Saturday, September 18, 2010

Blind Descent by James M. Tabor

I heard about this book on NPR, and it sounded like another Wild Trees by Robert Preston (see my review here), but it did have a few differences. Tabor has an interesting subject about a place and activity I could never hope or want to experience. With my fear of heights and tight spaces, extreme cave diving and giant redwood climbing are definitely not for me.

Blind Descent tells the story of two teams of cave explorers searching for the deepest cave on earth. Tabor reminds us that the tallest mountains, both poles, and the deepest depths of the ocean have been explored, while the subterranean world presents an “eighth continent,” which remains virtually unexamined. He compares “cave divers” to all these great adventurers – Scott, Amundsen, Neil Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay.

The American team, led by Bill Stone, explores Cheve Cave in Mexico, while a Russian team, led by Alexander Klimchouk, tackles Krubera on the Arabika Mastiff in Georgia, the former Soviet Republic. These two men have diametrically opposite personalities, and both teams believe their respective caves are the deepest. The story starts slowly – spending a bit too many pages on the personality and relationships of Bill Stone, to my mind – but it does pick up once we get past all the quirks of the two team leaders.

These men and women face incredible obstacles – raging waters, strange microbes, falling rocks, water-filled “sumps” (flooded tunnels), and darkness for weeks at a time. Also, even minor injuries often prove fatal, because it might take days to return to the cave entrance. Furthermore, these two caves were in remote areas, so help was not nearby. Even if a rescue could be attempted, stretchers carrying injured cavers often don’t fit through small spaces and cracks in the cave walls.

James Tabor is not Robert Preston, who has experience writing for The New Yorker. This interesting story could benefit from some detailed drawings of some of the equipment they used to descend into these “super caves.” Preston supplies a few drawings of the giant trees.

The idea of climbing mountains and diving these dangerous caves might appeal to some – but most definitely not me. The great mountaineer George Leigh Mallory said he climbed, “Because it’s there.” He attempted to scale Mt. Everest three times, and may or may not have reached the summit in 1924. He never came back from that attempt. I do not understand this sentiment, but thanks to Preston and Tabor, readers – even timid ones like me! -- can vicariously experience these great adventures. (4-1/2 stars)

--Chiron, 9/17/10

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