|FEW ENDEAVORS FLIRT with death like high-altitude endoglacial cave diving. In addition to the obvious dangers of hypothermia and disorientation, an endoglacial diver risks sudden meltwater surges and bone-crushing ice-passage collapses. It's just another day at the office for Italian physicist Giovanni Badino, a technical ice caver, high-altitude mountaineer, and scuba diver who's been exploring the treacherous interiors of glaciers for 16 years. To do so, he rappels down an anchored rope through a moulin (a hair-thin ice shaft), dons scuba gear, and plunges into inky, nearly frozen pools of meltwater. "You have to reach out and touch the walls because there is no contrast between the air, water, and ice,"explains Badino, 47, who conducts his work in conjunction with Italy's University of Torino.
What's the point in penetrating the labyrinthine hearts of some the world's highest glaciers? For one thing, to monitor water conduction and storage inside glacial ice, the largest untapped and uncontaminated reserve of fresh water left on the planet. The rush to study this "blue gold"—and forestall glacial retreat—has assumed an even greater urgency as the world's aquifers and rivers have begun to run dry.
"We know that glaciers store enormous amounts of water," Badino says, "but we don't know a lot about how or where. Direct observation from scuba diving may give us some answers." Badino's quest to find these answers has taken him to Iceland, Argentina, Chile, and with greatest frequency, to Switzerland's Gorner Glacier, the most cave-riddled—or "karstic"—slab of ice in the Alps. Upending conventional scientific wisdom, however, comes with a price: Badino has found only five people willing to attempt glacial cave diving with him; few colleagues want to risk their lives working under millions of tons of shifting ice. "When you are on the cutting edge," he says wistfully, "you are always alone."