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Blind Descent by James M. TaborBlind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, James M. Tabor (Random House 2010)

When men climb mountains, they confront their own minds. There are psychological barriers to conquer as much as physical ones: fear, uncertainty, mental fatigue. But all those barriers, psychological and physical, are bigger in caving – and particularly in the caving described in this book. It’s about the quest to explore super-caves, the deepest and most dangerous places on earth.

As a result, they’re also the most challenging. Climbing a mountain doesn’t cut you off from the sun, stars and sky or from easy communication with the rest of the world. Super-caving does and that isolation alone is difficult to endure as days underground stretch into weeks and months. It isn’t alone, of course: there are also wet, cold, dirt and constant danger down there. Sometimes deafening noise too, as underground rivers pour over waterfalls or churn through huge tunnels. But super-caving won’t make you famous: it isn’t as photogenic as mountaineering and the two great cavers discussed here, the Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk and the American Bill Stone, aren’t household names.

Perhaps they never wanted to be. Mountaineers move towards the sun, higher and higher into the light. Cavers move away from the sun, deeper and deeper into the dark. It would be interesting to compare the psychology of the two groups. Some people belong to both, of course, and Tabor points out that exploring a super-cave is like climbing Everest in reverse. Except that Everest doesn’t drown people. Super-caves do, because to explore them cavers often have to don scuba-gear and swim through flooded tunnels and highly dangerous sumps. In that setting, mistakes and accidents that mean little in open water often become deadly. Like motorcyclists and heroin-addicts, cave-divers will tend to know a lot of people who died young.

And fear of dying can cause it: it’s easy to panic when the risks are so high and the pressures so great. Cave-diving is one of the biggest psychological challenges that a human being can face. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone beat the odds, but only one of them could win the race Tabor describes here: reaching the lowest point on earth. Stone sought it in Mexico, Klimchouk in the Republic of Georgia. According to Tabor, Klimchouk won the race, but I’m not sure how anyone can be sure of that. The highest point on earth is easy to identify, but how can anyone be sure where the lowest point is?

Geoscopes may eventually answer that question, but by the time we can peer deep into the earth using instruments, the depth-record set by Klimchouk’s expedition – 6,825 feet deep in Krubera Super-Cave – may have been far surpassed by a subterrene, or earth-invading equivalent of a submarine. If that happens, earth-explorers will face a new problem: not cold, but heat. Rocks are still solid at 6,825 feet and we still know very little about molten depths of the earth. That’s why earthquakes are still impossible to predict. Klimchouk and Stone haven’t made great advances in geology, but they wanted to be seen as scientist-explorers, not as explorer-adventurers.

They found adventure all the same and Tabor points out that they stand in the tradition of men like Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. That tradition is coming to an end: up till now, technology has assisted minds and muscles. In future, it will re-shape them. Humans will turn into superhumans. And perhaps that will mean the end of exploration and adventure. Blind Descent may be a record of one of the last great triumphs of the old human race. If so, it’s an appropriate record: intelligent, well-written and vivid. There are some breathlessness and journalistic licence too, but Blind Descent is a good book about great feats.

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Volcano Discoveries by Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid SmetVolcano Discoveries: A Photographic Journey around the World, Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid Smet (New Holland 2015)

Volcano Discoveries is a dull title for a dazzling book. I would have called it Gods of Fire instead. Mountains are naturally awe-inspiring, but ordinary ones are like slumbering or watchful gods. Volcanoes are mountain-gods that come to life, spewing fire, breathing smoke, devastating the landscape and sometimes wiping out cities. And volcanoes have been worshipped, as this book describes:

For the Mayans, in an interesting parallel to the ancient Egyptians, the pyramid was a very special shape and a holy place that connected the world with the gods. In the mountainous regions of western Guatemala, the Mayans interpreted volcanoes as natural pyramids and, unless in eruption, climbing to their summits was their way to worship them. (“Guatemala: Volcanoes of the Mayans”, pg. 153)

In Italy, the fire-god Vulcanus gave his name first to one fire-mountain, in the Aeloian archipelago, then to all of them (“Vulcano”, pg. 50). In Hawaii, Pele is the volcano-goddess, appearing either as “a tall beautiful young girl or a bent, ugly old woman” (“Hawaii”, pg. 122). Gods, goddesses and demons are everywhere in the stories told about volcanoes. That’s why Gods of Fire would have been a much better title.

But the German volcanologist Tom Pfeiffer is presumably plugging his company VolcanoDiscovery. He supplies the photographs; the Belgian geologist Ingrid Smet supplies the text. His images and her words work well together, but there’s a collaboration in the images too, like the two aspects of Pele. Some of the images are fiery and full of action, as blazing lava fountains against starry skies or pours in blood-red rivers down a slope. Others are bleak: lifeless cones, grey ash-fields, black pavements of cooled lava.

The two kinds of image contrast very effectively, as the book tours every volcanic region of the world from Iceland to Indonesia. And while some images are spectacular, some are small. The huge snow-covered cone of Shishaldin, “in the Aleutian chain”, is spectacular (pg. 141), like the vast plume of smoke belching from Fuego de Colima in Mexico (pg. 149) and the churning lava lake of Marum in the Pacific (pg. 175). Small images include ferns growing in cooled lava (pg. 139); yellow crystals of sulphur around the mouth of a “fumarolic vent” (pg. 74); and a close-up of “Pele’s hair”, or “elongated lava strings that quickly cooled down and became glass” (pg. 126).

So there’s every scale, every stage of volcanic activity, and every kind of slope, steam-plume and smoke-cloud, plus lots of facts, figures and interesting asides in the texts. If you’re interested in volcanoes, the gods of fire are waiting here. If you can raise a glass of tequila to them, even better: “whereas volcanic soils are being used throughout the world to grow grapes for wine production, in Mexico they are used for cultivation of the blue agave – the plant from which tequila is distilled” (“Mexico”, pg. 143).

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