An average day at work for Daniela and Francesco Maria does not involve a computer screen, an office chair and stationery around the desk.

Their office space is more likely to be a tent, their food dehydrated rice and their toilet a plastic bag. And their views – better than any desktop picture.

The coordinators of Miles Beyond, a company specialised in offering access to extreme locations, have spent years working in caves, mountains and glaciers. Where others might see an impossible wall to climb, they mentally count the metres of rope and carabiners they would need to reach the top.

Daniela Barbieri in an ice cave in Greenland. Credits: Moncler– Alessio Romeo

There is one thing they have in common with the office worker though. “Our biggest challenge is working with people with different expertise and cultural backgrounds. Caring for their safety is paramount to us,” explains Daniela Barbieri.

Daniela is in charge of logistics for the next CAVES expedition coming up this September. An experienced speleologist, she talks about the successful dry runs that have just taken place with the core team of instructors and safety personnel provided by Miles Beyond.

Some members of Miles Beyond and the CAVES 2019 team, namely Tullio Bernabei and Tono De Vivo, have over 30 years of experience.

“We have the best technical instructors and speleological guides we could wish for. Working with such a passionate and professional team makes everything smooth,” she points out.

The numbers pile up in her head: 300 carabiners, 150 portions of food, 15 helmets, 3 km of rope, 3 electric generators and one kilometre of telephone cable. “It took 15 days for 20 speleologists to set everything up,” she recalls.  

Climbers’ gear. Credits: Stefan Walter

“But preparations for us started over a year ago”, interrupts Francesco Maria Sauro. “The crew of astronauts for CAVES, or cavenauts, might only see the top of the iceberg.”

Francesco Maria traded sailing for helping others run expeditions in the farthest corners of the world. He is Expedition and Logistics Coordinator for Miles Beyond.

Before venturing into the underworld, Francesco Maria spent months in an office overseeing every aspect of the CAVES expedition, from permits to every piece of equipment. The first task the Miles Beyond team faced was not an easy feat – they had to identify the best location for this year’s training.

Francesco Maria Sauro during CAVES training. Credits: ESA– A. Romeo

“Caves are my favourite office environment,” confesses Daniela. All in all, the Miles Beyond team has evaluated a hundred caves in Europe. The list was narrowed down to 20 spots across Europe according to the CAVES training requirements – a combination of environmental, logistical, technical and scientific parameters.

The European Space Agency finally picked a new, extraordinary cave for this year’s activities.

“We won’t disclose the exact location yet, but we can give away a couple of hints. This is where speleology was born, and the cave system is still mostly unexplored and rich in indigenous species,” says CAVES technical course director Francesco Sauro.

Caring for the environment

The search for life is a key activity of the upcoming CAVES expedition. To contribute to the protection of this underground continent, Miles Beyond removed 700 kg of waste from the entrance sinkhole of the cave with an electric winch, a sort of cave lift.

“We take care of this unknown world under our feet in collaboration with local institutions and partners. This is the only planet we have,” says Daniela.

“Astronauts will have a chance to see how fragile and vulnerable these hidden places are, and how the caves preserve our most important resource for life – water,” she adds. About 25% of the planet’s fresh drinking water comes from cave aquifers.

Time is up. Francesco Maria and Daniela need to go back to the cave to run the “most important test” of the campaign: the food tasting. Canned food, dry fruit and risotto are on the menu. Expiry date: 25 years from now.

Exploring a cave aquifer, the so-called Rainbow Lake, during CAVES in 2016. Credits: ESA– V. Crobu