I never spent too much thinking about it, but I figured that all the terrestrial extremes had been conquered long ago. North Pole, South Pole, Mount Everest and the Mariana Trench were all visited by humans many decades ago, but until recently, one extreme had yet to be conquered. In 2004 an informal, but deadly, competition between Ukrainian and American caving teams culminated in the discovery of the deepest cave in the world. Blind Descent by James M. Tabor tells the story of this gripping struggle.
Initially a widely published journalist and award winning author, Tabor has gone on to host and produce documentary television shows. He constructs these parallel stories from interviews with the participants, as well as their logs and diaries.
He starts out with American engineer Bill Stone, who suspects that Cheve cave in southern Mexico may prove to be the world's deepest. Carved by constantly running underground rivers and waterfalls over millions of years through many miles of limestone, Cheve is a maze of pure darkness, highlighted by 2000 foot deep holes, massive crystalline rooms of rock and vast underwater lakes. Tabor describes Stone's untiring efforts to lead a team of caving fanatics on a meticulously organized effort to find the bottom of this "supercave".
He portrays the many dangers of deep caving with terrifying clarity. Caving is quite similar to mountaineering with ropes, carabiners and belays, but becomes much more dangerous when you add complete darkness, pounding waterfalls, scuba diving and no hope of outside rescue when trapped or injured miles below the surface. The hazard I found most horrifying was the dreaded sump.
Analogous to the s-shaped curve in the plumbing that drains your bathroom sink, a sump is a vertical bend in a cave that fills with water, often dozens of feet deep and only passable with scuba gear that has to be lugged many miles into the cave. If the cavers can't get past a sump, their exploration of that cave is over, so specialist cave divers are included in the team as they strive to reach greater depths. The terror of diving into unknown water, miles underground - with no hope of rescue if things go wrong - amazes me. Tabor makes a good case that these men and women make others explorers - whether at the poles, on top of high mountains or walking on the moon - look like pikers. Much of the book reads like a how-to-manual on different ways to die in a cave.
Changing his focus to the other side of the world, Tabor devotes a smaller portion of the book to Alexander Klimchouk, an accomplished Ukrainian caver who inspired and organized a team to conquer the depths of Krubera, a cave in war torn Georgia and another candidate for deepest cave in the world. He contrasts the leadership styles of the American and Ukrainian team leaders, as well as the organizational difference between both teams.
Tabor organizes the book in a competitive mode which seems a bit exaggerated to me. While both teams were aware of the other team's accomplishments and both strived to prove that "their" cave was the deepest, in the end it's not about who is the better or more fearless cave explorer, it's really about who was lucky enough to choose - or live near - the deeper cave. I think the competition narrative also forces the author turn his focus away from the amazing caves and spend more time on the contestants, whose exploits actually grow a bit tiresome and repetitive by the end, even though one team emerges with a stunning "victory".
While a couple dozen small color photographs are collected in the center of the book, I am perplexed by the complete absence of any maps or diagrams to help the reader create an image of these complex formations. He often refers to the caver's efforts to visualize the intricate maze of tunnels and sinkholes, striving to connect different parts of the cave together, but never chooses to share any of the diagrams or models that must be part of the process.
Over about 250 pages, Blind Descent sheds plenty of light on the hazards involved in what may be the world's most dangerous hobby, but I feel that Tabor could have spent more time on the caves and not as much on the explorers. If you're interested in caving, it's worth reading, but I've read plenty of better outdoor true adventure stories. It's such an amazing topic that I would have been generous and given the book four stars if the author had deigned to provide a helpful map or two. Unfortunately, that failing sinks it to three stars.
Other "terrestrial extreme" books that I liked better than this one:
The Golden Spruce
The Lost Cyclist
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