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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 28, 2004: The Final Push
2. March 29, 2004: Packing Up High Camp
3. March 30, 2004: Bad News
4. March 31, 2004: A New Day
5. April 1, 2004: Checking Leads
6. April 2, 2004: Rising Hostility
7. April 3, 2004: Vandals


 
 
March 28, 2004: The Final Push
Photo: Bart Hogan
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Photo: Andi Hunter
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We awoke at 7 a.m. and found the final push team for J2-Osto Faustino Cave (Pavo Skoworodko, Artur Nowak, and Mark Stover) sitting around the campfire. They had just returned from a rough 18-hour trip, where they used the last of our rope to reach the bottom of a big shaft series 1,283 feet (391 meters) down. From there, the team forced their way through a tight fissure passage, 160 feet (50 meters) long, until it opened up into a stream canyon, averaging 10 to 20 feet (three to five meters) in width and 30 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) in height. They ran down 1,300 (400 meters) of this canyon before encountering a major stream junction that tripled the water flow in the system. Farther on, the team came to a cascade pitch, where the water arched out into the blackness of a large chamber. Because Pavo, Artur, and Mark had already logged a number of hours on this trip, they couldn't survey this last portion below the shaft series. But they estimated that they had dropped another 160 feet (50 meters). The increase in passage size, the ever growing stream, and the persistent wind all signal that we've finally broken into a major system north of Cheve Cave. But we've been checkmated for the season. With all of our rope rigged, we have no choice but to pull back and leave J2-Osto Faustino as a target for a follow-up expedition.

 
Given this state of affairs, we held a team meeting and arranged for mules to help us pack up the high camp tomorrow. We'll return to Aguacate River Sink Cave for our final week. But there was still one mystery remaining beckoning to be investigated from high camp. Earlier scouting missions suggested the presence of very high-elevation sinkholes near the 9,432-foot (2,875-meter) peak, located some 5.5 miles (2.2 kilometers) northeast of Cheve. So Bart Hogan, Andi Hunter, and I set out on a marathon recon hike to scout a route into this mysterious area. It took two hours to climb up through the cloud forest's wet peat trails and  break into the barren area known among Cheve cavers as the death karst—a place of jagged, heavily eroded limestone ridges and pinnacles separated by cactus-filled sinks, fissures, and pits. Our pace slowed dramatically and three hours of thrashing later, we reached the peak. From there we got a view of the entire Cheve high karst, and in the distance to the south was the mystery sink we were aiming for, along with dozens of others not shown on topographic maps. We bushwhacked into all of these, but, unfortunately, found no cave entrances.
 
We reached the mystery sink at 5:30 p.m. Floored with grass, it looked like a rolling golf course with subsink funnel depressions. One of these, which Andi and Bart investigated, takes water, but is blocked by a constriction. The other depressions were only covered with grass. By 6:15 p.m. thick clouds had rolled in, visibility had dropped to 20 feet (five meters), and it started raining. We still had five hours of hard hiking back to base camp. By the time we returned to the 9,432-foot (2,875-meter) peak, it was dark and we were in a near whiteout. Fortunately, we'd recorded a string of GPS waypoints—mainly to identify karst features—along the way, and this gave us our path home. Bart pushed ahead with a machete, while I read GPS coordinates, and Andi read compass bearings every 160 feet (50 meters). It was slow going and we were soaked and cold. Although we each brought our fleece jackets, no one thought to bring their rain gear because of the clear, blue sky earlier this morning. Several hours later we were quite happy to intersect the J2-Osto Faustino Cave trail. We were now on home terrain.
 
—Bill Stone


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March 29, 2004: Packing Up High Camp
Photo: Mules
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Photo: School children
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Pavo went down the mountain yesterday to arrange for mules, and I sent along a note to our local guide, admonishing him to show up at 9 a.m. However, none of us believed that he would actually arrive at that exact time. Mountain time usually has a punctuality factor of plus or minus five hours. So given yesterday's marathon hike we were still sacked out at 9 a.m. when I heard the unmistakable whistling of burro drivers coming up the trail. I rushed to get dressed and met them at the campfire, where Mark Minton and Yvonne Droms were already packing equipment. I explained our tardiness to the lead animal handler and he and his team seemed quite content to drink coffee and watch the circus of gringos scurrying around. Within two hours we'd reduced our once fully functioning camp to around 30 duffel bags. The burro drivers took over from there and began the laborious process of spreading our bags out among the mules. By 3 p.m. we reached the trailhead at El Ocotal, and by 4 p.m. we were at the municipal building headquarters in Chapulapa. The remainder of the day was equally fast paced as we emptied packs, cleaned gear, and reloaded for our final four-day push from Camp 1 in Aguacate River Sink Cave. We head out early tomorrow.
 
