Sistema Huautla 2015 | Sótano de San Agustín
By Stephen Eginoire
My dream of traveling in one day from my house in Tucson to the expedition field house located in a remote mountain village in Oaxaca in a badass take-no-prisoners single-day push quickly faded upon arrival in Mexico City. The dream was simple enough: wake up, take the early shuttle to Phoenix, hop on a three-hour flight to Mexico City, and catch the Estrella Roja, a 12-hour bus ride to Huautla de Jiminez. From there a 30 minute taxi ride would deposit me in San Agustin, a tiny Mazatec village conveniently perched above an entrance to one of the world’s deepest caves.
But after dragging a hundred pounds of caving, camera and expedition gear up flights of stairs and along broken sidewalks to the wrong bus station, I knew I was shut down. It doesn’t help that I know about 20 words of Spanish, most of which are nouns. In my eyes, the Western Hemisphere’s largest metropolis is much more frightening than the Western Hemisphere’s deepest cave, and I likely would have spent a harrowing night scrambling around Mexico City if fellow expedition mate, Steph Davlantes, hadn’t shown up at the airport to take the reigns. She speaks Spanish quite well and traveled light enough to help me carry my duffel, laughing directly into my face when I told her about my “in-a-day” push to Huautla. That would be nearly impossible.
Many hours later we were southbound and well on our way to the mountains. We pulled onto the charming cobblestone streets of Tehuacan late that evening, and as luck and timing would have it, expedition leader Bill Steele and his convoy of fully-loaded rigs heading down from Texas were laying over there. They had booked a few rooms at an amusing Bavarian-inspired hotel and gladly let us crash on their floor, offering us a lift for the duration of the trip to Huautla.
There is no shortage of natural wonders to explore Southern Mexico. Take Pico de Orizaba for example: a dormant volcano, home to nine glaciers, barging through the troposphere to an elevation of 18,491 feet above sea level. The high-altitude summit of Orizaba is less than 70 miles from the marine sanctuaries located along the Gulf Coast. The life zones represented on this mass of vertical relief are found few other places on Earth.
A days drive to the south of Orizaba is a substantial area of 100-million-year-old cretaceous limestone that has been uplifted from the earth’s crust creating a dense area of mountainous karst, particularly in a region known as the Huautla Plateau. The steeply pitched highlands of the Plateau are enveloped in cloud and rain forests, and where the vegetation has been clear-cut, small villages cling to the hillsides.
Seasonal rains, low-level cloud cover, and 100% humidity fuels the tremendous biodiversity of these forests, and one need not look further than a single large cypress tree to witness the astonishing symbiosis between flora and fauna. Branches draped in hanging gardens of moss, vine, and agave grow towards the forest floor, where exposed roots grab onto bare limestone like a giant squid might a ship at sea. Hummingbirds, warblers, and towhees buzz about the forest canopy, vertical streams of ants move en masse up and down the trunk. Vipers, tarantulas, and scorpions hunt for prey in the detritus of fallen leaves where the fruiting bodies of psychedelic mushrooms sprout from the decay. In this place, the word forest is more a verb than a noun, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that if one were to lie down in the same place, a human body would be swallowed up in a matter of hours.
It is the decomposition of this organic matter, along with the persistent moisture of the rainy season that fuels the production of carbonic acids, which dissolves dense limestone like it was made of salt—though on a much slower timescale, of course. Combine a few million years of these processes, and you have entire rivers that disappear into the earth, massive sink holes that yawn perpetual darkness, and entrances to caves just about everywhere you look. With thousands of feet of steep vertical relief spanning miles, this region has yielded some of the deepest cave systems on Earth. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive example of a karst landscape on this continent.
