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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. March 21, 2004: Fresh Faces
2. March 22, 2004: Three New Caves
3. March 24, 2004: Out on the Trail
4. March 25, 2004: Preparing J2-Osto Faustino Cave
5. March 26, 2004: Surveying J2-Osto Faustino
6. March 27, 2004: A 19-hour Day Trip

  March 21, 2004: Fresh Faces
Following yesterday's 16-hour push, all of us fell asleep around 6 a.m. We got up again at 2 p.m. when Yvonne Droms, Mark Stover, Robert Moncza, and Matt Covington (the last three are new recruits) showed up. We spent an hour briefing them, then gave them survey gear and a list of potential leads to check up on. When they returned at midnight, they'd pushed an incoming stream passage some 390 feet (120 meters) to the east and surveyed the first 164 feet (50 meters).
—Bill Stone

March 22, 2004: Three New Caves
Photo: A tight cave entrance
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We stirred at 7 a.m. and headed for the surface. Back at our Chapulapa base camp we found out that the El Ocotal team had been making important progress. Marcin Gala reported that his team discovered a tight vertical cave they named Tetris Cave, and pushed it 984 feet (300 meters) deep. Downstream from this they found J1 (an abbreviation for the Polish term Jaskinia 1, or Cave 1). Aside from Cheve Cave, it's the largest entrance on the mountain yet discovered and ends in an easy dig 656 feet (200 meters) from the entrance. J1 likely connects with a large chamber the team found in a cave named J2-Osto Faustino. It's 492 feet (150 meters) up from the J1 entrance, and it goes down 1,050 feet (320 meters). Greg Tunnock rappelled into it and ended up dangling 131 feet (40 meters) off the floor of a deep shaft at the bottom. The cave is drafting wind and water.
Both Tetris and J2-Osto Faustino go farther than the depths the El Ocotal teammates reached. But they ran out of rope. We'd brought 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) of rope, thinking it would be plenty for a recon mission. But with rope rigged in Aguacate and Ocotal, we've used it all. After a team discussion, we decided that part of the group would move to the higher camp for the coming week. Then they'll derig Tetra, so we'll have more rope for a five-day push on the going J2-Osto Faustino system. If we run out of rope there, which is a strong likelihood, then we'll return to Aguacate River Sink Cave for the final week of the expedition.
Tomorrow Marcin, Kasia Biernacka, Al Warild, and Greg return home. This leaves Pavo Skoworodko and Artur Nowak as the sole tenders of the high camp. Suddenly, after six weeks of sweat, the breakthroughs have come. As Kenny Broad once said, during a 1994-expedition, "Expedition caving is 98 percent boredom followed by 2 percent uncontrolled exhilaration." Given three significant caves that go, or look passable, we've reached the 2 percent zone. The next two weeks will be a marathon.
—Bill Stone

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March 24, 2004: On the Trail
The trails leading up to high camp above Ocotal were slicked with calf-deep mud that grabbed at our ankles with a sucking sound on every step. A combination of mules, donkeys, and horses followed us up, carrying piles of colorful fuel and water cans and packs of heavy vertical climbing systems. Although we've developed a rain collection system at high camp using a tarp, it's still necessary to have mules bring up water every few days. 
We were thankful for a blue-skied day, given that 98 percent of our days in Chapulapa have been cloudy and filled with mist. This has made it difficult to dry out our wet cave gear. However, the intense sunlight that accompanied the clear skies made our hike up to 8,000 feet (2,450 meters) a hot task. As we increased in elevation, the vegetation thickened, resembling the forest from the movie Lord of the Rings. Moss hung down from tree limbs and large vines wrapped their way between trees like a spider web.
Matt, John Kerr, and "Plywak," or Artur, headed into Tetris Cave today to derig the ropes, so we can use them in the deeper J2-Osto Faustino Cave. Our sunny day quickly turned to fog, and we huddled around the campfire, having good discussions into the early morning hours. 
—Andi Hunter

