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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.
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on 25 September 2013
We all know what a ‘super cave’ is, well wrong. A supercave is something else, a vast geological monster miles long and many thousands of feet deep. Their exploration requires huge, costly expeditions, multiple subterranean camps and weeks spent underground.

‘Blind Descent’ chronicles two teams both aiming for the deepest cave system in the world. Bill Stone in Mexico with American money and Alexander Klimchouk with Russian. 20 years of exploration reach a finale (of sorts) in 2004. Bill Stone was looking at a Mexican cave called Cheve (limestone and massive chambers), Klimchouk at Krubera in Abkhazia, south eastern Georgia (vertical, tight and harsh). These were driven men and a few women, all of whom pulled their own weight.

Tabor, a writer with National Geographic, describes the work of these two teams. They dig, they drill and bolt, they crawl, they live underground for weeks, they sump dive at 6,500 ft with out oxygen, they haul 40 lbs loads in batches of 16 (that what it says on the photo ☹). 99% of the work supports the 1 % at the sharp end. And they die. In one passage alone a team laid 120 explosive charges to clear a squeeze for a litter to pass through.

The campsites are numbered upwards, so Camp 6 is the very deepest. At the end of a month’s exploration two people passed through a sump, using re-breathers, and did not exit that sump for 6 days. Then three days ascent to sunlight. There was no-one else in the cave system, for the whole of those nine days. They were over 5 miles from the entrance and nearly 5,000 feet down. Margin of error?

Tabor is writing for the mass market and his technical descriptions are a little fuzzy. Some 40% of the book is taken with his references. But the stories are stunning and the descriptions are excellent, the writing carries you deeper. The power of obsession is very impressive.

A must read book.
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on 10 February 2012
This is about the psychological pressures faced by cave explorers. The book is only partially about cave exploration; a lot of the it focuses on the personalities that lead or organise the teams that explore caves and the problems that they must overcome.The book splits into two pieces; one piece is about an American expedition leader and the other is about a Ukranian leader. It seems that the author found it easier to write about the American leader; more than half the book is devoted to him and there seems much more background and detail about the expeditions led by him than by the Ukranian. It also seems like the American expeditions are naturally more dramatic; the Ukranian expeditions have fewer casualities and the organiser of them seems to be a much quieter person.

The book is a fun read, if a little breathlessly hyperbolic about the lifestyle of a cave explorer. The author writes in fine style and creates very well the feeling of claustrophobia and desperation that must be faced by the caving expedition teams. There's not a terribly deep moral to the stories in the book and there's not much to take away from the book in an intellectual sense, but the author created sufficient enthusiasm in me that I ended up looking at the autobiography of the American team leader. Inspiration to dig deeper (no pun intended) into the subject matter is an indicator of a good read, I think!
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on 5 March 2014
I have read half of it to date. To me, it is a very interesting subject and quite well written, but lacks variety in the dangerous events that it describes.
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on 26 October 2011
Tunneller40's review is spot-on. Writing about caves is difficult, and Tabor does a pretty good job. But first, the not-so good stuff: technical errors - carbide lamps have jets, not wicks, for example; purple passages - a "bottomless" sump, for example; and absurd digressions, such as this on the subject of underground dehydration: "It is not too great a stretch to visualise thirst-crazed city dwellers drinking their neighbours' blood..."


Still, Tabor's story is by a non-specialist, for non-specialists, and it captures much of the excitement of intense caving. The description of the six-day trip by Bill Stone and Barbara am Ende to the bottom of Huautla is genuinely thrilling. I recall sitting at the top of a pitch in a deep Pyrenean pothole after 20 hours on the go, hallucinating and hypothermic (but fortunately well clipped on) - and on that occasion I had only been underground for three days. Six days, on the wrong side of a big sump, at great depth is unimaginable.

As has been said, Tabor concentrates unnecessarily on an implicit duel between two very different expedition leaders. The caving expeditions I used to go on never had 'leaders'; they were loose cooperatives, with everything done by consensus and trust, and they worked fine that way. Harder to write about, though.
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on 26 April 2015
This Boys Own story of caving is OK if you like simple, straightforward tales of derring do, where men are granite jawed and women lithe and fragrant. But the writing is cliched, the drama laid on with a trowel, the pictures are bad, and its repetitive. Focussing on the adventure tale means its a missed opportunity to balance that with almost anything else. There might be something more to be said about, for example, how such caves are formed, their ecologies, their role in our culture. But its not said here.
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on 15 February 2012
As a diver (but not a caver) I thought I'd give this book a go. I have to say its a great tale of expeditionary Super Caving - quite a bit of it left me asking "buy why?".

The story is worthy of 5 stars, but I have to take at least one star off for the terrible prictures - so small you cannot see them and the total lack of diagrams & maps.

A simple map of the two regions, and some 'pyramid tunnel like' drawing of 3 or 4 of the primary caves mentioned, drawn to scale, annotated with dates and depths, would add tremendously to the book. Shame really, opportunity missed.
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on 16 November 2017
Having been involved in potholing for many years It was interesting but a little disjointed at times it showed a a person who would drive himself very hard and not show care to his team.
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on 24 July 2017
For someone who knows absolutely nothing about the subject this book is a great insight into the lives of extraordinary characters willing to go through hell to achieve their goals. Truly inspiring yet daunting.
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on 14 December 2010
Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth

Blind Descent is certainly a good read and I rattled through it in a short time period. But there are criticisms so the best thing to do is to ignore the central conceit and enjoy the book as it is. The idea that two different cavers are racing each other on different continents to find the deepest place on earth is just laughable. And the conclusion that the deepest cave on earth has been found is also somewhat suspect. But the accounts of the expeditions are well written and should excite both cavers and non-cavers alike. As a caver I'm pleased that there isn't the usual fall back on over dramatisation and hyperbole which often ruins many caving books aimed at a wider audience. The author makes a decent stab at explaining caving techniques - including digging! - to a wider readership so its accessible to anyone with even a slight interest in exploration and why people go to such lengths to do what they do. So have a read and see what you think.
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