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The Cheve Stories Part 3: Things Get Rolling

It had been about a week since I arrived at Llano Cheve, taken in the beauty of the surface mountains, and stood in awe of the huge cliff and massive entrance of Cheve. Now it was time to venture into this place I’d heard so many stories about and dreamed of going to ever since I heard of it.

The rigging team had the ropes set down to -450 meters, the phones and wires had been tested to be functional, and now it was time to rig the phone. Previous expeditions didn’t use a phone line, so any requests for supplies or personnel coordination had to travel the old fashioned way of passing notes on foot. With a phone line, communication between the surface and deep in the cave was instant, though needed gear might still take 3 days to reach the camps.

The first 2 days of rigging, Jon and I started from the gear tent and rigged high along the trees across the Llano to the entrance, keeping the line taut in the branches to avoid making a tripwire. We took the line through some thick bushes along the bottom of the cliff to the entrance, a decision I regretted 2 months later when I had to de-rig the wire.

The entrance of Cheve is huge, over 40 meters wide and 10 meters high at the base of a 70-meter cliff. Here, the surface stream pours down the floor of the room, and swallows nest in the ceiling which is over 25 meters high in places. The entrance room turns left and slopes down and the whole chamber is about the size of 2 football fields. We followed a path along the left wall, pushing the wire into cracks and behind rocks to keep it off the trade route.

Not too far in is a rock that the indigenous Cuicatecs performed human sacrifices on over 1500 years ago. Unfortunately, the baskets, pottery, bones, and knives were all looted from the cave in the past 30 years. I heard of one incredible discovery that was taken by archaeologists and preserved in a museum before the looters got it. A wooden board had a jade mosaic on in depicting a beheading of a human. Such macabre practices have ceased today, but some locals still believe a spirit inhabits the cave and leaves offerings of live chickens or bottles of liquor in the cave.

Nobody disturbed these out of respect for the locals, and who knows, maybe the spirit is real? With the large amount of technical caving and abundant places ahead where a small mistake could result in serious injury or death, keeping the cave spirit happy wouldn’t hurt.

As we strung out the wire along the passage, we tied the ends to a new reel when it ran out, calling back up to base camp on the phone to confirm the connection was good. At the bottom of the entrance room the cave stream makes a pool to traverse around on rope. Here daylight disappears and a 15-meter diameter tunnel takes off. We kept the phone wire along the left wall and tied it around rock projections.

About 150 meters later the passage hits another big room with large boulder piles. The way on is through a hole between large boulders, which is not ideal for the phone. So Jon and I found a place to drop the wire down off the top of the rock pile. From there it was a short walk to the top of an 8-meter drop, where we ended the day.

I was beginning to get acclimated, but hiking up the entrance room is the most difficult part of most trips. You can see the daylight coming in from hundreds of meters away, plants are growing in the cave from the limited sun that angles in during the afternoon, the altar rock casts a striking silhouette against the light, and at the right time of day, a fog hangs in the air inside. Outside it gets chilly at night, and a strong draft of cold air always blows down through the cave. On the surface, dinner was being cooked, making sure enough was left over for cave teams coming out late. The expedition brought 2 generators to keep lights running at night in the kitchen, and for cavers to recharge headlamp batteries.

We had dug a compost hole to dump food waste in, and James spent some time putting up a game camera to catch a gray fox that came by at night. We also had a car horn we put up on the trail to alert us to visitors coming by. Cueva Cheve had been known to locals for a long time, but wasn’t found by cavers until 1986.

Over the years of caving expeditions since, knowledge of it grew and pictures of the entrance started appearing on local road signs. By 2017 the grassy llano by the entrance was a common site for school field trips and local tourists visits. All the people we met were friendly, but we still always kept an eye on camp when visitors came in in case there was an odd ne’er do well eyeing our fancy caving equipment.

Since the car horn was really loud and went for 30 seconds, we decided that system would make us seem hostile to the locals; we were guests in their country, and even though it was mostly explored by outsiders, it still belonged to Mexicans. Still, we had some fun at night hiding the sensor to trigger the horn near the bathroom, giving a few people quite a shock after using the latrine.

Food in base camp was overall very nice. Trips were made to Concepcion Papalo once or twice a week to get fresh vegetables, eggs, tortillas, beer, and quesillo, a delicious string cheese common all over the state of Oaxaca.

More people began arriving, like Nick Viera, a caver from Canada who caves 200 days a year on average. Adrian Miguel Nieto came in from Mexico City. There was also Victor, a Romanian-American, and Rob brought a friend along, Anuj. Anju had no caving experience at all, but he still was a great addition to the surface team.

Campfire songs were usually classic rock or country, but Marcin was able to play and sing some Polish songs for us as well. Also at the start we had some drink called aguar diente, made from sugar cane. It was very strong stuff, so take care because there are some weird tasting chemicals other than alcohol in it. After some initial hiccups and delays starting the expedition, things were running smoothly and it was time to go deeper…

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