LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

Blind Descent


by James M. Tubor.

Blind Descent cover

James M. Tubor chronicles the search for the world’s deepest cave, as lead by two teams – one American (in Mexico), one Ukrainian (in Georgia) – between 1991 to 2009. He describes the characters involved, and the huge dangers they faced, as well as their achievements and disappointments.

I very much enjoyed the subject of this book – caving is a fascinating topic – and to learn more about the reality of it has been rewarding. Less so the telling of it: Tubor’s narrative exhausted me, written as it was in an dramatic, almost breathless style, with cliff-hangers (not always literal) at the end of every chapter. I could have been reading a novel. Verbatim thoughts, actions, and speech are constantly attributed various people, which I find irritating in non-fiction account: “Instinctively, he lunged to grab the rope”… except that this man died, and no one saw him fall, so – while it’s likely one would lunge for a rope when falling – no one actually knows what he did; yet it’s presented as a fact. (Perhaps there was some evidence of friction on his gloves, but this detail isn’t given.) This tone is constant, and feels puffed out with little dramas that lead nowhere, and have no bearing on the main commentary.

I was also irritated by allusions to “the bottom of the world” or “closer to the centre of the Earth”. If a cave entrance is 9,000′ up a mountain, and the cave is 5,000′ deep, then I am considerably closer to the centre of the Earth sitting at my computer. Also, Tubor’s descriptions of female participants, with their “lustrous dark hair” and “lovely countenance[s]” were just creepy, while his descriptions of the men borders on hero-worship. And do we honestly need to know about how the groundsheets crinkled while everyone had sex? (Not really.)

Bizarrely, there are no maps of any of the caves mentioned, which would have been a massive help with following what was going on. The black and white pictures were mostly too small to make out any detail.

All this said, Tubor does give a good feel for what deep-caving must be like, particularly the dangers involved, the impossibility of rescue, and the strength and stamina (and bravery) of all those involved. And when, at one point, he described a push through terra incognita, thousands of feet underground, even I wanted to turn back.


ISBN-13: 978-1849018562


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