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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. March 7, 2004: Renewed Hope
2. March 8, 2004: The Trials of Transport
3. March 9, 2004: Going Down Under
4. March 10, 2004: High Hopes
5. March 11, 2004: A Multi-lead Chamber
6. March 12, 2004: News from El Ocotal
7. March 13, 2004: Surveying Day


 
  March 7, 2004: Renewed Hope
Photo: Andi Hunter
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Photo: A flooded tunnel
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Photo: Waterfall
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After breakfast we transported the Poles up to the basketball court at El Ocotal and bid them good luck in arranging for burros to get their water supply (20 jugs) up the mountain. On the way back to Chapulapa, Andi Hunter and I met Jim Brown above Aguacate River Sink for a recon trip to the bottom. Al Warild's crew had left the cave rigged at our request, and this was our chance to finally see the fabled cave. We made our way into the entrance, where I re-rigged a short length of rope. Soon Andi, Jim, and I arrived at the bottom and started into the cave proper. Almost immediately the ceiling dropped to within three feet (one meter) of the stream bed and we were soon crawling, flat out, in the stream.
 
The cave opened up into the first of four main pitches leading down to the minus 360 feet (110 meter) level. We eased through the fissure and down the next three pieces of rope. There was no escaping the water. It continued this way as we walked down a stream passage and went for two more pitches of 66 and 98 feet (20 and 30 meters). Then we were in the main deep level corridor, averaging 33- to 66-feet (10- to 20-meters) wide and 16- to 33- feet (5- to 10-meters) tall. At the base of the final large pitch we diverted into an upstream crawl way and slithered along. Downstream was fast walking and the stream had cut its way down on the west side. We followed this directly to the sump, a place where the cave continued only as a completely flooded passage. Jim eased himself into the water and wiggled to see if the sump was bigger than body size for a possible dive, but all he found was a tight, impassable fissure.
 
During our retreat we investigated the northeast wall of the final chamber for anything that might provide a bypass to the sump. At one point we were more than 130 feet (40 meters) from the sump and some 70 feet (20 meters) above it to the east. The mud bank that ascended from the river below crested and began to descend to the east, but only for a short distance before the arch of the main tunnel came back down. It looked like the end, but Andi started tossing small rocks from a narrow, horizontal crack in the floor, then decided to push it! I joined in and within a few minutes we'd revealed a void below, headed east. Andi dropped in and there was a moment of silence followed by, "You're not going to believe this. . . . I'm in a room as large as the one we just left." I joined her and we explored the large chamber. The whole room seemed to funnel to the northeast. We carefully cut footsteps to have a look at the drain. A hole about three feet (one meter) in diameter led vertically downward into the gloom. It was too steep to attempt without a rope, so we retreated.
 
Back in base camp later that evening, we began laying out plans to set Camp 1 in the chamber leading to the sump.
 
—Bill Stone

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March 8, 2004: The Trials of Transport
Photo: Packing
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Early in the morning we received radio contact from John Kerr. The Ocotal crew had had mixed success with logistics. They'd only managed to obtain one horse to carry cargo up the mountain, so only a portion of the crew had ascended. Pavo Skoworodko remained as guard that night at the depot, while most of the new crew descended from the high camp in the morning to carry what they could up the now muddy trail.
 
Around noon Jim Brown drove up with the Aussie and Spanish teams and dropped them off for a recon descent through the towering canyons to the southwest of Chapulapa. With fluent Spanish speakers on hand, we found out that there weren't many mules or horses in the Ocotal area, so we had to look for pack animals in Chapulapa, despite the extra distance. Later that afternoon some teammates negotiated for up to eight mules at the house of Vicente Navarrete, the Chapulapa rancher whose land contained Aguacate River Sink.
 
Meanwhile, back in the Chapulapa base camp, we packed gear for the underground camp in Aguacate River Sink. Given that we were now effectively split into four operating teams, many tools were in short supply again. Andi sorted freeze-dried food and rope, Bart modified an industrial power supply to charge our drill batteries, and I worked on sorting out aid climbing gear for a potential ascent up the towering waterfall dome we had scouted the previous day.
 
