After spending 500 days alone in a dark cave 70 metres below the Earth’s surface, assailed by a plague of flies and the odd tantalising vision of roast chicken, most people would be craving a wash and some company.
But after emerging from her subterranean lair in southern Spain a little after 9am on Friday and having a quick checkup with a doctor and a psychologist, Beatriz Flamini was treated instead to a 50-minute press conference in which she endeavoured to explain the almost inexplicable.
“I was expecting to come out and have a shower,” she told the room full of reporters. “I wasn’t expecting there to be so much interest.” That was one of Flamini’s rare miscalculations.
On Saturday 20 November 2021 – three months before Russia invaded Ukraine – the elite sportswoman and extreme mountaineer entered her Stygian lodgings in the cave outside Granada, determined to learn more about how the human mind and body can deal with extreme solitude and deprivation.
Monitored by a team of scientists from the universities of Almería, Granada and Murcia, who kept in touch through special, limited messaging technology, the 50-year-old athlete from Madrid is now thought to have broken the world record for the longest time a person has spent alone in a cave.
Flamini told the media that she had lost track of time after day 65. Asked how she had succeeded in keeping herself sane for so long, Flamini pointed to her extensive experience and mental preparation, adding: “I got on very well with myself.”
Yes, she had talked to herself – but never out loud. After all, the silence of the cave (“it wasn’t my house”) had to be respected. The key, she added, was consistency.
“For me at least, as an elite extreme sportswoman, the most important thing is being very clear and consistent about what you think and what you feel and what you say,” she said. “It’s true that there were some difficult moments, but there were also some very beautiful moments – and I had both as I lived up to my commitment to living in a cave for 500 days.”
Flamini said she passed the time calmly and purposefully by reading, writing, drawing, knitting – by enjoying herself: “I was where I wanted to be, and so I dedicated myself to it.” Put bluntly, the trick was living in the here and now: “I’m cooking; I’m drawing … 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.”
She had managed to keep fit, plough through 60 books and use two cameras to chronicle her experiences for a forthcoming documentary.
But surely there had been some unpalatable moments – times when she was tempted to hit the panic button and head back into the light?
Flamini thought for a moment and then remembered one particular insect incursion.
“The flies! The flies! The flies!” she said. “There was an invasion of flies. They came in, they laid their larvae and I didn’t control it and so I suddenly ended up enveloped by flies. It wasn’t that complicated, but it wasn’t healthy … but that’s just what it was.”
While she fell victim to an intense craving for roast chicken with potatoes, the solitude was less of a problem. Before she entered the cave, she told her team that she did not want to be told what was going on outside, even if it involved the loss of a loved one.
“The people who know me and love me respect that,” she said. “There’s no problem.”
Flamini sounded ever so slightly irked when recounting how she felt when the moment came to leave the cave. “I was sleeping – or at least dozing – when they came down to get me … I thought something had happened. I said: ‘Already? No way.’ I hadn’t finished my book.”
Nor was she dazzled by the daylight of the Andalucían spring. And it hadn’t just been the dark glasses she wore.
“I didn’t feel anything when I saw the light because to me it felt like I’d only just gone in there, so I didn’t have that sensation of missing the light and the sun and all that’s out there,” she said. “I’m being honest – I’m not going to lie.”
Just as revelations and insights were beginning to appear elusive, someone plucked up the courage to ask the question on everyone’s mind. What about the, er, toilet arrangements down there?
Flamini, to no one’s surprise by that point, was unflappable, explaining that she had left her bodily waste at the collection point “every five poos”. A round of applause rang out.
“There was no other way and five was my limit,” she said. “You have to get the waste out. I left my offerings there, as if to the gods, and the gods left me food.”
She was equally phlegmatic about the long-delayed wash: “I still haven’t showered. But then, I’m an extreme sportswoman. I could go another 500 days.”
The defiant athlete – and, pending official confirmation, record-breaker – had appeared baffled by her questioners only once. Why had she looked so happy when she emerged from the cave?
“How would you feel if you had a dream and you fulfilled it?” she replied. “Would you come out crying?”