—Bill Stone

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March 30, 2004: Bad News
While the rest of the team prepared to go back underground in Aguacate River Sink Cave, Mark Minton and I took a day trip out to it to check some leads found during surveying. But when we got to the cave entrance, a nasty surprise awaited us: Our entrance rope was gone. Rope is a coveted commodity in these rural mountain areas. We returned to Chapulapa to get more and to discuss the situation with the team. We could have had a real crisis if the rope had been removed while we were in the cave!
 
We ended up rerigging the entrance pit, then Mark and I rappelled down into the main cave passage. It must have rained hard earlier higher up on the mountain because the waterfalls were powerful. We were mostly at the edge of them, but at times I'd swing in. Thrilling!
 
We carried several large batteries for the team and left them near a dome, where they would be used for a lead climb. We then located our leads and started into virgin territory. This particular part of the cave was extremely muddy, which made crawling on our hands and knees and bellies difficult. We kept sinking into the oozing mud, but the cave continued and lured us onward. 

Mark and I took turns climbing or squeezing into any possible lead we found. Some minor, unimportant-looking holes netted large, echoing chambers, or pretty domes glistening with water droplets. After a couple of hours of exploring, we had found a network of interconnected tubes, where water once used to flow, along with an active passage that had promise of going farther. We decided to quit once we hit an exposed traverse over a pit. It was late.
 
—Yvonne Droms

* * * * * *

Before we went out to Aguacate River Sink Cave, we received an e-mail from our friend Bill Mixon in Austin, Texas. It read:

Don't know whether you've heard anything about the fuss over an "accident" and "rescue" in Cuetzalán. Some Brits, many of whom happened to be members of U.K. military, got trapped by high water. They were prepared for this and had arranged backup from some Brit cave divers, who came over and got them out. But the Mexican press created all sorts of nonsense—like the Brits were military spies, looking for uranium in the cave. This led     to politicians doing hasty things. Result is that the Brits were cleared of all charges but expelled from the country (after being detained and questioned for a few days) for doing research on tourist visas. Officials are now claiming, hopefully temporarily, that all caving in the country needs research visas. And Ramón Espinasa reports that one of the Mexican TV networks is encouraging viewers to report all foreign cavers to the authorities.

This message was chilling. I immediately called a team meeting. We already had permits for our project and were well known on the mountain. Nonetheless, no one knew what far-ranging effects this incident might have. Prior to Bill's e-mail, we'd already had three unusual conversations with locals. At Ocotal high camp, one of the burro drivers mentioned that some British cavers had an accident and were expelled from the country for not having permission. Then he asked if our group had permission. I explained that we indeed did and produced letters from Oaxacan state officials. Later, back in Chapulapa, a local who's been constantly observing our activities asked me what we were planning to do now. I explained our intentions for the final push on Aguacate. He asked, "Where will you be parking the trucks?"  I told him by the cave entrance. He wanted to know where we were leaving our equipment. These were very pointed questions, especially up here in the mountains where life tends to be casual to the extreme. Shortly thereafter, the presidente came over and requested that I write down all of the team members' names and their country of origin. I complied, but again found this odd. Bill's e-mail brought it all together. After a unanimous team vote, we proceeded with our plans to enter Aguacate. But there was a definite uneasiness about these strange politics. We wondered if we would return to the top to find our truck in a heap of ashes or a military platoon waiting for us. At the very least, we were secure in knowing that no one would pester us at Camp 1 for the night.
 
