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

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

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 29, 2004: Seeking Permission
2. March 1, 2004: Searching for "Big Going" Caves
3. March 2, 2004: The Death Karst

4. March 3, 2004: Reinforcements Arrive
5. March 4, 2004: A Close Call
6. March 5, 2004: The Hidden Entrance
7. March 6, 2004: San Francisco Chapulapa

  February 29, 2004: Seeking Permission
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Most of the crew returned to Santa Ana and hiked back down into the canyon to base camp. But four of us—Tjerk Dalhuisen (pronounced "chair-ik doll-hausen"), Maarten Poot, Andi Hunter, and I—continued south on a little used road that crossed the western rim of Star Gorge to the town of San Miguel Santa Flor. There we drove into the town center. The old basketball court—once the largest flat area in town—had been replaced by a remarkable barrel-arch roofed indoor court so that local youth could play during the rainy season and, coincidentally, not have to spend a half hour chasing errant foul shots that missed the hoop and bounced off down into the canyon. Six men worked outside the municipal office digging a ditch. We asked to meet with the presidente (the equivalent of a town mayor in the U.S.). One of the shovel-wielding men—the town's registrar—indicated that the presidente was at his house, and he would fetch him. One thing about mountain towns in southern Mexico that has always held my fascination is the egalitarianism with respect to public work. It would have been entirely normal to have found the presidente there in the ditch with a shovel, too. When he arrived, our entourage made its way into the municipal building, where we explained our mission. We presented our current maps of the area, including computer-superimposed plots showing the subterranean tracks of the known cave systems, along with Spanish translated brochures. After a half hour of friendly banter—the Cheve Project is well known to these villagers because the third deepest cave in Mexico, Charco Cave (4,193 feet/1,278 meters) is in their jurisdiction—the presidente read a letter of introduction we had carried with us from Oaxaca City, signed it, and then produced an official town seal from his hip pocket with which he ceremoniously stamped the signature. We now had official sanction to scout the mountain to the south where the Cheve karst plateau looms high in the distance like an impenetrable fortress.

—Bill Stone

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March 1, 2004: Searching for "Big Going" Caves
Stream Sink
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The previous evening we were told that half of the San Miguel River disappeared into a hole on the side of the canyon upstream from town. So this morning we set out to investigate. Shortly we came across what we were looking for: a three-foot (one-meter) diameter solution-scoured hole on the side of the canyon wall at stream level. The locals had built a rock and mud dam around it in a diversion arch. Tjerk dropped in, and out came tens of thousands of gnats in a swarming black cloud. The hole was filled with boulders, either intentionally thrown in to stem the flow or simply washed in by the river. An interesting prospect—but not the type of open shaft we had been hoping for. The problem with caving is that the water can go places people cannot. Onward.

We continued down the road to San Francisco Chapulapa, at the head of the deep Aguacate canyon that leads southwest toward the Cheve Cave high karst plateau. In 1989 we had located another river sink—Aguacate River Sink—in the area above town. This cave was subsequently explored to a terminal siphon at a depth of 571 feet (174 meters), 0.6 miles (one kilometer) from the entrance.

Its dimensions were generous, with the tunnel leading into the sump measuring nearly 82 feet (25 meters) wide and 49 feet (15 meters) tall. There was no apparent reason for the cave ending so quickly, and given that it takes the entire drainage for the huge Aguacate canyon, it seemed to me that something had been missed. Its location, like Star Gorge River Sink, was on the variegated contact zone line that extends from Cheve Cave all the way to the springs in the depths of the Santo Domingo canyon. That made it likely to be a significant part of the overall cave system.

We drove on up to El Ocotal, passing through several karst canyons, each containing black holes in cliffs—indicating the possible presence of caves. From El Ocotal we could see the lines of the first flank of the karst plateau looming to the southwest. As I looked up to the southwest, I realized that no outsiders—let alone cavers—had ever gone where we would be going tomorrow.

—Bill Stone

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March 2, 2004: The Death Karst
Bill Stone
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Cave Life
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We began packing at 5 a.m. for an adventure into the highlands—what some folks call the death karst, which gets its name from the jagged, heavily weathered limestone that exists throughout the plateau northeast of Cheve Cave.

