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Blind Descent- Chapter 1

Blind Descent- Chapter 1

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Publish date: Feb 15, 2011
Added to Scribd: May 28, 2010
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Chapter One
STOP.We have a fatality.BILL STONE, HALF A MILE DEEP and three miles from the entrance in a Mexican supercavecalled Cheve, did stop. Red-and-white plastic survey tape hung across the narrow passage hehad been ascending. The message, scrawled on notebook paper, was affixed to the tape atchest level, where it could not be missed. Afloat in the cave’s absolute darkness, the whitepaper burned so brightly in the beam of Stone’s headlamp that it almost hurt his eyes. Thetime was shortly before midnight on Friday, March 1, 1991, though that made no particulardifference—it was always midnight in a cave.Stone, a hard-driving man with a doctorate in structural engineering, stood six feet, fourinches tall and weighed two hundred hard-muscled pounds. He was one of the leaders (twoveteran cavers, Matt Oliphant and Don Coons, were the others) of an expedition trying tomake the last great terrestrial discovery by proving that Cheve (pronounced CHAY-vay) wasthe deepest cave on earth. He had brown hair, a long hatchet face, a strong neck, intense blueeyes, and a prow of a nose angling out between them. Stone was not classically handsome,but it was a striking, unsubtle face men and women alike looked at twice.Not just now, though. Having been underground for almost a week nonstop, he was gaunt,haggard, and hollow-eyed, his cheeks rough with scraggly beard, and he resembled somewhatthe Jesus of popular imagination. A week underground was long, but not extremely so bysupercaving standards, where stays of three weeks or more in the vast undergroundlabyrinths were not unusual.With three companions, he was halfway through the grueling, two-day climb back to thesurface from the cave’s deepest known point, something like 4,000 vertical feet and 7 milesfrom the entrance. The note and tape had been strung just before the expedition’s Camp 2,where four others were staying. They explained to Stone what had happened. At about 1:30p.m. that day, a caver from Indiana named Chris Yeager, twenty-five years old, had enteredthe cave with an older, more experienced man from New York, Peter Haberland. Yeager hadbeen caving for just two years, and going into Cheve was,for him, like a climber who had been on only small Vermont mountains suddenly tacklingEverest. This is not a specious comparison. Experts affirm that exploring a supercave such asCheve is like climbing Mount Everest—in reverse.Not long after he arrived in camp, more experienced cavers nicknamed Yeager “the Kid.” Seriously concerned about the younger man’s safety, a veteran, elite cave explorer named JimSmith sat Yeager down for what should have been a sobering, thirty-minute lecture: don’t gointo the cave without a guide, carry only a light daypack at first, learn the route in segments,get “acclimatized” to the underground world before going in for a long stay. The warnings fellon deaf ears. Yeager started his first trip with a fifty-five-pound pack, planning on a seven-daystay.Yeager’s problems began soon. Just three hours into the cave, he did not properly secure hisrappel rack (a specialized metal device resembling a big paper clip with transverse bars, builtfor sliding down long, wet ropes with heavy loads in caves) to his climbing harness. As aresult, he dropped it. The rappel rack is a critical piece of equipment for extreme caveexploration, probably second in importance only to lights. Without his, Yeager could notcontinue.Yeager used his partner’s rack to descend to the area where his had landed. Given that arappel rack is about 18 inches long and Cheve Cave is almost unimaginably vast and complex,
 
this was rather like looking for a needle in a thousand haystacks. Yeager was lucky indeed tofind his rack, which allowed him to continue down with Haberland. They did not keepdescending for long, however, because they quickly got lost and could not relocate the mainroute for forty-five minutes.After seven hours, they arrived at the top of a cliff that had been named the 23-Meter Dropbecause it was exactly that, a 75-foot free drop from lip to pit that had to be rappelled. Bysupercaving standards, where free vertical drops hundreds of feet long are common, this waslittle more than a hop down. Haberland went first, completing an easy rappel without incident.At the bottom he detached his rack from the rope, then moved away to avoid any rocksYeager might dislodge.Above, Yeager was wearing standard descent equipment, which included a seat harnesssimilar to those used by rock climbers but beefed up for the heavier demands of caving. Alocking carabiner (an aluminum loop, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, with a hinged “gate” on one side) connected the harness to his rappel rack, and the rappel rack connectedhim to the rope. The rope wove through the rack’s bars, like a snake sliding over and underthe rungs of a ladder, providing