May 052015

Waiting for the billy to boil

In Part I I talked about the Huautla System, the trip into the San Agustin entrance and the first dives of Red Ball Canyon sump. So now we were past the two short sumps and into the expected dry cave behind. The cave was heading away upstream and while climbs were expected, the assumption was that the gradient would be relatively flat and the lead would eventually join up with another known cave system kilometres away.

The next underground morning, Dave, Sandy and Andreas headed off to Red Ball Canyon to ferry three divers through sumps 1 and 2 with two sets of dive gear. They took a dry bag of drill and batteries, rigging bolts and rope with intentions to tackle the first waterfall and whatever lay beyond. While they were gone, Scott and I spent the day with the camera. Our first objective was Anthodite Hall which lies above camp 3.

Anthodite Hall

From camp 3 we walked up the rocky hill to the short rope. The opening to the Hall is hidden between the high flat wall and the sculpted ceiling far above. Neither Scott or I had been up there before and the initial passage is not that large. We kept climbing up the rocks past small stalactites. Over another set of rocks and suddenly the ceiling opens up. Anthodite Hall is Huge with a capital H. On the right hand side it has a low mud floor cracked into mud bricks. On the left a giant breakdown pile curls around the wall from end to end.

Of course, taking photos of a big breakdown pile in a massive chamber runs the risk of looking exactly like a pile of rocks. With only one model I struggled to get a true sense of scale of the room. I was lucky to return two days later with Kasia, Derek and Adam to have another go and get this shot. After a few goes Scott and I picked up the strobes and headed for the massive flowstone formation at the top of the breakdown pile.

Anthodites in the Hall

All along the top wall here there are anthodites – the room’s namesake. Unlike stalactites and straws they stick out in crazy directions. Clustered together on the wall, it was hard to isolate just one to photograph. The anthodites ranged from tiny-on-the-side-of-a-stal to extra large Christmas decoration sized. Scott and I spent some time arranging lights up and down and trying to get the white decorations to stand out from the busy background without blasting them with too much light.

White stals in Anthodite Hall

After playing with the decorations until I was happy with these shots, we decided to do a lap of the hall. The first thing we came upon was the underside of this ledge, covered in white formations. I liked the regularity of them. Even better, the flat mud floor close underneath gave me a choice of angles. This was the last distraction before we headed down the rockpile along the wall. Around the low side of the hall there are mud bricks with deep cracks between them. Unfortunately the bowl shape and the distance to the breakdown pile make it really hard to get high above them and shoot down. I wished for a step ladder but it’s an unlikely location to find one. Holding the camera overhead was the best I could do to see the pattern and the extent of the floor. As you continue around the cracks get less deep and the bricks wider. There’s a few interesting rocks which appear to have dropped from above, including one with little crystal rock splinters and pink geodes lying around. After a quick trip back up the rockpile to collect two remaining strobes from the initial photo, we headed out and down. The rope into Anthodite was so old and stiff I had to jump to get it to move through my stop. It was replaced at the end of the trip with something a little more flexible.

Cracked mud floor in Anthodite Hall

After a circumnavigation of Anthodite Hall we had both dried out our wet caving thermals. We decided to head down to the Metro for as many photos as were possible without getting wet all over again. The rock here is beautiful, carved by rushing water. I spent a lot of time fiddling with strobes and trying to light the water appropriately without them washing away. Scott was very patient and I love these shots.

Water in the Metro

Back at camp 3 for dinner we heard that the diving trio had discovered about 100m of passage above the waterfall, including a very short sump which they had duck dived. They had eventually reached another steep climb that required more aid climbing gear, and turned for home. The following morning Andreas and I headed for the sumps. I borrowed Zeb’s wetsuit which was somewhat large in the torso but good enough for the short dives. The intention was to survey what had been discovered and continue to push up the climb. I left the camera at camp.

