Within the rugged hills of Southern Mexico is Sistema Huautla- an underground abyss that redefines the scale of the subterranean world beneath us. Currently explored to a depth of -5069 feet, it is the deepest known point in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth deepest cave in the world. With numerous separate entrances and more than 40 collective miles of surveyed passage, Huautla is the subterranean Grand Canyon. Geologically speaking, it is a natural wonder. The sheer vertical relief and the degree to which this subsurface system discharges large volumes of water through its complex of veins and arteries is rarely found anywhere else on earth. The water that flows into the system will not see the light of day until it comes gushing out of the caverns nearly eight surface miles to the south and well over 5,000 vertical feet below. For cavers, the fact that water enters and exits the system suggests the possibility of a navigable passage from one end to the other.
Some history: In 1965, expeditions to this mountainous region of Oaxaca, Mexico revealed huge potential for deep caves. The following year several dramatic entrances were discovered by a team of Texas cavers near the tiny village of San Agustín Zaragoza. Suspicions of a super cave were confirmed. Since the initial discovery of Sistema Huautla, roughly 30 consecutive seasons of heavy expedition work took place, mapping out and piecing together the system as it is known today. Despite all of the major discoveries, including a depth achievement of -1475m, there is still a major piece missing from the puzzle: a seemingly unattainable 5.5km section of passage that essentially divides the entire system into two separate halves – where the water enters, and where it exits.
Huautla's exit spring, La Cueva de la Peña Colorada, emerges into the verdant Santo Domingo Canyon just over 8 miles away. By dye tracing water flowing through the upper system, Huautla's resurgence was confirmed, but the numerous attempts to link Peña Colorada with Sistema Huautla have proven nearly impossible due to the amount of dangerously remote scuba diving required to pass through flooded chambers, known as sumps.
Approaching the unexplored connection from above, the main route to the sump area is via Sótano de San Agustín, which requires a total descent of 2,775 vertical feet down a dizzying array of sky scraper tall chasms, crashing waterfalls and long swims. Continuing deeper, a series of eight separate scuba dives must be flawlessly executed before reaching the water filled terminus of sump 9, AKA the “mother of all sumps.” This is the furthest and deepest explored point in the upper system, and nothing short of being on the dark side of the moon.
Describing it as "the most remote place yet reached by humans”, Bill Stone and his partner Barbara Am Ende were the first to set foot there . At the limitations of their resources, Stone and Am Ende retreated from the extreme isolation of Sump 9. The year was 1994. Theirs was the first, last and only expedition to reach this point.
In theory, resurfacing on the other side of Sump 9 could be the key to connecting San Agustín to La Peña Colorada, not only completing the one of the biggest cave systems in the world, but creating one of the planet’s most spectacular through-caves.
In late winter of 2013, almost 20 years after Stone and Am Ende’s historic push into the San Agustín sump complex, an international team led by elite cave diver, Chris Jewell, made the pilgrimage to the legendary Sistema Huautla. In hopes of cracking the mystery of Sump 9, Jewell organized a two-month long expedition, utilizing Sótano de San Agustín to reach the flooded passages thousands of feet below the surface. Two decades of improved dive technology and a fresh team of world-class cavers offered a promising revisit to this extraordinary chasm inside the earth.
Myself, and fellow caving partner, Pete, were fortunate enough to join in on what promised to be an unforgettable mission. When we weren't playing sherpa - shuttling 30-pound rubber bags to and from the cave's various staging points - we took the opportunity to photograph as much of Sotáno de San Agustín as we could.
Our journey began in the ancient streets of Oaxaca City, Mexico.
Very low-grade go-pro clips, but I think they get the point across!
Anhthodite Hall was as deep into San Agustín as I dared to bring my camera without proper waterproof housing. Below Camp 3 is the infamous Lower Gorge, which ends at the 840 sump, 2,775 feet below the surface- as deep as a caver can go without scuba diving. The Lower Gorge is tight, extremely wet, very strenuous, and sculpted beyond comprehension. I regret not shooting any photos there, as it was arguably the most dramatic section of the entire descent, not to mention a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the lower gorge - it was a rare chance to accompany a team of elite cave divers attempting the impossible.
The following photos of the Lower Gorge and beyond the 840 sump were captured by fellow expedition members.
As deep into Sistema Huautla as anyone has ever dared to venture, lead diver Jason Mallison descended into the mythical Sump 9 for 81 vertical meters- one of the world's deepest sump dives. The submerged chamber, however, continued deeper still. So deep, in fact, that Mallison saw little evidence for relief. At 5,069 vertical feet below Huautla's highest entrance -almost a mile deep- Mallison decided to terminate his epic dive into the Mother of All Sumps, leaving the mystery of what lay beyond unsolved. Incidentally, after Mallison's push into Sump 9, Sistema Huautla officially became the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere and the 8th deepest in the world, at a staggering -1575m.
While not the desired end result of finding a navigable connection between Sistema Huautla and Peña Colorada, the expedition not only achieved a new depth record, but rekindled an interest among previous Huautla explorers to further map and explore more leads within the Huautla Cave System.
The newly formed Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla has several upcoming seasons of exciting expedition work to look forward to. Their goal is to map and explore other Huautla area caves, as well as achieving 100 km in length- over 60 miles - and to reach 1,610m in depth, a vertical mile.