CHICAGO -- In a true test of international diplomacy, a team of Soviets and Americans will try to break a world record by spending 20 days in the dark without showering while wearing rubber suits.
It's not a stunt for "Ripley's Believe It or Not." The 10-man international team is headed to the Caucasus Mountains in the Soviet Republic of Georgia to best the world's caving depth record, currently just under a mile.
"It is our little way of international peace through caving," said John Sheltens, president of the National Speleological Society. Speleology is the scientific study and examination of caves.
The group, based in Huntsville, Ala., sent four of its members from Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama to the southwestern tip of the Soviet Union on Friday for the expedition, which they hope to begin by the end of this week.
The Americans and six Soviets want to descend one mile -- 5,280 feet. That would beat the record set at a cave near Grenoble, France, where explorers descended 5,250 feet.
To beat the depth record, the team will actually have to climb. A 10-mile hike up the mountains in Georgia will bring them to the entrance of the Sneznaya Cave, 7,500 feet above sea level.
A separate 10-man team will be stationed at the mouth of the cave while the cavers spend nearly three weeks surrounded by rock walls. Another crew made an advance descent into the cave to set up provisions at two campsites.
After reaching the top of the glacierlike mountain, the cave dwellers will don dry suits, special rubber clothes to protect against wetness. Then the descent begins.
"The first 2,000 feet of descent is mostly vertical -- a series of pits that we'll have to do on rope," said John Moses, a chemist from the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ill., who is leading the expedition.
"Then what happens is that part of the cave intersects a major river passage. We're hoping the dry suits float."
The team will follow the river, floating in it if necessary, to a depth of at least one mile below the surface.
The cold and damp will likely be the most bothersome, but there are mental challenges as well, Moses said.
"We're going to be climbing into a soggy sleeping bag, and when you are out of touch with daylight you tend to crave a taste of color," Moses said.
Another problem could be communicating.
"Language is always a stumbling block," said Sheltens, who explored with the Soviets during the society's first trip to their country. "But when you're with people that are doing the same thing that you are doing, you work things out."
The trip is the second the caving society has made to the Soviet Union in two years. The society is currently the host of a group of Soviets on a multi-state caving excursion, the second tour of its kind, Sheltens said.
"What we are finding out," he said, "is that we are much more alike than we are different."