enough resistance for a heavily laden caver like Yeager tocontrol the speed of his descent.Before going farther, Yeager had to transfer his rack from the rope he had been descending toa new one that would take him to the bottom of the23-Meter Drop. He made the change successfully, leaned back to begin his rappel, andrealized instantly that something was wrong. The rope did not stop his backward-tiltingmotion. Instead, he kept going, as if tipping over backward in a chair. Somehow his harnesshad become separated from the rappel rack, which was still attached to the rope.Instinctively, he lunged to grab the rope and the dangling rappel rack. Had he been carryingno pack, or even a light daypack, it’s possible that he might have saved himself by holding onto the rope, or to the anchor bolted to the wall, or perhaps even setting up something called abody rappel. But that would have required almost superhuman strength and would have beenextremely difficult even without any load. His fifty-five-pound pack made any such self-arrestimpossible, and in another instant he was dropping through space. He fell so quickly that hedid not even have time to scream.Falling rocks can shatter and ricochet like shrapnel; Peter Haberland had moved off andsheltered behind a boulder, so he did not see Yeager land. He realized something was wrongonly when he heard a rush of air and the crunching impact of a long fall ending on solid rock.Praying that Yeager had dropped his pack, Haberland called out, but he got no answer.Within seconds, Haberland found Yeager, lying beside the bottom of the rope. He was in a poolof water three inches deep, on his right side, his face partly in the water, his arms stretchingforward, as if reaching for something. Yeager’s right leg was broken, the foot rotatedgrotesquely 90 degrees so that while the body was on its side, the foot pointed up. He had nopulse or respiration, but Haberland turned his face slightly anyway, to keep his mouth andnose clear of the water.Haberland rushed down to the Cheve expedition’s Camp 2, a twenty- minute descent, wherehe found two other cavers, Peter Bosted and Jim Brown. They left a note hanging from red-and-white survey tape and rushed back up to Yeager’s position with a sleeping bag and firstaid supplies. When they arrived, they found that some blood had run from his nose, but therewere no other changes. All three attempted CPR without success. Chris Yeager was dead.Understanding precisely why the accident happened requires a detailed knowledge of cavingequipment. But the root cause was not equipment failure; it was “pilot error.” Yeager enteredthe cave with too much weight, became fatigued, misused his equipment, and, last and worst,failed to properly secure the locking carabiner that connected his harness to the rappel rack.He apparently made this mistake not just once but twice, the first instance having caused the

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bragan_8 reviewed this
Rated 3/5
An account of several expeditions that set out to explore some truly massive cave systems, and their attempts to set a new record for the deepest known cave. It's an absolutely fascinating topic, but I found the book itself only just OK, in large part because it often seems far more interested in the cavers than in the caves. Early on, Tabor quotes one of the expedition leaders as taking exception when a reporter asks him about his "adventure," insisting instead that what he does is exploration with the goal of bringing back new data. But Tabor himself largely disregards this point, focusing mostly on the adventure aspects and the personalities involved. There's very little here about cave science, and, surprisingly, very little in the way of real description of these caves until very late in the book, except for their record-setting dimensions and the obstacles they present. Some of the stories here are kind of exciting, but I can't help but think that the whole thing would have been a lot more effective with more context and less gossip. And possibly less of a sensationalistic emphasis on the (very real) deaths and injuries that occurred on these expeditions. Tabor makes a habit of starting each section with a description of the worst accident(s) on each expedition, only then going back to fill in the story from the beginning. I know this is a very common technique in non-fiction these days, but if not handled well, it can come across as manipulative, even exploitative, and I think it does a little bit here. Mind you, I have to admit to a degree of bias against Tabor's writing, as he managed to get off on the wrong foot with me from the very first sentence on the very first page. The sentence in question being, "As the fifteenth century began, we believed, absolutely, that the earth was flat." Now, OK, he's really just trying to make some rhetorical point about exploration there, but the incredible historical ignorance of that statement inevitably makes me wonder what else he's ignorant about and hasn't bothered to fact-check, and that made the rest of the book far less engaging for me than it should have been.