One particular cave system that exists beneath this jungle still remains the primary focus of investigation: Sistema Huautla. Totaling some 43 miles of passage and pushed to a depth of 5,069 feet, it is the 8th deepest cave in the world, one of only a handful of caves known to reach a depth of over 5,000 feet. With 20 individual entrances scattered at various elevations, and their respective caves converging into a “main drain” deep inside the earth, Sistema Huautla has been the scene of some of the most storied adventures in the history of modern-day cave exploration. A typical trip into this underground abyss is defined by intricately sculpted gorges lined with waterfalls, long swims across deep pools of turquoise water, scuba diving through submerged passages, vertical shafts as tall as skyscrapers, stadium-sized chambers, and weeks at a time underground.
Arriving at the very beginning of a six-week long expedition has many perks worth mentioning, but having your pick of prime real estate in the bunkhouse (usually within arms length of an electrical outlet), and being the first team to set foot in an expansive subterranean wilderness are at the top. I have a hard time with crowds, especially ones where many strong egos are involved. Not that I don’t have one of my own, but partnering up with teammates Corey Hackley, Steph Davlantes, and a few days later, Mathew Garrett as a small team to rig some 2,500 feet of rope into the bowels of Sistema Huautla is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had on an expedition. Breaking trail into the ceaseless absence of light, just four tiny little humans deep inside a truly massive cave system is truly a humbling experience.
One of the primary objectives for 2015 was to establish Camp Three as a launch pad for a team of cave divers to explore Red Ball Canyon, the access point of which is situated over 2,300 feet beneath Sotano de San Agustin, the nearest surface entrance. It is a relatively complicated area, a network of beautifully sculpted passages that twist and meander, until the water pours out below Camp Three. To make significant upstream progress in Red Ball, scuba diving through a section of flooded narrows is the only way forward.
Red Ball Canyon is significant in that a sister cave, Li Nita – “little lamp” in the Mazatec language — was connected to Sótano de San Agustín, passing through the same area, becoming the first 1000-meter deep cave outside of Europe. If a scuba team could head upstream beyond the flooded locale, then perhaps a cave similar in depth, exists above. It is a counter-intuitive way to think about cave exploration: moving up, from below, instead of moving down, from above. Unfortunately there is no known surface entrance that leads into Red Ball Canyon from beyond the sumps.
Heading deep into the earth for an extended period of time requires a considerable amount of planning and strategy. The process of packing is time consuming, a test of patience that usually breaks at least one individual in the process. There's nothing quite like observing a hardened cave explorer lose their cool over one too many Powerbars in the food pile. Fortunately for us, packing and preparation went smoothly and we set off without a hitch, armed with a thousand feet of static rope, enough to rig the first segment of Sótano de San Agustín, a section known as the Fool's Day Extension.
Fool's Day Extension is characterized by 23 or so relatively short drops descending downstream, in a long-winded staircase of plunge-pools— quite entertaining on the way in, not so much on the way out. The initial point of access to reach Fool's Day is at the bottom of a steep breakdown slope where a couple of large boulders rest against the wall. Beneath the boulders is a small constriction that howls gale-force wind, either inhaling or exhaling as the cave system attempts to equalize with the barometric pressure on the surface. Continuing on, the passage eventually intersects a fault, where the route goes almost entirely vertical for over 1000 feet. The shaft, a veritable drainpipe, pours into the inner workings of Sistema Huautla like someone running a garden hose over the edge of the Empire State Building. Known as the Bowl Hole Series, it is an absolutely committing section of cave to navigate, humbling even to the most expert caver. In other words: a world-class vertical descent.
With our ropes fixed to a point above the whirlpool of darkness swirling down the Bowl Hole, taking ample pause to absorb the beautiful harmonics of falling water echoing into an oblivion, the three of us retreated back to the surface for sleep, more rope, and enough supplies to grant us a five-day stay underground.
The following evening we were rigged well into the chasm, cold, wet, and ready to escape the vertical confines of the Bowl Hole: the inescapable sound of falling water; the perpetual downward pull of gravity slowly dissolving our nerves as if they were part of the cave itself. The three of us huddled at the top of the last big drop, just 270 feet above a humungous room rife with enough flat, dry ground to accommodate a luxurious camp, staring blankly at a few remaining water logged coils of rope in the bottom of our pack—we had maybe 100 feet left.
