April 20, 2017

Lee White going to  camp 2 in in La Grieta, Sistema Huautla, Mexico
I lay my head to rest and close my eyes after a day of hauling packs down 350 meters of rebelays, y-hangs, and famous the traverse lines in the tight corridors of the "torture chamber". After eating a pile of potato mix at camp 1.5, my eyes became heavy as my body fixated into a horizontal placement set back on a shelved mud packed corner. The darkness is thick as the air is to breathe. I open my eyes and close them just to feel my eye lids move in succession without the dark visual silhouettes in the background that I have been accustomed to on the surface world.
Plan Carlota. Huautla, Mexico
 The darkness of the deep gives no bearing on time to the external world. I hear the sound of my watch alarm going off.  My light turns on and everything is just as dark as it was when I went to bed at 10PM. Nothing has changed within the confines of this darkness unlike the comfort that a morning sunrise can give.  It occurred to me that the idea of cave camping is not a merit of honor for the elite, as it was explained to me, but rather this is a luxury that reinforces the purpose into a quantifiable goal while allowing time and commitment to be at the forefront. Truth be told, being in the cave for only three days with an additional day trip in La Grieta is not a long time to let it all soak in, but as I learned from dive school "Mind over matter. If it doesn't mind, than it doesn't matter". 
I welcome the darkness to be absolute and the gravity of the deep to bind our commitment to the frontier of deep cave exploration.  We seek no external status and we desire no applause but through our own personal vitality of purpose as the rapture bears no mercy to the mind's meandering wonder.
Sistema Huautla and connecting caves.

My flight leaves in a week, until than, the darkness is ours to keep as we individually define its embrace. 

Plan Carlota.  Huautla, Mexico
The mountainous terrain of Plan Carlota can take at least a day and a half of  planes, buses, and taxis until you finally reach the destination.  The long and winding roads can sicken the most centered of stomachs and the moisture of cloud cover on the road, chills the skin as visibility is minimized to just a few feet. Along the way, we must have passed at least 3 or 4 rock slides on the road that would have made permanent residents out of the most unlucky of travelers.  Thankfully, all of these obstacles were easy to get around but as luck would have it, our destination to Huautla is not without the sobering reality that we are 6000ft. above sea level on steep terrain and a third of this elevation can be lost just by one wrong turn off the side of the road.

Basecamp Living Quarters, Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla, Mexico
Finally, we come to the open gate of Huautla De Jimenez and the small but obvious bus station packed with people on the street.  Cars drive by as they barely creep around each other with inches of real estate to spare.  I was able to waive down a cab that knew how to get to Plan Carlota which was another 15-20 minute drive from Huautla. After jumping into the cab, we headed up the hill and into the town of San Andres, soon after leaving the town for a rocky dirt road.  This winding road went past some familiar sinkholes and the outline of La Grieta began to fade into site through the clouds.  I knew I was close when I saw the school yard boundaries and the concrete building appear through the clouds.  I pulled up to the building and Vico was cooking Oaxacan quesadillas as Lee was in the dinner room having lunch. I found my way around the quarters and found a building to setup my sleeping bag which is where I found Josh Hydeman preparing for the week.  They were already in the cave and have come back out.  Lee, Josh, and I got together and talked about what we were going to do for the week and we decided that we would go into La Grieta to find Mike Green's team and photo from 1.5 to the Doo Dah dome. Our itinerary would include camping in the cave for the entire week so we could maximize the amount of time we had. We prepared camping supplies and a large jar of food.  

Huautla Resurgence team photo from:
While we were preparing for our trip, We got an update from the Huautla resurgence team that they were able to get to Sump 3 but they were stopped by a breakdown pile which appeared to be impassible for the group. They camped in the cave for a few days at a time and searched for leads to bypass sump 3.  

