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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 labnet ( 457441 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:26PM (#32870344)

    Most of the world uses metric, and it now it is just plain distracting to articles in feet, miles etc.
    Here's is a suggestion for Google: Have a translation option that converts these pages into metric on the fly!

  • by rbrander ( 73222 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:52PM (#32870496) Homepage

    I second the statement, "I'm not claustrophobic, but this is insane". It's the sheer un-rescue-ability of it all, if you simply get wedged, that gets to me.

    A young man died cave diving in the Rockies not far from Calgary a few years back. The awful bit was that he got delayed coming back, wasn't sure how far it was, went to the limit of his air, turned the little knob that gives you the last five minutes, and used that time scratching out a goodbye to his family on the air tank.

    Right around one more corner from where he would have seen the flashlights of his friends waiting for him.

    Lessons I took from it:

    1) Cave diving is insane.

    2) If you're ever certain you're at that last moment of your life, nevertheless spend it trying to survive. Your family actually knew you loved them already.

  • by Tisha_AH ( 600987 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @09:31PM (#32870666) Journal

    The endurance device looks really cool as an autonomous submersible that can find it's way back to the transducer dropped through the opening in the ice. Here are a few problems;

    Getting to Europa the package needs to set down in an area where there is a "lead" in the ice where it is thinner. Trying to drill or melt your way through a kilometer of ice would be a serious challenge that we would even have a problem with today (an opening the size of Endurance).

    To make a hole would either require an automated drilling system or a nuclear power source to melt it's way down to below the ice. Since RTG (radioisotope thermal generators) require a significant amount of plutonium or radioactive thorium to generate even a small amount of thermal energy it would require a "real" reactor to create enough heat to melt a hole. As the reactor and ENDURANCE melts their way down they would deploy a tether back up to the surface. As they melt downwards the water will freeze above them, leaving the tether encased in ice.Once they break free of the ice layer and make it into the depths of Europa's ocean the reactor can be powered back and act as a docking station, recharging station and communications hub for the ENDURANCE explorer. Data would be relayed back up the tether to a satellite relay station to send data back up to an orbiter.

    With a "down hole" power source the ENDURANCE probe could carry out extended exploration missions down to the crush depth of the submursiable and missions could last for months (aka the Mars rovers).

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @09:38PM (#32870710)

    It'd be nuts to "free" dive in caves, without a rope or some other guide back. For these extreme dives you'd think they'd also work their way down with spare air tanks so they never had to worry about going all the way back up to the top, just back to the last air tank drop.

    I also wonder if they couldn't engineer some kind of capsule that could be inflated in a larger chamber to serve as a base on longer dives, possibly with an air line from the surface, sort of a base camp.

    Regardless, you gotta really not have even a hint of claustrophobia. I usually enjoy cave tours, mine tours and that sort of underground thing but the idea of diving in a cave makes me sick to my stomach nervous.

  • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @09:44PM (#32870734) Journal

    I've done it.

    Dust can mean death, but the real enemy is complacency. If you get a few dives in you and you start to skip steps, that's where the dust (silt/clay, actually. Sandy bottoms aren't as big of a danger) cloud (blowout) can cause problems. or if you start doing it without the proper training (i.e. learning from everyone else's mistakes instead of repeating them. It's critical to learn from others' mistakes when a small mistake can be fatal.) you can achieve similar results.

    Just stirring up silt shouldn't do anything worse than just end your dive (or in a popular cave, piss off other divers who will also have to end their dives early....) - you follow the line you'd been laying back out of the cave. A lot of the training is training yourself to be comfortable in disorienting black-out conditions, so you make the right choices.

    The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt. It starts out with you not drilling out-of-air emergencies on the surface before every dive, and before you know it you're tying your cave line further and further in instead of starting it in open water every time. You're swimming across gaps without laying line because you didn't bring enough gap reels and you think you're familiar with this part of the cave.

    Then you start using gear that has no business being in a cave: scooters and rebreathers. Both of which can get you further into the cave than have any business being, when complacency causes you to fail to lay the groundwork for your escape in the event of an equipment failure.

    Anyway, my point is that you don't have to be that crazy to dive caves, especially if you don't go that far in, and stick to well-explored areas. but you do have to be vigilant about maintaining both your gear and proficiency. And the reward? You'll have to try it and find out.

  • by pongo000 ( 97357 ) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @11:50PM (#32871338)

    ...describes how something can go horribly wrong in a cave dive [away.com] (in this case, Bushman's Hole, one of the deepest freshwater caves in the world) even with the best planning efforts of experts in the field. It's a long, but incredibly sad, read. If you want to read something really haunting, Dave Shaw's website is still online [deepcave.com]. The video is out there too (aired on ABC in 2005). I leave the video links as an exercise to the reader. It's not something I really want to dig up again.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 12, 2010 @12:48AM (#32871608)

    The AUV that will be used to explore Europa will need to be much smaller than the ENDUANCE AUV, the large vehicle size is mostly for prototyping software and hardware. Also it allows room for an accurate inertial measurement system and relatively large science payload. The ice penetrating robot concept is currently being prototyped using power over fiber. The eventual Europa vehicle will, most likely, require an RTG to melt through the ice and power the AUV for months / years.

    If funded this project will be able to answer one of the most important scientific questions of our lifetime: if there is life present outside places other than Earth and if life evolved in parallel on Europa and Earth (e.g. DNA / RNA strands are significantly different from each other or some other encoding method is used).

