Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blind Descent by James Tabor

Title: Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth
Author: James M. Tabor
Publisher: Random House, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6767-1 (cloth)

I am a huge fan of James M. Tabor's Forever on the Mountain, which tells of a disastrous mountaineering expedition in 1967 in which only five of twelve men survived an attempt to climb Denali (once known as Mount McKinley). That book gives a brilliant analysis of team dynamics and psychological conflict, and it provide a fascinating meditation on the nature of leadership and varying leadership styles.

In Blind Descent, Tabor moves from mountaineering to cave diving. The exploration of "super caves" is as dangerous as high-altitude mountaineering but provides unique challenges of its own. This book got me really interested in cave diving, though I know I'd never want to do it. As in his previous book, Tabor has chosen two contrasting leaders/expedition styles to follow. The American leader is Bill Stone; the Ukrainian is Alexander Klimchouk. Stone is fascinatingly flawed, alternately impressive and deeply annoying. Klimchouk comes off as more of a mystery and a private person, but an infinitely better leader, though it's more difficult for Tabor to trace the inner dynamics of K's expeditions because of the language barrier. Blind Descent provides less of a unified narrative because the quests of the two men/expeditions are not precisely parallel; their quests took place at different times, and Klimchouk was not even present physically on the final expedition of his team described in the book. Owing to this structure, the narrative has some difficulty sustaining head-to-head tension, so I do not suggest reading this book primarily to see who wins the "race." That's not its strength, and besides, as I discovered, one of the figure captions tells you anyway who won!

I felt that some of what made Forever on the Mountain so unforgettable was Tabor's analysis and comparison: in Blind Descent, I thought Tabor's interpretive voice was less present. I should say, however, that the book is extremely engaging and that I devoured it quickly. The stories are harrowing, and the near-misses and triumphs keep the reader very engaged. If it's less reflective, it's because the text is less an analysis than a primary source report. It should be noted that in Forever on the Mountain, Tabor was dealing with an expedition that took place years ago; that there were already several existing memoirs and interpretations of the event; and that all in all, the Denali expedition lent itself better to an account that focused on analysis. Blind Descent is more firmly located in the here and now, the explorers' present.

The book has some great images; unless you've got an e-reader that handles images really nicely, I'd go hard copy with this one. Watch out for the "spoiler" in the figure caption; I kid you not; it tells you right there. This is the book's way, probably, of discouraging readers from reading it primarily as a "race" book.

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