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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 14, 2004: Back at the Dig
2. March 15, 2004: Return to the Surface
3. March 16, 2004: A Team Reunion
4. March 17, 2004: A Major Break
5. March 18, 2004: Exploring Virgin Territory
6. March 19, 2004: A Day of Rest
7. March 20, 2004: The Success Continues


 
  March 14, 2004: Back at the Dig
We were off to the dig in Aguacate River Sink Cave at noon. John Kerr, Jim Brown, and I pulled out buckets of gravel for an hour, while Bart went up his new climbing lead, which he had just topped out, using four bolts and two anchors, to bang at a restriction. It was a "no go." Andi Hunter, Jim, and Ryan Tietz went scouting upstream. About 160 feet (50 meters) upstream from camp, Andi found a fissure, but it had a boulder blocking the way. Around 7:45 p.m. we headed back to the dig for a few hours of further effort. The fissure seems to be going down, and John and Bart Hogan feel good about its potential.

—Bill Stone

March 15, 2004: Return to the Surface
Photo: Bart Hogan
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I headed down to the dig again this morning along with Bart Hogan and John Kerr and we proceeded to haul out at least 15 bucket's worth of rock and mud from the dig site.  The "point," as cavers would call it, is clogged with debris from our digging efforts, but we are slowly hammering away at a large boulder blocking the downward passage. Digging is a slow chore, but can be very addictive when you start to feel more airflow on your face with every rock you remove. I left the dig site after lunch, and headed to the dome climb where Ryan Tietz and Jim Brown were learning how to lead climb. They had progressed 49 feet (15 meters) vertically up the dome, which was more than 130-foot (40-meter) high. Bill Stone belayed and was nearly gored when the hammer drill accidentally came unclipped from Jim Brown's harness and came flying down the dome, bit first, landing two feet (0.6 meters) from Stone's right ankle—a close call. I joined the lead-climbing team just as the drill batteries died, and Stone and I gathered up the excess trash and dead batteries, heading for the surface for an evening restock of fresh batteries and food. When we neared the entrance drop, I saw my first glimpse of light in six days. As I cleared the lip of the drop, I was surrounded by vibrant green trees and lush vegetation that sent my eyes into overload, forcing me to squint from the abundance of color. We were accustomed to seeing minimal color after a week underground, and our sense of sight, sound, and smell had been greatly enhanced. It was an overcast day, but nevertheless the brightness of our surroundings was still shocking.
 
—Andi Hunter

March 16, 2004: A Team Reunion
This was a regrouping day on the surface. The clouds hung low over Chapulapa and there was a chill in the air. At 10 a.m. we received radio contact from Kasia Biernacka. She and the other three members of the Polish contingent were coming down the mountain for resupply and needed a pickup at El Ocotal. Soriano went up to fetch them, and shortly there was a small reunion with team members we had not seen in more than a week. Pit 25—the great hope of the high camp that had begun with a spectacular moss-covered 164-foot (50-meter) entrance shaft—had bottomed out at 660 feet (200 meters) deep in a narrowing fissure, filled with boulders and no wind. Drat! But they were discovering new entrances daily, and had a hot new lead northwest of camp that was taking a substantial stream and had a strong wind blowing out. They were now down 262 feet (80 meters) vertically in it and at the top of a deep pit. We had lunch together, discussed logistics, and made plans to regroup in a week, at which point either we would head up high or they would come down to Aguacate, depending on who had the best going leads. Around midday Yvonne Droms and Mark Minton arrived from Texas, bearing much needed resupply items.

At 7 p.m. we headed to the cave for another three or four days, eager to see the progress the camping crew had made in our absence. When we finally arrived at Camp 1, we learned that Bart and John had removed boulders from the fissure lead that Andi and Ryan discovered, 164 feet (50 meters) upstream from camp on the east wall. Bart and John then went about 130 feet (40 meters) up and 330 feet (100 meters) in before coming to a very low (four inches [10 centimeters]) crawl. John dug with his feet for an hour before giving up. But they both still felt it opened up somewhere because of the air blowing out. We'll survey it tomorrow morning and find out if it comes near our dig or the high passages above Andi's climb.
 
—Bill Stone 

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March 17, 2004: A Major Break
Photo: Bill Stone
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Our plan today was to check out a few leads in Aguacate River Sink Cave. Soriano volunteered to show Mark and me the way, so off we went, rappelling down the first set of ropes that went to the stream's level. A belly crawl through the water brought us to another set of very wet pitches that followed the river downward.
 
After reaching camp at minus 525 feet (minus 160 meters), we proceeded up a tight, steep passage, where we found Bill, Andi, Jim, and Ryan surveying. John and Bart were out scouting virgin territory. So we continued on through some tough up climbs and tedious belly crawls until we met up with these two, returning from their exploration. They'd found the river again, thereby establishing a bypass to the sump (flooded tunnel) that had marked the previous limit of exploration in Aguacate. We were ecstatic!
 
