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Earth Science

The Search For the Mount Everest of Caves 233

NoMeansYes writes "An interview with James Tabor, author of the new best-selling book Blind Descent, introduces a pair of accomplished scientists — American Bill Stone and Ukranian geologist Alexander Klimchouk — who are the two most prominent figures in extreme caving. Both have figured prominently in the ongoing quest to discover the deepest cave on earth. Tabor describes what conditions are like inside supercaves like Cheve (-4,869 feet) and Krubera (-7,188 feet), before discussing Stone and his far-reaching technological innovations. These include the Posideon Discovery Rebreather and NASA's ENDURANCE. Extreme caving probably won't remain underground (so to speak) much longer, however. The article notes that James Cameron is planning to release a 3D film next year about extreme cave divers."
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The Search For the Mount Everest of Caves

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  • by DJRumpy ( 1345787 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:53PM (#32870186)

    Something as simple as stirring up some dust can mean death to a cave diver. It takes a special kind of person (nut) to do this. I watched a few specials on this and how easy it is to die. All I've got to say is that it must take a pair the size of the the former twin towers. I'm not fearful of enclosed spaces in the slightest, but this is just insane. On top of that, if you manage to get that deep, you have to account for the trip back, meaning if you exceed your air supply by getting lost in dirty water, or any other number of potential gotchas, you could easily end up overstaying your welcome and just not have enough time to get back out again.

    I could actually see myself paying for a feature film about this. Not out of an interest in doing it myself, but seeing the extreme conditions man will venture into to quench an unstoppable curiosity.

  • by vk2 ( 753291 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:13PM (#32870304) Journal
    Jon Stewart interviewed the author a month back - http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-june-15-2010/james-tabor [thedailyshow.com]
  • and you could really see it in avatar: all that beautiful day glo flora was obviously inspired by your average earth coral reef

    and cameron has said avatar ii is going to be an aquatic adventure on pandora:

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2010/04/james-cameron-talks-the-enironment-the-avatar-sequel-and-more.html [latimes.com]

    We created a broad canvas for the environment of film. That's not just on Pandora, but throughout the Alpha Centauri AB system. And we expand out across that system and incorporate more into the story - not necessarily in the second film, but more toward a third film. I've already announced this, so I might as well say it: Part of my focus in the second film is in creating a different environment - a different setting within Pandora. And I'm going to be focusing on the ocean on Pandora, which will be equally rich and diverse and crazy and imaginative, but it just won't be a rain forest. I'm not saying we won't see what we've already seen; we'll see more of that as well.

    considering how cameron's diving hobbies inspire his creative works (look at titanic and the abyss), i welcome whatever comes out of the creative ferment of his mind from his interest in deep caves. perhaps the abyss ii? some sort of horror movie? avatar iii will be in a galactic cave? who knows...

  • Deepest? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Drishmung ( 458368 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:34PM (#32870396)
    They've gone down 2km. That's still about half the depth of the 3.9km TauTona mine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TauTona [wikipedia.org] and far short of the 11km of the Challenger http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Challenger_Deep [wikipedia.org]. Now if there were some caves below the oceanic trenches...
  • by mad.frog ( 525085 ) <steven.crinklink@com> on Sunday July 11, 2010 @09:31PM (#32870672)

    It's true (at least in the USA)... for whatever reason, avid cavers call themselves "cavers", and use "spelunkers" to refer to people who enter caves without the proper equipment or training. Thus, at caving conventions you see bumper stickers that read "Cavers Rescue Spelunkers"...

  • Re:Deepest? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2010 @10:19PM (#32870794)

    They've gone down 2km. That's still about half the depth of the 3.9km TauTona mine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TauTona [wikipedia.org] and far short of the 11km of the Challenger http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Challenger_Deep [wikipedia.org].

    Now if there were some caves below the oceanic trenches...

    Natural caves not mine shafts.

  • by Like2Byte ( 542992 ) <Like2Byte AT yahoo DOT com> on Sunday July 11, 2010 @11:08PM (#32871110) Homepage

    Cave diving is insane.

    Indeed it is! I'm a caver. I do not cave dive for several reasons:
    1) I'm not a diver.
        Cavers who wish to cave dive must spend years honing their diving skills and working as a team. They are also, usually, fairly acclimated cavers.