mtrumbo_2 reviewed this
Rated 3/5
I like to do a little "armchair" adventuring once in a while. Decided to try out some supercave exploring. Wow, had several moments of claustrophobia just reading it. Still not sure whether to be impressed or horrified at what these cave explorers put themselves through. Though a bit dry and technical at times still a nice solid read
msf59 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Total darkness is scary, or at the very least unsettling. Now add arduous climbing and repelling, scuba diving in pitch-black sumps, slippery surfaces, hypothermia, deafening waterfalls, claustrophobia and mind-numbing fear. Not only is this hilarity measured in hours, but also in days and sometimes weeks. Welcome to deep cave exploration. Sounds like a blast, huh?This book follows an American named Bill Stone, on his lifelong mission to find the world’s deepest cave in Mexico and then later in the story a Soviet explorer named Alexander Klimchouk, obsessed with finding his own deep cave in Russia.This is an exciting, true-life adventure. After reading Krakauer’s "Into Thin Air", I thought extreme mountain-climbing was the most dangerous thrill, but now I think extreme deep-caving takes that coveted title. I like the outdoors, but I prefer experiencing this insanity from my own comfortable armchair.
marcush_42 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Tabor tells two stories that share a common goal: find the world's deepest cave. The story begins with Bill Stone, an American speleologist who commits his life to establishing a cave system in Mexico as the deepest cave in the world. Stone's story focuses on the struggles of leading the expeditions, the dangers of exploring supercaves, and the personal turmoil his own obsessions create. The second half of the story discusses Alexander Klimchouk's explorations in a supercave found in the Republic of Georgia. Klimchouk's exploration focuses less on personal drama and more on the drama of the exploration. Together both stories come together to form a very thrilling, extraordinary looking into the earth and into the psychology of discovery.
reading_fox reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Overly dramatic - could be a lot better, if the author were writing from first hand experience, and not trying to glam up the dangers.It definitely feels as if it was written for a TV show, with advert breaks every 5 minutes, and false cliffhangers inserted to keep the 'hook' going. Its just not necessary to end chapters after a page or two, and then to pick up where you left off in the next one. Also all of the dangers - especially the routine "Big Scary Drops" were massively exaggerated. Caving is dangerous at times, and the extremely exhausting nature of these long trips made things worse, but although they sound impressive, the pitches are among the least dangerous aspects of it. Unfortunately the author, couldn't express the seriousness of the other dangers very dramatically, so there were never ending references to Deadly Drops and 500ft holes. (Especially annoying were the almost trivial 500ft pitches in America, that suddenly became extremely challenging death defying 500ft pitches in Mexico). Also contrived was the entire sense of a 'race'. Race implies a deadline, a finish point and time. There is no such thing. The deepest cave on earth at the present time is an achievement, but if yours goes deeper next year, then that's the new achievement. It is pointless to talk about trying to get 'there' first. A lot of this might have been alleviated if the author had been on any of the trips involved.That said the rest of the book is very good. The first team is the American one led by the brash Bill Stone, and this gets the majority of the attention - mostly because the author could access primary sources, and didn't require them to be translated. The actual descriptions of the caving passages are good, but very limited - again probably due to the author having not travelled down any of them. Obviously however, he has been a proficient cavers in the past and does have quite a lot of understanding about the techniques and dangers involved (hence why the exaggeration is particularly annoying). Many of the cave sections are referred to by name. Unfortunately there is no map, showing how these relate. Given that both teams were scientifically driven, and specifically mention surveying the new finds in many places, a map does exist, and it seems a bizarre omission not to have included it. There are a few pages of colour photographs of the cavers, taken from the expedition logs - given the grueling nature of the trips, this is impressive, even if the pictures aren't by themselves that much to look at. Cave photography being a difficult art at the best of times. A short acknowledgements section and the more comprehensive notes to each chapter detail the exhaustive list of primary sources the author accessed, including interviews with all the major participants, published and unpublished journal logs and reports. However none of this quite makes up for the lack of direct involvement. A further reading guide includes some of the trip journals from the principles. These are almost certainly worth seeking out.The highlights are probably the short sections at the end of each expedition when all the preparations are made and the final push for that trip goes ahead. These are well recorded from interviews with the participants and capture not just the nature of the challenges but the personalities and spirits of those involved at the time. Throughout the book the author generally does a good job of focusing on the people, what they felt and how they interacted - this especially differentiates the two teams. Enjoyable and enlightening reading - it always nice to hear about my hobbies getting wider recognition, and there is space for many more such books, best written by those who'd been on the trips.
