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Blind Descent
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Blind Descent [Format Kindle]

James M. Tabor

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Chapter One


We have a fatality.

BILL STONE, HALF A MILE DEEP and three miles from the entrance in a Mexican supercave called Cheve, did stop. Red-and-white plastic survey tape hung across the narrow passage he had been ascending. The message, scrawled on notebook paper, was affixed to the tape at chest level, where it could not be missed. Afloat in the cave’s absolute darkness, the white paper burned so brightly in the beam of Stone’s headlamp that it almost hurt his eyes. The time was shortly before midnight on Friday, March 1, 1991, though that made no particular difference—it was always midnight in a cave.

Stone, a hard-driving man with a doctorate in structural engineering, stood six feet, four inches tall and weighed two hundred hard-muscled pounds. He was one of the leaders (two veteran cavers, Matt Oliphant and Don Coons, were the others) of an expedition trying to make the last great terrestrial discovery by proving that Cheve (pronounced CHAY-vay) was the deepest cave on earth. He had brown hair, a long hatchet face, a strong neck, intense blue eyes, 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 somewhat the Jesus of popular imagination. A week underground was long, but not extremely so by supercaving standards, where stays of three weeks or more in the vast underground labyrinths were not unusual.

With three companions, he was halfway through the grueling, two-day climb back to the surface from the cave’s deepest known point, something like 4,000 vertical feet and 7 miles from 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 1:30 p.m. that day, a caver from Indiana named Chris Yeager, twenty-five years old, had entered the cave with an older, more experienced man from New York, Peter Haberland. Yeager had been caving for just two years, and going into Cheve was,

for him, like a climber who had been on only small Vermont mountains suddenly tackling Everest. This is not a specious comparison. Experts affirm that exploring a supercave such as Cheve 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 Jim Smith sat Yeager down for what should have been a sobering, thirty-minute lecture: don’t go into 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 fell on deaf ears. Yeager started his first trip with a fifty-five-pound pack, planning on a seven-day stay.

Yeager’s problems began soon. Just three hours into the cave, he did not properly secure his rappel rack (a specialized metal device resembling a big paper clip with transverse bars, built for sliding down long, wet ropes with heavy loads in caves) to his climbing harness. As a result, he dropped it. The rappel rack is a critical piece of equipment for extreme cave exploration, probably second in importance only to lights. Without his, Yeager could not continue.

Yeager used his partner’s rack to descend to the area where his had landed. Given that a rappel 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 to find his rack, which allowed him to continue down with Haberland. They did not keep descending for long, however, because they quickly got lost and could not relocate the main route for forty-five minutes.

After seven hours, they arrived at the top of a cliff that had been named the 23-Meter Drop because it was exactly that, a 75-foot free drop from lip to pit that had to be rappelled. By supercaving standards, where free vertical drops hundreds of feet long are common, this was little 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 rocks Yeager might dislodge.

Above, Yeager was wearing standard descent equipment, which included a seat harness similar to those used by rock climbers but beefed up for the heavier demands of caving. A locking 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 connected him to the rope. The rope wove through the rack’s bars, like a snake sliding over and under the rungs of a ladder, providing enough resistance for a heavily laden caver like Yeager to control the speed of his descent.

Before going farther, Yeager had to transfer his rack from the rope he had been descending to a new one that would take him to the bottom of the

23-Meter Drop. He made the change successfully, leaned back to begin his rappel, and realized instantly that something was wrong. The rope did not stop his backward-tilting motion. Instead, he kept going, as if tipping over backward in a chair. Somehow his harness had 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 carrying no pack, or even a light daypack, it’s possible that he might have saved himself by holding on to the rope, or to the anchor bolted to the wall, or perhaps even setting up something called a body rappel. But that would have required almost superhuman strength and would have been extremely difficult even without any load. His fifty-five-pound pack made any such self-arrest impossible, and in another instant he was dropping through space. He fell so quickly that he did not even have time to scream.

Falling rocks can shatter and ricochet like shrapnel; Peter Haberland had moved off and sheltered behind a boulder, so he did not see Yeager land. He realized something was wrong only 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 pool of water three inches deep, on his right side, his face partly in the water, his arms stretching forward, as if reaching for something. Yeager’s right leg was broken, the foot rotated grotesquely 90 degrees so that while the body was on its side, the foot pointed up. He had no pulse or respiration, but Haberland turned his face slightly anyway, to keep his mouth and nose clear of the water.

Haberland rushed down to the Cheve expedition’s Camp 2, a twenty- minute descent, where he 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 first aid supplies. When they arrived, they found that some blood had run from his nose, but there were no other changes. All three attempted CPR without success. Chris Yeager was dead.

Understanding precisely why the accident happened requires a detailed knowledge of caving equipment. But the root cause was not equipment failure; it was “pilot error.” Yeager entered the 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 rack’s earlier loss.

