|Italian speleologist and sociologist Maurizio Montalbini|
just after exiting the Grotta Fredda di Acquasanta cave
where he spent 236 days in total isolation, near Ascoli
Piceno, central Italy, Thursday, June 7, 2007
Since starting his experiments in the 1980s, Montalbini had spent a total of two years and eight months beneath the surface of the earth, according to a biography on his website.
In 1987 he claimed his first world record after spending 210 days alone in a cave in the Apennine mountains. A year later he led an international team of 14 cavers, including three women, to claim the world group record with an underground stay of 48 days.
During his endurance experiments Montalbini subsisted mostly on a high-calorie diet of powdered foods and pills similar to those used by astronauts on space flights. Scientists on the surface monitored him through instruments.
Montalbini's biography claimed his experiments were done in collaboration with Nasa and leading universities around the world. They yielded insights on the effects of long-term isolation, including weight loss, changes in the perception of time and in the sleep and menstrual cycles.
For Montalbini the experiments were also a personal challenge of willpower and endurance. "One cannot fight solitude, one must make a friend of it," he said after his 1987 exploit. "I succeeded in doing this. I carried everything inside me for seven months – affections, convictions, ideals."
Montalbini broke his solo cave-dwelling record in 1993 by living alone for a year and one day in an underground base built to study the reactions of individuals and crews on simulated space missions. Curiously, he believed he had spent a mere 219 days below ground, his sense of time having apparently been disturbed by a lack of exposure to natural light. One of the mysteries he was seeking to address in his subsequent experiments was why people who are shut away in the dark have longer daily cycles.
Emerging after 166 days underground in April 1998, Montalbini had lost nearly two stones in weight and said he had never slept longer than five hours at a stretch. He admitted that a major earthquake during his subterranean sojourn had frightened him for the first time since starting his experiments.
Asked if he preferred living in caves, Montalbini rounded on the questioner: "Are you trying to be funny? I'm not going back in there. I need the sun. I used to dream about the dawn. It's an experience I would not repeat."
On December 14 1986, Montalbini entered the Frasassi Caves of the Apennine Mountains, near Ancona. A video feed was set up to monitor him from the surface. When he emerged 210 days later on July 12 1987, he had broken the world record for complete isolation.
A local woman, Stefania Follini, a 27-year-old interior designer and aspiring hermit, heard of his exploits and decided to try the life herself; Nasa sponsored her 130-day stay in a sealed cave in New Mexico. Her menstrual cycle stopped, and she began a sleep cycle of waking for 23 hours at a time and sleeping for 10.
Both Stefania Follini and Montalbini found that time passed quickly underground. Similar experiments elsewhere have led to psychological complications and, in one case, a suicide.
On December 6 1992 Montalbini entered a cave in Pesaro. He again lost his sense of time, thinking it was only June 6 when he re-emerged on December 5 the following year.
Despite his protestations of 1998, in October 2006 Montalbini entered a cave 80 metres underground in the Apennine "Grotta Fredda" (Cold Cave) called "Underlab" with the intention of staying for three years, although in the event he spent a mere 235 days there.
His support team had created a 10-square-metre "home" for him, equipped with running drinking water and an electricity supply to power the assorted medical devices that monitored his physical condition and relayed the data to the team on the surface. With temperatures in the chamber reaching no more than 50F (10C), Montalbini spent his nights (or what he imagined were the night-time hours) asleep in an enclosed wooden bunk. As a concession to creature comforts, he took with him four kilos of honey, two kilos of walnuts, and one and a half kilos of chocolate.
Although he spent most of his time in the dark, Montalbini allowed himself the luxury of a few minutes' reading each day by the light of a gas lamp, and took a library of 85 books to keep him occupied. It turned out to be his final experiment. His death, from a heart attack, did not appear to be connected to his record-breaking cave stays.
Maurizio Montalbini is survived by his wife. They had no children.
Source: The Telegraph