    2) Cave divers have a near 100% fatality rate where "accidents" have occurred. Don't believe me? See the National Speleological Society's Caving Accidents report.

        Here's their website [caves.org].

    3) Of particular interest is year 1994. [caves.org] Scroll to the bottom to see the cave diving "accidents" report. Check out year 2000 [caves.org], also.

    4) See my original discussion on this [slashdot.org] topic on slashdot. Clickey [slashdot.org]

  • by jd ( 1658 ) <imipak AT yahoo DOT com> on Monday July 12, 2010 @12:25AM (#32871518) Homepage Journal

    I would say yes, you could make an inflatable base that could be installed in a cave. You'd need to have some fairly ingenious materials tech to prevent such a capsule from shredding itself on any sharp rocks or being at-risk in general from any uneven surfaces. You'd also need a fair amount of extra air in order for any kind of airlock system to not flood the capsule. Overcoming the pressure sufficiently to expand and then reducing pressure to equalize would also pose technical challenges. However, I see nothing that is actually impossible in any of this. Difficult, yes. Possibly impractical. But not impossible.

  • Re:3D by Cameron? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @12:26AM (#32871520) Journal

    If they can dive 7000 feet, then they could reach the BP wellhead.

    Read this. [wikipedia.org] The depth is measured relative to the cave mouth and the deepest cave involved a 46m dive at the bottom. You cannot dive 2000+m all the way in water because the pressure will be ~200 times atmosphere and you will be crushed. Since air is ~1,000 less dense a 2,000m heigh drop in air is about the same as being under 2m of water which is why cavers and potholers can make it to such depths but deep sea divers cannot.

  • Spelunk (Score:3, Informative)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @01:13AM (#32871730) Journal
    They call them spelunkers because that's the sound that you make when you fall into a chasm filled with water.
  • by Big Bob the Finder ( 714285 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @03:47AM (#32872364) Homepage Journal
    Being a rescue trog myself, the running joke is that "spelunk" is the noise you make hitting the ground when you rappel off the end of your rope.
  • Re:3D by Cameron? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Jaknet ( 944488 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @04:14AM (#32872444)

    You cannot dive 2000+m all the way in water because the pressure will be ~200 times atmosphere and you will be crushed.

    You don't get crushed by the pressure as your body is mainly water/fluids and the air spaces you have are equalised whilst you are breathing.,

    The reason for not being able (yet) to dive to these depths is the fact that even with extreme technical diving gas mixes the air becomes toxic well before these depths. The O2 in normal air "approx 21%" starts to become dangerous at depths below 60m with a rapidly increasing risk of central nervous system toxicity leading to convulsions, blackouts and drowning. This is why technical divers have to change gas mixes as they go deeper with each mix having a much lower % of O2. That's without even taking into account the problems of removing the massive amounts of Nitrogen absorbed by the body and the problems that the Helium added to replace the O2 gives to the body as well.

    The current depth record of open circuit diving is around 300m and even that still included over 9 hours of stops on the ascent to off-gas safely.

  • Re:3D by Cameron? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @04:33AM (#32872520) Homepage Journal

    Don't forget partial pressures of gases. In effect, putting the oxygen under to much pressure can result in a "dieseling" effect. When using exotic atmospheric gas mixtures, the goal is not only to remove potentially harmful gases, but also to control the partial pressure of oxygen itself.


    The pressure a gas would have if it alone occupied the space in which it is being measured.

    For example: Air is 21% oxygen and therefore the partial pressure of oxygen in air at the surface is 0.21, meaning that it would occupy 0.21 of the space on the surface. As depth increases, pressure increases so that at 10 meters (33 feet) of sea water surface pressure is doubled and air pressure is also doubled. This means that while air still occupies 21% of the volume it is now twice as dense and it's partial pressure is now 0.42. The partial pressure of oxygen reaches 1.0 at approximately 37.6 meters (123 feet) and at this depth breathing air is the equivalent of breathing pure oxygen on the surface.

    http://scuba.about.com/od/scubaterminology/g/partialpressure.htm [about.com]

    There are probably better links out there, feel free to use Google to satisfy your curiosity. ;^)