marywj reviewed this
Rated 3/5
The story here is interesting (tho not a race between Russians and Americans, as in the description), but told in a disjointed, jerky way. No explanation of motive, no info on the science they say they are doing; but the adventure is good and the story is interesting, if somewhat badly told here.
asawyer_21 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Ok, so I may be a little biased having a few years of my life where getting underground was a top priority. But, I loved this book. It brought back all of the wonder, excitement, fear, and physical demands of climbing, repelling, or crawling into a cave... though much more extreme than I can ever imagine.
arcticdrift reviewed this
This one was very interesting. Strangely, I've never had the urge to read stories about climbing Mount Everest, which is by far the most popular "extreme exploration" topic, but the instant I heard about this, I wanted to read it. It is as the title says, and how that gets done it by following an expedition leading searching in Mexico for the first half and another one searching in Georgia for the second half. Individually, the stories about various expeditions and team members experiences were very good. Taken together.... well, they lack a certain flow, and it was difficult for me to sort out the big picture of cave exploration in my head. Still, I'd recommend this book.
arthwollipot reviewed this
Rated 3/5
Interesting. But the language was a little stilted at times, making it less than the easiest read. The subject matter made up for it though.
willowone_1 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Blind Descent is about two men and their quests to find, explore and map a supercave that ends up being the deepest place on earth. For centuries man and woman have explored our planet and others. They have looked and found the longest, shortest, widest and a variety of other things. The special few that found these things have gotten their names attached to them. People like Columbus & Lewis & Clark are a few of these.In the 20th and 21st centuries we have American, Bill Stone and Ukrainian, Alexander Klimchouk who are both expert spelunkers (cave explorers). While many cavers look at caves to see how our planet was/is formed, the science of the cave and the life forms that inhabit these dark, damp, underground worlds. There are some who explore for the danger and the notoriety.The book begins with Bill Stone and the supercave known as Cheve Cave outside of Oaxaca, Mexico and also Huautla Cave in the same region. Bill Stone has spent decades hoping to prove Cheve Cave is the deepest place on earth. His obsession with Cheve Cave has many believing he wants the title at any cost and with several deaths during his many expeditions, this may be true. He on the other hand believes it shows that he tackled insurmountable odds to make a great discovery like explorers before him.Alexander Klimchouk, Bill Stones polar opposite, at the same time has devoted his life to another supercave known as Krubera. Krubera sits in the Abkhazia region in the former Republic of Georgia. He also strives to find the deepest place on earth. The differences in their approaches are quite evident. Bill Stone went into his field or knowledge all to be able to explore caves while Alexander Klimchouk does everything in the caves in order to forward his science background.I was interested in this book because caves and caverns have always held an unknown mystic to them. From what we know as the beginnings of man caves have been places where we took shelter from danger, we lived, we worshiped, mined precious metals and stones and looked at the ecology of our planet. If you have an interest in caving, science and/or exploration of the unknown you will probably like this book as much as I did. Not only does it speak to man's endless need to explore and find, but also what drives some people to do this type of work or play.

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