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Photo: Bill Stone
Photo: Bill Stone, Expedition leader, Cheve Cave, Mexico
Graphic: Globe
  Place:
Cheve Cave, Mexico

Team:
39 cavers from Poland, the Netherlands, Mexico, Australia, Spain, and the United States

Goal:
Establishing Cheve Cave as the world's deepest cave

Last Attempt:
In 2003 Stone led an expedition that put Cheve at its current depth, (4,869 feet [1,484 meters]), making it the deepest known cave in the Americas and the ninth deepest in the world.

The Challenge:
"To go all the way will be a 30-plus day journey in total darkness, beyond all hope of rescue. That call of the raw unknown has a certain subliminal beckoning to a rare few true explorers."

These dispatches are edited versions of e-mail reports sent from the field. They have not been researched and represent the viewpoints and writings of individual expedition members.

 
 
Zoom in on photos from Stone's 2003 expedition to Cheve Cave.

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Field Dispatch

Bill Stone's got one thing on his mind these days—going where no one has gone before. Until April, Stone and 40 international teammates will dive, rappel, hike, and dodge razor-sharp karst in hopes of breaking into Cheve Cave, deep in Mexico's Sierra de Juárez region. Its main system may have tunnels deeper than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters). If the team breaks into them, they could establish Cheve as the world's deepest known cave, bypassing Krubera Cave, in the Republic of Georgia. It currently holds the world record at 5,610 feet (1,710 meters). Check on the team's progress every week for the next eight weeks through dispatches and photographs (below) from the field. Then find out what Stone has to say about his seventh expedition to Cheve in a Question & Answer session.

MultimediaHear why Stone wants to go deeper than anyone before.

Photo: Caver

Photographs by Bill Stone E-mail this page to a friend


Click here to review weekly postings.
Week 1   Week 2   Week 3   Week 4   Week 5   Week 6   Week 7   Week 8   Week 9
  This Week's Dispatch. Click on a date to read expedition reports and view photos.
1. February 22, 2004: Still Going Strong
2. February 23, 2004: Quitting Star Gorge Cave, Sticking With the River Sink
3. February 24, 2004: Surveying the Dig Sites
4. February 25, 2004: Descending Into the Pit
5. February 26, 2004: Tough Times
6. February 27, 2004: Climbing Into the Dome

 
  February 22, 2004: Still Going Strong
The dig is still going strong at Star Gorge River Sink, and we're all pitching in. Through John Kerr's leadership, the excavation is proceeding rapidly in the left- and right-hand leads, or digs. The new stream collapse that happened last fall has made the river sink accessible in a manner that it wouldn't have been if the river was still flowing there. Although we still have dirt, sand, and boulders to move, we're no longer working in a potential flood zone.

Gregg Clemmer admonished me to crawl into the left dig and stick my face into a small hole, where roots were swaying. For the first time, it was apparent that air was leaving the hole. Each day, as we opened the tunnel wider, the flow increased in both volume and velocity, always flowing outward at all times. Cheve Cave, on the other hand, forcefully draws in air at all times of day. The possibility of a back door to Cheve is now very real.

—Bill Stone

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February 23, 2004: Quitting Star Gorge Cave, Sticking With the River Sink
We've invested a substantial amount of effort into Star Gorge Cave—the dry cave a half kilometer downstream from the river sink. But before Tomek Fiedorowicz left, he strongly argued that we shouldn't spend any more time there because we could dig for years and still not get through. So today I returned to the cave with some teammates to have one last look at the long dig. Like a funnel, the dimensions diminished as I proceeded, and as I looked down the final 49-foot (15-meter) section, it was obvious I wasn't going to fit. At 200 pounds (90 kilograms), I'm a good deal larger than my teammate Pavo Skoworodko, so he proceeded feet first in and disappeared for a long time. When he dug up some sand at the end, the hole it left slowly filled with water. Ahead, there was also just two inches (50 millimeters) of air space above the gravel and no wind was flowing through. To move forward at this point would mean weeks of excavating with only the potential of reaching a sump, or flooded tunnel, at the end.

