July 2010

Supercavers explore dangerous depths

By James Tabor
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Magellan, Amundsen, Armstrong: If the mere mention of these names ignites your passion for exploration, discovery and adventure, James M. Tabor’s latest book will indulge you on all counts and then some. Blind Descent chronicles the deadly dangerous, awe-inspiring quest to reach the Earth’s core and the race to get there first by two fiercely competitive men of polar-opposite personalities—the quiet, self-effacing Ukrainian, Alexander Klimchouk, and Bill Stone, the brash, commanding (and sometimes controversial) American.

Far beyond the relative tameness of commercial caves or even the daunting challenges of spelunking, this mission takes the men and their teams “thousands of feet deep and many miles long” into the uncharted subterranean mysteries of the supercave. Danger is ever-present; falling, flooding, asphyxiation, hurricane-force winds, hypothermia and the “particularly insidious derangement called The Rapture” (to name just a few of the many hazards) pose ongoing threats to life and limb. Compounding the tension and peril is the added menace of living and maneuvering in unrelenting, unnerving darkness.

Tabor’s you-are-there style captures the excitement of these expeditions with the immediacy of an Indiana Jones movie, and the ensuing human dramas which unfold—deaths, divorces, liaisons and love affairs—are equally compelling. He also deftly handles the science involved, explaining how these endeavors offer important insight into subjects ranging from pandemic prevention to new petroleum preserves. And then there’s the ever-evolving equipment angle, like the dogged, problem-solving Bill Stone’s invention of the MK1 rebreather, the breakthrough technology that first thrilled divers in 1987 when Stone stayed underwater an incredible 24 hours. The device now allows cavers to get past the formidable underground rivers and lakes that previously blocked their passage to greater depths.

“Caves are scientific cornucopias,” Tabor writes, but “only quite recently have sophisticated batteries and digital recording technology made it possible to take cameras far down into supercaves,” bringing these expeditions the kind of attention their “mountaineering, aquanaut, and astronaut counterparts” have long enjoyed. In Blind Descent, Tabor’s access to actual video footage and photographs (some stunning examples are included) as well as logs and journals enhance his exhilarating prose. A former contributing editor to Outside magazine and Ski magazine, and the writer and host of the popular PBS series “The Great Outdoors,” Tabor’s many talents culminate in this risk-it-all tale of tragedy and triumph.

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