Monday, July 26, 2010

Review by JD: Blind Descent by James M. Tabor



A fascinating true-life tale of extreme “scientist explorers” trying to discover the world’s deepest cave. Though that simple description really doesn’t do justice to what these people have to endure.

This kind of caving is like a strange upside-down version of mountaineering, combined with extreme diving and with a huge dose of intense psychological pressure thrown in for good measure. The leading exponents in the field have to master a whole range of climbing skills, have to be able to be able to dive through dangerous murky water-filled stretches of intestinal cave, and have to be able to do all of this miles underground where there is absolute darkness, totally cut off from the rest of the world. No matter how skilled and disciplined they may be, it remains frighteningly dangerous. And when bad accidents happen the chances of being rescued are virtually zero.

The book follows the lives and exploits of two very different expedition leaders on two different continents, each determined to expand the frontiers of what has been achieved in caving. Bill Stone is an American who is focused on extreme caves in Mexico; Alexander Klimchouk is a Ukrainian who is focused on supercaves in the Republic of Georgia. Because of the nature of the local geologies, these two locations both have the potential to have the deepest caves in the world.

The two men are very different and yet do share some common characteristics. Both had been caving for some 30 years and had various pioneering feats to their names before leading 2004 expeditions to Cheve Cave and Krubera Cave (links to National Geographic and some amazing data a pics). Both were determined to break through the 2,000 meter vertical depth barrier (that’s just the vertical depth; they have to work their way through many miles of caves to get there). Who would get there first? You get to read about the grueling nature of exploring supercaves and you find out who came away with the new world record.

I’ve always been intrigued by mountains and mountaineering and by grand explorations, so for me this book was big hit. It is absolutely fascinating to read about what these people put themselves through and what they manage to achieve. It is intense, scary, edge-of-the-seat stuff, and all the more so for being real-life.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book I do have some quibbles about it. Top of the list is that the book was crying out for maps of the caves systems, so you could get a better idea of what was happening and where. While the writing was detailed and of good quality, some visual aids would have helped greatly. In a similar vein, I was surprised that there weren’t more and better quality photos included in the book. I checked out National Geographic online after I finished the book, and it had an excellent map of the Krubera Cave and some tremendous photos. Something similar would have added greatly to the enjoyment of this book. Finally, I found the “race to the finishing line” set-up of the book a little contrived and some of the writing a little over-hyped in ways that weren’t necessary. The facts were amazing enough without having to over-embellish them.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating book and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading about exploration and man’s ability to endure physical duress in expanding the boundaries of human experience. I’d rate it 3½ stars.

Amazon purchasing links for US/UK/Canada.

  • Blind Descent: the quest to discover the deepest place on Earth
  • by James M. Tabor
  • ISBN: 978-1-4000-6767-1
  • Pages 256: hardback
  • Random House, 2010
  • Genre: Non Fiction

We rented this book from our local library. We love our library!

As always John (aka JD) will be addressing your comments around this book. So please don’t forget to click your follow up box to see his response.

Have a great Monday!


logankstewart said...

I heard an interview with the author of this on NPR the other day. I thought it sounded fascinating and thought that I might have to check it out some day. Great review.

John D said...

Hi Logan. Thanks for the nice words. I hope you enjoy it when/if it makes it to the top of your "to be read" pile. If it does, I'd love to hear what you think of it.

ThePageTurner said...

I just bought this book about 4 days ago!!! I, too, am a mountaineering buff and read all I can get my hands on regarding Everest especially. I am going to pop this one up in the queue. I picked this book for the same reasons you did (upside down mountains) however, I've been in a cave and hate them (cholosterphopbia), would hate mountain climbing, fear of heights.

John D said...

Hi Rose,
I went caving just once - quite an experience. The most amazing thing was that the guy who took me was about twice my size and yet he squeezed through gaps I couldnt get through. So it seems like not just upside-down mountains but also inside-out physics!

logankstewart said...

Living in Kentucky all my life, I've been to Mammoth Cave a few times and I've enjoyed each trip I've taken. I've never actually done any sort of freestyle spelunking, but the descents into total darkness and massive rocks has always been awesome.

John D said...

Hi Logan,
I'm with you. There is something about caves which just fires the imagination. A wonderful combination of weird physical stuff and your mind running wild about the absolute darkness and what might be down there.

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