Reluctantly, we ended our efforts there, which leaves only the right and left digs at Star Gorge River Sink. It was hard to call it quits because the maps we've generated for this region clearly indicate that this cave must have connected to the Cheve system at some point. But there's no airflow here, and there is airflow at the river sink. Now we HAVE to have success at the river sink or else we'll be leaving Star Gorge within the week to continue with the other reconnaissance tasks on our list.

—Bill Stone

* * * * * *

I headed to Star Gorge River Sink with some teammates after eating a hearty breakfast. Building on our progress over the past four days, we decided to continue down into a tight, sand-filled opening in the left dig where we could squeeze horizontally into another rock-filled chamber. Once we entered the small chamber, we steadily started passing rocks up until we heard loose pebbles falling into a chamber below. A strong wind coming from it teased us forward—a sure sign that's there's a big cave below.
 
Although the right dig is only a few meters away from the left one, it has an entirely different character. It's a narrow crack, plugged with sand and mud in seemingly solid rock, which means stability isn't an issue. We're hoping we can reach the main tunnel below via the left dig and then make our way to the right dig, which would be the preferred trade route to connect with Cheve or Charco cave.
 
Each day we dig out loose fill and progress either vertically or horizontally. But the work can be slow going. The tight quarters we're working in require some real body contortions at times, like hanging upside down so we can pass rocks to a teammate positioned above.

—John Kerr

February 24, 2004: Surveying the Dig Sites 
Photo: Meeting
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Almost everyone headed out early to the dig sites at Star Gorge River Sink. I worked with the team on the left dig in a chain gang to remove some boulders blocking a narrow passage. We slowly worked our way down ten feet (three meters) into a small chamber, and from there the cave really started to go! Climbing down a little more, we found a rift, and at the end of it was a pit some 70 feet (20 meters) deep. We needed ropes to go into it, but since we hadn't brought any down with us, we decided to return to the surface for lunch and a group meeting. There we decided that the best way to proceed was to have me and two other teammates survey the cave before continuing farther.
 
Meanwhile, the team on the right dig was making rapid progress. Bill Stone and Andi Hunter worked their way down through clay and mud while John Kerr removed sections of bedrock. After both teams finished surveying their digs, we put our data into the computer. It turns out that both ways seem to lead to the same place, so it's starting to look more feasible to break through the right dig, which is structurally safer because of the bedrock. The left dig has a lot of loose boulders that would be dangerous to crawl through. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? It's going to be another exciting day.

—Jan Matthesius


February 25, 2004: Descending Into the Pit
Photo: Drawing straws
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Photo: Descending
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Photo: Digging
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We awoke to light drizzle and dense, humid fog after a restless night's sleep. It was only anticipation for what was beyond the 70-foot- (20-meter-) deep pit we'd discovered yesterday that pulled us out of our sleeping bags and into our muddy caving suits. Feeling on the brink of discovery, no one wanted to stay behind. So we drew sticks to determine who had to stay behind to manage base camp. Luckily, I didn't get picked.
 
Given that we hadn't connected the more secure right dig, the only way to access the pit was through the unstable left dig. We decided to send only a select few individuals into the cave—those who enjoyed tight squeezes and had experience with unstable surroundings. This team (Martijn Boonman, Maarten Poot, Pauline Berendese, and Jan Matthesius) descended down the pit's water-washed walls, surveying as they went. Then they finagled their way through  abrasive, dark passageways heading through narrow descending cracks. The team had some frustrating moments trying to get used to surveying on scale, but ended up turning out a fine product at the end of the day. They'd found a hole continuing above and across from the pit that requires an aid climb to access. 
 
Meanwhile, I worked with another team on the right dig and we slowly made progress by hauling out muddy buckets up through a tight crack. We also brought in an air exchanger with a long tube off the rebreather apparatus to help replace the stagnant hot air in the dig. We're focusing on digging straight down in hopes of connecting with the upper leads in the pit room in the left dig. This will create a safer and more accessible cave entrance.
 
