Words, photos, and video by Mountain Hardwear Ambassador, cave explorer, environmentalist, and photographer, Josh Hydeman
Mike Green (Tennessee) and Brian Gindling (Montana) excitedly pack their PVC cave packs with space food, two hand drills, hundreds of feet of 9mm static rope, and synthetic sleeping bags to go into La Grieta, a section of what cave explorers call “Huautla,” the deepest cave system in the Western Hemisphere. Their plan changes every fifteen minutes and every hour that goes by their entry time gets delayed. Their goal is to climb a dome named “Doo Dah Dome” past a near sump (an underground lake only passable by swimming underwater) called the Pato Mojado, miles into this limestone crack in the mountains of Mexico’s Sierra Mazateca.
If they make it to the top of this Dome they are headed into unchartered territory. It is hard to know what to pack when you don’t really know where you are going. I join them to sherpa some of this gear to their camp while scouting the cave for locations for a photography trip I have in a few days.
Our crew enters the cave around 5:00 pm. We rappel down 300 vertical feet, passing technical rebelays and short traverse lines along the way. One rope after another we keep descending. Then, we go even deeper. The number of ropes starts to seem almost comical to me, “Wow… another rope!” I am just starting to realize what “deep” caving is all about. We just don’t have caves like this one back home in Oregon. Occasionally I hear Brian yell out, “yeahoo!” alongside the sound of his rappel rack whizzing down the rope. For just a few minutes Mike and Brian wait until Tommy and I catch up. Tommy Shiflet is co-leader of the PESH (Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla) expedition, which is a team of around fifty cavers exploring for the month of May. I ask Mike, “Are we about to do some horizontal caving?” He looks to me for a just a moment, loading his rappel rack into yet another rope and says, “We are about to do some vertical caving.” Before he is even finished speaking he starts descending down and his last words echo into the void below.
After another twenty rope drops or so we enter a narrow canyon floored with beautiful, azure blue water. Up ahead I hear Brian yell out another “yeahoo!” as I scramble along, trying to keep up carrying my PVC pack filled with drills and a hammer. We stem across water-filled canyons and work our way through tight passages. The canyon widens and it is no longer possible to stay high and dry above the water. We walk neck-deep in cold water to the next section of cave named the “Torture Chamber.” I clip a safety lanyard tethered to my seat harness into a rope on the right side of the wall. Looking down below the crack I hang from the rope and see another 20 feet below me. My pack, which is tethered to my seat harness, hangs low below me, scraping along the canyon walls as I pull myself across the traverse line.
Tommy gives me some rookie advice. “Don’t bother trying to think about what you are going to do in 15 minutes from now. Only think about your next step. If you get caught up worrying about the summit then you can miss your footing and make a fatal error.” I take his advice seriously and stem across the slippery canyon pushing against the adjacent walls. My confidence goes down when my climbing gear gets caught on horns and sharp blades protruding from below and from the sides; it’s a very a frustrating feeling to lose your momentum. It reminds me of having to fix a crampon that coming undone while hiking up a steep, icy section of a mountain.
The canyon turns into a squeezed slot. I hoist myself up and push my pack ahead of me hoping to push it far enough that it doesn’t block my body as I try and crawl through. The cave goes left, then goes right. I climb up a fifteen-foot rope, stem twenty feet or so, and then rappel twenty-five feet and enter a crawlway. I start realizing that the map we have, where the text is so small that even if I squint I can barely read it, might not help much in navigating through this jagged maze. I can, however, follow orange flagging tape and listen for the sounds of the others ahead of me. I hear their packs scrape across the walls, resonating with big echoes and splashes as they jump into pools of water.
We follow a creek until we reach a junction room. We stop and rest, chugging down water and eating snacks. And then It all hits me at once. We have descended 1,500 feet, deeper that I have ever been in a cave. I start thinking about the route back out and wonder how long it would take to exit. Rappelling fifty fixed ropes may only take five hours but climbing back out will take much longer. And, with much greater effort. I remember Tommy’s advice and try to push this idea as far out of my mind as possible. Focus on what is here now.
In 2016 an objective of the PESH expedition was to establish Camp 4 in the La Grieta section of Sistema Huautla, 600 meters (1,968 feet) deep and beyond the short sump named Pato Mojado (“wet duck” in Spanish), an area not seen since 1977. The main purpose was to climb Doo Dah Dome and look for other unexplored passages.
However, when cavers reached the area of Pato Mojado they weren’t certain if they were at the right place and did not get past it.
Mike and Brian pull out the map and start scheming their next move. They don’t include Tommy and me in their discussion. Tommy is on this leg of the trip for the free dive of the Pato Mojado. He has brought along a pair of goggles to help with that. Mike, Brian, and I are all under the impression that Tommy knows where the Pato Mojado is and has been there before, but in fact, he has not.
“What time is it?” Mike asks.
“10:30,” Brian responds after looking at his watch.
Being down here in the blackness of the junction room there really is no way to know what time is it.
“Let’s eat real quick and then get going to look at the sump,” Mike says in a combination of enthusiasm and frustration. Mike wishes we were already past the sump.
If the route to the sump were rigged, which it is not, the travel time to the sump would be about three hours with ten or so rappels, ten traverses, and a tyrolean traverse. Rigging this underground ropes course is going to take a lot of time and it will be a long night if we carry on.
We move from the junction room to camp, set down our packs, and turn on a stove to prepare dinner. After eating a few spoonfuls of freeze-dried potatoes mixed with ramen and broccoli, Mike and Brian calm down a bit and decide to call it a day. They’ll have a look at the sump in the morning.
