Field Update March 14, 2013
On March 13 Marcin Gala and Phil Short cracked Sump 4 in J2. They had
been underground for 15 days when the first exploration dive took place.
Approximately 150 meters into the dive they had to repair a broken guide
line laid by Jose Morales in 2009 but otherwise were able to use the 2009
dive line to the limit reached by Jose in the right hand tunnel at 300
meters penetration from dive base. There Phil Short led on laying a full
120 meter spool of Cortland dive line followed by 2/3 of a second spool
before they were confronted with a travertine wall blocking the underwater
tunnel. After some searching they discovered a small opening between a
stalactite curtain that allowed them to get out of the water onto a
travertine platform. They left their dive gear there and proceeded onward
for 100 meters in a large air-filled tunnel which included travertine walls
and large stalactites, and one significant swim that they did in their
Santi drysuits. Ultimately they reached a large borehole tunnel where the
river descended into a fractured vertical fissure. Lacking vertical gear
they terminated the reconn effort there. The inbound swim had been 71
minutes in a very large tunnel (12 x 6 meters with crystal clear turquoise
water with white sandy floor and no silt). The return dive was 40 minute
continuous swimming. Phil Short estimated the length of the sump at 600
meters. We will post a more precise number when the survey data are
processed. The maximum depth was 12 meters.
At the time of this report Marcin and Phil are scheduled to be
transporting the Poseidon Mk6 rebreathers and carbon bailout tanks back to
the downstream side of Sump 2 for a planned upstream return tomorrow
mid-day. A team consisting of Nicholaus Vieira, Miko Harasimowicz, Sasha
Deryuga, and Dmitry Kraev will meet them at the upstream side of Sump 2
for support back to Camp 3. We expect all parties out by this coming
Sunday (March 17). Many, many others supported this dive with the
hauling of equipment, food, rigging gear, and film gear over the past 5
There will be a team meeting following the arrival of Phil and Marcin in
basecamp that will center on the next steps to be taken in J2. The reconn
did not locate a suitable site for Camp 5 and the length of the dive puts
it beyond reasonable length for running a 9 mm haul line as we currently
have installed in Sump 2 (which dramatically speeds transit and increases
safety). We estimate 50 to 60 minute swim time with fins only and a large
equipment bag. This range distance (600m) is currently at the hard limit
of our sidemount bailout tanks so considerations will need to be made,
possibly by staging bailout tanks down the length of the tunnel at 200
meter intervals. Considerations for a hanging (hammock) bivouack beyond
Sump 4 will also be considered. We have the equipment to do this and will
reach a strategy for moving forward within the next week.
Peripheral to the diving work, surface reconnaissance work up the upper
Aguacate canyon by Pawel Skoworodko, Artur Novak, and David Rickel
resulted in the discover of a karst capture zone approximately 1 kilometer
west of the Last Bash entrance, in an area predicted to have a fault
parallel to the J2 and Cheve faults. Reconn work in this area will be
intensified over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, a new shaft series has been discovered in Last Bash, leading
off from the base of the first pitch. This was initially pushed by Mark
Minton, Vonny Droms, Kasia Biernacka, Bill Stone, and Nico Escamilla.
Today a fourth push is taking place with Matt Covington, Elliot Stahl, and
David Rickel heading in with another 200 meters of rope to pick up at the
-300 meter level. There is much conjecture as to where this is going. If
it reconnects to the main shaft series then little is gained, but if it
heads east and intersects the Jungle Series in J2 beyond the Surprise
Sump, then it could result in a major fast new route to the lower levels.
Currently all resupply operations are signficantly hampered due to the
exceedingly tight constrictions between the -500 meter level bivouack on
the Last Bash route and Camp 2A in J2.
We will post further clarifications as they become available. However, as
of today the expedition is on track and on schedule and a major milestone
accomplished with the cracking of Sump 4.
March 14, 2013
Background (en Español)
In 1987 Cueva Cheve was first discovered by modern explorers at high
elevation in the Sierra Juárez of northeastern Oaxaca, México. It is presently 1,484 meters
deep and is the deepest known cavern in the Western Hemisphere and the world's 11th
deepest. The present limit of exploration in Cheve - at 9.3 kilometers from the nearest
entrance - represents one of the most remote locations ever attained inside any cave on
Earth. The logistics of reaching this point are enormous: more than two kilometers of rope
need to be rigged and three underground camps established. The final depth was achieved
during a 3-month U.S.-led expedition in 2003 that succeeded in placing a 4-person dive team
beyond two flooded tunnels at the -1,362-meter level. The dives were highly successful and
the team rapidly explored an additional 1.3 kilometers of new terrain leading deeper into the
mountain. The effort was ultimately halted by an ancient tunnel collapse that blocked the
No one has since returned to Cueva Cheve and the mystery of what remains
to be discovered inside the Sierra Juárez endures. However, in 2004 an international
reconnaissance expedition led by the U.S. Deep Caving Team discovered a new cave named
J2, located high in the remote cloud forest of Ocotal, 5 kilometers northeast of Cheve. It
quickly became apparent that J2 was going deep and headed in the direction of Cueva Cheve
with a predicted intersection beyond the tunnel collapse that stopped the team in 2003.