—Bill Stone

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March 31, 2004: A New Day
Photo: Andi Hunter and Ryan Tietz
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Up to the dome we went after a heavy carbohydrate breakfast. Bill was the first lead climber and Ryan Tietz belayed from the bottom, while I took pictures and fixed broken equipment. Bill came down after four hours, and we had an hour break, drinking hot chicken bouillon water and splitting a can of tuna three ways for lunch. Afterward, it was time to switch lead climbers. Bill asked, "Who wants to head up?"  Ryan and I looked at each other, both with little motivation and fatigued from lack of sleep. I piped up, "OK, I'll lead, but you have to hang from your harness for four to five hours and belay me." Ryan agreed, so up we both went, cleaning the gear from Bill's previous lead climb, changing the battery, and re-racking the hangers all while suspended in our harnesses. Preparing for an underground lead climb involves a lot of gear sorting and time-consuming safety procedures, none of which we take shortcuts on. Attached with three ropes, I slowly bolted my way up an overhung diagonal crack. The sound of the waterfall was crushing, and the easiest bolting route was only slightly to the left of it, coating me with a fine mist and an occasional splattering of bone-chilling water. The water was too loud for our voices to be heard, so communication for the next five hours was impossible. I went to crank in another bolt and realized my wrench had come unclipped and fallen into the waterfall below. Luckily, Bill saw what happened, swung into the waterfall, and retrieved the wrench like a natural Tarzan. I followed the waterfall and after several necessary deviations, continued up a dry route, not expecting it to go anywhere. Several more bolts and I was out of gear and battery power. It was time to call it a day. Ryan and Bill were wet and cold from the waterfall spray. We headed back to camp and crawled into our warm sleeping bags. About midnight the digging crew returned from their 14-hour trip. Bart was optimistic that they were on the verge of a breakthrough.
 
—Andi Hunter

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April 1, 2004: Checking Leads
Photo: Ryan Tietz
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Photo: Bart Hogan
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No one was up until around 11 a.m. We had a team meeting and decided to check out both leads, despite some early talk of all going to the dig, which is the farthest point toward the potential Cheve system junction. Four teammates went to the dig, and Andi and I headed to the climb. Andi's assessment of it was that there was a 50-50 chance that it ended. When I reached her belay station, I immediately fed out some line, slid my ascenders down, and hung far out into the shaft. There was a dogleg (a passage that made a turn) to the silo (upper part of the dome). It appeared that Andi had missed a higher level around the corner. The small fissure above the belay stance seemed like it might connect in and provide a dry bypass around the direct route up through the waterfall. Sure enough, three bolts later I was into the fissure. I found that it spiraled up some 70 feet (20 meters) into a 23-foot- (seven-meter-) diameter chamber that had a ledge leading over the shaft and up into a still higher platform. 
 
By the time we had fixed lines rigged and Andi had joined me, we were 200 feet (70 meters) above the floor of the pit, looking up into a giant shaft of fog and spray. Andi took the next lead. Things did not go well. I offered to take over and was soon up at the point. It felt good to be there. Unlike some of our previous pitches, this one had ample foot and handholds, all covered by a grit-like layer of flowstone, which made for good free climbing. It also offered a convenient place to stow our heavy drill and battery pack. Unburdened of these leaden weights, I began a more traditional lead climb, with some 15 feet (five meters) between safety bolts.
 
At one point I reached for the battery pack and suddenly felt it tumble into the darkness below. "Rock!"  I yelled to Andi just as I heard the pack hit below. It seemed like this was going to end our climb. But then I told Andi to send the batteries back up to see if we could still use them. The outer shells were definitely crushed, but I connected the cords and the drill miraculously came to life. Incredible. I confidently continued up and within two more bolts discovered a horizontal tunnel, leading off toward the sound of a waterfall. I rigged the fixed line, and Andi came up. We soon found ourselves at the base of a 40-foot (12-meter) cascade, coming into a flowstone-coated chamber. We free climbed the walls and gained another 30 feet (ten meters) into a stalactite-festooned room. It was a dead end. The waterfall was the way on, but we were out of static line. This was it for the expedition. We were left with a going, or passable, lead, heading south into the mountain. 
 
We surveyed out and made it back to camp by 3:30 a.m. Less than 45 minutes later, the rest of the team returned from the dig. They had progressed only another 15 feet (five meters). Bart still believed the dig continued, but it was more work than they had bargained for and would require a few more days' effort to break through. That was something that wasn't going to happen this year. Everyone fell into a deep sleep by 5:30 a.m.
 
