possible, and that her pupils hadn’t yet readjusted to bright light. And there had been other detrimental effects. Her short-term memory, she admitted, had become dodgy in the cave, and remained so. She had also lost much of her peripheral vision while underground; a friend had driven her to the hospital on the day we met, because she couldn’t drive safely yet. Flamini noted, “Sudden noises from the back frighten me—anything that comes at me without my seeing it.” In the cave, she explained, there had been no light beyond that of her camping lamps. Most of the time she just wore a headlamp, meaning that she mostly saw only what was directly in front of her. “I spent a lot of time looking that way,” she said.

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