After crossing the world twice and two weeks of hard work, I’m back from the wilds of the Mexican mountains. This trip report is long enough that I have split it in half. Stay tuned next week for part 2. The PESH 2015 expedition is now complete with the two main cave entrances used de-rigged and returned to their natural state. 2015 was the second annual expedition with trips planned each April until 2023. Over the course of 10 years the PESH team aims to expand the known depth of the Huautla System beyond a mile, and the surveyed horizontal passage to over 100kms. This year’s expedition cracked the 70km mark and with the total depth at 1545m, a mile can’t be far away.
The Huautla System is composed of passages that were explored from several main cave entrances, and which join up deep below the surface. In 2015 the main caving activities occurred via the La Grieta and Sotano de San Agustin entrances. While I did a day trip into the very top of La Grieta on my first day in Mexico, most of my time was spent in San Agustin. Within the large team of fit cavers we had seven cave divers. Our aim was to push the never before dived sump in Red Ball Canyon and see what lay upstream. Red Ball Canyon sump is in a higher tunnel above Camp 3 and well above the base water level of sumps 1 to 9. With the water being perched above the water table we expected that the sump would be short and shallow. It’s best not to rely on assumptions with undived sumps, and in the absence of information there was only one thing to do – we’d have to go diving.
After a 10pm bus departure from Mexico City for what was advertised as a 6 hour bus ride, I arrived in the town of San Agustin Zaragoza slightly disorientated at 7am (time zone unknown, I think it was about 2am the following morning in Australia). The early news was that the rigging team had emerged from an early foray into Red Ball Canyon having discovered a dry bypass of the sump. As they’d already taken dive gear to the start of the Canyon it was not happy news. I set up my sleeping gear in one of the rented local houses and contemplated the wetsuit and mask that I’d carefully packed. The second half of the dive team was now in the Canyon and continuing to rig upstream. After a rest day on the surface to recover from five days spent underground (Dave, Sandy, Andreas and Andy) and two days spent on planes and buses (me), we headed back into the cave. Given the news, I left my dive gear on the surface.
The entrance to San Agustin is spectacular but there was no time to stop for photos on the inbound trip. I took these entrance shots on a day trip later in the expedition when Paul and I went early to catch the sunbeams down into the cavern. After walking down the hill and skidding down the Jungle Drop in the doline Scott, Andreas, Dave, Sandy and I climbed up an over the bank and through a small crawlway into the Fool’s Day Extension. The Extension leads to the Bowl Hole Series, which includes a 60m drop, 110m drop and the 77m Space Drop with the large, bouncy, free-hanging, free-swinging rope at the bottom of it. This route is a “short-cut” discovered in the late 80s. While there is a little bit of horizontal cave between the 23 short ropes in the Fool’s Day Extension the Bowl Hole Series more than makes up for that. In nearly every case you rappel to the bottom of a long rope and can immediately see the start of the next drop.
Having passed more than a few rebelays I made it off the bottom of the Space Drop and we were at the 620 depot. This massive rock has a good view of the Space Drop rope in one direction and the route to the top of the Gorge in the other. Heavy rains the week before I arrived had filled the Gorge with rushing water and prevented trips for a couple of days. The water level was low again and the trip down the river uneventful. The rocks are beautiful here. Thousands of years of rushing water have worn the surfaces smooth and scalloped, revealing mineral lines and layers. Some of the small potholes have pebbles inside, circling around and around until they are worn away or the bottom of the pothole gives way. It’s hard to be heard over the rushing of the cascades. Despite Sandy’s advice from the previous week’s experience, I did my best to stay dry. Unfortunately there are at least two spots where the only options are levitation or swimming lessons – I should have saved my energies.
From the bottom of the Gorge and into the Metro the water quieted down. With one last swim we were on the hill up to Camp 3. The camping location certainly beats our muddy little sleeping fissure in Elk River Cave. With a wide sandy rockpile to spread out on and a ring of rocks around the kitchen we had underground luxury. I gathered a sleeping bag and inflatable mat and found a flat spot to call my own. Dinner was delightfully rehydrated mystery mixes of various textured vegetable protein, freeze dried chicken or beef, strangely coloured vegetable bits and either powdered potato or quick pasta (and occasionally both). Putting nuts in the dinner mix did assist with providing a texture away from the gluey/slimey side of the spectrum. Breakfast was suitably rehydrated oatmeal and a bit more familiar than the dinners. The joy of caving all day is being so hungry that it all tastes good and being able to turn off your light so you can’t see what you’re eating anyway.
We met up with the other divers at camp 3 when they returned for the day and discovered that they had discovered the sump. Shortly after the deep pool with the dry bypass the Red Ball Canyon streamway sumped for real. Zeb, Katelyn and Victor had retrieved the dive gear from where it had landed near the Metro and got ready to dive. On his first dive Zeb successfully passed sump 1 and surfaced on the other side to see another sump beginning immediately. With more than a few days underground they were ready to head out and it was our turn to take over. I spent an entertaining night staring at complete blackness as I realised I wasn’t quite over my jetlag. The next morning according to the clock but without a single crowing rooster or barking dog, we headed up Red Ball Canyon. The Canyon starts with a short rope up beside this spectacular waterfall.
From the entrance it turns into a narrow passage with varying degrees of steep climbs and deep water. The ridges and ledges in the walls are beautiful. The gearing up spot before the sump is even better. A spacious sandy beach with more than enough head room to stand up. It certainly makes up for the gearing up spots before sumps in Growling Swallet, Burnabbie and Elk’s sump 1. Andreas got his stuff together while I dragged the camera out of the pelican case for the first time. With a few strobes around it was time to capture the moment. We discovered Zeb had used less than 30 bar out of the carbon fibre tanks and they still had nearly twice a normal fill. The water looked clear and inviting. It was an object lesson in not leaving your dive gear on the surface and I may have spent a few minutes sizing up Zeb’s wetsuit for possibilities.
While he was gone, Scott and I scrambled up above the sump to have a look at the blowing hole in the flowstone. In fact, there were two. The first was the size of a fist but looked to open up quick quickly on the other side. The second was twice the size with much more air coming through it but also went for much longer in small dimensions. Neither looked particularly promising as a dry bypass for someone human sized. I was contemplating photographic possibilities when bubbles signalled a return. Andreas surfaced with an empty reel and a grin. He’d successfully passed the slightly longer, just as shallow sump 2 and surfaced in the cave beyond. The canyon immediately headed up a steep waterfall that was going to require aid climbing equipment. So we headed back down the canyon to camp 3 for our second night underground with a few short stops for photos along the way.
Part II of this trip report is now up here.
The diving portion of this expedition was sponsored by Dive Rite who kindly provided Nomad LTZ harnesses and LX20 primary lights.