RIP Agnes Milowka
March 10, 2011 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Agnes Milowka, vivacious and courageous cave diver, was found dead last week in Australia's Tank Cave.

Milowka was an accomplished, charismatic, and widely-respected diver, who recently worked as a stunt diver on the James Cameron film Sanctum (which she reviews here). Her body has been recovered 550 meters from the cave entrance, in an extremely narrow section that had to be widened to facilitate removal (videos of Tank Cave: 1, 2, 3). The exact events that led to her death will likely never be known, but there is speculation that she may have become disoriented during a silt out and run out of air. Recovery divers say that she remained calm until her final breath. I made a post about Milowka only a few months ago. She was 29 years old.
posted by googly (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Cave divers, like high-rise steelworkers, must have something wired different in their brains from the rest of us. Because while it seems like an amazing adventure, that sort of claustrophobic feeling is a totally unique kind of terror.

posted by GuyZero at 9:56 AM on March 10, 2011

We as a species have lost another one of our crazy, brave outliers, and we are poorer for it.

posted by Aizkolari at 9:58 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Interesting, but the "found dead" article was more a feature on the Higgins person.
posted by k5.user at 9:59 AM on March 10, 2011

posted by Blasdelb at 10:12 AM on March 10, 2011

I am cold and alone inside the cave. Sitting there at 6m (20ft) I'm slowly loosing all feeling. I am so cold that it hurts. I am desperately craving comfort. To stay put is a mental struggle. It is tempting to shoot up to the surface, to sunlight, to warmth. I know I can't. I know that I have to stay. I know I am stuck in a self-imposed jail cell. I might be wretched and miserable but escape is not an option. The seconds of the clock count down. The more often I look down at the computer, the more frequently I am disappointed. Time, it seems, is standing still.

From her website. Creepy.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:14 AM on March 10, 2011

While sad, I always like to think adventurers who perish in such circumstances at least died pursuing their passions. After watching the lengthy degradation of my parents' dignity over the years, I admit some measure of envy for those exiting in a brilliant flash.
posted by PepperMax at 10:16 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

From her website. Creepy.

I don't think so.
Risk and discomfort are part of life. Staying on your couch is easier, but you're not avoiding either.

Looking through that site, it seems that she lived well. Living well doesn't make death any less tragic, but at least it makes the time we do have here a little bit more amazing.

posted by Stagger Lee at 10:17 AM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Creepy in that it reads like a journal entry from her last minutes.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:19 AM on March 10, 2011

Ms Milowka died doing the thing that she loved. She knew the risks and decided to have fun anyway. I wish I had as much courage as she did, to do that.

For what it's worth, I hope her last few minutes weren't too awful. It's exceedingly sad that she's died, as it is when any person dies, but in some way, she's become an inspiration to me.

If the scientists have it wrong, and you're out there somewhere, Agnes, I raise my glass to you.
posted by Solomon at 10:32 AM on March 10, 2011

posted by MeiraV at 10:34 AM on March 10, 2011

From the article:
Another is the use of marked lines on intercepting lines within the cave. If you come to an intersection where there is another line, you're supposed to mark the intersection with an arrow indicating the return route so you can feel your way out.

''She probably went over at least eight or nine intersecting lines which she never marked,'' he says.

It seems as though she was being needlessly reckless, or perhaps the visibility went to zero at some point early on, which caused her to miss the intersecting lines and end up losing her way.

I wonder if small echo-location/gps-location/accelerometer-based devices could help cave divers avoid getting lost in zero-visibility situations. It seems like a simple enough problem, but I suppose there would be an issue with very little demand and high costs for developing a rugged enough device.
posted by lemuring at 10:35 AM on March 10, 2011

Cave divers, like high-rise steelworkers, must have something wired different in their brains

They must have something different differently wired, because extreme heights don't phase me but the thought of cave diving in crevasses scares the shit out of me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:50 AM on March 10, 2011

Sorry, but this behavior is not courageous. RIP and condolences to the family and all, but this is someone engaging in extremely risky behavior for the thrill of it.
It would be courageous if the dive was to rescue another person, or trying to plug an oil leak that's poisoning a whole ecosystem. If a cure for cancer was hiding down there and she was after it - courageous.
There are many, many examples of courage, but this is not one.
Nothing about this story is inspiring to me. I think about the loved ones left behind who must wish they could trade a few meaningless feet of cave exploration for the chance to have their girl back.
"Courage" is a relatively important word. I vote to save it for those who deserve it. Just because one dies while doing a risky thing doesn't mean it applies.
posted by BillBishop at 11:15 AM on March 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Here's the previous post the OP meant to link to.