Huautla resurgence team Photos From:
To learn more about the Huautla Resurgence Project please visit this website.
Chris Jewell and Andrea Klocker in the Huautla resurgence, Mexico Photos From:
Lee, Josh, and I woke up early so we could get a head start into the cave and start with an early day that would get us to camp 1.5 with all of our equipment. We worked our way down almost 50 small rebelays and a tiered series of rebelays through two faults, one of which is called the 200 which is a large fault with a series of rebelays.

Josh Hydeman on the multi tiered 200 in La Grieta, Sistema Huautla, Mexico
Once we got to the bottom of the 200, we fix up some lunch before heading through the horizontal torture chamber.  I made sure that we all took our time so that everyone was comfortable with going through the cave and that we could get to camp 1.5 without too much trouble.  It was not that difficult or that far but this day was dedicated to arrive at camp 1.5. Our objective for the following day was to find Mike's team, so we had plenty of time.  We grinding through the various cracks and the sound of our cave suits scrapping through the confines made travel slow going but eventually the small ascents in the canyon led us to the junction where 1.5 was just around the corner.  At the time when we were at camp 1.5 the current information was that Mike's team was just starting to breach around the sump so we felt that we were not too far behind them.

Josh Hydeman in La Grieta. Huautla, Mexico
Camp 1.5 was already furnished with a buffet of jars with mixed food from this years expedition, along with pails of food and questionable power bars from the previous years. There was also the famed "stone special" packed in the corner and the mountain house breakfast mix that Lee deemed to be "plumbing service".   Fuel canisters lay astray and crumbly space blankets flatten the grounds where we lay to rest while wet suits and damp clothing dangle above us with the hope of drier fabrics in our future.  We fix up a mix of potatoes, ramen, seeds, potatoes, chicken flavor, potatoes, and more potatoes, Dam, there is a lot of dried potatoes in this mix!We fired up the stove and boiled water from a near by pool where we would drink from. The meal was it was actually quite tasty and satisfying.

Josh Hydeman and Lee White at camp 1.5. La Grieta, Sistema Huautla.
Soon after the meal and a few tales from general Lee Bruster's archive, we all started to daze off into our corners as our lights went off. It was hard to tell if I was sleeping if I was awake with the silence ringing in my ears and the unseen evidence of visual objects around me when my eyes opened. It was a lot better than the orchestra of sound at basecamp from people coming through the doors at night to dogs adn chickens chasing each other...mass hysteria!!!  This was rather peaceful and my preferred choice for my light sleeper mentality.    I concentrated on relaxing and fell deeper into a state of sleep but 8:00AM came too quick, and the alarm on my watch erupted as if I skipped over 8 hours of time. We took our time to get up and by 10AM, we slithered back into our mud soaked, cold, and wet cave kits to continue down the passage to refresher falls forwarding to camp 2.0. As we crossed back into the junction room, the stench from the latrine could make a billy goat puke but thankfully we were high enough where we would not be able to smell its nasal disturbance, except for Josh.

Josh Hydeman and Lee White in La Grieta, Sistema Huautla.
We found our way down into refresher falls and continued to head downstream into a canyon passage full of clear blue water. there were some traverse lines in place but it was easier to just jump in the water and swim through.  The passage was quite beautiful and it took us to a series of marbled limestone slot canyon drops that had swirling strata and fluted passage. It was beautiful to see and I believe that this is some of the best passage in the cave. 
Josh Hydeman and Lee White in a large room near camp 2 La Grieta, Sistema Huautla.
After this section we came into a large room that soon connected to another passage with water, a few raps, and a guided rappel. Once we got through the canyon passage, we made an ascent to another large canyon room where we were greeted by Chris Cowles and Nikki Fox. They were on their way out of the cave.  I was tuned into their discussion on how Mike's team got beyond the sump and started their pursuit towards the doodah dome.   Excited as I was, we continued down the canyon passage and headed towards the Mazatac Shores where camp 2 is located and where Damien, Elliot, Mike, and Brian were based from. I was excited to see them as I could hear voices beyond the rock.  I climbed down to where a line of sleeping pads were placed in a orderly fashion and a trickling stream of water kept going deeper into the cave. 

