Reviews of ‘Blind Descent’ and ‘No Way Down’
Inside the dangerous worlds of climbers and cavers.
On K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, a cairn stands in memory of those who drew their last breaths amid some of the grandest views on earth.Skip to next paragraph
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Atop the rocks, memorial plaques – metal plates once used for meals, with names engraved upon them – clank in the wind. As time goes by, their number grows and grows.
Another memorial can be found far below the surface of the earth in Mexico. A tombstone with a name written in soot from a carbide lamp, it commemorates a young man who hoped to endure the “extreme verticality” of one of the world’s deepest caves.
Why would anyone follow in the footsteps of these souls? And what do they find along the way?
Two new books try to find the answers, one in the gripping tale of heroism and tragedy on a mountain in the Himalayas and the other in the ongoing efforts of men and women to descend into the deepest corners of the earth.
Blind Descent, the more eye-opening of the two books, takes readers into miles-deep “supercaves” below Mexico and the republic of Georgia, so dark that they’re the “luminal equivalent of absolute zero,” without a ray of natural light.
The caves are cold and damp, too, but hardly the silent and airless tombs you might imagine. They’re full of fast-moving winds, ear-pounding noise, poisonous snakes, and falling rocks, all permeated by what author and outdoors journalist James M. Tabor describes as a “uniquely alive smell.”
Unless you’re a dedicated reader of National Geographic, you may have never heard of these explorers who are on a “quest to discover the deepest place on earth,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. And no wonder: The caves aren’t glamorous or TV-ready and neither are the dirty and gritty explorers. “We prefer our heroes clean and beautiful,” Tabor contends, and these people don’t quite fit.
Even so, “extreme cave exploration is just as exciting, difficult and deadly” as space exploration and mountaineering, Tabor writes. Especially when two men and their teams fight for fame by going deeper than ever before – sleeping on tiny ledges, diving through underground lakes, and eating between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day of “freeze-dried glop” and other nondelicacies.
More than 28,000 feet above sea level on K2, many of the risks are the same as those deep below the surface: darkness, dehydration, frayed ropes, and frayed nerves. They all appear in No Way Down, the tragic story of climbers who fell victim to miscalculations and misfortune during a deadly few days just two years ago.