I got silted-out and disoriented hunting lobster in a (very small) cave under a local jetty. You can't see your hand in front of your face so any device would be useless, at least until you get out of the muck. I eventually found an exit but had to take the BCD and tank off and shove them through ahead to get out. I've never been more scared in my life.
posted by Manjusri at 11:17 AM on March 10, 2011

Mod note: fixed the link
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:21 AM on March 10, 2011

"this is someone engaging in extremely risky behavior for the thrill of it. "

Obviously, but that doesn't mean it doesn't require courage. The ability to perform rescues in these conditions is cultivated by venturing there repeatedly in non-emergency conditions and SAR teams are formed from the ranks of those who do it recreationally. If people didn't practice this stuff there would be a lot less successful rescues.

One of the articles mentioned it appeared that she was calm until the end. That's some serious fortitude. I'm pretty sure I'd be a gibbering lunatic scratching my nails out on the rock.
posted by Manjusri at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I read about cave diving a good bit while preparing to discuss the book Shadow Divers at a book club. It is some crazy stuff; the people who do deep cave diving are more like the guys who climb 2000 foot radio towers than the average high-rise worker. Although she died at the (relatively) shallow depth of 20m it is apparent from her website that she had training and experience at much deeper depths. Fewer people have gone below 200m on SCUBA gear than have walked on the moon; several of them have died. Among those are Sheck Exley, widely considered the father of the sport, and David Shaw, who died while retrieving the body of another diver; that story was an FPP some time ago. Like Ms. Milowka, Shaw's website has sections eerily foreshadowing his fate. He also videotaped his final moments, leaving clues as to what happened.

It would be courageous if the dive was to rescue another person, or trying to plug an oil leak that's poisoning a whole ecosystem

I see your point, but the skills to do those things have to be developed somewhere.
posted by TedW at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

"this is someone engaging in extremely risky behavior for the thrill of it. "

I see a very real distinction between doing exciting things while trying to minimize the risk, and "engaging in risky behavior for the thrill of it."

Russian roulette would be risky behavior just for the thrill of it. To harness a personal anecdote though, I mountain bike, but I wear a god damn helmet. We're not in it for the danger, we're in it for the experience. Few people want to die, and we do what we can to minimize the danger of it. But sometimes the remaining risk is still worth it for the experience.

It would be courageous if the dive was to rescue another person, or trying to plug an oil leak that's poisoning a whole ecosystem

I don't think that there's a binary between saving drowning orphans and sitting on your couch. Is this back to "How can you talk about enjoying food when people are starving in Africa-filter"?

...I'm not sure why I'm even arguing this. It seems to be more of a memorial thread than an "is it okay to take risks" thread. With all respect to everyone involved, I'm stepping back there.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:41 AM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

A compelling human pursuit made possible by modern technology. Something that takes tremendous cojones to even try. It approaches performance art to risk your life like this. You get to see things few humans do, with your own eyes. But, like riding a motorcycle, free solo climbing, wingsuit skydiving, deep breathhold diving, solo ocean crossings, hang gliding, base jumping, extreme surfing or backcountry skiing, and flying your own experimental single-engine plane, cave diving like this builds a high-percentage chance of dying into the activity. The more you do it, the more likely you are to die doing it. If it is a career, dying while pursuing said career is pretty much inevitable. So, I can't be sad when people like this lovely young woman die. I salute her using her life as she chose, but she was going to go this way, sooner or later.
posted by oneironaut at 11:53 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

BillBishop, if you were objecting to an application of the word "heroic", I might agree. But as the definition of "courage" is:

"the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery."