We struggled to keep up with an enthusiastic, fit local guide, Atanacio Manzo Gusman, as we headed south of El Aguacate canyon toward the tall cliffs leading south above the village of Tlalixtoc Viejo. Atanacio led us through cornfields, overgrown vegetation with webs of thick vines requiring a machete, tall pine trees, and spooky sinkholes. At almost every turn Atanacio would point out obscure ostos (pits). It felt like we were walking on top of a block of Swiss cheese where just as you would top one sinkhole, you would enter another. We had been looking for water all day. When we arrived at a large cienega (swamp), Atanacio pointed to the muddy eutrophic, rust-colored water laden with algae and cow droppings and referred to it as "sweet water." I tried not to laugh, but he was serious about this being the only source of water up in the highlands.

We marked GPS coordinates at over 25 potential pit and cave dig locations that afternoon. Due to its undesirable features and inaccessibility, this region was still virgin to cavers. We planned to establish another camp up here. We would need 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of water per person each day. Local guides with mules could carry two 20-liter (5-gallon) containers. Only six mules were available in El Ocotal, so each delivery could bring 240 liters (64 gallons) of water. A six-person team would need a delivery every four days. Water would be short, showers non-existent, terrain would be rough, and living conditions would be based on bare-minimal essentials, but our enthusiasm for venturing into this unexplored region remained. Cavers are accustomed to self-motivation—waking up in the dark with a headlamp acting as the only sunbeam, putting on wet fleece, stinky wet socks and boots, and energizing with oatmeal and a pot of tea. The desire for underground system exploration is not just an escape from reality, but it's an escape for discovery.

—Andi Hunter

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March 3, 2004: Reinforcements Arrive
GPS Coordinates
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Maarten Poot
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Today's mission was to revisit the Cheve entrance and take GPS coordinates. The long, winding, narrow roads leading between villages ate up most of our time, given that it took three hours of transport time between Cheve base camp and Santa Ana. To our surprise, there was a new team of two Australians, one Mexican, and five Spaniards awaiting our arrival in Santa Ana. The new group was energetic and ready to push Aguacate River Sink, so we transferred gear from Big Red (Bill Stone's truck) to a small porch outside the dusty-floored room at Imer Martinez's house in Santa Ana. We then, with the truck packed full of cavers, headed off to check on the rumor of another pit discovered while plowing a new road on the north side of the mountain (part of Santa Ana's effort to open a new road for coffee and sugarcane trading). We dug just enough to squeeze a body into the hole and rigged a rope tied off to Big Red's front bumper. Maarten Poot squeezed down the pit, and 20 minutes later, tight fissure cracks revealed that the cave dead-ended.

Bill Stone and I hiked down to base camp that evening at midnight by moonlight, after sending the Australian and Spanish team over to set up a base camp at Aguacate River Sink. The team at the Osto Cerro Voludo #2 had not yet returned, so we waited until they arrived around 1 a.m., then had a brief team meeting to discuss new findings and direction. The general consensus was to give both the Osto Cerro Voludo #2 and the Star Gorge River Sink one final day's effort before packing out base camp and moving up the mountain to work the Aguacate region for a few weeks. We may return to the Star Gorge River Sink, but that depends on what we find.

—Andi Hunter

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March 4, 2004: A Close Call
By the time we were ready to go, the other two teams had already taken all the battery-operated drills. We decided to haul the base camp generator to the front and use our Milwaukee cord drill to loosen boulders blocking the way forward in the Star Gorge River Sink. Because there is hardly any draft at the front, the air got really bad after drilling the first few boulders. Tjerk started hyperventilating and had to be escorted out. The generator left such a dense fog at the front that further digging was impossible for a while. To kill the time, we started exploring the main fissure upstream of the dig, where Jan and Pauline had been climbing a few days ago. John dug a hole in the floor of a small chamber, and Maarten crawled through. Below were a couple of small chambers interconnected by squeezes, passageways just wide enough to squeeze through. All walls were solid bedrock, without any flowstone. Along the roof, all holes were plugged by boulders. Below, where water used to flow down, the passage was blocked with mud. The hole through which this area is accessed is still unstable and very tight. We may need to remove a big boulder to make the passage more comfortable. Later we returned to the front, which looks like it could break through to big going tunnel (larger passageways) soon, although it is impossible to look more than three feet (one meter) ahead at a time. It looks like a fissure crack, 1.6 feet (a half meter) wide by maybe 9 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) tall, through which the San Miguel River used to run. During floods, the water forcibly wedged boulders in there, making the way forward exceedingly arduous. Finally we finished Jan and Pauline's aid climb (which dead-ended at the top), removed all the bolt hangers (now in short supply given all the teams working on the mountain), derigged the main pit, and hauled all the gear out and back to base camp.

