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The Cheve Stories Part 4: Deeper than Before

Before this Cheve expedition, the deepest I’d ever been was negative 380 meters in a cave in China. The longest I’d stayed underground was 5 days. Cheve was over 1200 meters deep, so underground stays of 10 to 14 days were common. I wanted to go at the start of the expedition so I could ease into this, caving in something 3 times deeper than what I’d done before. I had a lot of doubt that I would hold up well physically and psychologically over the course of 2 and a half months of intense caving. But the training and gradual buildup paid off; I only had about 5 or 6 caving days that were very difficult, and I was happy to discover I was a lot stronger than I thought. On the third day of phone line rigging, Jon and I were joined by Fernando. We traveled down to the first rope drop and threw the line down. The bottom of this was a nice circular chamber that takes water in the rainy season. Shortly ahead was a second drop, and past that a third. We took care to keep the phone line high on the walls to avoid damaging it or the wire tripping people. Fernando was a skilled rock climber and a major help rigging the phone in tricky places. At the third pitch, we hit our first rebelay and landed in a pool. From here the cave went along a tall narrow canyon, down some slippery spots near pools, and to traverse lines and short ropes down into a canyon. There was a strong draft of air the whole way along. Then there was short chimney onto a boulder and then a traverse brought us up into the Christmas Present, a massive passage over 30 meters in diameter in places, sloping down at 30 to 45 degrees to more rope drops at the bottom. There is rarely ever a flat spot in the whole cave; we were always walking on some boulder angled this way or that. The cave was big but rarely easy, and care had to be taken with every step, lest you destroy your ankle falling off a rock. At the bottom of the Christmas present, there was an annoying drop against a sloped boulder. About 4 more short pitches of 10 meters or less brought us to the top of the Elephant Shaft, a 45-meter deep pit and my favorite drop in the cave. Here the sound of the cave stream returned and 2 pitches below this were Angel Falls. There was a nice 20-meter cascade with the rope rigged out of the water and the flow volume was noticeable greater than at the entrance. Beyond this was a short bit of stream passage with a step around a pool corner, and then we emerged into another massive passage. It was up to 20 meters wide and 30 meters high, sloping down more boulders at a steep angle. All of them were washed clean from the floods that come in summer. At the bottom, the stream disappears into the rocks and the boulder slope goes up to the top of the Camel’s Hump. In these large passages, the phone rigging is easy, we just high lined the wire across the passage away from the trail. At the Camel’s Hump begins the Giant’s Staircase, a 10 to 18-meter diameter passage floored with boulders and dropping at a 35-degree angle. It was quite intimidating the first couple of times, but eventually, I came to appreciate how awesome this thing was. Halfway down, the passage flattens and becomes sand-floored for a short way. Here is Camp 1 where we set the phone and turned around for the day. Camp 1 is not often used as a camp due to only being 2 to 3 hours from the entrance, but leaving food and a stove there can be very nice to keep up morale for the rigging team or give an extra boost of energy for people coming out from Camp 2. At that point we were close to 400 meters deep, but getting up from there wasn’t bad. From here on, though, I was pushing beyond the limits of my previous experience. Over the next few days, I did some shuttle runs, carrying gear to Camp 1 on day trips. I took 2 rest days, while Mike, Adam, Marcin, and Witek were doing rigging trips staged out of Camp 1 going deeper into the cave. Then I began doing deeper trips. Past Camp 1 the Giant’s Staircase resumes its steep slope until it reaches the top of Saknussem’s Well, a 150-meter deep shaft about 15 meters in diameter, the deepest drop in the cave. A 50-meter descent with a few rebelays brings you to a ledge, then the remaining 100 meters along the wall. Halfway down, the river comes out of the wall and the shaft becomes a foggy abyss. At the bottom, the cave flattens out again, more water comes in, and we would empty our bags on a ledge for deeper teams to shuttle towards Camp 2. There we are approximately 650 meters below the entrance, about 6 to 8 hours round trip. I did this run 5 days in a row, being joined by Adrian, Fernando, Jon, Nick, and some new arrivals, Tommy Polson from Virginia and Pawel Skoworodko from Poland. One day, I surface after dark and see an unfamiliar face, then suddenly I hear the loudest laugh imaginable, unlike anything I’d ever heard before. A Candian by the name of Jared Habiak, along with Katie Graham, who I’d caved with in China 2 years prior. Another Pole, Tomasz had also shown up. We were kept well entertained by Jared’s strum stick and ridiculous limericks, Fernando’s ukelele, and the booming echo of Jared’s laugh. The cave and phone line had now been rigged to Camp 2, enough sleeping bags and pads for 8 people were brought in, and food and stove fuel had been stocked. Now it was time to be moving additional bolts and rope in, along with diving gear. I took a rest day on the surface and then the plan was to head in with Bill, Rob, Adrian, Jared, and Fernando. We were planning on staying in the cave for 10 days to move more gear forwards, and rig to Camp 3. Some days and nights, it would rain in Llano Cheve, and fog would make it hard to see anything walking around. But at least then it was warmer at night. Down in the cave, though, the weather never changes, at least in the dry season. In the height of the rainy season, the floods back up over 30 meters deep in some passages. As you do deeper, the cave river intensifies as it pickups up more infeeders. The deeper levels of the cave are usually only safe to enter between the end of January and the middle of May when the weather is dry. But it is all those monster floods that carve out a cave so vast.

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