... I'm forced to say: her actions fit the definition the rest of the English-speaking world is using.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:25 PM on March 10, 2011

I'm sorry for her passing. Cave diving, particularly at her advanced level, is truly the most extreme diving, along with very deep diving.

I was an advanced scuba diver - night diving, fast water and ice. I say was, because it's been years since I dived last. Diving is not at all like high iron work. Diving is inner space, not unlike an astronaut - it's 3D space, if your'e neutraly buoyant, it's completely disorienting, particularly in pitch darkness. The only way to know the surface direction is to observe your exhaust bubbles' direction [up], with your torch if it's pitch dark.

Diving feels like flying, your'e completely weightless, it's a hella rush. It's also like being an explorer, skimming over the bottom of a lake, where no one has been. Until you come across a railway car! One absolute rule for diving is that you can't be claustrophobic. Panicking will kill you. Another rule is you never dive alone.

In laying new lines for cave diving, I can't help thinking there ought to have been a second person, at least a certain distance in...along with predetermined signals using the line. It's used in ice diving with those on the surface tending your line. What about a spare pony bottle of air part way in, full bottles are tied off on lines in dives requiring decompression stops.

I can't imagine her not planning this new line dive. To go for a determined length of time and returning.

Possibly in her eagerness of new exploration, time flew by, but to not having attached arrows at 7 locations...ignoring basic survival rules, I just don't understand. Was it over familiarity, over confidence? What about her frame of mind prior to the dive. Was there anything in her personal life that changed that anyone even knows. I rescued my diving partner ice diving, because he panicked over something he practised many times, a flooded mask. Turns out that earlier he was late depositing money for a trip he was counting on going. It went well for him, the rescue, but one still can't tell if a combination of events lead to Agnieszka's untimely end.

Many questions need to be answered before we get to what happened.

A book called "Deep Survival:Who Lives, Who Dies and Why" by Laurence Gonzales, who explores why seasoned, experienced outdoor enthusiasts die. In short, those goal oriented that don't change their plan when circumstances dictate revising that goal on the fly, die.

I feel for those close to her, it's a high price Agnieszka paid pursuing something she absolutely loved doing.

posted by alicesshoe at 1:50 PM on March 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

arguing semantics is annoying enough when it's not in an thread about someone who has just died
posted by nathancaswell at 1:57 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by clarknova at 3:00 PM on March 10, 2011

Point taken, nathancaswell.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:57 PM on March 10, 2011

Alicesshoe, that's an interesting point about unwillingness to change plans as a possible factor—it's something that comes up in aviation too. Safety depends much more on planning and training when we're acting out of our natural habitat, such as the sea or the air. When we slip into that comfortable zone of our instincts, we start playing roulette.

Of course it's hard to know that's what happened here, but the setup sounds awful familiar: very experienced practitioner makes deviations from established safety practices and winds up dead. What was she thinking?

In aviation, too, we consider five specific hazardous attitudes: resigned, macho, invulnerable, anti-authority, and impulsive.

RIP one of the greats. Even if it was a stupid mistake you gotta have respect for her accomplishment.
posted by maniabug at 5:03 AM on March 11, 2011


also, i started to load the david shaw video, then decided that i really didn't need to see the first person death-by-accident video and closed the tab.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:23 AM on March 11, 2011

maniabug, indeed, I liked your 5 hazardous attitudes. So true. To your statement 'when we slip into that comfortable zone of our instincts, we play russian roulette,' I daresay instincts shouldn't be disregarded.

From Gonzales' book, mountain climbers who have a specific time frame to reach the peak, not being able to reach the goal after all the planning and expense including if they don't succeed that day they may not be able to do it again for another year, could lead to inflexiblity for a change of plan as conditions change.

An invaluable read, Deep Survival.
posted by alicesshoe at 8:28 AM on March 11, 2011

In flying, we call it get-there-itis, and it kills people regularly. A certain fortitude is required to call off a planned mission; this should be an element of training for any high-risk technical activity.

A second-order effect is that pilots and extreme athletes alike tend to be high achievers, egotistical, and not accustomed to taking NO for an answer.
posted by maniabug at 12:22 PM on March 13, 2011

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