LEARNING OF THE ACCIDENT, Bill Stone could only shake his head in dismay. He had been uneasy about Yeager’s presence in camp in the first place. Yeager; his girlfriend, Tina Shirk; and another man traveling with them had not been part of the original expedition. After climbing some volcanoes, the three had traveled to the Cheve base camp. Shirk was a competent caver who had been in Cheve the previous year but, with a broken collarbone, was not caving just then. The other man had told Shirk and Yeager that, earlier, he had secured permission for Chris to go into the cave. There is some disagreement about that, but Stone, for one, knew nothing about it. As far as he was concerned, the trio had “crashed” the expedition.

Yeager’s death affected everyone. Peter Haberland later wrote in a caving magazine article that he was “shattered at that moment.” Tina Shirk was devastated. Other reactions ranged from anger at an overzealous rookie to grief over a young man’s death to horror at the reality of a body decomposing down in the cave. For his part, Bill Stone was saddened by the needless loss of a young man’s life. He was angered because Yeager’s death left the leaders and the team with a thorny problem that could be solved only by endangering others. And he was afraid, not so much of recovering Yeager’s body, but that his death might abort the expedition. They could have been on the verge of finding the way into Cheve’s deepest recesses and, it was not ridiculous to assume, possibly into history as well. But now it seemed likely that this expedition’s time had run out all too soon.

Stone was completely committed to the expedition’s mission, financially, emotionally, and physically. The intensity of his work, and his no-nonsense style, left no doubt about that in anyone’s mind. He was thirty-nine years old, and if time had not run out for him, he could hear his body clock ticking. Thirty-nine was pushing the upper limit for activities like ex...

Revue de presse

"Heart-stopping and relentlessly gripping. Tabor takes us on an odyssey into unfathomable worlds beneath us, and into the hearts of rare explorers who will do anything to get there first."—Robert Kurson, author of ShadowDivers

"Holds the reader to his seat, containing dangers aplenty with deadly falls, killer microbes, sudden burial, asphyxiation, claustrophobia, anxiety, and hallucinations far underneath the ground in a lightless world. Using a pulse-pounding narrative, this is tense real-life adventure pitting two master cavers mirroring the cold war with very uncommonly high stakes."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A fascinating and informative introduction to the sport of cave diving, as well as a dramatic portrayal of a significant man-vs.-nature conflict. . . . What counts is Tabor’s knack for maximizing dramatic potential, while also managing to be informative and attentive to the major personalities associated with the most important cave explorations of the last two decades."—Kirkus Reviews

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65 internautes sur 71 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Armchair Caver's Delight! 18 mai 2010
Par Lynne E. - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
Entertaining account of the expeditions of two world-renowned cavers (Bill Stone, Alexander Klimchouk) that explored deep supercaves in Mexico (Cheve, Huautla) and the Republic of Georgia (Krubera). Serious cavers will likely be familiar with many of the discoveries recounted, but armchair cavers will enjoy learning about the tremendous obstacles, common to supercaves, that must be traversed in deep cave exploration (e.g., vertical shafts of up to 500 feet, crashing waterfalls, boulders, seemingly impassable sumps, extremely tight meanders).

The book goes into detail about caving techniques, the special dangers of cave diving, and the development of the rebreathers that make extended exploration by cave divers possible. There are vivid descriptions of actions that proved fatal, or nearly fatal, to some cavers. There is also much interesting biographical information about both Stone and Klimchouk. The well-written, page-turning narrative is presented in a way that makes caving accessible to non-cavers.

The advance review copy that I received had no photographs, which was a disappointment. However, the author's skill at describing underground scenes makes up considerably for the lack of photographs. If the hardcover book should include photographs, then this book should receive 5 stars. (Rating changed to 5 stars on 6/2/10. See comments to this review.)
35 internautes sur 38 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Wow 19 mai 2010
Par Kara J. Jorges - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
Caves and caving fascinate me, so when I saw there was a book about supercave exploration, I had to read it. I am so glad I did. I was absolutely glued to this book from the first page to the last. The only thing it lacked was a section of pictures, but that's the price I pay for reading an advance copy--the published edition has several pages of them. Even so, I was able to look those up on the internet so I could have a visual reference, which made the book even more powerful.

This is not so much the story of cave exploration as it is about cave explorers. Tabor researched two premier cavers from the USA and the Republic of Georgia, and devoted a section of the book to each. American Bill Stone has led several expeditions into supercaves in Mexico, while Ukranian Alexander Klimchouk has headed several European expeditions on the Arabika Massif in the Republic of Georgia.

