To the Supercave

Alexander Klimchouk, Bill Stone, and the race to discover the Mount Everest of caves.

To the Supercave

Cheve cave’s upper Entrance Chamber. Photo by Frank Abbato.

Exploring the world’s deepest caves is often described as the subterranean equivalent of climbing the highest mountains. It’s an apt comparison, as there are more than a few similarities between speleological expeditions and high altitude mountaineering. Both typically require vertical climbing, for instance, and both manifest the ever-present threat of falling to one’s death, being crushed by rock (or ice), or getting swept away by a flash flood (or avalanche). But if anything, venturing deep below the earth’s surface is even more stressful, because caves are invariably dark, wet, and drafty. (Imagine being sequestered in a pitch-black room, soaking wet, with an air-conditioner blowing on you, for days or weeks at a time.) And caves are often deafeningly loud. (Imagine the sound of a thundering waterfall confined to an enclosed space.) Never mind the often unseen threats—rabid bats, venomous snakes, fist-sized spiders, and microbes that cause horrific afflictions like histoplasmosis and leishmaniasis.

Of course, none of the above has deterred the world’s elite cavers from attempting to find—and reach—the bottom of these caves. American Bill Stone, a structural engineer, spent years exploring and mapping in southern Mexico before establishing Cheve (CHAY-vay, 4,869 feet) as the deepest cave in North America. Then in October 2004, Ukranian Alexander Klimchouk, who holds a doctorate in hydrogeology, reached the dry bottom of the world (6,825 feet) inside Krubera (KRU-bera), which is found within the Arabika Massif in the western Caucasus Mountains, in a region of Abkhazia in southeastern Republic of Georgia. (In August 2006, Ukranian cave diver Gennadiy Samokhin reached Krubera’s ultimate depth of 7,188 feet.)

Last week I interviewed James M. Tabor, author of the best-selling new book “Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth” (Random House), to discuss the ongoing race to find the world’s deepest cave, the physical and mental challenges of extreme caving, and why the unendingly patient scientists at the forefront of this endeavor haven’t received the same level of attention and accolades as other going-where-no-one-has-gone-before adventurers.

“Extreme cavers have to deal with more failure than just about anybody else,” quipped Tabor at the outset of our discussion, noting that nine of ten cave passages are ultimately blocked by breakdown or boulder chokes—or simply come to a dead end. “Cavers have to be the most persistent bastards,” he contends, “as they’re the only explorers who don’t know what the next ten yards will look like, because there’s no way to get any advance imagery.”

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