Deep Into Her Work Microbiologist and IMAX star Hazel Barton dives--and climbs and rappels and crawls--into uncharted caves to stalk rare life-forms

September 07, 2003

Bollocks!" Hazel Barton is 100 feet below the earth's surface,
shin-deep in a thick muck of groundwater and liquefied marble.
The air is chilly and dank and her entire person--miner's
helmet, coveralls, hiking boots and the pink Barbie lunch box in
which she totes the field tools of a microbiologist--is caked
with brown clay. After six hours of climbing and squirming
through Black Chasm, a 4,000-foot-long cave carved from marble
bedrock in the heart of gold-rush country 65 miles east of
Sacramento, Barton has reached what she calls her "icked-out"
point. She expresses mock displeasure in a British inflection
that combines the lilt of Julie Andrews with the salt of a
Cockney chimney sweep. "There comes a time," she says, "when you
just can't stand being covered in mud anymore." ¶ It has been a
grueling day, and it will take another hour of subterranean
crawling to reach the surface. Still, it comes as a surprise
that the 31-year-old Barton has any limits in the ick
department. Everything from the bumper sticker on her red Toyota
4Runner (WELL-BEHAVED WOMEN RARELY MAKE HISTORY) to the tattoo
that bands her left biceps (a map of Wind Cave in South Dakota)
to her description of her sport ("If you liked rolling around in
the mud as a kid, then caving is for you") to her quest for an
entirely pink set of cave-diving gear confirms her status as a
hard-core caver. "The whole diving scene is very macho," she
says. "All the pink equipment drives the guys nuts."

The Black Chasm trip was a tame one by her standards, but on this
day Barton, who's also a full-time scientist, wasn't just seeking
a rush. On this expedition she and three companions--Dave
Bunnell, 50, a seasoned cave photographer and the editor of the
monthly newsletter of the National Speleological Society (NSS);
Greg Francek, 36, another expert caver and the manager of the
Black Chasm property; and a novice spelunker struggling to keep
his feet moving in the mineral-rich ooze--covered nearly 200
vertical feet by clambering over slippery rock formations,
belaying down steep walls and, in what would be a
claustrophobic's idea of hell, squeezing through crevices and
tunnels barely wider than Barton's slim 5'6" frame.

Along the way they admired Black Chasm's world-class collection
of helictites, ancient and fragile braids of calcium carbonate
crystals that grow in gravity-defying formations out of the
cave's walls and glisten in the glow of a headlamp. At the end of
the hike the group paddled in an inflatable raft across a
pristine, 30-foot-deep underground lake. The purpose of the trip:
Barton collected samples from water corrosion sites on rock never
before touched by human hands in order to examine them for signs
of life.

Barton, who left a research position at UC Davis last month for
an assistant professorship in biological sciences at Northern
Kentucky, hunts for extremophiles, microbes that thrive in
conditions once thought to be inhospitable to life. By
definition, finding these hardy critters involves venturing into
places humans aren't meant to be. Boiling hot springs, arctic
glaciers, acidic mine drainage shafts and volcanic vents miles
below the ocean surface are all hotbeds of extremophile activity.

Barton stalks them in caves. On average she descends once a week
on quickie trips like the one into Black Chasm. She also embarks
on several extended expeditions--cave diving in Florida, mapping
virgin caves in South Dakota--each year.

Earlier this year she spent a week camping and looking for
microscopic life inside Lechuguilla, a massive system that
stretches for more than 100 miles near New Mexico's Carlsbad
Caverns. She's currently awaiting word on a grant application
that would allow her access to several unexplored caves in China.
Last month Barton won the cartography medal at the NSS's annual
convention for her detailed original mapping of Fairy Cave in
Colorado.

"There's a stereotype that being a scientist means being stuck in
a lab wearing comfortable shoes," she said while puttering around
her Davis facility this summer. "I only wear a lab coat under
duress." Pointing to her open-toed sandals, she added, "And these
are not lab-appropriate shoes."

Barton's exploits were captured in the 2001 IMAX documentary
Journey into Amazing Caves. The film followed her and Nancy
Aulenbach, a Georgia schoolteacher and caver, as they ventured
into frozen caves in a Greenland ice cap and kayaked and
rappelled hundreds of feet into an unexplored cavern near the
Grand Canyon. Barton also donned scuba gear to penetrate
harrowing underwater caves in the Yucatan jungle.

Cave diving, which is to regular open-water diving what flying a
fighter jet is to piloting a Cessna, might be the ultimate
extreme sport. Underwater caverns are often hundreds of feet from
the water's surface. Kicked-up clouds of silt can eliminate all
visibility and take hours to clear. Getting lost or stuck in
narrow passages is a constant danger.

