Extreme caving. Amazing tales of the supercave.
July 11, 2010 11:19 PM   Subscribe

An interview with caving researcher James M. Tabor. I haven't recently come across a finer link for pure imagination fuel than this brief interview with caver and caving researcher and writer James M. Tabor, author of Blind Descent.

Tabor makes a compelling argument that extreme caving presents challenges and vistas that beggar the climbing of the world's tallest mountains. Is there another topic that takes you from the cutting edge of diving technology to experimental submarines that may one day plumb the depths of Jupiter's moon Europa? Via Slashdot.
posted by nanojath (16 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The IMAX film Journey into Amazing Caves is also pretty interesting. Thankfully, it is not actually narrated by movie narrator guy.

It's available on Amazon VOD and elsewhere.
posted by wierdo at 11:23 PM on July 11, 2010

Great post. See related article about another super cave;

To Hell and Back: Death in the Depths of Sistema Huautla
posted by gen at 11:34 PM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

NPR interview with James Tabor: A 'Blind Descent' Into The Deepest Caves On Earth
posted by gen at 11:38 PM on July 11, 2010

NOVA's Extreme Cave Diving episode features some pretty harrowing footage. I would never watch it again, but that's just me and my weak stomach.
posted by anarch at 11:42 PM on July 11, 2010

Wow, those are awesome, deeper links, gen. Fascinating stuff.
posted by nanojath at 12:19 AM on July 12, 2010

I liken Stone and Klimchouk to Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong—the forerunners who open a virgin, alien environment and prove that humans can get there.

Oh no, I think these deep cavers are much, much braver than the astronauts: the outer space boys are just passengers on a big firework; they're talking to the ground crews all the way (until re-entry); they have WINDOWS for crying out loud. The cavers ... well, read the interview. (Can't wait to check out the links in the comments.)
posted by Faze at 4:25 AM on July 12, 2010

A snippet from the review published by a caver who has been reviewing caving books for the last 40 years:

That guy should be on drugs. To judge by the fifty-three very short chapters in this book, he has an attention-deficit disorder. He ends the tiny chapters with cliff-hangers, many of them contrived. He easily gets overexcited. Everything is super—supercaves and supercavers, terminology I hope doesn't catch on. Sometimes he is completely out of control. Cavers don't go about "banging like human wrecking balls into rock faces." (...)

I never did get used to Tabor's giving all the dimensions of caves in Mexico and Europe in feet, but I suppose it might be appropriate for the unsophisticated audience for whom the book clearly was written. Of greater concern are the errors or half-truths for effect. A few of them are significant. There was not, in fact, a lot of digging involved in pushing Cueva Charco, near Cheve. It was misleading to write that Chris Yeager's body was hauled out of Cheve in three days; the whole recovery project took two weeks. More of them are merely annoying. Abkhasia is not in southeastern Georgia. It is actually at the opposite end of that country. The names of the first team to reach Saknussemm's Well in Cueva Cheve are wrong. Cheve's Camp 2 is not 3.1 miles from the entrance. The correct distance is 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers). This list could be extended past the point of tedium.

I'd still like to read it, but it sounds like an immense amount of hyperbole is at work here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:09 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Beyond the Deep is a first-person account written by Stone & am Ende about the famous Huatla sump-diving trip. I know folks who were on that trip as support, & it's pretty accurate.

Bill Steele covers the whole history of the Huautla exploration pretty well here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:20 AM on July 12, 2010

Jesus, devils that sounds like some pretty massive errors. I would love to read more of that review if you have a link for it.
posted by smoke at 6:13 AM on July 12, 2010

Here ya go. Mixon does review books for the caving community specifically, hence his spotlight on factual errors, though he does give it 3 stars in the end. The stuff that gets his hackles up is stuff that probably doesn't matter as much to the general public, but as it's non-fiction and part of the historical record, it would be nice to have accurate distances, and names of explorers, as long as it's being presented as fact.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:51 AM on July 12, 2010

I just finished reading Blind Descent last week. It was certainly an interesting book, and it does a great job of conveying both the extreme dangers faced by these cavers and the mental resolve they have to push past them to go deeper than anyone's gone before. The story telling is kind of hit-or-miss though: I felt like I was right there with Stone and am Ende during the Huatla trip, and with the Ukrainian team on the 2004 Krubera trip, but apart from those two I wasn't completely engaged.

