A GIGANTIC cave that has never seen the light of day is a tough photography target under clear conditions. But this one posed an extra challenge: it’s so large and isolated that it has its own weather – including clouds.
"Weather makes its way in, but it can’t make its way out," says Robbie Shone, who took this photo of Cloud Ladder Hall, part of China’s Er Wang Dong cave system. "It just hangs in there."
While there are several openings to the outside world near the cave’s floor, there is only one near the top. That asymmetry traps enough humid air to fill the 6 million–cubic–metre chamber with clouds for most of the year. Cloud Ladder Hall is the second largest cavern in the world, beaten only by the Sarawak Chamber in Malaysia.
For this shot, Shone had three accomplices: one standing behind the frame with a large single-use flash bulb, one standing on the rock to the left shining a headlamp at the cave wall, and a third dangling from a rope hundreds of metres away. Although the shutter was open for only 30 seconds, the whole operation took four hours, with the team communicating via walkie-talkie because the echoes made shouting unworkable. “Before you know it you’re in a maelstrom of noise,” says Shone.
He sees caves as some of the last mysterious places on Earth. “More people have been to the moon than to some of these caves,” he says. “Each time we go into these caves and bring photographs or video back to the surface, it’s all new stuff we’ve never seen before.”