Gone off the deep end?

March 1, 2009

For many years now I have decried cave diving as a pursuit of the insane – so dangerous that no reasonable person would engage in it.  In fact, many ‘dry’ cavers have this view of their underwater brethren.  However, in the last 6 months I have embarked on a journey that has taken me into the world of underwater caving.  Obviously, to all those loved ones around me who have long heard my tales of the perils of cave diving, the question arises – have I gone nuts?  Over the last few months I have constantly found myself back-paddling from my previous statements, explaining to those around me what exactly it is that I am doing and why I think it’s ok.  So, let me tell you my story.

First off, sumps (places where a previously above-the-water cave goes completely underwater) are one of the chief banes of dry cave exploration.  Often, a cave reaches it’s ‘end’ when it goes underwater.  However, it is also often the case that miles of dry cave lie just on the far side of a sump.  For several years now I have participated in the exploration and survey of a new deep cave in Mexico, J2.  J2 is hydrologically a part of the greater Sistema Cheve, which could ultimately be the deepest cave in the world with almost 2600 meters of depth potential.  The hope is that J2 is the key to the currently un-accessed central portion of Sistema Cheve.  Over three years we explored deeper and deeper into J2.  However, in 2006 this effort was ultimately halted by a sump.  For several weeks we attempted to find a bypass to the sump but had no luck.  The team hauled enough gear to the bottom of the cave for a single cave dive.  The sump proved to be 150 meters long and quite shallow.  After the sump the cave emerged into a large chamber and flowed into a second sump.  This information was enough to know that any further effort at that route would require a significant diving expedition.  However, given the position of the cave passage far above the resurgence, there is likely to be significant dry cave beyond the sump, dry cave that could hold the key to breaking into the true depths of Cheve.

This tantalizing lead got the wheels turning for Bill Stone, the expedition leader.  In the three years since, he has gotten together with Poseidon to develop a new version of his Cis Lunar line of rebreathers, the Discovery Cis Lunar Mark VI.  This rebreather is lighter, more compact, and simpler to use than the previous models.  It is actually designed as a ‘sport’ rebreather to be used even for initial dive certification courses.  Along with this new technology, Bill has concocted a plan for a serious push beyond the J2 sumps.  The central problem in this sort of exploration is that there are very few experienced cave divers who are also accomplished enough dry cavers to make the journey to a place like J2.  In cave diving, the standard is to roll your vehicle up to the dive site, flop into the water, and go.  In contrast, J2 requires 2-3 days of challenging, physical, vertical caving just to reach the edge of the water.

Since there is such a small group of people capable of both of these activities, Bill has taken to training expedition cavers to pass sumps.  For the case of J2, we have a core group of 4 -5 experienced cave divers who will be conducting all exploratory dives in the sumps.  If they are capable of finding a route through the sump into dry passage beyond, and if that route is not too long, too deep, or too technically challenging, then we have a secondary dive team prepared to follow behind in order to push the dry cave beyond.  The exploration divers will rig a 9 mm climbing rope through the sumps.  Since this rope is strong, it will be possible to pull ourselves through the sump, greatly reducing the time needed to traverse the sump and the possibility of navigational error.  While it doesn’t remove all danger, this means of travel through the sump greatly reduces the risk factors involved in the dive.  When this plan was unveiled, I and a number of other cavers who had never before considered cave diving decided that this specific sort of cave diving carried with it a low enough risk factor and high enough reward that we were willing to take it on. Given the nature of the known sump and the method of travel through it I think that there is more risk of serious injury on the trip into the cave than there is in the sump itself.

Once I had had this internal debate, the time came to discuss my desires with Elizabeth.  I had promised her that I would never go cave diving (after all, only crazy people did that right?), and I took that commitment seriously.  I would only go if I could convince her that this was a reasonable exception to the general rule that I don’t cave dive.  Much to my surprise, she fairly calmly told me that she thought this was OK.  Her main fear was that I would become addicted to cave diving and want to do it a lot.  Admittedly, I had some of that fear myself.  We decided that any cave diving I did we would discuss on a case-by-case basis.  Thus began my dabbling in cave diving.

In the early fall, 15 cavers and divers converged in Austin, Texas at Bill’s ranch for a week of dive training on a beta version of the new rebreathers.  It is always incredible to get that many focused and like-minded individuals together in one place all working toward the same goal.  Despite the beta state of the rebreathers we were all able to do a number of successful dives and learn the ins and outs of the new gear.  Overall it was an intense and productive week.  We discussed rebreather theory, learned how to take the rigs apart, learned how to put them together, learned how to fix them when they weren’t working properly, completed a number of pool dives, and finally headed into the open water.  The week culminated with a series of night dives pulling ourselves along on a rope underwater and simulating the conditions of J2. Below you can see some photos from the week.

-Matt, the elder brother (who really hasn’t gone crazy, and that’s the story he’s sticking to)

An early week session on rebreather theory.  Photo Matt Covington.

An early week session on rebreather theory. Photo Matt Covington.

Heading out for a dive on one of the rigs at Lake Travis. Photo: Andrey Bizyukin.

Heading out for a dive on one of the rigs at Lake Travis. Photo: Andrey Bizyukin.

The team.

The team.