A few years before Norm Pace revolutionized the study of life on Earth, he almost lost his own life.
He’s best known as a microbiologist, but he’s also a die-hard spelunker. In the 1970s, he and a group of friends set out to explore a Mexican cave called Sumidero Yochib. It sits at the bottom of a massive sinkhole that doubles as a large drain; when it rains, a hundred square miles of water funnel into the entrance, turning it into a raging torrent. These waterfalls, combined with almost a dozen sheer drops, make Yochib one of the most dangerous caves in the world.
Pace learned that the hard way. During one of his expeditions into Yochib, the bolt that was holding Pace’s rope popped out. He fell, straight into the path of a waterfall. His companions tried to pull him up, but failed. They headed back to the surface, sure that they had just seen their friend die. But Pace was very much alive. He had used his helmet to create an air pocket, which allowed him to breathe amid the cascading water. Slowly, he climbed his way out. His friends were trying to work out how to recover his body, when said body walked up to them and calmly sat down.
Norm Pace has a wiry build, large round glasses, and a deep voice that is already resonant at ground level, and one imagines even more so within the caves he likes to explore. He first entered a cave when he was 14 years old. Now, at the age of 75, he has explored more than 100 of them. In 1987, he received the Lew Bicking Award—the highest honor that American cave explorers can hope to get. “Have you ever walked down a sand passage that was deposited in the Pleistocene, and you’re putting the first footprints in it?” he asks me, in his deep, resonating voice. “Have you ever dropped down a waterfall, and no one knows where it goes? There’s this whole unknown world out there that we didn’t even know existed.”