While John and Bart went to give Bill's group the good news about their breakthrough room, which they named the Soda Straw, we checked out what they had just discovered. And along the way, we explored two virgin side passages. In one of them, after digging our way into a little room, Soriano got himself stuck in a tight crevice. That gave us a bit of a scare, but with a lot of wiggling and some pulling from Mark, he got out. After reaching the end of today's exploration, we reluctantly returned to Camp 1, and then on to the surface.
 
—Yvonne Droms

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March 18, 2004: Exploring Virgin Territory
Photo: Checking gear
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Photo: Surveying
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We got onto the trail to the bypass and reached the new river around 2:30 p.m. More than half an hour later we were in virgin territory. We swiftly went some 1,300 feet (400 meters) downstream before the river abruptly dived into a small rift that didn't appear passable. But luckily, we found an old fossil stream canyon leading off.
 
About 330 feet (100 meters) farther on the ceiling dropped, and we had to crawl and duck walk. When the cave opened back up, it was all "walking tunnel," a caving term that means there's little climbing, and no rope work, and you can stand straight up. It had no vertical pitches, except for one narrow fissure. Around 3:50 p.m. we came to a nearly right-angle bend in the tunnel to the east and hit a sand crawl. John immediately whipped out his titanium crowbar and started digging. He eventually cleared some 160 feet (50 meters) and wormed into a tight tube. John saw potholes in there—a clear sign of river flow—and figured he was in a sump that had dried up. He started going up hill, a potential sign that he was excavating himself out of the sump's other end, when a load full of sand fell down and blocked him in at eye level. John quickly backed out but still wanted to try and push it farther.
 
Meanwhile, Andi, Ryan, and I surveyed out from Station 500 (arbitrarily chosen, so we wouldn't duplicate any survey numbers coming from the Soda Straw Room). Surveying caves involves recording distance, slope, compass readings, and sketching maps. With this data, we can draft a fairly accurate cave map that shows both the cave's profile (how the cave falls or rises with respect to the elevation) and the cave's plan (how the cave would appear if you could visualize it from above). The profile is vital to this particular project because it will demonstrate precisely how deep we are at one point in the cave. 
 
We managed to keep up an extraordinary pace until 12:30 a.m. and 2,657 feet (810 meters) of survey. I asked Ryan to find a final station to flag, and this happened to be the 87h one. After that, we headed out and got back to camp at 2:20 a.m.
 
—Bill Stone


March 19, 2004: A Day of Rest
Photo: John Kerr
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Around 1:30 p.m. Yvonne and Mark showed up. Before coming down, they heard on the radio that the Spanish team was descending the mountain tomorrow. So the group consensus at Camp 1 was to have one final push into the new territory tomorrow, then head to the surface for a meeting on the 22nd. Some of us have been below ground now for almost 12 straight days.
 
While the rest of us had a day of R&R at Camp 1, Jim, Mark, and Yvonne surveyed the Soda Straw Room in from Station 110. They returned around 9 p.m., having covered maybe 160 feet (50 meters) into the river tunnel before quitting for the day.
 
—Bill Stone

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March 20, 2004: The Success Continues
The black beans we had for dinner last night had a devastating effect. The entire team got sick and ended up having Pepto-Bismol tablets for breakfast. Despite this setback, most of the crew, except for Ryan, felt well enough by noon to carry on. So John, Andi, Bart, and I left camp around 2 p.m. to push the bottom and to finish our surveys from the day before. We arrived at Station 151 around 4 p.m. and tied into Station 587 in the big breakdown chamber. We continued onto the dig, and Andi and John left to extend the lead. Bart and I began checking high leads back toward the stream piracy point, hoping for an easy crossover to the new stream canyon. We free climbed up some 50 to 70 feet (15 to 20 meters) more than a dozen times, but none of them went anywhere. They all pinched off in tight fissures or mud fills. So Bart and I hauled all our gear back to the water diversion, then, exhausted, returned to the dig.

I started worrying about Andi and John. They'd been gone a long time in what I presumed was a 164-foot (50-meter) long, body-tight tube. I knew how persistent John can be and was concerned that they might be stuck in an enclosed airspace. Bart volunteered to check up on them and about 30 minutes later, they all came back. "I reckon there's 180 meters (590 feet) of cave in there," Bart said. John added that there was also a lot of walking cave beyond this first crawl. I thought about this for a moment and then suggested we survey it. There was some reluctance from everyone at first, but then they agreed to return.
 
We began surveying at 1 a.m. The first sand crawl was a true claustrophobia test, even though Andi had already spent four hours removing four inches (10 centimeters) of sand from the floor. To survey it, John had to back in feet first. When he and Bart were through, they told me to follow. I only got three feet (one meter) in before I had to resign myself to five minutes of pushing ahead with my toes. I frequently paused, taking deep breaths. You get larger if you're stressed, so when you're in a cross section, taking time to relax makes things go smoother. Centimeter by centimeter the end approached. When I finally reached the other side, Bart and John were grinning. Amazingly, we were in walking tunnel. Around 4 a.m. we brought the survey all the way to the head of a third, sand crawl dig.
 
—Bill Stone




 

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