—Bill Stone

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March 9, 2004: Going Down Under
Photo: Team photo
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Photo: Digging
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Photo: Climbing
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It's 6:20 a.m. A glorious sunny day is breaking over Chapulapa, and we can see blue sky extending over the high karst zone. I'm sure it was a welcome sight for those camping above. Today will be a busy day with the Aussies and Spaniards meeting a burro train bringing water and equipment up to the high camp. After they leave, we'll have 19 in the high karst and just five remaining in Chapulapa. Three of us (Andi Hunter, Bart Hogan, and I) will be disappearing for the next three days into an underground camp in Aguacate River Sink while José Antonio Soriano and Jim Brown man base camp and the radio link to the high camp.
 
News yesterday indicated that the Dutch had returned to Javali Cave–the horiztonal crawl way that Tjerk Dalhuisen had first entered a week ago. He had come to a five-second pit, that is, rocks tossed in took five seconds of freefall before hitting the next level. Maarten Poot had hurt his hand while moving rocks to clear entry to this pit and would be out of action for a few days. Marcin Gala reported that the previous evening's storm had sent a bolt of lighting within 160 feet (50 meters) of base camp, which set some treetops on fire.
 
We also found out that Pete Hartley and crew had established a sub camp higher up and were moving on into the "killer-karst" zone. We were interested in it because it had innumerable pits hiding between the karst pinnacles, any one of which could be the entry we're seeking into the Cheve system. We'll have more to report when we return from
Aguacate River Sink in a few days.
 
—Bill Stone

* * * * * *

We're at Camp 1, about 560 feet (170 meters) deep in Aguacate River Sink Cave. With me are Bart Hogan and Andi Hunter. We left the surface yesterday at noon with Soriano in support, dropped off most of our equipment at camp, and proceeded directly to the dig in the new chamber—a mud funnel. The only incident we had on the way down was Andi getting a lock of hair caught in her rappel rack on the second waterfall pitch. She lost a little bit of hair, but it wasn't a major safety issue. We set two bolts at the dig to hang a pully for bucket hauling. Andi and Bart did most of the digging with our modified Cuicatec planting tool, fitted with a handle that had been cut off from the ten-pound (five-kilogram) sledge hammer.
 
By the time Jim Brown and I took our turn (maybe 15,  five-gallon [19-liter] buckets later) it was apparent that we were not just pulling mud out of the funnel, we were in breakdown. Jim and I got maybe three more buckets of material out before it was obvious that the rocks would have to go. It was then 7 p.m., and we retreated to camp to make a list of things for Jim and Soriano to bring in the following day. They left around 7:30 p.m. We spent an hour digging out a shelf above the river that was drip-free, strung a clothesline, got water, and then I finally dug a latrine downwind of camp. We played cards till around 10 p.m. then crashed.
 
—Bill Stone

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March 10, 2004: High Hopes
Photo: Digging
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Photo: Camping Underground
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We were up at 8:45 a.m. Everyone recalled hearing a loud noise last night, and each of us had independently come to the conclusion that it was a flood. But it didn't persist, and the water levels have not changed. It might have been a loose rock, activated by a passing caver, that finally fell.

We set off a little after 10 a.m. and hauled ten buckets and two large rocks out of the hole, then stopped for lunch at 1 p.m. Just after we finished our humble meal of granola bars, foil-pack tuna, and Jolly Ranchers, Jim arrived, followed by Soriano, with the supplies we'd requested. Bart and Andi did all the digging, while the rest of us hauled out the debris with rope, ascenders, and pulleys. The hole was now about 16 feet (five meters) deep and they were hitting solid rock on all sides. At about 5 p.m. Bart went to work drilling, I then went in and hammered away for a while before the key cobbles gave way. After eight-and-a-half hours at the dig, the five of us regrouped for a celebratory drink at camp. Jim collected some isopods for Tom Iliffe to identify, then he and Soriano left. It's now 7 p.m. and we are thinking about bathing in the river. It feels good to be here. I think the cave "goes," or looks passable, and it's time to make a stand here.
 