Mike Green, Josh Hydeman, Lee White, and Brian Gindling in La Grieta, Sistema Huautla.
 Mike and Brian were donning their cloths but not to continue to pursue the Doodah, they were all getting ready to leave the cave. I sat down with Mike as he explained to me how they got around the sump and they made it to the K borehole.  They said it is about 6 hours both ways to the borehole but the morale of the team is down and they made the decision that they should leave the cave to increase morale so they could return with more resources and a song in their breath that will take them to the Doodah dome.

Lee White in a waterfall passage in La Grieta, Sistema Huautla.
Understanding of the situation,  I was a bit stuck in my decision because I did not want to leave and come back into the cave. Lee, Josh, and I decided to take photos from camp 2 back up to camp 1.5 instead of waiting for them to come back.  We did not know when they would be coming back into the cave and my primary objective was to join Mike and go to the Doo-dah dome. I did not want to leave the cave and come back into the cave, than traverse all the way to the Doo-dah dome so our options started to diminish but we had a good objective to gather photos of camp 2 back up to camp 1.5.  After this 12 hour day we made it back to camp to enjoy another heaping pile of potatoes and potatoes and discuss our next steps.
Josh Hydeman and Lee White in La Grieta. Sistema Huautla, Mexico
The following day we had plenty of energy to continue but our options have diminished quite a bit.  Doo-dah was postponed, camp 2 to camp 1.5 was photo documented, and camp 3 along with the passages leading to camp 3 were voted on to be not of the interest within the group so we had no other option but to exit the cave.  We started on our way out by dragging out all of our equipment except for Lee's aid climbing kit.  Our packs must have weighed over 30 lbs. per pack, its not a lot of weight but it made the day another slow going day.  The group decided to stash some of the equipment at the top of the 200 which made the final ascent of 800ft. a bit easier.  We decided that we wanted to come back and photo the 200 anyway so this made sense to stash some camera equipment here.
Lee White and Josh Hydeman back at camp 1.5 in La Grieta. Sistema Huautla, Mexico
We finally crawled out of the cave three days later into the night and made it back for a late night dinner where we were greeted by a lot more people than when we went into the cave.  While I was ascending out, I was thinking that I wanted to look at the overlay where the other caves were located in the area to see if there might be some passages or possible connections that have been overlooked. Nita N'Tau was brought up in conversation with Chris Higgins. The cave is located higher up on the ridge and is known to have multiple drops with a rewarding massive room called the TAG shaft.  There was a description that stated that there was a crack where the water went down with no other language describing the bottom. This became a very interesting point to look into as there is a massive shaft with water draining into a unknown piece of the cave. We went to Tommy to pull up the line plot and according to the records from 35 years ago, the bottom of the cave lines up 600ft above the L room in camp 2, Jackpot!!

