Friday, May 20, 2016

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, by James M. Tabor

Why did I ever pick up this book?  I have no particular interest in caving nor, I would have thought,
Beginning the descent into the Krubera cave,
Abkhazia, Georgia
in reading about caving. Yet here we are -- I rushed to finish other chores so I could curl up somewhere with Blind Descent. I shared it with a friend, and he too sat down in his shop at the end of his workday and read late into the night. Coincidentally, we are planning a trip to Georgia in the spring of 2017, but dropping into the Krubera cave in Abkhazia -- now acknowledged as the world's deepest cave -- won't be on our itinerary. We're both content to have read about it.  We'll toast the cavers with some good Georgian wine. They are remarkable men and women.

Tabor tells the story of the men and women who were in a race to reach the deepest point on earth. If you like reading stories of mountaineering, you'll love this book. If you're afraid of the dark or claustrophobic, it will give you an especial thrill. If you think your sport, whatever it might be, is risky, descending into "supercaves" will make it seem mundane. Who does this sort of lunatic thing?  And why? Blind Descent will introduce you to them.

Tabor gathered reams of information from interviews and exchanges with the two expedition leaders. American Bill Stone led several expeditions into the Cheve cave system in Mexico; Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk led as many into the Krubera cave in Georgia. Their personalities are as riveting as their caving exploits.
Caves invite juxtapositions of opposites: light and dark, surface and subterranean, safety and terror. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone are both in their fifties, but otherwise they are about as different as men can be, fitting nicely into that list of opposites. Klimchouk is short and slight. Stone is towering and muscular. Klimchouk is quiet, self-effacing, and avuncular. Stone is bold, brash, and commanding. Klimchouk has been happily married to the same woman for decades. Stone divorced in 1992 and has since had a series of relationships with strong, attractive, accomplished outdoorswomen. He is currently engaged to the cave explorer Vickie Siegel, with plans to marry in May 2010. They are alike, however, in two key ways: both are scientists and explorers in the classic tradition of Magellan, Amundsen, and Armstrong, willing to risk everything, including their lives ...
Limited by the seasons (winter rains flooded the caves), the two men led several years of expeditions into the caves. Some years met a dead end; others found "going" passages -- some wider than others -- that went. And went, and went. Always, though, is the thought that these cavers are very far below the earth's surface, and for every centimeter that they dig, scramble and dive, they have to turn around and go back through the same obstacles.
The 2004 expedition produced more frustration than discovery. After others declared the Aguacate cave (possibly connected to Cheve) dead-ended, Andi Hunter fought through this squeeze and discovered a new route. It paid off in Aguacate with the discovery of more than a mile of largely horizontal tunnels leading toward the presumed junction zone with Cheve. This expedition encountered more tight spaces than giant vertical drops, which prevailed in 2003. Squeezes present their own unique hazards. Sometimes the only way to rescue irretrievably stuck cavers is to break bones. 
Do you think climbing the world's 8,000-footers is dangerous? Of course it is, but the risks don't quite match up to those of descending 8,000 feet below the earth's surface. Mt. Everest (and other mountains of its ilk) are still littered with the corpses of mountaineers who have died there. Bill Stone's crew faced the decision of what to do when one of their team mates fell to his death in Cheve. Just as serious, and perhaps even more so, is the prospect of rescuing a caver who is seriously injured.
Supercaves present more hazards than any other extreme exploration environment. Just descending into and climbing out of them is exorbitantly dangerous. Recovering a body, dead or alive, from deep within any cave is even worse, increasing that danger by an order of magnitude. The same year Chris Yeager died, a caver named Emily Davis Mobley broke her leg only four hours and several hundred vertical feet from the entrance of a New Mexico cave called Lechuguilla—big but far less hazardous than Cheve. It took more than one hundred rescuers four days to bring her to the surface. One expert estimated that every hour of healthy-caver descent time equaled a day of ascent in rescue mode in Lechuguilla, which was noted for, as cave explorers put it, “extreme verticality.” “Extreme verticality” describes perfectly the part of Cheve through which Yeager’s body would have to be hauled. From its entrance, the cave drops like a steep staircase almost 3,000 vertical feet, over a total travel distance of 2.2 miles, before it begins to level off somewhat. It is not one smooth, continuous drop. Those 3,000 feet include innumerable features and formations, with the odd level stretch, but Cheve’s main thrust here is down. One giant shaft alone is 500 feet deep. Like rock climbers, cavers call such vertical drops “pitches.” There are also shorter pitches—many of them, in fact—as well as waterfalls, crawl spaces, walking passages, lakes, huge boulder fields, and many more formations, unique and almost impossible to describe except with a camera. 
If you want to read about Scott's and Amundsen's race to the South Pole, read Evan S. Connell's The White Lantern. I can't imagine a better book about the race to the center of the earth than this one.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an amazing narrative of a wonderful adventure. Most of us won't have the skills, strength or courage to undertake such an expedition, so this book will allow us to experience it vicariously.


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