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Race to the Bottom

A Waitsfield writer tells of the search for the world's deepest cave


Published July 14, 2010 at 5:48 a.m.

Two decades ago, writer James M. Tabor was exploring a cave called Run to the Mill in the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia area. That’s as specific as he wants to get about its location, because the cave, now closed, is so dangerous.

When Tabor’s group rappelled 250 feet down a rock face, he was the last in line. His equipment was wet and muddy, and “after about 75 feet, I started to lose control of the speed of descent,” he recalls. “The glove and rope started to slip off my hand.”

With a 30-pound pack on his back, Tabor did not want to fall. Luckily, his yells alerted a fellow explorer at the bottom who “was close enough to grab the rope and haul down on it” — halting his plummet, Tabor says. “It was a close thing. If he hadn’t been down there, I would’ve hit bottom in a few seconds.”

Instead, the outdoorsman and author — now 62 and living in Waitsfield — survived to write about other cavers. Some were less fortunate.

Tabor opens his new book, Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, by recounting the death of Chris Yeager, an inexperienced caver who fell 75 feet after failing to secure his rappelling equipment. The 1991 accident was both tragic in itself and disastrous for the expedition Yeager belonged to. For Cheve, the Mexican “supercave” where Yeager died, was a hole in the ground that engineer-explorer Bill Stone hoped to prove was the deepest on Earth.

Stone had competition. Oceans away, in the Republic of Georgia, a Ukrainian geologist named Alexander Klimchouk wanted to access the “bottom of the world” through a cave called Krubera.

Both men would face obstacles that extended their quests into the 21st century: war in Klimchouk’s case; team mutiny in Stone’s. And, of course, both explorers confronted physical barriers — solid rock dead-ends and flooded sumps — on a regular basis.

In Blind Descent, Tabor tells their stories. His first book, Forever on the Mountain, was the compelling tale of a lethal 1967 climb up Mount Denali. If that book took Tabor high, Blind Descent, his second, takes him low. It has also landed him on last week’s New York Times best-seller list, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and National Public Radio.

Clearly, readers are up for vicarious cave exploration. Yet, says Tabor, when the “great cave race of ’04” ended, few people knew who had hit bottom first — or even that anyone had been trying.

“There were two articles in National Geographic, and that was it,” says the writer, who first learned about Klimchouk’s and Stone’s quests while he was producing a special on caving for the History Channel. “It went under everybody’s radar.”

“Under” may be the key word. As Tabor acknowledges in his introduction, mountains tend to loom larger in the popular imagination than caves. It could be because they ... well, loom larger. Or because they, and the climbers who tame them, are more photogenic. You can fly over a peak, but it’s hard to get good shots of pitch-dark places several miles underground.

Yet caves have their own special, dread-tinged allure. They evoke fears of the dark and of suffocation (a very real possibility). But there’s also a primal curiosity about what’s deep in those hidden places.

In a chapter of Blind Descent that didn’t make it to publication — but which Tabor shared with Seven Days — the author explores the roots of that fascination. He relates how a close call with an eight-foot grizzly in Alaska gave him an indelible lesson in the meaning of caves to early humans. “Without the first primitive shelter caves provided,” Tabor writes, “Homo sapiens’ future might well have been even nastier, more brutish — and a great deal shorter.”

Underground, Paleolithic people weathered the ice age and produced early religions, visual art and musical compositions — using the cave itself as their instrument. Tabor quotes from the work of Iegor Reznikoff, a musicologist who discovered eerie links between French cave paintings and the natural resonance of the caverns around them.

Caves may have been the world’s first multimedia art installations and its first cathedrals. But they sometimes had darker uses than prayer. Cheve, in the Mexican highlands, Stone’s goal, is a case in point. When Californians Carol Vesely and Bill Farr first explored its vast entrance chamber in 1986, they found skeletons — including those of children — beneath an altar-like slab of stone.

These bleached bones were the remnants of human sacrifices that predated the conquistadors. But inhabitants of the region still saw its huge limestone caves as “home to deities,” Tabor writes. Their beliefs sometimes rubbed off on the explorers: After a diver died in Mexico’s Huautla Cave, one of Stone’s colleagues consulted a local shaman about supernatural precautions. From then on, no one entered the cave without a clove of garlic in his or her pack.

Spooky cave lore may be fun, but supercave exploration bears little resemblance to the underground adventures of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. Tabor depicts it as a thoroughly modern pursuit: elaborate, well funded and high tech.

We learn how Stone, a structural engineer when he wasn’t underground, spent years building a custom carbon-dioxide-scrubbing rebreather that would allow cave divers to explore flooded passages, or sumps. (In places where it took hours of swimming to reach an air pocket, scuba tanks weren’t an option.)