We had a semi-successful day with the Canyon refusing to flatten out again after the climb they had stopped at the day before. Andreas placed all the bolts that were available and we ran out of bolts and rope at about the same time. The climbs were black rock covered in huge chunks of flowstone. The water had then eroded the flowstone in waves, in some cases all the way back to the black rock. In a couple of places you could climb small chimneys out of the water. In others you were moving across the face of the flowstone with water running past. Some were incredibly slippery. It was all beautiful too, and I somewhat regretted not bringing a pelican case full of camera past the sump.

The passage to Li Nita sump

When we got back to camp, Gilly, Adam, Derek and Kasia had arrived from the surface. More importantly, they’d brought food including a whole bag of vaccum packed salami. The next day I joined them on a photographic trip back up to Anthodite Hall. From there we headed up Red Ball Canyon, pausing at the waterfall to take some great shots. Instead of going to the Red Ball sump we turned and climbed up into the passage that leads to the Li Nita sump. Previously dived to create the connection to Li Nita cave, it was not on our list for this trip.

In the water to Li Nita

After stopped to photograph the ledges we found a lake that started knee deep and got deeper. I placed the pelicase on a side ledge and cracked out the camera to catch these three grinning in the water. I was busy trying to walk backwards to find clear water but as the water crept up past my armpits I realised this was a job for a camera in a housing. We waded back out and headed for camp with a brief stop to photograph the guys coming back through the shower into Red Ball Canyon itself.

Sleeping at camp 3

The next morning after 5 nights underground we decided enough was enough and it was time to head out. After a glorious rest day on the sunny surface with a trip into Huautla town where we destroyed several roast chickens in one very rapid sitting I felt much better. The following afternoon Corey reported that he had found a cave entrance very close to the highway and we had a midnight exploratory expedition to check it out. The day after that I persuaded Paul to join me on a jaunt to the entrance of San Agustin to take the doline and Fool’s Day Extension photos from Part I of this trip report.

Caver report board in the Fieldhouse

After that I was contemplating my options. With a sore shoulder from a short fall beyond the sump and 2.5 days left before I needed to be on the bus to Mexico City, going back into the cave didn’t seem sensible. On the other hand, there was a lot of gear down there to come out. I packed the camera away on the surface, filled up on anti-inflammatories, added a few painkillers and followed the others back down half a mile of rope. The trip in was much faster the second time around and we arrived at camp 3 in under 5 hours. Andreas and Zeb had gone underground early the day before and we arrived to a note from them saying the Canyon was going strong. Still heading uphill but with the passage getting bigger, they advised that the dive gear wouldn’t be ready to come out from the sump until the morning. After dinner of mixed remains of rehydrated food we went to bed.

The next morning the group was going to make a trip to the sump to grab the dive gear, then start to ferry it and all of the equipment from camp 3 up the Gorge to the bottom of the Space Drop. The intention was to spend the night at the 620 depot atop a pile of gear. From there it was a short but painful trip up the Bowl Hole ropes to the Fool’s Day Extension, the end of which was a day trip from the surface. With a bus ticket on my mind, I grabbed a bag of wetsuits and headed out.

Crawling to the Fool's Day Extension

The first trip out was in a group of five and took me 10 hours. The second trip out was solo and I made it to the field house in just under 8 hours. At the top of the ropes of the Bowl Hole series I extracted one wetsuit from my caving pack and deposited it on a handy rock for some other lucky person to carry the rest of the way. Half way up the Fool’s Day Extension I ran into Dave and Yvonne on a photo shoot. The Fool’s Day Extension was much drier than at the start of the trip, and several of the traverses that had been rigged to avoid the water was completely superfluous. 23 ropes and a crawl later I was at the bottom of the Jungle Drop, and shortly after that I was staggering up the stairs to dinner and the best bucket shower I have ever had.

The Stairway to Hell


The diving portion of this expedition was sponsored by Dive Rite who kindly provided Nomad LTZ harnesses and LX20 primary lights.

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