Top positive review
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Calm down dear
on 14 April 2013
'As the fifteenth century began, we believed, absolutely, that the earth was flat.
As the twenty-first century began, we believed with equal certainty that every one of the earth's great discoveries had been made. Almost a century had passed since Peary first trod the North Pole...'
So begins Blind Descent, James M. Tabor's account of deep cave exploration over the last thirty or so years. As you can see, Tabor is not a man to let the facts stand in the way of a bold superlative. (The medieval world knew the earth is spherical; most historians think Peary never reached the North Pole.)
Tabor's habit of trying to vacuum pump the excitement by means of dodgy superlatives is a bad one. Sometimes the superlatives cancel each other out. On page 58 he tells us that 'supercaves are always noisy', comparing the volume to a 747 engine. By page 60 he is telling us that they are so quiet that cavers who have sex underground are inevitably overheard. On page 276 he tells us that he has not personally been in a cave, as he is not full-cave certified and that to go into caves without such training is 'tantamount to suicide'. By page 278 he is telling us that he knows about rigging and rebelays from 'my own caving experience'.
The narrative is structured as an Amundsen v Scott style race, with the goal being 'to discover the deepest place on earth'. Bill Stone leads the charge for America, exploring the Cheve Cave in southern Mexico. Meanwhile, Alexander Klimchouk of the Ukraine oversees the exploration of the Krubera cave in the Republic of Georgia.
In the end, 'the deepest place on earth' turns out to be another one of Tabor's dodgy superlatives. It is not at all clear that either Stone or Klimchouk have found the deepest place: exploration of both caves is ongoing and who is to say there aren't deeper ones elsewhere? There are also quite tricky definitional questions of what 'the deepest place' would mean since (as Tabor shows) a degree of digging and even blasting is accepted practice. How should the line between caving and mining be drawn?
Also irritating are his thumb-nail portraits of the various actors. Particularly cringe-worthy are the hot-or-not descriptions of the women who enter the story. Carol Vesely is a 'petite blonde'; Barbara am Ende has a 'very attractive face'; Beverly Shade is a 'stunning brunette' for heaven sake.
Maximum embarassment is reached when Tabor starts to muse on the obsession that drives explorers:
'Obsession may be part of love, and love part of obsession. What is perfume about, after all, but love, and what is one of the most popular essences d'amour called but Obsession? If more proof of love and obsession's link be needed, consider this: Obsession's elegant bottle resembles nothing so much as the male organ, ready for love. The sharpest marketers on earth, who know a lot, understand that the two conditions are as intertwined as lovers on a bed.'
In short, then, Blind Descent has a number of irritating features. But to be fair, it also has some virtues. As Tabor points out, the literature on caving is tiny compared with the libraries of books on mountaineering and polar exploration, and much of his material is (to this reader anyway) fresh. The description of the development of the techniques and technologies of caving (particularly the use of 'rebreathers') was fascinating. And the account of the exploration of Cheve, which has led to several deaths, was truly gripping.
If you're just looking for an exciting true life adventure story I'd recommend Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Jennifer Niven's The Ice Master. But if you're specifically interested in caving, Blind Descent is worth a look.