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March 25, 2004: Preparing J2-Osto Faustino Cave
Photo: Bill Stone
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We woke, once again, to an abnormally sunny day with clear blue skies and smiles all around. Excitement and cheers filled the air as Bill and John decided to climb a tree more than 130 feet (40 meters) high that extended above the canopy. Their successful climb resulted in a grand view of the karst areas we hadn't been able to see because of the misty weather and thick vegetation. This high point in the tree also allowed us a clear satellite connection to upload our daily entries to National Geographic.
The rope was rigged in the highest branch possible, so Bill and I headed up to the top with some hot tea and chocolate bars to observe the canopy and sinkholes, while scouting out new areas. I pulled myself over the top limb very cautiously and sat on moss-covered limbs like a relaxed monkey. The wind started to pick up and the branches swayed underneath me, expanding and contracting while the mist rolled up the canyon valleys. It was truly a peaceful place and a good thinking spot.
Meanwhile, Mark Stover, Matt, and Robert went on a resupply trip to Chapulapa. They ran into some locals who guided them to a three-foot- (one-meter-) wide hole, that dropped 19 feet (six meters) to a rocky floor. The locals found it while clearing vegetation for their corn crops. Yvonne and Mark Minton were at J2-Osto Faustino Cave (our new team focus) doing some additional widening with a hammer and sledge. Pavo and Plywak were also on a long day trip to J2 with three bags of rope to rig vertical drops as far as they could go. They finally returned at 3:30 a.m., having run out of rope. The cave continued in a deep fissure. 
—Andi Hunter

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March 26, 2004: Surveying J2-Osto Faustino Cave
Photo: 3D Map
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I stared down into the jungle-covered entrance to J2-Osto Faustino with its dramatic 98-foot (30-meter) tall limestone headwall. A giant vertical gash 16 feet (5 meters) wide by 66 feet (20 meters) tall led downward. With me was a team on a mission to carry the survey to the cave's present bottom. Pavo had told me earlier not to expect much here because of a tight spot in the cave. I've been in tight caves before and they're not my forte. It suits others with thinner cross sections. Although I make a point of staying trim, bone structure is what ultimately determines whether you can squeeze through a cave or not. So today we steadily made our way until we reached Pavo's tight spot at the top of the second pitch, some 330 feet (100 meters) inside the mountain. Everyone else had forced their way through. I began slipping my way in, feet first. The passage made a slight "s" bend and the dimensions narrowed to seven inches (17 centimeters). My feet were dangling out over 66 feet (20 meters) of vertical space and I had a safety line with a locking carabiner attached to the rope leading out over the drop. Slowly, it dawned on me that I was slipping farther into a vise that I wasn't going to fit into. The vise's tightening had been subtle at first, giving me hope. But it was no use. When you cannot inhale, you've gone too far. A few seconds of silence followed after which I resigned myself to the fact that it wasn't going to happen. I struggled to remove myself from the vise until I found a good handhold and did a series of pull-ups and was out. I looked back at the nemesis crack, then reluctantly called down to Bart, "You guys need to go on without me." As they rappelled away, I realized that for the first time I had been left behind. The crew heading downward was "green" relative to some of the other more experienced team members. They were certainly in for a bonding experience. I hoped they would be mindful of safety because a rescue here would be extremely difficult. I headed back toward the entrance in search of a hammer and chisel. Mark Minton and crew would be along shortly to try and enlarge the restriction. Caving is about teamwork. Those below would bring back the data, and we'd make the cave safer. As we completed our work near midnight, the wind was howling past us. A cold, thick river of chilled air headed deeper into the netherworld. And this time it was going deep.
—Bill Stone

* * * * * *

Five of us packed our vertical gear and a light lunch and headed down the trail to J2-Osto Faustino Cave with a mission to survey. A tight descending fissure instantly grabbed my attention, followed by a body-size hole descending to the second drop. I carefully squeezed through and waited for 45 minutes for my teammates (Matt, Bart Hogan, and Ryan Tietz), minus Bill, to arrive. Then we continued onward through numerous drop pools and hand-and-knee crawls, clicking and re-attaching our vertical gear on every rebelay.
The cave got wetter and muddier the farther down we went, but our team was determined to complete our surveying mission. Fifteen drops down, I happened to glance at my mud-covered mini-rack (a rappel device) and noticed the gritty rope had eaten a hole into my stainless steel top rappel bar. There was a high probability that the result—a razor-sharp steel edge—would slice the rope. So I got myself onto a stable sand platform, several drops down, and Bart and I dissembled the rack, flipped the worn-out bar over and pounded the safety lock-off pin through. The survey was difficult given its completely vertical nature, not to mention a waterfall spray we were in for the entire shaft that was more than 650 feet (200 meters) deep. We had to try to sketch while simultaneously hanging on rope, reading instruments, and warding off hypothermia. The bottom of the last rope rigged by Pavo and Plwvak came quickly.
—Andi Hunter

