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A Spanish athlete spent 500 days alone in a cave — for science

Beatriz Flamini leaves a cave in Los Gauchos, near the Spanish town of Motril on Friday.
Jorge Guerrero
/
AFP via Getty Images
Beatriz Flamini leaves a cave in Los Gauchos, near the Spanish town of Motril on Friday.

After spending almost a year-and-a-half in near-total isolation some 230 feet underground, Beatriz Flamini emerged from a cave in southern Spain and asked: Who's buying the beer?

The climber and mountaineer had entered the cave in Granada on Nov. 21, 2021, determined to spend 500 days alone — monitored from afar by a group of scientists — to explore the effects of isolation on the human body and mind.

Flamini was 48 years old when she went down, and 50 when she officially completed the challenge on Friday.

After resurfacing, Flamini embraced supporters, met with her doctors and spent nearly an hour talking to the reporters who had gathered outside. She told them she was ready for a drink and a shower — but could have stayed in the cave longer.

"I was sleeping — or at least dozing — when they came down to get me," Flamini said, according to The Guardian. "I thought something had happened. I said: 'Already? No way.' I hadn't finished my book."

By that point, she'd already made it through 60 books.

Flamini's team says she spent her days reading, drawing, exercising, knitting wooly hats and recording herself with two GoPros. Spanish production company Dokumalia plans to turn her experience into a documentary, AFP reports.

Flamini said she'd lost track of time after about two months in the cave, and thought she had only been in there for some 160 or 170 days. She described the experience as "excellent, unbeatable," telling reporters that she never even considered hitting the panic button.

"In fact, I didn't want to come out," she said.

Flamini says she still feels like it's 2021. Indeed, major global events, from Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, happened while she was basically living under a rock.

Even things like being in the sunlight and talking to others were going to take some getting used to, Flamini said on Friday morning, wearing dark sunglasses and a big smile.

"How would you feel if you had a dream and you fulfilled it?" she said when asked why. "Would you come out crying?"

Her experience in the cave

Flamini and members of her team pose with a newspaper after she left the cave on Friday.
Jorge Guerrero / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Flamini and members of her team pose with a newspaper after she left the cave on Friday.

Flamini's months in the cave were spent in silence and solitude — but not without remote supervision.

A team of scientists from the universities of Almería, Granada and Murcia kept in touch with her using "special, limited" messaging technology, The Guardian reports.

They delivered food — including special treats like avocados and fresh eggs — and removed her waste from a collection point "every five poos."

"I left my offerings there, as if to the gods, and the gods left me food," Flamini said.

Before going underground, she told her team not to contact her under any circumstances, even a family member's death.

"If it's no communication it's no communication regardless of the circumstances," she said, according to NBC News. "The people who know me knew and respected that."

A technical problem forced Flamini to briefly pause the challenge around Day 300, The Associated Press reports. She spent eight days in a tent, without making contact with anyone, before returning to the cave. (Nov. 21, 2021 to April 14 is 509 days.)

Flamini says she spoke only when recording videos.

"I didn't talk to myself out loud, but I had internal conversations and got on very well with myself," she added.

There were tough moments, like when she experienced "auditory hallucinations" and when a fly invasion left her completely covered. But Flamini says there were also "some very beautiful moments," and that staying present and in touch with her emotions helped her make it through.

"I was where I wanted to be, and so I dedicated myself to it," she said, per The Guardian. "You have to be focused. If I get distracted, I'll twist my ankle. I'll get hurt. It'll be over and they'll have to get me out. And I don't want that."

The experiment lives on

Flamini's experience is part of a project called "Timecave," which the AP says aims to study "how someone would fare going solo underground for so long."

A spokesperson for the project told the Spanish news agency EFE that the isolation experiment was Flamini's own idea, and that she had approached the media production company with the pitch.

Psychologists, researchers, physical trainers and speleologists (cave experts) with Timecave studied Flamini's recordings to monitor her well-being.

And EFE reports that scientists at Spanish universities and a Madrid-based sleep clinic are studying her experience to determine the impact of social isolation and "extreme temporary disorientation" on things like perception of time and circadian rhythm.

Flamini said she will continue to let doctors study the physical and mental impact of her time in the cave — before planning her next mountaineering and caving projects.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.