The title of a training video produced by the cave-diving section
of the NSS--A Deceptively Easy Way to Die--sums up the sport's
inherent risks. At least 12 divers perished in underwater caves
last year, a staggering number considering there are only a few
thousand certified cave divers in the U.S. (Several caving
organizations offer training courses and dive guidelines.) In
July, Bruce Brewer, an accomplished cave dive instructor, was
killed in relatively shallow water while leading a tour of novice
cavers in Georgia. "I haven't done any exploratory diving in a
while," says Norman Pace, 60, a professor at Colorado and one of
the world's preeminent cave microbiologists. "I should have died
and didn't. If you do that stuff long enough, you die."

Barton has drawn flak from some members of the insular caving
community who worry that her Hollywood exposure sensationalized
the sport. They were also worried that local caving clubs would
be overrun with Mountain Dew-swilling dilettantes. (The clubs
weren't.) "There are people who think the world of Hazel, and
there are people who have no time for her," says Denny Willis,
the cave-dive training chairman for the NSS. "I think she does
very good work. I'd dive with her any day."

Barton started caving as a teenager in Bristol, England, where
the countryside teems with wet, muddy caverns. The first member
of her extended family to attend college, she was an accomplished
caver when she arrived at Colorado in 1993 to pursue a Ph.D. in
microbiology. To that point caving was just a hobby and a welcome
escape from the stress of doctoral work.

That changed when she took a postdoctoral position in Pace's lab
in 1999. During the 1980s Pace, a world-class caver, pioneered
the art of using the RNA sequence to identify unknown species.
Over the past two decades, as thousands of extremophile species
have been discovered, the biology the rest of us learned in high
school has been rendered obsolete. Scientists now believe that
animals and plants represent only a fraction of the planet's
organic activity. "Working with Norm was the first time I
realized cave science wasn't just a bulls---excuse to go caving,"
Barton says. "It was legitimate."

Many researchers are convinced that cures for cancer and other
diseases lie somewhere in that undiscovered mass of life. An
understanding of how these microbes survive and interact could
offer clues on how to combat pathogens that ravage our bodies.
The existence of extremophiles also suggests that organisms can
exist on planets that lack water and other supposed necessities
for life. Barton has appeared on several NASA research panels to
discuss the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. "Whether it's
fossilized or it's there now," she says, "I'd be surprised if
there isn't evidence of life on Mars."

Back on Earth, at Black Chasm, Barton--despite having reached her
mud saturation point--takes a detour on the way out. She leads
her neophyte companion through a 100-foot labyrinth of three-foot
high tunnels passable only when prone. The path opens into the
Hall of Arches, an airy, 25-foot-high dome of sweeping,
beautifully complex marble curves. This isn't virgin territory,
but it's easy to imagine how the intrepid caver who discovered
the Hall must have felt.

The Barbie box, now filled with samples of corrosion dust,
dangles from Barton's belt as she gazes at the ceiling. One of
the glass sample tubes could contain a previously unknown
organism--and, perhaps, a clue that might lead to a quantum leap
in the medical field. "It's like bringing samples back from Mars
and finding life," she says. "That's one of those orgasmic
science moments."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY MACGILLIVRAY FREEMAN FILMS DOWN TIME The MacGillivray Freeman IMAX film Journey into Amazing Caves followed Barton into the wild blue under. COLOR PHOTO: DAVE BUNNELL MUD AND GUTS Even Barton can get "icked-out" after a day of subterranean exploration. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY MACGILLIVRAY FREEMAN FILMS MICROMANAGING Barton's study of the life-forms known as extremophiles could lead to major breakthroughs in medical science. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY MACGILLIVRAY FREEMAN FILMS POOLED EFFORTS In the IMAX film, Barton (right) and caving partner Nancy Aulenbach dipped deep for samples in an Arizona cave. COLOR PHOTO: DAVE BUNNELL CEILING FAN For the British-born Barton, who combined a childhood love of caving with her training in medical microbiology, life is most fascinating far below the earth's surface.

"There's a stereotype that being a scientist means being stuck
in a lab," says Barton. "I ONLY WEAR A LAB COAT UNDER DURESS."

"I realized cave science wasn't just a bulls---excuse to go
caving," Barton says. "IT WAS LEGITIMATE."

"The whole cave-diving scene is very macho," says Barton. "ALL MY
PINK EQUIPMENT DRIVES THE GUYS NUTS."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)