But such ingenious devices couldn’t remove human factors such as panic — or solve personality conflicts. And Bill Stone, who emerges from Tabor’s narrative as a heroic (or antiheroic) figure, has a particularly strong personality.

A type-A achiever of immense physical and mental acumen, Stone spent a quarter century plumbing the depths of Cheve and nearby caves. When he wasn’t doing that — or at his day job, or tinkering with his rebreather — he was “going begging” for sponsorships anywhere he could find them. During the expeditions depicted in the book, Stone demanded 110 percent from himself and his team — which, to complicate things, often included the latest in a series of athletic girlfriends decades his junior.

By the time Tabor approached him, the author says, Stone was so sick of being portrayed by journalists as an Ahab type that he flatly refused to take Tabor on a Cheve expedition. (He later did prove forthcoming in interviews with the author.)

Stone was especially averse to being viewed as some kind of extreme-sports enthusiast or “adventurer” — as was Klimchouk, says Tabor. Both saw themselves not as risk addicts but as explorers vying for “the last great terrestrial discovery.”

To the layperson, it may not be obvious why. No one can miss the world’s tallest peaks. But isn’t it always possible someone could stumble into a deeper hole than Cheve or Krubera?

Nope, says Tabor, because “geologists know what’s under the surface of pretty much every square mile on Earth.” “Supercave,” a term he coined, just means a big, long one — really long. (Krubera eventually turned out to descend 7000 vertical feet over more than eight miles.) We know no one’s going to discover a supercave in, say, Addison County, because such caves can only form under the proper conditions of porous limestone and water flow, and those conditions only exist in about six places on the planet.

Where they do exist, supercaves have turned out to contain previously unknown microorganisms, “extremophiles” from which scientists can breed “new families of antibiotics ... effective against our drug-resistant bacteria,” says Tabor. “I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of the microbiological things that are going to come out of these caves.”

Tabor is using fiction to explore those possibilities in his next book, a thriller in the Michael Crichton vein “about a microbiologist who has to go down into a supercave to retrieve an extremophile to save humanity from a plague,” he says.

Supercave exploration can seem pretty anticlimactic. As Jon Stewart pointed out when Tabor visited his show, people like Stone and Klimchouk go through hell just to reach a nondescript dead end. But, says Tabor, the pursuit is far from pointless. NASA has studied caving teams to learn more about the effects of prolonged isolation, cold and darkness. Some scientists have suggested that life on Mars, if it exists, might resemble what lurks in the depths of Earth’s caves.

If space exploration continues, Bill Stone, who’s now 58, might be at its forefront. Tabor notes in the book’s afterword that the caver — who once dreamed of being an astronaut — is now building a NASA-funded robot to seek water beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

A proponent of privately funded space exploration, Stone has a tendency to “deride NASA because they’re so timid,” Tabor says. At a 2007 TED conference, Stone announced his plan to raise $15 billion for a lunar mining operation. He hopes to start getting affordable fuels from the moon’s ice by 2015.

As if that weren’t enough, Stone hasn’t given up on linking Cheve with another, deeper cave. “At the rate he’s going, it would take 50 years to make that connection,” Tabor says.

Unlike Stone, Klimchouk no longer leads the way underground; the Ukrainian pioneer now delegates the exciting parts to younger cavers. “Caves are no country for old men,” notes Tabor. The writer himself hasn’t caved in “18 or 19 years,” though he has vivid memories of navigating “freaky” sumps where “I was wading with water up to my chin, the ceiling two or three inches above the top of my helmet,” he says.

For every claustrophobe who cringes at that image, there’s a young daredevil who wants to find the nearest hole in the ground and crawl in. Before they strap on a headlamp, says Tabor, would-be cavers need to check out the National Speleological Society or the National Park Service’s Cave and Karst Program.

One of experienced cavers’ great fears, he says, “is that any [media] exposure will cause unequipped people to go in.” And, as we learn in Blind Descent, there’s virtually no more difficult place to rescue someone from than underground.

Tabor says Vermont’s small caves are nothing to write home about: “They’re cold, they’re wet, they’re not very dramatic.” Still, the local subterranean subculture should get a rush from the NSS’ national convention, which will be held at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction this August 2-6. Among the many events on its schedule are a “rock-breaking demonstration,” “vertical contests,” a “SpeleoArt display,” and workshops on safety and rope techniques such as rebelaying.

Because, when you’re exploring the Earth’s depths, as Tabor knows well, a slippery rope could mean the difference between life and death.