—Bill Stone 

* * * * * *

 Waking up at an underground camp is always an interesting feeling. Absolute darkness and the sound of a waterfall 26 feet (eight meters) upstream makes you feel like you're in a raging flood about to be swept away. But when you turn your headlamp on, the unknown is revealed. I remember that I'm underground now, in this peaceful, quiet, and calming environment of Camp 1 in Aguacate River Sink Cave. But it's not a permanent camp, we hope. We have established this as solely a dig camp with the optimistic attitude that we'll break through into a grand borehole, leading beyond the sump where the real Camp 1 will be established.
 
We were all eager to break through on our dig this morning. When we threw rocks down the hole at the dig site, we could hear pebbles clinking against what sounded like clean washed river boulders—a sign we're going in the right direction. The pebbles appeared to be dropping 16 to 23 feet (five to seven meters). 
 
Tomorrow we'll remove more rubble. Digging is not a glorious sport, but the sound of rocks clinking below a narrow passage gave us incentive to believe that somewhere below is the elusive way to much deeper places. We all have high hopes that this will connect with the Cheve system. Determination and persistence is everything, and we have what it takes to make this happen. 
 
—Andi Hunter

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March 11, 2004: A Multi-lead Chamber
Photo: Andi Hunter
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Up at 8 a.m. Everyone is excited to get back to the dig. Before Jim and Soriano left last night, Andi made up a list of stuff (food, gas, and batteries) to bring in on Friday for another three days down. Those in camp, as of this morning, seem content to persist with the dig here. Being camped here has some definite advantages: no rain and no locals to distract you constantly. I probably spent around 10 percent of every day's working hours explaining some aspect of the project or negotiating for permission, burros, shelter, etc. So, down here we have some control over our lives. I like the isolation of being on the frontier with a small group of talented companions, who all have special skills and can work tightly as a unit without ever being told what to do.
 
—Bill Stone

* * * * * *

Today we discovered that the small dig passage was blocked on all four sides with rock except for a small four-inch (ten-centimeter) wide by three-foot (one-meter) long vertical crack. Bart and I squeezed our heads above the large boulder that we had pried off the ceiling an hour before. We attached a bolt to the blocking boulder and connected it to a two-to-one pulley system outside the digging hole. To our dissatisfaction, the rock didn't budge and would require more pounding to shatter it to pieces. We thought it would be a good idea to try another angle, so we scoured the ceiling leading to the mud-filled chamber and found several promising cracks leading up to darkness. Out came the lead climbing gear, and I headed up the climb with a new sense of enthusiasm for all the "booty scooping," a caving term that means being the first in unexplored territory, that lay ahead. The first four bolts were exposed, overhung, and led diagonally across the overhanging roof, making it difficult to gain more than three feet (one meter) of progress per rock bolt. The fifth bolt put me into a vertical fissure. I could feel my right foot slipping off the mud crack I had wedged it in, and my balance was slowly deteriorating. I began to sweat as I tightened the nut on the bolt and quickly clipped my dynamic rope into the hanger. Whew!  Relief. All vertical fissure from here on up. I topped the climb, and to my surprise entered a large chamber with several leads extending in multiple directions. Excitement instantly pumped through my veins, and I set a final couple of bolts for a rope for the team to ascend on. 
 
—Andi Hunter

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March 12, 2004: News from El Ocotal
Photo: El Ocotal
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John Kerr and crew arrived. Over lunch, John filled us in on tales from the high karst. Today was the first sun they'd seen, and the trails were extremely muddy. But they'd found some deep pits, one of which was down to 590 feet (180 meters). Both the Dutch and the Utah crews left the mountain this morning. Up in Javali Cave, above El Ocotal, a 300-pound (136-kilogram) rock had fallen on Maartijn's Boonman's back. He had let it roll off but it caught the tip of his left hand and left him out of commission for three days. With John Kerr and Ryan Tietz now down in Chapulapa, the Poles, Spaniards, and Aussies rule the upper camp. They seem to have a good camp established and are finding leads.
 