—Andi Hunter


February 26, 2004: Tough Times 
Photo: Enlarging passage
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Yesterday the cave ended with a small hole. Today we went to enlarge it and dig away the floor. Pauline Berendese passed the hole and found a narrow continuation. It dropped a few meters and became larger, then narrowed again. After about 130 feet (40 meters), the passage came to a sudden stop with another small hole that was almost completely filled with debris. A little work with a hammer opened it up a little, but we'll need to come back and try some different tools.  
 
—Jan Matthesius

* * * * * *

We continued our gnarly mud-filled dig, one handful at a time in the right-hand cave, or dig, hoping to connect with the left dig. The dig got narrower as we proceeded down, squeezing our limbs into six-inch (15-centimeter) cracks for leverage, while hauling out bucket after bucket. The digging was long, wet, and grimy. But we persisted, despite the heavy rain outside, which created a mini-stream flow in our digging area. We only have 20 more horizontal feet (six meters) to dig, according to our survey.

Waking up to rain, thigh-deep mud, and a wet cave suit has made it difficult to get motivated. I hid in the tent last night and skipped dinner, trying to muster more energy for another day in the hole. This sport is not for the weak at heart. 
 
—Andi Hunter

* * * * * *

As you can gather from the above, the combination of three days of rain and some tough going underground have led to low morale. The mood here has been swinging wildly. This is the nature of real exploration—95 percent drudgery, boredom, and routine followed by 5 percent of uncontrollable excitement. We'll keep plugging for a few more days and hope for sunshine—both to dry out our clothes and to reinvigorate the air flow in the cave. It seems to have stalled when the bad weather arrived and the air flow is what kept everyone focused in the initial digging efforts. Without that to guide us, the work underground is more guesswork than a sure thing. We have substantial new recruits due on Sunday (February 29, 2004) and we'll likely establish a second base camp higher on the mountain while we continue our efforts here in Star Gorge. Everyone is still in the opinion that we should persevere and make it happen.

—Bill Stone


February 27, 2004: Climbing Into the Dome
Jim Brown, Bill Stone, and I headed down to do a lead climb into the dome of the pit in the left dig. I was a little leery to enter this unstable area with three large climbing gear packs, so we cautiously proceeded, giving careful analysis to the boulders that appeared to be supported by only threads of sand and gravel. Visions of being squished like an ant ran vividly through my mind. We predicted that one or two blows to the loose boulders could send them crashing below and trigger a rock avalanche. 
 
Bill ended up having to make a special trip back to camp, so I ended up having to do the climb alone because Jim's specialty is actually diving. This was only my second time bolt-climbing underground, so I was a little nervous as I attached gear (hammer, drill, wrench, blow tube, etc.) to a sling around my upper torso. The weight of the rack indented on my shoulder as I headed up the climb for the first bolt placement. 
 
The drill performed exquisitely but my blow tube was too short. I braced myself in a crack, trying to reach my lips to the blow tube to clear dust from the hole for bolt placement. I got it and began placing one bolt after another. Finally, I got near the top of the dome and sat on a ledge to place the last two bolts. Bill showed up shortly after and I rigged a static rope from the top of the dome, so he could climb and help me survey the tight upper fissures leading off in various directions. 
 
Meanwhile, Pauline Berendese, Jan Matthesius, and Martijn Boonman worked on the dig face pulling out buckets of mud. Later that night, we threw a grandiose party to relieve tension from the digs. A late evening of laughs and leg and arm wrestling contests helped increase morale and boost the team's energy levels.
 
—Andi Hunter


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February 28, 2004: Just 13 More Feet
Following last night's activities, everyone slept in, catching up on their beauty sleep. The sun finally fought its way out of the clouds, so Bill Stone and I decided to designate the day for laundry and dishes.
 
Jan Matthesius, Pauline Berendese, and Tjerk Dalhusien worked on the left-dig face again and later, John Kerr showed up to dig on the right-hand lead. He also did some rock maneuvering on some of the tighter sections of both digs. We've only got 13 more feet (four meters) until we can connect to the crawl in the left dig.  

—Andi Hunter



 

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