  • by miketheanimal ( 914328 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @05:34AM (#32872718)
    Sorry, cave divers don't work with buddies, because it doesn't work. Zero visibility, passage too small for two people side by side, etc., etc. Cave divers may be insane but they are not mad!
  • Re:3D by Cameron? (Score:4, Informative)

    by data2 ( 1382587 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:18AM (#32872878)

    You would not be crushed. Your body largely consists of fluids, which are hardly compressible. All your gas-filled orifices and holes are connected to your breathing tract, so that, using some form of compressed air, you can counter balance the pressure.
    What is more of a problem is the narcosis all gases cause. With normal compressed air, the effects start at about 30m of water column. At about 65m, you get to a depth where compressed air contains so much oxygen that it gets lethal.
    So deep divers use different mixes for going down, when they are at depth and for decompression. Very deep dives have only limited amounts of oxygen, which would kill one at normal pressure due to hypoxy. There were experiments in pressure chambers, where all nitrogen was replaced by hydrogen, and one "diver" managed to go to 700m (>2000ft), but because of the decompression phase, the whole dive took >45 days to complete. This depth is also assumed the theoretical limit for current gases, although the deepest water dive was (only) to about 500m.

  • by RichiH ( 749257 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:52AM (#32872978) Homepage

    Read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scuba_diving#Effects_of_breathing_high_pressure_gas [wikipedia.org]

    Every SCUBA diver who is not enclosed in armour (some are) breathe gas at ambient pressure. As you can see in the link above, there are various risks associated with deep diving, but the truly limiting factor are the effects of the various gases at depth. Helium and hydrogen are used to replace oxygen and nitrogen to some extent, but they come with their own set of problems. All other gases are too heavy and/or toxic and will kill you in the short or long run. Argon is the only one light enough to be breathed, but it's a _massive_ hallucinogenic.

    Too much oxygen: Cramps, reduced field of vision up to and including temporal blindness. Damage to cell tissue if exposed for prolonged time (starting at 8-24 hours, depending on who you ask)

    Too much nitrogen: You become stupid. The effect is gone the second you go above your personal depth limit (of the day). Also, your metabolic rate goes through the roof. You feel your entire body panicking and need to fight to stay calm. Those effects become less if you dive deep on air regularly.

    Too much helium: HPNS. Your nervous system goes into overdrive; often accompied by shivering.

    Too much hydrogen: I think it was narcotic, if less so than nitrogen. As it's not really used in non-professional diving I don't know too much about it. Although it's cheaper than helium, it likes to go boom. Pair that with high-pressure oxygen and the tiniest fleck of grease or oil anywhere will make everything explode all by itself.

    Various side effects like helium being able to get out of solution easier, forcing you to ascend even more slowly etc pp also come into play.

    Also, as any caver will tell you, unless you _know_ a cave has constant supply of fresh air, you better bring your own gas. Your body detects higher-than-normal levels of CO_2, not the absence of O_2. Under the right conditions, a lung-full of zero (or less than 12%) oxygen gas will ensure that you are unconscious before you hit the ground. After that, you suffocate and die, but at least you won't know it.

  • by Totally_Tux ( 452763 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @10:02AM (#32874124)

    Because stirring up silt can completely block your vision and can be very disorientating (and may lead to a snowball effect with regards to line entanglement and panic). If you're unable to find your way of the cave by other means (guideline, blind navigation), then you'll die as you'll run out of time and consume all of your gas.

    Fundamentally, we're not designed to survive for very long in such an environment. You only have a finite amount of gas to get your butt back to the surface.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 12, 2010 @10:49AM (#32874566)

    seeing the extreme conditions man will venture into to quench an unstoppable curiosity.

    Or to get chicks. Some people will do anything to impress chicks.

    Hey now, Caving and extreme caving is NOT just for men. There are a lot of women cavers out there... www.flickr.com/undergroundearth

  • by hcdejong ( 561314 ) <hobbes AT xmsnet DOT nl> on Monday July 12, 2010 @12:07PM (#32875356)

    There's a Greasemonkey script that will show the conversion in a tooltip:
    script [userscripts.org]

  • by Fumus ( 1258966 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @04:27PM (#32878440)

    And in "Future Plans" there is the whole plan of his last dive. Quite sad nobody has access to his site to add a little "Dave is no longer with us" memo on the front page.

Someday your prints will come. -- Kodak