Tommy forgot a change of dry clothing. He keeps reminding all of us that he has dealt with this issue before and it’s no problem. Honestly, it sounded horrible. Imagine standing there in wet clothes trying to “dry out” before getting in a sleeping bag with wet clothes. Tommy’s eyes light up as he tells us about camping on a wet muddy ledge next to a deafening waterfall in a cave. I guess we have it pretty good here in Camp 1.5 with our mostly dried mud floor and the faint sound of a creek just around the next bend. I realize that Tommy might actually enjoy the fact that he forgot dry clothes as he explains in detail sufferfest after sufferfest. Tommy was trapped in a Virginia cave behind a sump for a week wearing a wetsuit and without food. Which sounds like the most horrible thing ever and grounds for quitting caving altogether. The funny thing is that the day prior, Yvonne Droms (another veteran Huautla caver) told me almost an identical story about getting trapped behind a sump for a week in West Virginia.
I’m relieved to change into the dry clothes I remembered and get into a Mountain Hardwear sleeping bag. I lie next to Gerry Morrill (San Luis Potosi, Mexico), another caver who was camping at 1.5 who is moving on to camp 3 tomorrow. Gerry tells me stories about a six-month deep caving project he worked on in San Luis Potosi last year. His stories of crawling through super tight passages with oxygen tanks (because of dangerous C02 levels) make La Grieta seem like child’s play. It dawns on me that Gerry and I are in different leagues.
Gerry says goodnight, and I lay there listening to the creek flowing in the distance. Every time I shut my eyes, I think I’m hearing voices. I can’t sleep. I rest my head on a 4-liter Nalgene bottle, and I think about how we got here. There was so much water; it’s the water that led us here.
The city of Huautla de Jimenez — where La Grieta is located — supports about 31,000 people, which is almost unbelievable if you think about it. Within Huatla de Jimenez is the Sierra Mazateca, a huge karst area. Karst, a geologic term used to describe an often barren landscape that’s created by the dissolution of soluble rocks. The land essentially erodes into a sprawling expanse of towers, fissures, and sinkholes. The terrain simply cannot support lakes or rivers or creeks because all water drains through it. But all water must drain somewhere, right?
Because water is so inaccessible to the people of Huautla, they are extremely conservative with what they have. During the wet season, which usually lasts from May to November, rainwater is collected in cisterns. But in the dry season, when water is much more scarce, it is trucked in from neighboring areas.
Part of the beauty of having natural watersheds above ground (i.e. rivers, lakes, creeks, etc.) is that they not only collect water, but they also store it during dryer seasons. Think of the storage capacity of a lake versus a few cisterns in your backyard. What the people of Huautla can’t collect and store, they have to purchase. And as the climate grows warmer and warmer each year, they find themselves spending more and more on a basic necessity for life.
And water doesn’t just quench thirst, it also grows food. Because the rainy season has been shortening year-to-year; it means less water for farmers and a less predictable harvest. The local Mazatecans grow corn, coffee and sugar cane, which supports their economy and thus their ability to truck in water. It’s a fragile, cyclical system that is entirely dependent on one critical resource — water is more valuable than gold.
The most interesting thing about all of this is that these people are literally sitting on a gold mine. There is a vast amount of water in this area; it just happens to be 1000 meters below ground in a cave. The almost fifty years of mapping the caves in the Huautla region has been an incredible achievement for the local population, so they can one day build the infrastructure they need to sustain their way of life. Maybe one day, this won’t be a city of 30,000 but a city of 100,000 or larger.
During PESH’s first expedition in 2014, the local government sent a staff member to talk with co-leader Bill Steele to ask for advice on what they could do to address a growing shortage of water in the Sierra Mazateca. Their population steadily grows, and being in the tropics, they have a rainy season and a dry season, 50/50, six months each.
Steele told me, “I told this person that we know where large reservoirs of water are in Sistema Huautla, that they are perpetually full, with one being dove and surveyed to over 100 meters deep. We can tell them precisely on the surface where a well could be drilled to access these large reservoirs of water. However, they are over 1,000 meters below the surface so it would be both technically challenging and expensive, but possible.”
Not only are cavers exploring these caves from the high entrances in the mountains they are also seeking connections and pushing into the system from the bottom, exploring the water-filled resurgence in the canyon from the south. The Huautla Resurgence Cave Diving Team dive through the water filled portions and climb in the air-filled sections, approaching the Huautla caves from below. Hydrologist James Smith (Georgia) conducted dye traces in the 80s to study the water’s path. Knowing where the water traveled led cavers to where they need to explore to make connections.
When people think of expeditions, they’re immediately drawn to epic views atop 8,000-meter peaks. So why do the opposite, and descend into utter darkness? In essence, what is all this expedition caving about? It’s hard not to think of Gregory Mallory’s brash comment about his motivation for climbing Everest. “Because it’s there,” he said. In fact, summiting Everest and bottoming-out the Huautla caves are pretty similar, with a few exceptions.
But where Mallory falls short, I think Steve Knutson (Oregon), a veteran Huautla caver puts it well. He says:
“Setting depth records and such is just a bit of fallout from what’s really important — the experience, the happening — the doing. The feelings you experience as you are in the doing of such things is priceless. And there is no way to get it without going out to the cutting edge.”
It wasn’t just the water that led us there; it was a thirst for the cutting edge.
Mike and Brian eventually did successfully climb Doo Dah Dome about six days later and earned themselves a case of beer from Bill Steele. Camp 4 was established and another, more promising dome named Hoo Hah Dome was discovered, with a plan to climb it in 2018. Each caver on the expedition contributed in different ways and over 2 km of passage was added to the map. One caver demanded everyone on their mapping trip stay in the cave as long as possible to continue surveying because “I want to be done mapping La Grieta this year.” Another wiser caver commented, “that’s not how it works. Caves don’t just end.” This is where you realize why fifty years of exploring this cave system are not enough.
The cave keeps going.