"Fuck" was all we could say.
A few bags of equipment, along with our ample amounts of remaining rope, were left hanging off a bolt 700 vertical feet above us, as was my camera equipment, so I wasn't able to capture our first underground camp. Once we settled into the small, wet, sloping sandbar on the far side of a muddy pool, just out of reach from the splashing water, it wasn't all that bad. But if you've ever taken a morning crap next to your partner, while hanging in a port-a-ledge mid-way up a big wall climb, then you can relate to the intimacy of our surroundings.
There really aren't any "mornings" underground, but hot coffee and dehydrated oatmeal set an encouraging tone the following day, and restored a waning motivation to retrieve the rest of our gear hanging at the top of the Bowl Hole Series. Corey surprised us when he discovered an old rope from a previous expedition, coiled and stashed some 200 feet above us. As Steph and I continued up the seemingly endless pit, passing countless rebelays, Corey set to work rigging the final length of rope that would free us from the Bowl Hole.
By the time our feet landed on the ground, we had spent something like 20 hours in the brown drainpipes of the Fool's Day Extension, and we were exuberant upon reaching the mostly horizontal mega borehole leading into San Agustín proper, over 2,000 feet deep. Setting up our second camp atop a spacious boulder, we were joined by Matthew Garret who came in solo, another strong back to help us schlep the rest of our gear through the Upper Gorge, the last remaining obstacle between us and Camp 3.
The Upper Gorge of Sótano de San Agustín is incredible, an area defined by eons of flash flooding. Intricately sculpted and polished as a marble countertop, it is the main conduit of the entire cave system, and the turquoise water that flows within spills over countless waterfalls, circulating through bottomless potholes, creating a timeless reverberation of white noise.
Deep water is unavoidable for a caver heading downstream, and swimming with full packs is mandatory. If one were to become hypothermic, this is where it would likely happen. Your best tool against the cold is to generate body heat by moving quickly through the Gorge, but when you are rigging, things happen at a slower pace, slower than the heat can accumulate in your body.
Already shivering, Matt stood in the spray of a waterfall, staring blankly into a deep pool. "My boot got sucked off," he informed. "Uh, say what?" "My boot got sucked off, but I think I see it," and with that he performed a head-first duck-dive, a rubber Wellington boot on one foot, a neoprene sock on the other, emerging after a few seconds with his lost item.
True to form we nearly ran out of rope, exiting the Upper Gorge with about an arm’s length left. It had taken us three days and around 2,500 feet of nylon to reach this point inside the Earth. Deep beneath the mountains of Oaxaca, it was time to savor our position. Our final destination, Camp Three, sits high and dry in the lower of two gigantic inter-connected chambers. The higher chamber, Anthodite Hall, is as big as a football stadium, it's far walls lined with unbelievable anthodite formations that can only be described as crystal fireworks. For the next 36 hours, we slept comfortably on the soft dirt floor, consuming the rest of our freeze dried food, exploring all we could until the next teams arrived with more supplies to stock Camp Three for the push into Redball Canyon.
What was once far removed from anything human had transformed into a veritable highway of nylon rope, with dozens of cavers moving duffel to and from various staging points along the route. Camp Three bustled with loud voices, and folks busied themselves with various tasks. It was time to pass the torch and head back to the surface. In one long day we ascended the ropes we had so carefully rigged, admiring our work and noting areas where we could have done better.
Arriving back at the surface well after dark offered a gentle emergence from the cave, as the harsh hours of daylight would have surely shock-loaded our brains.
The following morning, the verdant hues and shapes of the jungle were more complicated than usual, the colors more sharply defined. As I began the process of unpacking and cleaning my gear, I overheard our neighbors, a couple of Mazatec villagers conversing in their native tongue. Their words, beautifully foreign to my ears, hinted at realms of discovery that exist above ground in much the same way as they do below.