  • by deboli ( 199358 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @01:19AM (#32871752) Homepage

    Exploring caves is the last adventure left to the proverbial "common man". Everything is mapped and surveyed except caves. Even if you climb a mountain as a first ascent, someone has photographed it and its height is known. There is no technology that allows to survey caves without going there and that is the excitement and fun of it. You can do it big as Bill Stone of you can find a few meters in a local cave and you can do it according your technical and physical ability. Just join the local Grotto and you have that chance! Nothing beats entering a passage where no other human being has walked before and where your light illuminates formations that nobody has seen before. You can do this only in space and on the bottom of the ocean but the costs and technology needed for that is beyond the reach of hobbyists.

    There will never be the ultimate deepest cave as we know the highest mountain as there are no means of knowing this until all caves are explored. Estimates place the ratio of explored caves at some 5% of total caves. Some have not even an entrance... Of course, we know the theoretical limit which is the height difference of the limestone bedding that houses the cave but there might always be a higher entrance or a sump or something else

    The reason why caving is not as popular with viewers is that it really is not a spectator sport. All you see is some cavers departing into a deep hole. Comparing this to seeing mountaineers where you can see the mountain, the cliff and where you can admire the challenge you have no such chance with a cave. And if you're not a caver you can not imagine the challenge, the joy, the cold and the misery and the excitement.

  • by misfit815 ( 875442 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @07:23AM (#32873068)

    Used to be quite into caving before that whole "family" thing got in the way. In the periodical I received, there'd be an annual accident report summary. Twisted ankles, broken arms, etc. Then you got to the cave diving section. Fatality. Fatality. Fatality. When cave diving goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.

    On a lighter note, it was quite a unique activity. When you kill the lights, it is *dark*. That sounds obvious, but it's something you just have to experience. Plus, all of the movements needed to traverse caves in my region mean that it's quite a workout. Your whole body gets used.

    And if you are 3 hours from the entrance, then you are a minimum of 6 hours from help should something actually go wrong. That thought always gave me an appreciation for it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 12, 2010 @10:44AM (#32874518)

    Does intentionally placing ones life in danger and having the odds beat you count as an accident

  • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @11:37AM (#32875044)

    It's wrapped in extreme amounts of emotive narrative, but that story just describes how something can go horribly wrong if you do extremely dangerous things without planning them properly, and don't follow established rules.

    None of which changes the fact that cave diving is extremely dangerous with a very high fatality rate even when you plan them properly and do follow established rules.

    Cave divers sometimes emphasize the errors people made in a few cases and seem to want to imply that that means everyone who dies while cave diving has made a mistake. But other than entering the cave in the first place that is known to be false: it is possible to die while cave diving even though you do everything right. That's why cave diving has such a high rate of deaths amongst experienced divers, unlike ordinary diving, where experienced divers virtually never die even though novices do with depressing regularity.

    That is, simply because A => B, doesn't mean that B doesn't happen when !A. And we know from raw empirical fact that experienced cave divers who are doing everything right still die. We even know why that is the case: there are any number of relatively minor malfunctions that do not have any response except death.

  • by mr.bri ( 886912 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @11:59AM (#32875268)
    There's also Jim Bowden. Held the record for deepest open-system dive for awhile (does it still stand???). Lost his buddy on the dive as well. Took 12+ hours!

    He's an avid cave diver, spends his time exploring caves around Mexico, and works to preserve them.

    He's also a NAUI instructor, which is how I know him. Got to spend a week learning from the best diver in the world (at the time), and he also is a really nice guy. He gets really serious when it comes to diving, though. I think you have to be a little crazy to do the things he's tried, but that doesn't mean you're stupid. He is well aware that every time he goes down, even with years of training, that he may not come back up.

    A really remarkable guy, and it was an honor to learn from him.

    http://www.mexicoprofundo.org/teammembers-jimbowden.html [mexicoprofundo.org]

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

    by stevediver ( 1034380 ) <spt29970@ya[ ].com ['hoo' in gap]> on Monday July 12, 2010 @12:27PM (#32875528)
    Deep diving is extremely dangerous and requires exotic blends of gases that vary with depth range. The deepest ocean dive that has ever been recorded was in 1988 to a depth of 534 meters. It was done in the Mediterranean by a team of divers from COMEX using a mixture of Hydrogen, Helium, and Oxygen. The gas mixture must balance the physiological effects of each gas component in terms of narcosis and metabolic needs. All gases, even "inert" ones have effects on the nervous system. The physical nature of these effects is largely unknown, but they likely stem from the differing solubility of each component in various parts of the body. There is some literature that makes the case that the narcotic effect of a gas depends on its lipid solubility with the suspected mechanism being that the dissolved gas molecules lodge in cell membranes and change their physical properties affecting neuro-transmission. The deepest "chamber dive" was to 701 meters which took 43 days to perform the decompression. You get more into at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturation_diving [wikipedia.org] and http://www.techdiver.ws/exotic_gases.shtml [techdiver.ws] It is possible (likely?) that these records have been surpassed by the military, but as far as we know it is physically impossible for a diver to survive at the depth of Deepwater Horizon rig, let alone do useful work.
  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday July 12, 2010 @01:30PM (#32876264)

    passage too small for two people side by side, etc., etc.

    So you go single file, with a safety line between divers. And you can check on each other (even in zero visibility) by tugging on the line periodically. Or other means of communication.

    The whole lone diver/mountain climber/whatever is just a form of macho posing. Particularly when the mission was to recover a body. There was no new frontier being opened up.

    I just hope people like this don't leave any famlies with children behind. Besides the obvious grief for a lost father, it defeats Darwinism.

In less than a century, computers will be making substantial progress on ... the overriding problem of war and peace. -- James Slagle