Beyond Mammoth Cave
By Chris Howes
Descent Magazine, Oct./Nov., 2001
Anyone who has been associated with the caving world for any length of time comes to realise that the sport does not solely consist of exploration--the hard work and resulting thrill of discovering somewhere new, of walking where no one has foot-trod and all that stuff. No, there's also the competitive nature of digging teams, the personalities and abrasive factions in conflict, the egos to be satisfied…the politics of it all!
And, it seems it's the same the world over wherever strong personalities interact.
So, read any good caving exploration books of late? Do they seem nice and neutral; everyone friendly and working together to produce the great breakthrough? Pretty caving? There are exceptions to this approach, of course: Beneath the Mountains comes to mind as a book about caving, telling it as it happened. Now, there's Beyond Mammoth Cave--a telling of 'how it is' with warts and all. And a damn good read it is, too.
If there is such a things as a beginning, it is Brucker and Watson's The Longest Cave, which told the story of how Mammoth Cave was linked with the Flint Ridge System of Kentucky in 1972. Beyond Mammoth Cave picks up the theme: the connection with Roppel Cave, taking the story to 1983 and a system of almost 300 miles (480km). This is a tale told with gloves off, rich in speech, action and conflicting goals. Threats are detailed, dishonesty revealed. Such, it seems, is the nature of hard-edge caving and if license has been taken in attributing spoken words to the protagonists, so be it.
It would be a great pity to dwell upon the element of conflict revealed, however, and any controversies following the book's publication must take their own place in history. The approach taken by the authors is as valid and refreshing as it is honest, but that alone does not make for a great book. The skill of writing does that, aided by explanatory sections of survey by Pat Kambesis and drawings by Linda Heslop. The writing is indeed excellent; start reading and this is one volume that is hard to put down--if this were fiction it would attain the status of an excellent yarn; as fact it must rank in the upper realms of caving literature.
Borden and Brucker subtitled their book 'A tale of obsession in the world's longest cave'. Obsession: the perfect word for the way that everyone involved is driven to extremes of discomfort, both physical and mental, in their race to accomplish what is so important to them. Do we cavers understand that drive? Of course, yet it makes me wonder what a non-caving colleague at work might think of his companions. Perhaps cavers might be seen in a new light…
Do not miss this tale, coming soon to a shelf near you.