Extreme caving: months in the dark

Jason Zasky interviews James M. Tabor, author of Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth , a book about extreme caving, the kind of thing that sends you underground for months at a time in freezing conditions, buffeted by 60mph winds, rappelling using special gear (including rebreathers that let you breathe your own air over and over again), in absolute darkness:
Cavers not only have to contend with the climbs and the extreme verticality, they have to deal with constant absolute darkness. Unless they are moving or performing a task they turn off their lights to save battery power, so most of the time they are in the dark. They are always wet and cold and there is always a high level of anxiety. They typically lose a pound or a pound-and-a-half a day, in part because of the kind of physical work that is required--descending or rappelling with very heavy loads, and ascending the same way. In Krubera, cavers are underground for up to a month.

There are several [effects of prolonged absolute darkness] that have been studied scientifically. One effect is that it disrupts normal circadian rhythms. Cavers may work for twenty-four hours at a stretch and then sleep for twenty or twenty-four hours. Second, their immune systems really take a beating without sunlight or natural light. Stone told me that after he had been underground in Cheve for two weeks, every one of his fingernails became infected with staphyloccocus.

Another thing is that each human brain has a unique tolerance for darkness. Some individuals reach their limit after a certain number of days or certain number of feet below the surface, and then they have an attack called The Rapture, which is like a panic attack on speed. I've interviewed people who've experienced it and they say it's like a panic attack but multiplied a hundred times in intensity.

To the Supercave

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth

(via JWZ)



  1. Saw this guy recently on the Daily Show … fascinating topic … but I keep wondering … WHY .. just WHY?

    I somehow get the thrill of climbing high mountains or scuba dive really deep … but spending weeks / months going deeper and deeper … well, i guess the answer is ‘because it is there’

  2. after a few hours wandering around caves in Minecraft, I get a little anxious too. It’s unsettling!

  3. The most interesting tid-bit is the fact that immune systems begin to falter without light.

    What is it about the energy we receive from light which enables our bodies to be better at fighting off infections?
    What is the bio-chemical mechanism here?

    1. You are jumping to conclusions.

      Even if its the lack of sunlight causing the effect, it could be a thousand different reasons apart from „energy“. It could be simply stress or the upsetting of the natural cycle which casuses the imune system to fail.

    2. UV radiation from sunlight does a pretty good job of mild disinfection. I often see UV lights in delis for that very reason.

      The fingernail infection is a combination of the lack of UV radiation killing a percentage of bacteria and the damp environment.

  4. Anyone interested in this subject may want to read Jeff Long’s amazing piece of fiction, ‘The Descent’. And yes, it is far far superior than the ripoff movie by the same name.

  5. Panic attack on speed? Do they run around the caverns like Cthonic the Hedgehog? (I’ve been waiting years to work that into a conversation. Sorry.)

  6. I was really interested in the idea of “the Rapture”, but I’ve been unable to find anything else about it, except in relation to this book.

    In fact, every reference I can find either says “The Rapture is like a panic attack on speed”, or “The Rapture is like a panic attack on meth”.

    So is this something well-known/documented in the caving community, or is it just something in this book?

  7. I used to think this (why caves, why?) but when I was diving once I saw a rope going into the depths of a tech-dive cave (super dangerous stuff) and I felt so so compelled to go there. One day I shall!

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