Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Out of the Depths

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth
by James M. Tabor

I've never figured out why, but I am inexplicably drawn to books about people with really extreme hobbies or vocations - especially explorer types who push the limits of their physical and mental endurance. Think Into Thin Air by John Krakaeur or Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. When I read a review of Blind Descent in Discover magazine, I knew I had to read it. Tabor's book is about people who explore "supercaves" that stretch for miles underground and often plunge to more than a mile deep. Some of these extreme caves have hundreds of flat face descents that have to be rappelled (and then climbed when the cavers are ready to get out), and many of the rock walls are actually waterfalls. Underground drainage pools called "sumps" block the passageway and have to be scuba dived. The passages are also often blocked by huge clusters of boulders that have fallen. The cavers have to move these, a dangerous process that can take days. Add to this that when cavers reach the bottom of a supercave, the hardest and most dangerous part is still ahead - retracing their steps to get out. Remember that, except for the puny efforts of flashlights and headlamps, this is all done in pitch darkness. And there are all kinds of underground critters flying and slithering and running around. Shudder.

Blind Descent is about the mentality and motivation of supercavers, but also the drive for scientific discovery that drives some of the most determined ones. The cavers have been in competition for years to find the deepest place on earth, and they meticulously survey every new place that they get to. These expeditions are months or years in the planning, and can be derailed by injury, illness, or fatality at any time. The descriptions of getting a severely injured person out of these supercaves are particularly harrowing - not to mention getting a corpse out. I found myself absorbed in the storyline, astonished that people would risk everything (including their own lives) to scratch out a few more feet of depth in some hole in the ground. Bill Stone, probably the foremost supercaver in the United States, sacrificed his marriage and numerous other significant relationships to the lure of the caves. A Russian caver, Peter Klimchouk, who finally established the Russian cave of Krubera as the world's deepest (whew! glad to finally have that cleared up), has had a years long rift with his oldest son over who gets credit for certain cave discoveries in the former Soviet Union.

The reader cannot help but admire the sheer grit of these people, but I felt much the same way I did when I read Krakauer's book on Everest climbers: "Why would someone do that?'' Who would invest millions of dollars and risk their lives on a venture that likely will yield nothing of significance and that may well cost you your life? Cavers write and speak of the breathtaking majesty of massive underground rooms, and the thrill of walking (or swimming or crawling) where no human has been before. Whatever rings your chimes I guess, but I think I'll stay above ground.

Although the book is not written from a spiritual perspective, I kept wondering about the spiritual motivations of the cavers. The words from Psalm 130 "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" kept running through my head as I read through this book. I have no desire to get that far down (literally or metaphorically), but I was intrigued by the euphoria that the cavers experience when they make a new discovery or come through a grueling exploration. Is it possible that experiencing such utter vulnerability gives the cavers a more clear sense of the presence of something (SomeOne?) grand and holy in their midst? I have not done extreme caving (and have no plans to), but I can say that some of the most difficult experiences of my life have also been the ones that strengthened my ties to the Holy One. Whether or not the cavers are aware of it or not, maybe that closeness is at least a part of what drives them.

Reverent Reader


At 10/21/10, 1:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yay! A RR post!
I love your book reviews!

I read an article in the New Yorker about divers--not scuba divers, or people who catapult off diving boards, but people who hold their breath and swim to incredible depths (usually with a monofin) and try to set time or depth records. The discussion of what happens to the body (specifically lungs) was fascinating. I found myself holding my breath several times during the article.

If you ever run across a book about free diving, you'd probably enjoy it for the same reasons you enjoyed this and Krakauer's stuff.

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