Supercave Seeks Super Explorer

The entrance to Cheve, a supercave in Mexico.

After the Chilean miners were rescued, I decided it was high time to pick up a book that had been languishing in my “To Read” pile since this summer. The book, Blind Descent by James Tabor, is about the exploration of the world’s deepest caves–or, as Tabor calls them, supercaves. A rip-roaring adventure tale–think Into Thin Air but underground–Blind Descent chronicles the efforts of two rival cavers racing to the bottom of the world. I tore through the book in a few days.

In some ways, supercaves are the underground equivalent of “8000ers,” the term for the world’s 14 highest peaks, all of which are more than 8,000 meters above sea level. But Tabor makes a compelling case that not only is exploring a supercave less glamorous than summiting a mountain, it is also far more dangerous. To begin with, mountain climbers (usually) have the luxury of daylight. Cavers do their work–which includes rappelling down sheer cliff faces–entirely in the dark. These descents can be followed by shimmies through tiny, claustrophobia-inducing crawl spaces.

An explorer descending in Cheve.

Supercaves are also cold, windy, and wet. Huge caverns form, obviously, when water carves away at rock for eons, and the supercaves Tabor writes about are still home to huge rivers of water. That means that explorers are often rappelling through frigid waterfalls and that caves are constantly coming to seeming dead-ends at pools of water called sumps. Sometimes, there’s no way around a sump but through, so cavers will don SCUBA gear and swim through water-filled tunnels, hoping that more dry cave lies on the other side. (Cave diving is one of the most dangerous pastimes on Earth.) Tabor describes the difficulties of supercaving as follows:

Three miles on a level path–or even a mountain route–in daylight is one thing. Three miles immersed in absolute darkness, drenched by freezing waterfalls, wading neck-deep through frigid lakes, spidering up and down vertical pitches, scrambling over wobbling boulders, and belly-crawling through squeezes so tight you must exhale to escape them, is quite another…Imagine climbing the stairs of two Empire State Buildings in daylight, dry and unburdened. To get out, Vesely and Farr would have to do it in the dark, soaking, heavily loaded, on rope the diameter of a man’s index finger.

(In fact, the weight of cavers’ packs was of such concern that one of the expedition leaders had his team members cut the little paper tags off of the tea bags they brought with them.)

In addition to being a great adventure tale, Blind Descent is also packed with scientific tidbits–such as how cavers read surface maps and geological features to try and deduce where caves may be hidden or how days of utter darkness can cause explorers to hallucinate. (The particular brand of madness associated with days spent underground is known, apparently, as “The Rapture.”)

In any case, I could go on and on, but I don’t want to spoil the utterly delicious experience of reading Blind Descent. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Images: 1 Flickr/WBUR 2. Flickr/WBUR 3. Flickr/WBUR

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2 Responses to Supercave Seeks Super Explorer

  1. casey rentz says:

    Sounds like a great read. Reminds me of the caving movie “Descent” (less sciencey, more horror movie) which I watched with a blanket half over my eyes.

  2. Stuart Farmer says:

    Having just read blind descent I can thoroughly recommend the book. It’s not geeky and whilst factually based still makes for a great story. The author captures the intense nature of deep caving. Considering the true courage required to undertake this type of exploration, the old adage ‘out of site is out of mind’ would never seem truer.