Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth

by: James M. Tabor
published by: Random House
(I read this book on my Kindle.)

I can't remember the last time I got so entranced by a book - I literally had the "can't put it down" syndrome.

I tend, as my readers will know, to get on kicks. This latest one had to do with caving. I was reading some magazine, and read the description of Blind Descent in a sidebar. Then it seemed that everywhere I turned, someone was interviewing the author. It's all about the attempts made by two separate teams, in two very different locations, to find the lowest spot on earth. It was without a doubt, the page-turner smash of the summer.

Which is not to say, the most brilliantly written book. In fact, I found it in many ways a little silly and trite, but for all its flaws, absolutely riveting. So much so that I had to also read the book co-written by one of the caver-protagonists: Beyond the Deep, by William Stone and Barbara am Ende (with Monte Paulsen).

The book is above caving. And not just caving... I mean CAVING. I like to slither around in smallish passages in well-documented caves. These are crazy people who go miles underground and rappel down cliffs into god-knows-where, risking their lives literally every single second of every single day and night of the up-to-several weeks they may be entombed in the dark.

Worse: they also have to carry all their stuff with them. Literally, every scrap of everything they will need for whatever period of time they are down, they will need to carry on their backs. A lot of it is like being a mule. A mule in a dark, small, dirty, noisy (really! More about that later...) tunnel.

It works like this: first the cavers set up a camp up top. Then they go down as far as they can comfortably get in a day. This involves walking, inching, belly-crawling, and sometimes rappeling (as in, coming down a cliff side on a harness). All the while, you will carry 50+ pounds of gear in a pack on your back. If you did hit a big descent, you might have to rig it. That means, pound in the pitons (metal spikes that are driven into the cliff face), then attach the ropes, then drop a bit, and do it again. Riggers (there are specialists for caving chores, one of them being riggers; there are also divers and sherpas) carry drills with them, but if they run out of power or in some way have to do it, brute force is used to drive the pitons in.

A second camp is then set up, and the sherpas head back up top to pick up another load of gear. This is then is ferried to camp one, and then some gear is left at this camp, and another load carried forward to the next camp. Keep in mind that this is difficult enough when you know the terrain: in the case of these cavers, they were frequently in territory that was completely unmapped and unknown. Going forward, they not only had to explore, but they had to mark and map the path forward, frequently coming to dead ends, or "breakdown," where the cave ceiling had collapsed, creating an impenetrable pile of rubble. The only course then is to dig through it (this is the job of the diggers), or find another way around it.

Meanwhile, the conditions under which these people (and it is both men and women) are laboring are unforgiving at best: cold, wet, sharp and slippery by turns, and loud. A sign that a cave is a "going" cave is frequently wind. Quite literally, as a large cave equalizes pressure from its depths to its upper regions a wind blows through it. Sometimes this wind is strong and sharp, and always noisy as it funnels through relatively small passages as it works its way to the open air. One of the cavers biggest complaints is the sleeplessness that results from the constant noise, over which they must shout to be heard.

Most dangerous of all is when the cavers arrive at a sump. This is where you go from mere claustrophobia to out-and-out terror. A sump is basically a portion of a tunnel that is completely underwater.

To understand a sump, just realize that most caves are formed one of two ways: lava tubes, which are basically burned from the inside out as lava pushes its way up into the surrounding rock; or water, which pounds relentlessly on soft rock (say, limestone), dissolving it over eons as it makes it way to the lowest possible spot. Many, if not most, caves are "wet," which is to say, at some point of the year there will be quite a bit of water in them. Sometimes this water will rush with great suddenness into a small tunnel, and more than one cave expedition has been drowned or isolated on the far side of a sump with no means of getting back.

To picture a sump, imagine a garden hose snaking along, one elbow of which forms a little curve. This curve sits below the water table, and thus fills up with water. To get past a sump, a caver will put on diving gear (wet suits, even dry suits, are vital, as the water averages about 64 degrees), as well as tanks, or more likely, something called a re-breather. A re-breather is an arrangement that, rather than being an open system, like a regular SCUBA tank (where the un-breathed gas is released in the iconic diver's bubbles), the oxygen is passed through the diver again and again as he breathes. Generally speaking, each breath we take exhausts very little of the available oxygen we take into our lungs. By re-breathing, divers extend their time underwater many-fold. If re-breathers weren't available, cave diving would never have progressed as far as it has. Cavers would simply have to cart too many pounds of air to make deep descents practical.

The cave divers are the cowboys of the caving team. They are the people who "scoop booty" most frequently (to "scoop booty" is to set foot on territory untrod by human feet. Ever.). They are the people who overcome man's innate fear of dark, confined spaces; who forget that they are buried miles deep in solid rock, in the absolutely pitch black dark, with no idea where they are headed and only a thin rope guiding them back to where they've been. They are the ones who can kick up silt to the extent that, even with lights, they can see nothing, even losing their sense of "up" versus "down." They are, in a word, nuts.

I could go on. I could tell you about how cavers sleep, eat, and sit around in the dark so they don't use up precious batteries; how they are wet and cold and filthy and hungry almost all the time; how they must defecate into plastic bags (in the dark, just to make it more interesting);  how they get "Rapture of the Deep," which is akin to what SCUBA divers experience, a period of complete panic. But where a diver can head up and back into the light in a matter of hours, a caver might have a four day trek to get back to the surface and sanity, so he either overcomes his panic, or he doesn't.  But I'll let you read all the juicy details yourself.

What I will say is that the book spends by far the most time on William Stone and his crew. Perhaps this is because Stone wrote his own version of these events in his book Beyond the Deep, and therefore his story was well-documented; perhaps because Stone is a far more interesting character than his Ukranian counterpart, Alexander Klimchouk. Stone led the expedition into the  Chevé supercave in Mexico; Klimchouk led his party into the Krubera cave system in the Republic of Georgia. Both are not just caves, but cave systems, or supercaves - very deep, very dangerous, uncharted, and extending miles underground. As it turns out, while Stone got the lion's share of the book, Klimchouk got the prize: his cave bottomed out at 7,188 ± 66 ft (remember, 5280 is a mile, so we're way down there!). By contrast, the  Chevé cave is not quite 5000 feet deep, though at least as dangerous due to its many sumps, and the ever-present danger of flooding.

You can only imagine that people driven to engage in such a sport have got to have demons that most of us don't encounter, and so it seems with both the buttoned-up and organized Klimchouk, and the more volatile and emotional Stone. It's said that mountaineers climb because "it's there," and while the same can be said of cavers, cavers have the added distinction of not even being able to see where they're headed - or knowing for certain when they've got there.

My on real disappointment, if you can even call it that, was, upon reading Beyond the Deep, Stone's own account of his expedition into Chevé and Huatla caves, it seemed that it was the same book all over again. The question is: who wrote Stone's story first? Either way, it's an amazingly good tale, and one I promise you will not be able to put down once you get started.


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