* * * * * *

Our mission today was to make it easier for the team to pass through the very tight squeeze leading toward the top of the second pitch at J2-Osto Faustino Cave. Mark Minton, John, Jim Brown, and I set out along a very steep, muddy path that weaved its way around the thick cloud forest vegetation toward the headwall above the cave entrance. Jim carried the camp generator, which we'd be using to power the hammer drill.
Once at the entrance, Jim settled in to tend the generator, which had a way of turning itself off way too easily. John, Mark, and I slithered down the tight fissure, pressing our bodies into both walls of the passage to control the slides. We rappelled down the first drop, then negotiated the various constrictions leading to the second pit while stringing the wire for the power drill. We found Bill Stone waiting near the top of the drop, swatting the large, annoying flies that had been pestering us in the upper parts of the cave.
John volunteered to slip through the tight constriction and go down the drop to derig the rope, so that our enlargement efforts would not result in a cut rope when loose rocks fell on it. The four of us spent the day drilling, chiseling, and hammering rock away. We were successful in enlarging the passage enough to make it somewhat more comfortable to get through. Still tight, but bearable. Mission accomplished. John reinstalled the rope, and we all headed back to base camp, looking forward to a relaxing evening of camaraderie around the campfire.
—Yvonne "Vonny" Droms

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March 27, 2004: A 19-hour Day Trip
Photo: Bart Hogan
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The clock struck midnight and our team stood on a boulder break-down pile 1,000 feet
(300 meters) vertically below the entrance, looking down into a dark abyss. The water and wind whirled down into the vertical shaft. The feeling was indescribable, but the portent was clear—the cave was going down fast, and the driving wind meant that it went down a lot farther. We finished our survey, and it was time to head back out.
Pavo, who'd rigged the cave on the previous day, had warned us of a large, unstable rock near the cave's terminus. Unfortunately, we all passed right over the top of it without realizing its instability on the way down. However, visions of being squished like an ant made us more cautious on the way up. Several redirectionals (a term used to describe  a place where the rope is pulled away from an obstacle or ledge) frustrated Matt on the way up. He yelled up to Ryan, "Any tips on passing this redirectional?" Ryan responded, "I don't know, but it's way hard." Given that Bart and I ascended first, we were getting very cold waiting and were antsy to move forward. We went onto the "Barby Slide,"  as Pavo and Plywak named it. This was a slick vertical fissure with minimum holds, which meant I had to expend a lot energy moving only a few centimeters at a time. We reached a horizontal traverse rope at 320 feet (100 meters) down at 4 a.m., and I got myself stuck dead in the center, loading both my attachment points. To resolve this predicament, I had to swing upside down like a monkey on a vine and wrap my legs around the rope, then get enough torque to attach my chest ascender. Our foursome finally made it out of the cave and back to camp at 7:30 a.m. Our 19-hour "day" trip had come to an end.
—Andi Hunter

* * * * * *

Last night I hung like a fly on the wall deep within J2-Osto Faustino Cave. I clung to the bolt at a rebelay to try to keep myself out of the spray as much as possible. The cave had intersected a deep rift and was plunging at a rapid pace to unknown depths. My mind was flooded with mingled fear and excitement. I pulled out my survey book and turned on my brightest headlamp to search the walls for the details that I needed to sketch to complete the survey. Below, my headlamp revealed only a misty blackness. My thoughts flashed back to when I was a sophomore in high school. My grandparents knew I was interested in caving, so they showed me an article in National Geographic about a caving expedition led by Bill to Huautla, another deep cave system in southern Mexico. It was reading that article that inspired my interest in expedition caving. Throughout college I pursued this interest by joining expeditions in Alaska, Sumatra, and northern Mexico. Now, only nine years later, what was a dream has become reality. I am participating in an expedition with the very same people I read about and in the same area, helping to explore some of the deepest cave systems in the world. I finished my sketch and returned the book to its pouch, and then descended into the inky blackness.
—Matt Covington

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