—Maarten Poot

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This is the end of the Star Gorge camp. It is a clear night with a near full moon shining down the canyon. It has been a pleasant camp except for all the midges (black flies), especially when the weather was sunny. Too bad it didn't bring Big Going cave (yet!). It sure is an interesting area, with a complete river disappearing underground. It is a pity that it is so far away—if we could dig here a weekend every month, we would surely get to something very interesting. He who will keep on going will win, as we say in Holland. One day….

—Tjerk Dalhuisen

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March 5, 2004: The Hidden Entrance
Bill told us about this pit on Cerro Voludo on the south side of the Star Gorge valley. He gave us the GPS coordinates for Osto de Cerro Voludo #1 (a nearby 348-feet/106-meter deep shaft that first drew attention to the area) and a topo sketch of the Cerro Voludo area. We first went there on February 28 and it was Artur Nowak (nickname "Pwyvac" —Polish for "swimmer"), Ryan Tietz, and me. When hiking up the trail, we met a local boy named Saloman who offered to show us the entrance. We had no bolting kit, so I just tied off the rope to a boulder. Pwyvac went down first. He rappelled the first 165-feet (50-meter) pit, known now as the Pit of the Smashed Flies, ran out of rope, and brought back good news. Unlike most of the pits in this area, the thing continued on downward. He also had seen some big tarantulas down there. Pwyvac says that after one more month here, we will start to hunt them for a snack. They are not that scary anymore.

A few days later, Pwyvac and I came back to the cave to survey new discoveries and derig the cave. I noticed there was a squeeze right above the water level by the sump, which might be passable after working on it with a hammer for a bit. I saw a chamber on the other side, so it's pretty interesting. That's why we decided to leave the cave rigged and we're going back today. We checked several potential leads on the way out. One of them, which is a tight fissure window in the second pit, is interesting and it has the strongest airflow I have noticed in the entire cave. It is too tight to enter, however. Last night Bill and I consolidated the survey data. The Osto Cerro Voludo #2 is currently 548 feet (167 meters) deep and 804 feet (245 meters) long—pretty much a succession of interconnected vertical pits with some short, horizontal passages between.

—Pavo Skoworodko

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March 6, 2004: San Francisco Chapulapa
We four-wheeled it across the mountain to San Miguel Santa Flor and on to San Francisco Chapulapa. There, Al Warild me us in the thick fog with a cheery Aussie greeting. Various parts of the team had already passed through town.  Martijn Boonman, Tjerk Dalhuisen, Maarten Poot, Peter Hartley, Jon Jasper, and Brandon Kawous had bypassed Chapulapa and had their hired truck driver take them straight to El Ocotal, where they established the first high camp in the Ocotal karst. 
Warild, Greg Tunnock and the Spanish contingent had done the same a day later and were now holed up in the Presidencia municipal building complex in Chapulapa. They had been keen to get moving on the Aguacate River Sink and had just returned following a second day of rigging and exploration. Warild had concluded that the cave ended after a visit to the sump, although many side tunnels remained to be looked at higher elevations and there were a number of tall domes that could also be climbed. Our crew (Andi Hunter, John Kerr, Ryan Tietz, Pavo Skoworodko, Artur Nowak, Marcin Gala, Kasia Biernacka, and I) found our way to unoccupied office spaces in the building and crashed for the night. 
—Bill Stone

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