Lee White in La Grieta Sistema Huautla, Mexico
The following day we set out for the ridge and started finding entrances that could have the potential to be Nita N'Tau or Nita Nido.  We first noticed multiple entrances in the forest which had passage at the bottom.  This took a half day to do so we came back later in the day to push some of the more promising leads.  This led to some very favorable results.  please click here to learn more about our discovery.
Lee White and Josh Hydeman in La Grieta Sistema Huautla, Mexico
After a day of ridge walking to find the Nita Nido and Nita N'Tau entrances, Josh, Rich, and I went into La Grieta to get our camera equipment and head down to the 200 to photo a few free hanging shots.  I had the idea of how I wanted the shot to turn out and which would be rich down the 4th re belay, Josh down the 3rd re belay and I would be hanging on the rope past the second re belay.  When we were all set up, I pulled my camera out and that is when the moisture started to set inside the camera.  I could see the shots becoming hazy from internal moisture inside the lens and inside the monitor so I aborted the shoot and put the camera away. I was a bit concerned that the camera might be ruined so I kept it wrapped up in the box with the anticipation of burying the camera in rice. Afterwards, we got to the top of the first tier and Josh started taking photos on the way out. We started to hear some noises and it was Galen and Jerry coming out from camp 3. They were surprised to see us just as we were ecstatic to see them.  Josh ended up interviewing them and they described how they hauled packs for almost a week before starting their survey and lead climb.  They did not seem to happy about the experience and decided to leave early. It was interesting to hear how they were not in the mindset to "prove" anything to anyone by staying in the cave for 2 week.  They did stay in for 11 days and their morale was down. Soon after we talked with them, they left the cave and we continued up to the surface while we snapped a few photos along the way.
Rich Zaria climbing out of the entrance shaft in La Grieta, Sistema Huautla.
For me, this reinforced the notion that cave camping does not make someone a better caver but more of a resourceful caver. In my perception, the idea that someone can have the understanding to dive, dome climb, photograph, affect a rescue, survey, be physically fit, model good vertical competency, and have a understanding of karst morphology will not necessary make them a better caver.  No doubt, these stated workings can develop a well rounded, employable, and an educated project caver, but the very design of project caving is built around a team effort.
For what it is worth, the label of an elite caver is up for interruption, especially when it is valued as a means of self entitlement and self proclaimed validation. Now, it is not my position to judge and quite frankly, if someone desires that status than it shall be a goal to accomplish. The problem comes in when this status is used for comparison to the purpose of another.
  I have found that the path of greatness is not about how many certifications or trips someone can collect along the way, but the ability to contribute to a resolve while providing a environment of safety and certainty that inspires individual achievement and personal fulfillment
so if I may, that very notion, in contradiction to what I have wrote about, might actually be the definition of an elite caver.

PESH 2017
I want to thank Bill Steele, Tommy Shifflet, and Jim Smith for inviting me back to the PESH expedition and for allowing me to contribute to the projects resolve. I am looking forward to coming back next year to photo and climb in the K borehole and camp 4 region.  I am also looking forward to pursing the bottom of Nita NTau to connect the two caves together.  I want to thank Dive Right In Scuba, On-Rope 1, PMI, and Dewalt, for the generous discounts and donations for our equipment requirements that we used to rig and protect us inside the cave. We could not have been as successful as we were without your contributions.  Thank you very much!  I also want to thank Richard Zaria, Lee White, Josh Hydeman, Mike Green, Brian Gindling, Chris Higgins, and Jason Lavender for assisting, hauling, and modeling in these photos that I took.  It is a lot of effort to work for an objective through a photographers agenda and that takes a lot of patience and sincerity.  I appreciate your patience and hard work with helping to make these photos turn out fantastic.

Excellent Video on the History of Sistema Huautla:

5/10/2017 A note from Expedition leader Bill Steele:

Sistema Huautla comprises 20 entrances and 78,300 m of passage to a depth of 1,560 m. This most complex vertical cave system has more independent deep routes than any other cave in the world: three routes over 1,000 m deep, one over 900 m, two over 800 m, one over 700 m and three over 600 m.
The connection of Nita Nanta in 1987 marked the first and, still one of very few times two caves each over 1,000 m deep have been joined together. The world's deepest down-and-up traverse, a spectacular crossover trip, can be made: 1,225 m down via Nita Nanta's highest entrance, through the spectacular stream galleries of lower Sótano de San Agustín, and 1,107 m back up Li Nita, all without retracing a single footstep. This down-and-up traverse would be 11 km in traverse length, although the two entrances are less than a kilometer apart on the surface. Such a trip is likely never to be done due to the logistics of rigging well over 100 pitches and diving two widely separated sumps at the bottom, though they both are only about 10 m

At present Sistema Huautla is 78.3 kilometers (49.6 miles) in length, 1,560 meters in depth (5,117 feet), is the deepest known cave in the Western Hemisphere, eighth deepest cave in the world, and the longest of the 17 deepest caves in the world.

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