The dig here in Aguacate River Sink Cave has now become a full-fledged boulder removal operation. We're trying to follow the sinuous course of the drainage coming down through Andi's Room in the hope that it rejoins the main Aguacate stream beyond the sump. How I wish I had a hand winch down here. Back in the trucks, we have two Warn electric winches, but at about 80 pounds (40 kilograms) each, there's no way we could transport them down here.  
 
—Bill Stone

* * * * * *

The large chamber I found was full of Swiss-cheese holes going in all directions. We pushed and squeezed through many of the holes, but they tapered into even smaller holes that only Barbie-size figures could pass. Morale started to dwindle when the upper leads fizzled into rabbit holes. Having Soriano, Kerr, and Brown come in for food resupply greatly enhanced our moods. We had started becoming easily agitated with one another, and having new faces (if only for a couple hours), helped settle any tensions and refocus on our plan. Brown brought his camping gear and decided to join us for another five days underground. Back to the dig we went, and again we removed large amounts of debris, one bucket load at a time. After another couple hours we hit more rock on all sides that would require more tools for rock removal. John and Bill were on the spot. By 7:20 p.m. the last pounding was done, and we headed back to our cozy underground camp for a splash in the river (with soap!) and some freeze-dried scrambled eggs that turned out to be nasty, so nasty I could only eat six bites before feeling sick to my stomach. Freeze-dried food for breakfast and lunch is an instant dieting technique for rapidly losing unwanted pounds.
 
—Andi Hunter

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March 13, 2004: Surveying Day
Today was survey day. We've been pushing a lot of leads down here at the end of Aguacate and one of the big questions is this: Is the dig at the bottom of Andi's Room deeper than the sump? If so, that might signify that we're close to a breakthrough. So first, we went down the hole and surveyed out from the bottom and back to the top of Andi's Room. We then returned for another hour of rock pounding in the hole. Isn't this what they do in prison? Andi and I continued the survey down to the sump, while Bart and Jim went up into the upper passage, now named Arterial Neurosis, to look at Bart's high lead. The sump was running clear and you could see it was small—three-feet (one-meter) wide by 1.6-feet (0.5-meter) deep and headed down.
 
We returned to camp where I sketched a map that revealed that the sump was below our dig now. Around  6 p.m. Andi and I went up into Arterial Neurosis and surveyed everything we could, ending at the base of Bart's climb. By this time it was 8:30 p.m. and Bart was busy setting a bolt to begin a new climb just above the crawl into Andi's Room.
 
We played cards and finished dinner around 10:20 p.m. and had just gone to bed when two lights appeared in the tunnel. It was John Kerr and Ryan Tietz. They'd taken more than two hours  to get here.  
 
—Bill Stone

* * * * * *

Arterial Neurosis was quite a pain to survey, but Bill and I worked on completing that task. Meanwhile, Jim and Bart continued digging, and Bart set up for a lead climb into what became known as the Self-Saucing Slide. Jim Brown had shared his self-saucing pudding from Australia with us last night, and we thought that would make for a perfect name for a slimy passage. 
 
Arterial Neurosis has some air blowing out and appears to be leading up to an upper level, but we haven't yet figured out how to get there yet because the fissure is too narrow. The passage is a maze of vertical tubes that are body-tight and passable only without a harness. You have to move an inch at a time. I could hear the loud waterfall above camp, and it made me wonder how all that water could just end in such a puny little sump with what appears to be a very narrow exit. There has to be a way on.
 
We have pushed all the leads we saw possible at the sump, so we'll start recon back toward the entrance if the leads near the sump don't pan out. I've got a good feeling about this cave, but it's going to take some skill and thought to master the geology and figure out the complex fracturing. The group has very diverse talents, all adding up to a fantastic team.

—Andi Hunter

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