—Bill Stone


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April 2, 2004: Rising Hostility
Photo: Ryan Tietz
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As I groggily awakened at 10 a.m., I saw a bright light in the distance, coming from the entrance tunnel. It was Pavo, returning from a brief trip to Mexico City to change his flight schedule. He had met with Ramón Espinasa, a leading caver from Mexico City who had actually been on site in Cuetzalán during the incident with the British expedition. This was now old news, but its ramifications were still growing. Pavo had first learned of it when he saw a magazine cover at the airport with two British cave divers: Rick Stanton and Jason Mallinson. They're well known among the expedition community. The cover showed a Mexican military vehicle taking them into detainment. The way Espinasa reports it, the British were on site in the Cuetzalán area, where there are extensive, mostly horizontal river caves known for their large tunnels. They were exploring some deep tunnels near the resurgence when high water trapped them at their underground camp. Flooding is a known hazard in Cuetzalán, and the Brits had prudently made arrangements to deal with it, including installing a phone line to their camp. Had things remained this simple, their entrapment and rescue would have merited a footnote in international caving journals as an adventurous ending to an otherwise well-executed project. But enter in the politicians and lawyers.
 
All caving in Mexico was to cease, and those caught in the act could be sent to jail for up to 18 months. The press took the next step. Television station personalities encouraged the public to "report foreign cavers to the authorities," as if they were all potential terrorists and this was a national security crisis. The wave of paranoia swept on. The governor of Puebla enacted hasty legislation requiring cavers to register with authorities.
 
With this briefing from Pavo, we somberly packed Camp 1 in Aguacate River Sink Cave. We began an arduous day's work of hoisting some ten duffels of equipment out and pulling the rigging tackle. At times we hauled two 40-pound (20-kilogram) bags up the waterfalls. It was a great team effort, and by 7 p.m. we were all at the trucks, watching the sun set. I gave a full briefing on the exploration to the landowner, and we made our way down to base camp, where we were supposed to begin cleanup. But following a dinner of crackers, peanut butter, and canned fruit—all that was readily available in our packing cases—everyone went off to bed exhausted.

—Bill Stone


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April 3, 2004: Vandals
Photo: Bill Stone's truck
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We packed base camp by midmorning and started loading our trucks for the long trek north by 11 a.m. Almost to the minute, the town presidente came up to get me for a briefing we'd prearranged. With my laptop computer in hand, we walked up to his office and for the next hour I showed him the progress we'd made during the past eight weeks and some 3D maps of the mountain with new data. In Chapulapa the fate befalling a few Brits was a distant concern. What was of far greater interest to the presidente was finding out if there are opportunities for ecotourism if Aguacate River Sink Cave is connected with Cheve Cave. 

When the team and I drove off the mountain, we noticed that local villages here are backing trash trucks up to the edge of sinkholes and dumping their garbage in them. I saw the same thing happen in Huautla de Jiménez a few years ago. It was appalling to see them spoiling such pristine karst this way. Whatever hopes these folks have for ecotourism will depend on them maintaining the unspoiled nature of these remote places.
 
While the meeting at the local political level went well, the television hysteria had made an impact on some of the mountain folk—even up here in remote Chapulapa, people have televisions. Yesterday when we exited Aguacate, we saw that someone had scratched the side of my truck with a sharp rock. We inspected further and found that my brake line had also been disturbed. Luckily, we found this in time and fixed it. Later, we stopped for fuel at the base of the mountain, and the gas station attendant told me he couldn't fill my tank. The filling line was stuffed with mud. I've traveled through Mexico for three years with a non-locking fuel door. We had to disassemble the filler line at the gas station and were only partially successful at removing the debris leading into the tank. How much sand and dirt made its way into the fuel tank and pump lines remains to be seen until I get the entire system disassembled at my dealership. We figured the cumulative damage would run well over $1,000 to repair, assuming my engine wasn't damaged.
 
That evening we dropped Bart off at the bus station in Tehuacán and found a hotel after a rainstorm started.
 
—Bill Stone


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