Back from the Deep End

July 7, 2009

Well, I survived my deep Mexico caving shananigans.  However, the cave did not easily reveal its secrets.  After a rocky start with the local politicians, our group eventually got permission to go up the mountain and begin the expedition.  I arrived shortly thereafter as the first trips into the cave began.  A lot of work was needed in order to improve the rigging, fix the phone line (yes a cave phone), and equip the camps.  On top of that, of course, we had to get a ton a diving gear to the sump, which is 2-3 days travel from the surface.  It took a team of about 12 people one full month of hard work to accomplish the task.  We then sent the first two divers into the sump, James and Jose.  Their job was to continue underwater exploration until they had a major above-water continuation, and then to rig the sump for travel and camping beyond.  This included running the phone line through the sump and rigging a 9-mm climbing rope through so that divers hauling camp gear could simply pull themselves through the sump.

As the dive began, most the rest of us anxiously awaited news in base camp.  James had previously dove the first sump and found another sump beyond.  Our assumption was that this sump would also have to be cracked.  However, Jose and James returned with news that they had found a large dry continuation between the two sumps that seemed to bypass the second sump.

A polish caver, Marcin, and I were the lucky ones who were in line for the first follow up exploration on the far side.  We saddled heavy loads to replace some of the consumables used up in the first dives, as well as gear and food for more than a week in the cave and exploration beyond the sump. Three days later we were at the sump.  It took a couple of hours to ready the dive gear and get suited up, and then we made the dive into the unknown territory beyond – prepared to stay for a while.  During the rest of that day we found a good place to set up camp and began surveying the passages beyond the sump, which included a massive chamber between the two sumps that we called “The Land Between the Lakes.”  With the next day of survey we discovered that we were in a large flood water maze, where everything was coated in mud.  Unfortunately, the cave didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular.  We did discover one large passage that went in the right direction for several hundred meters before it was blocked by flowstone up high and a lake down low.

The next day we returned to the lake with our dry suits and swam across to see if we could find a continuation beyond.  Unfortunately, it was sumped, but we felt that this must be the way on.  We spent two more days pushing leads and surveying the maze.  Finally, on our last day, Marcin decided to do a reconaissance dive into the sump, which we had named “Lake 41.” He could only use a little air, since we needed to have enough for the trip out, but he had enough to do a short recon.  The sump was only about 25 meters long, but surfaced in another chamber enclosed by flowstone.  He decided that the continuation must be underwater somewhere, but he just didn’t enough air to spend more time looking.  Later that day we returned through the first sump with 870 meters of new survey but only 2 meters of added depth.  We began the long trip out from the sump and were on the surface two days later.  Elizabeth had arrived in base camp and greeted me at the entrance as we surfaced after 8 days underground.

That was to be my last trip deep into the cave before I left for home, but Bill and Jose returned in the remaining weeks of the expedition.  It turned out that the way on was through Lake 41, but they still didn’t crack the sump.  They found an underwater continuation that went for 350 meters, surfacing in several small air bells, but never opening up into dry passage.  It continued, but they ran out of time and resources for further diving, so deeper exploration will have to wait for the future.  You can find some excellent photos of our expedition taken by Marcin Gala and Kasia Bernacka here.

-Matt, the elder brother

Marcin and I celebrating the fact that we're at Camp 4 - beyond the sump!  Photo by Marcin Gala.

Marcin and I celebrating the fact that we're at Camp 4 - beyond the sump! Photo by Marcin Gala.

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Marcin returning from his dive in Lake 41.  Photo by Matt Covington.

Marcin returning from his dive in Lake 41. Photo by Matt Covington.

Me on the way out through the first sump.  Yes, my mask kept horifically filling with water.  Next time I'm taking my own.

Me on the way out through the first sump. Yes, my mask kept horifically filling with water. Next time I'm taking my own. Photo by Marcin Gala.