In addition to following the amazing accomplishments of both men, Tabor explained in great detail the hardships and dangers involved in supercave exploration. I felt like I was there on the expeditions; rappelling, digging, crawling, diving, and freezing underground for days or weeks on end along with the cavers mentioned in this book. I have nothing but respect for this handful of people who risk their lives for the thrill of going thousands of feet underground and braving the dangers there in order to share their discoveries with the world. There's pretty much no chance at all of me dropping down the first shaft of Cheve Cave, and forget it with Krubera, so I really appreciate this insider view.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It's highly informative, giving outsiders an intimate view of what goes into supercave exploration, and it's also an exciting page-turner. Tabor has a way of keeping readers on the edge of their seats as he takes us through real-life underground exploration. I found myself thinking of several fascinating topics I wish he would write about because he has a way of making an informative, nonfiction book into an exciting adventure, and not many authors can pull that off.
48 internautes sur 56 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Blind Descent 5 mai 2010
Par Stephen Balbach - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
`Blind Descent` is about elite explorers who seek out the ultimate prize: the worlds deepest caves. These so-called "super caves" require days or even weeks underground in large supported missions like climbing Mt. Everest, yet most people know very little about this highly specialized field of exploration. It is one of the few exciting books for a general audience about extreme caving.

Tabor's book is "adrenalin literature", it keeps one flipping pages and the heart racing, the kind of creative nonfiction pioneered with Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. But it feels less mature and gimmicky, at 250 pages there are 49 chapters, stopping unnecessarily in the middle of a scene, I suppose to build tension and create cliff-hangers. In effect it causes so much white space between chapters at times I was turning pages faster than a falling rock. There is an unnecessary amount of antagonism created around Bill Stone's personality, the freedom of creative non-fiction for the sake of entertainment went a little too far by inflating Bill's personality against a Russian caver. We have a "race" (which it really isn't) against two antagonists (who really are not). No doubt these techniques will sell books, but I wished for something of more substance and less artificial drama.

Tabor admits that he owes a large debt to Bill Stone's book Beyond the Deep: The Deadly Descent Into the World's Most Treacherous Cave, which is about one of Stone's epic cave explorations in Mexico. Indeed the most gripping part of `Blind Descent` is when it recounts scenes from `Beyond the Deep`. Although it doesn't have the journalistic perspective of `Blind Descent`, Stone's book is a true first person primary source, sort of like the difference between those who go to war, and those who stay home and romanticize about it. `Blind Descent` is an easy and quick journalistic introduction to caving and I'm glad to have read it but look forward to reading `Beyond the Deep` and wish I had earlier.
26 internautes sur 31 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Awesome Caving Book - Get Ready For An Adventure! 1 mai 2010
Par Jamie Ratliff - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
I wasn't sure when I first picked up Blind Descent that I would like it. I mean honestly, how good can a book about caving be when you can't actually see the cave itself? After two days of forcing myself to put this book down, I can honestly say it's the best book about caves I have ever read. The author does an amazing job of describing the caves and explorers. It's no too much detail that you get tired of reading...but it's enough to let you picture it in your mind. The book follows two different main characters, and reading about them and their exploits is like watching a dangerous stunt knowing that something could go wrong. As Blind Descent shows, when you're thousands of feet down in a cave, something going wrong usually means death or a close call for a caver. I think the book is very respectable to cavers, and after reading it, I am glad that more people will understand the risk they take to explorer Earth's last frontier so to speak.

Blind Descent has been a great "armchair adventure" to me, and if you like caves, exploring, or adventure type books, you will not be disappointed with this book! It's something I read in two days because I just couldn't put it'll enjoy the journey.

Update: Mr. Tabor has informed me that the book will have a number of pictures!
10 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A Dark Dangerous Quest into the Earth's Bowels (4.5 Stars) 13 mai 2010
Par PeaTee - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
I liked Ed Viesturs' K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain and Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, so I suppose it's not particularly surprising that I was drawn to this book about exploration in the opposite direction.

What I found interesting about mountain climbing journeys was the group dynamics and environmental struggles that the explorers faced. And I'm happy to say that this was very much what Tabor wrote about. With page-turning prose, he really brought home how dangerous the Super Caves were. As he points out, difficulties include, but were not limited to, drowning, fatal falls (of course), premature burial, earthquake collapses, poison gases, bats, snakes, scorpions, radon, deadly microbes and toxic chemical slurries (like sulfuric acid which can drip from the cave walls).

As well, he showed how different leadership styles spilled over to effect the group and it's results. To do this Tabor focused on two radically different individuals. One was the Type-A American engineer, Bill Stone; while the other (Stone's psychic opposite) was the team-building scientist Klimchouk of the Ukraine. I thought it was really interesting to see both the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

If you read this book I can't see how you can come away without understanding what cave exploration is like. And it's equally likely that you'll have drawn your opinion as to which man you would prefer to climb with.

Overall "Blind Descent" was a good and interesting read. Tabor kept me flipping the pages, curious as to what would come next. His characterizations were solid if not stellar.

The parts involving Bill Stone's studies and adventures were particularly well researched. Those involving Klimchouk were sketchier based, one surmises, on difficulties arising from logistics and linguistics.

Addendum: It was initially my understanding that there weren't any pictures in this book. It was a faulty assumption that I made because there weren't any placeholders. I've been informed though by Random House that there will be "three dozen 4C images from three expeditions".

Pam T
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