When I first heard of Cueva Cheve and saw pictures, it was the incredible water features that captivated me the most, like the Salmon Ladder, Swim Gym, and Wet Dreams. The entrance down to negative 600 meters is a mostly dry passage, with big boulder piles, and lots of vertical shafts. Below Saknussem’s Well is where the fun begins. Sometime in early March, six of us headed in for a planned 10 day stay at Camp 2. I entered the cave around noon with Bill and Rob Stone, each of us carrying a full backpack of food, personal clothes, and rigging gear. Jared, Fernando, and Adrian went ahead of us. Once we bottomed Saknussems, the cave went up a short rope, and we chimneyed across a canyon.
There was a drop back down and the passage became a narrow slot with water rushing along the floor; a strong breeze blew through the passage, it was the beginning of the Salmon Ladders. The water here was quite warmer than what I’m used to in New York, but the wind made it rather chilly here. After a few boulder scrambles the water gets deeper. Normally I’d just swim through, but I had a drill in my bag and a camera in my chest pocket. So, we took a rope up and rappelled down past the pool.
This section of the cave is among the most beautiful I’d ever seen. There was gray rock with white layers interspersed, and everywhere were small cascades and deep plunge pools. A few of these pools were up to 3 meters diameter and were perfectly round. Blue water was clear enough to see all the way down. When we were pool crossing, we climbed up a flowstone slope and then when we dropped down we had to cross under a heavy shower coming from the ceiling. As we neared the end there was a short drop with an interesting feature. Most of the water pours off a 3-meter cascade, but the pool at the top has a hole in the bottom, so at the bottom of the falls the other half of the water comes gushing out of a hole in the wall.
The final bit of this section is a big step across a deep round pool. A handline rope was rigged across the ceiling to enable swinging across it by my arms, although I’m not sure what the shorter folks did. Ahead the passage drops off a 4 meter waterfall into a lake, and we hit the first tyrolean traverse across, went up onto a big rock, and then down to the Turbines, a tyrolean traverse over a waterfall. Here the river plunges down a slope, into a pool, and then off another falls. Descending directly into it would put you in a pounding cascade, and there would be a risk of getting swept off the other side down the next drop in the pool. So instead, a taut line rope pulls you sideways across the top as you rappel. From here there was another short drop down, a step across the stream and up a short rope into a dry passage.
The lower river route leads to a drop called the Fuel Injector. Past expeditions used this route but the water was very intense. The upper route has a few ledge traverses and short dry drops. We made a food and water stop while Bill installed a safety rope along a ledge. Soon we descended back to the river. Upstream of where we got off rope, the river pours out of a large waterfall, making the passage misty and windy. Downstream of here is the Sumplands, similar to the Salmon Ladders but with fewer cascades and swims and with more shallow and flat stream passage. There were about 3 more deep pools to cross using ropes, then we passed a dry room out of the water, and shortly ahead the river plunged down a narrow slot.
The cave then sloped up a sand and boulder-floored tube about 3 to 5 meters in diameter, and the rock color had changed to a brownish black color, with the texture much rougher as well. At one spot we installed another traverse at a step across a 15-meter deep canyon. The step across was short and easy, but the rope proved a good call a few days later when a ledge broke off under Jared and the rope caught him. The tube sloped back down to a larger junction area where the river could be heard to the left, then up a clean washed 2 meter wide tube called the Wind Tunnel. The name says it all.
We passed 2 waterfalls coming in from above and the water from the upper entrances to the cave. Then we hit a rare spot for Cheve, we had to remove our bags and climb up a small hole. We were kilometers into the cave and over 700 meters down and this was the first place we couldn’t just walk through. It was such a pleasant cave compared to many I’d been before. Past this, the tunnel got larger and white soda straws over a meter long hung from the ceiling. We walked on a sandy floor past a very nice display in a room called Avalon, then went down a boulder slope to the 23 Meter Drop.
Just after getting off rope there was another waterfall into the East Gorge. Here the rock changes to a dark black color with thin bedding planes and white crystal layers. The passage is about 3 meters wide and over 20 meters tall, with wall to wall swift water flowing. Numerous small waterfalls pour from the ceiling all over, mist swirls in the air, and the passage is like walking through a storm. A few hundred meters of this and we climbed up onto flowstone-covered boulders from the water. Then there was a traverse and 1 last rope to an upper passage. A step through a muddy pool and up a scramble and there was Camp 2, a 5-meter diameter passage with a flat sandy floor and plenty of jagged rock projections on the walls for hanging clothes. A small waterfall was a short walk away to collect water for drinking, cooking, washing hands, and brushing teeth.
The latrine was just a hole in a boulder pile, but at least it wasn’t in view of the camp, and there were only a few sharp rocks to walk on to get there. We set up our sleeping spots, changed into dry clothes, and fired up the stove for dinner. Food in the cave consisted of dinner mix, which was Ramen Noodles, mashed potatoes, nuts, broccoli cheese soup mix, and bacon bits. Breakfast mix was the same except it was broccoli cheese and powdered eggs instead of ramen. There were also supplies of mixed nuts, dried mango and blueberries, chocolate, granola bars, cheese, sausage, beef jerky, hot chocolate mix, tang powder, coffee, candy, and ethanol. These would all run out and get resupplied at various times while often having a noticeable effect on people’s morale. After dinner it was off to bed for more rigging the next day.