I also had a problem with the book's central conceit - a race between Stone in Cheve Cave and Klimchouk in Krubera to find "the world's deepest supercave". With the tallest mountain or deepest undersea trench or first person to the poles there's a well defined goal. We can measure the height of a mountain pretty well without going to the top, look around and see where there might be higher ones, etc. Similarly with trenches and sonar measurements (I guess that's how it's done?). But with caves, there's no clear way to know that today's Deepest Cave in the World won't get surpassed by tomorrow's team exploring some crack people have been walking past unnoticed for generations. Sure, there's probably only a limited number of places in the world where you get the high altitude limestone geography that leads to these sort of formations, but there's no looking around to see how your cave stacks up against someone else's newly found cave. Perhaps that's part of the excitement for these guys though, I don't know (and Tabor barely touches on this).

He talks about cavers climbing up to the roof of chambers, but not about why they would do that.

Finally, I just think it's odd what Tabor includes in the book and what he doesn't.


By the end of the book, Klimchouk and others in the Ukraine have explored Krubera cave to a depth of 7000+ ft, making it the current Deepest Cave. Stone has reached apparent dead ends in Huautla and Cheve, both in the ~4900ft area, making them the #9 and 10 deepest caves in the world. We hear nothing throughout the whole book about any of the other major caves, all of which are apparently closer competitors for Krubera. Meanwhile Tabor spends at least 2/3 of the book talking about Stone's trips through Huautla and Cheve, and only goes into much detail about one trip in Krubera.


Still, overall it's a fun read. I went on one 8 or 10 hour caving trip in southern Indiana somewhere 15 years ago that was fun but scary enough even though it involved no technical ascents or descents and the water was never more than waist deep. To amp that experience up to the level of the things Stone and Klimchouk do is mind-boggling.
posted by krakedhalo at 7:00 AM on July 12, 2010

Before I read Blind Descent, I thought that I would never want to go caving. After I read it, I realised that you could not pay me enough money, nor threaten enough of my family, to get me to go deep caving. The book also massively lacked images, including some that were described in the text as beautiful photographs. It was odd.

I also didn't understand the race concept -- if Cheve was found to be deeper a year before or a year after Klimchouk (or vice versa), so what? Deeper is deeper.
posted by jeather at 7:16 AM on July 12, 2010

He talks about cavers climbing up to the roof of chambers, but not about why they would do that.

2 reasons -- 1 -- pure length. If you're standing on the floor of a room with no obvious way on, and you can see a gaping passage near the ceiling 50 feet up, it might lead to a continuation in length. There's a sort of mindset to explore all passages in a cave, to get the total length. Some bolt climbs end in frustration i.e. a 6-foot deep pocket in the cave wall near the ceiling of a dome that looked like passage, but they can lead to spectacular breakouts into miles of unknown passage.

2. a way around a difficult or dangerous spot. There have been 2 or 3 instances in Cheve where they've bypassed a sump or nasty breakdown pile crawl by climbing up to find higher parallel passage that ends up dropping back down into a continuation of whatever they'd previously had to get to through the dive or crawl. Cavers don't inherently seek danger, and if a safer way is obvious, we take it, generally.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:37 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tabor was on the Daily Show a few weeks ago.
posted by homunculus at 8:44 AM on July 12, 2010

The concept of 'The Rapture' scares the shit out of me. Just trying to imagine myself experiencing it makes me panicky.
posted by AzzaMcKazza at 7:01 PM on July 12, 2010

Just finished the book. It's not bad, but not great. Some of the writing is amateurishly breathless. Stone is a fascinating character but the author doesn't quite get in his head. I wished for more detail on what it feels like to be 5 days inside a cave. Mostly it read like a lesser Into Thin Air, for both good and bad.
posted by Nelson at 8:43 PM on July 18, 2010

« Older Hulu for the world!   |   The Future American Job Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments