Author Bill Stone points out that the world never knows how deep a cave is until someone "bottoms it out." The tallest mountain's height is a known factor before anyone attempts the climb, but the mystery of caving remains.
"Beyond the Deep" recounts Stone's expedition into the cave system of Systema Huantla in Mexico, which as of 2001 was rated the 8th deepest cave system in the world at 1,475 meters. As the deepest cave in the world, the Kubera Cave in Georgia (formerly USSR) is 1,710 meters, only 235 meters deeper than Huantla, we are talking about some extreme caving.
The main purpose of the expedition was to test out Mr. Stone's "rebreather," an artificial breathing device that allows an underwater diver more than six hours of oxygen as opposed to 45 minutes in the average scuba tank. This amount of time is needed in caves with large "sumps" or underground water passages where the surface can be a great distance away. The problem with the rebreather, aside from its experimental nature, is its complexity, an added component of difficulty to a diver's already altered state of awareness.
The expedition was a diverse group consisting of five divers (these are extreme guys!), five top-of-the-line cavers, and Stone's girl friend, Barbara am Ende, a PhD geologist, but less experienced cave diver. The story unfortunately begins in Maryland where they assembled the group and the gear. I say "unfortunately" because it is an overlong section that leaves us a long time to wait before we get to the cave. Once at the site, the book is engrossing and exciting. Excellent maps are included that are vital to the understanding of what they were doing and where they were at any given time. Stone's descriptions of the types of caving and diving required are outstanding. I have never willingly been in a cave (my claustrophobia kicks in just reading about it!), yet I could easily visualize exactly what was going on. The dangers, particularly of diving, are appalling. After finishing the book, I looked up "most dangerous sports" and was surprised #1 is bull riding, #2 water speed records and #3 cave diving. After reading "Beyond the Deep," I was certain nothing in this world (and possibly the next) could be more dangerous than cave diving!
The book has weaknesses mostly in the format. Mr. Stone chooses to use the third person singular, i.e. "Bill Stone says--" when he is talking about himself, something I find irritating and pretentious. The author states at the beginning that the dialogue is not exact, only an approximation. It is extremely stilted and when the author tries to get off a good joke that "cheered everyone up," it falls flat as a flounder. Guess you had to be there. Ms. am Ende is portrayed as almost walking on water; her patience is unremitting, her cheerfulness amazing. This is in contrast to the other members who were displayed in a much more three-dimensional, interesting manner.
This is one of those books you feel like you don't quite have the whole story. Mr. Stone is an enthusiastic proponent of his rebreather, yet I felt the divers' concerns and uneasiness were quite understandable and to the point. The author is clearly a driven person and whether he showed bravery or a blatant disregard of safety by continuing the exploration with the inexperienced Ms. am Ende is something the reader will have to decide for himself.
A good, interesting read with glossary, index and notes.