THE KISS OF DEPTH: Tabor’s story is full of creep-out goodies about “places that would quickly drive most people slobbering, bug-eyed crazy.”
For most sane people, caving is an inexplicable pastime. What, after all, is the appeal of claustrophobic crawls, frigid swims, extreme heights (even underground), oceans of insects, no toilets, and ever-present, absolute darkness?
But to American Bill Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk, caving is an overriding obsession — and we're not talking about the roadside show-cave experience where families follow a guy in a campaign hat along a concrete trail past stone formations lit by yellow and green lights and squeeze through tight spots with names like "Fat Man's Misery."
The brand of caving these guys practice exists on a level many insane people couldn't imagine. They pursue their passion in vertically oriented hydrologic monsters known as "supercaves" where explorers seek to tread where no man or woman has before — and where few likely will follow.
Stone and Klimchouk have spent decades obsessed with reaching the deepest place on earth. The contrast between these two scientists/cave explorers is the subtext of James M. Tabor's harrowing Blind Descent. Their unofficial competition on separate continents to lay claim to the deepest cave on the planet drives the narrative. But the unimaginable weight of the effort and the risk involved in each man's quest provide, as Tabor writes in another context, "the kiss of depth" to his story.
Tabor posits that by the turn of the 21st century, three things were clear about "the last great terrestrial discovery": it would come within a decade; it would happen in either the Abkhazia region of the Republic of Georgia or the Mexican state of Oaxaca; and leading the discovery team would be either Stone or Klimchouk.
The supercave each man eventually focuses on — Stone in Cheve in Oaxaca and Klimchouk in Krubera in Abkhazia — is vertical in orientation. Rather than strolling, crawling, or squeezing through mostly horizontal passages, explorers must rig ropes at the tops of "pitches" and rappel down. To come out, they must ascend those same ropes using specialized climbing equipment. Cheve has some 90 pitches that require rappels, as well as water-choked "sumps" that require dive gear to pass through. The effort getting people and gear to the farthest point of exploration and out again is staggering, sometimes requiring weeks underground. The challenge of getting to and transiting such sumps compels Stone to spend a decade perfecting a pioneering "rebreather" to replace standard dive tanks.
Tabor's descriptions are lean and dense with detail. The book opens with the story of a relatively inexperienced caver descending a pitch deep in Cheve on a Stone-led expedition. He errs with his equipment and falls to his death. Stone and his team, unable to get the body to the surface, bury it in the cave. A year later, another expedition, with great effort, retrieves the decomposed body in pieces. That horrific scene only scratches the surface of how appallingly difficult exploration in supercaves is.
Blind Descent could easily work as a profile of Stone and his adventures, but Klimchouk's tale is necessary to bring the "race" to its conclusion — which occurred in 2004. Tabor's command of the technical and scientific aspects of caving is exemplary, yet he flavors his prose with simple analogies that make the work accessible to the neophyte. He never mentions whether he is a caver himself, but if he's not, he's a hell of a journalist.
JAMES M. TABOR | Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St, Brookline | July 19 at 7 pm | 617.566.6660 or brooklinebooksmith.com