During the course of four major expeditions in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009 J2 was explored to
a distance of 11.5 kilometers from the nearest entrance at a depth of -1,222 meters.
To get there the team explored four underwater tunnels. Based from Camp 4, a
final 19-day underground push in 2009 reached a point 300 meters into Sump 4
where the team ran out of safety guideline with the tunnel surfacing. The 3D computer
map of the mountain predicts that the tunnel will surface to air soon and then descend
more than 800 meters vertically to cross under Star Gorge on its long way to the
Mano Resurgence. Getting there will require pushing the envelope. To do this 11
members of the over-100 person international 2013 J2 team are in training to
use a custom-designed, long-range variant of the Poseidon Mk6 rebreather. The
briefcase-sized system is small enough to be transported to Sump 4 where the main push
will begin in March of 2013. Lead divers will complete the exploration of Sump 4 and set
Camp 5 beyond in air-filled passage. Teams of three persons will then commence the
exploration of what lies beyond in what will surely be one of the most remote and
exciting original exploration projects of this decade.
The expedition will stage out of Austin, Texas the first week of February of 2013 and
will be in the field for three months. The primary objective of the expedition in March 2013 will be to
explore Sump 4 in J2, establish subterranean Camp 5 in the air-filled tunnels beyond, and extend
exploration toward the hypothesized central trunk corridor inside the Sierra Juárez. Should this
effort be successful the effort in April and May will focus on extending exploration of the trunk tunnel
south towards Cheve and north to the resurgence springs. A connection with Cueva Cheve will
produce a cave system more than 2 kilometers in depth. The integration of the entire system will
produce a 2,597-meter-deep cave and would represent the deepest natural abyss yet discovered.
The current limit of exploration in J2 represents totally unknown territory. The above map
shows the surface topography (in plan view) together with the known major cave systems of the Sierra
Juárez. The dashed blue lines represent a very simplified hypothesis for what might be discovered beyond
these known limits. What is known was obtained through difficult exploration and mapping during 16
expeditions over 25 years' time. The distance actually traveled underground can be two to three times the
straight-line surface distance. It is approximately 11 kilometers of underground travel from the entrance of
J2 to the beginning of Sump 4. This is well beyond the limits of human endurance. To deal with this we
break the journey into segments that represent 8 to 12 hours one-way travel time with a heavy backpack and
establish underground camps at those locations. There are currently four such camps in J2, with the most
remote (Camp 4, first set in 2009) being at the -1,200-meter level and beyond 220 meters of underwater
tunnels. In 2013 we plan to stockpile materiel (diving equipment, food, vertical rigging equipment) at
Camp 4 during the first 6 weeks of the project. From Camp 4 the lead diving team will complete the
exploration of Sump 4 and locate a site for Camp 5, beyond the underwater tunnels. Studies of the local
geology predict a precipitous 800 m descent following Sump 4 to a point where J2 should intersect the
main Cheve river. The map above is illustrated with red and amber circles that mark the known and
projected camps that will be required to explore all of Sistema Cheve from the J2 entrance. Since each
camp represents a day of underground travel, a fully successful exploration of the heart of the Sierra
Juárez will involve underground stays approaching one month or more.
Simultaneous with the above effort, and given the large team contingent that will be on the mountain, a
search will begin on the surface for a parallel, hitherto undiscovered cave system that should exist
between J2 and Cueva Cheve. If discovered, it may provide
an alternate, air filled bypass to the underwater tunnels in both Cheve and J2.
New Technology for 2013
A close collaboration with expedition sponsors Poseidon Diving Systems (Sweden), SANTI drysuits, and Cupron Fabric Systems has equipped the expedition with truly state-of-the-art life support technology and environmental suits to allow underground pushes of up to 30 days and through completely water-filled tunnels.
Caves are dark. You cannot see them from the
surface. Their entrance often bears no portent of what is below.
There is no sense of scale that can be grasped from the surface.
Conversely, high altitude mountains carry the opposite visual effect:
the closer you get the more powerful the sense of scale and awe
becomes. No place conveys this sense of humility better than
Mount Everest. From Rongbuk Monastery (far left in the upper
profile; and the point of view of the photo at left) Everest is still
iconic at 20 kilometers range. As you approach on the original
Mallory route (the left ridge line in the photo) it finally becomes clear
how staggeringly big this mountain is to anyone attempting to climb
it. The above map shows the known extents of the Cheve cave
system compared with a vertical cross section of Everest. The vast
cave system dwarfs Everest in horizontal extent, extending from
Lhotse to Rongbuk. The 2013 team, if successful, will travel
significantly farther underground than the distance from Rongbuk
Monastery to the summit of Everest with a vertical descent below
the surface rivaling the elevation gain to the summit from Rongbuk
glacier. Unlike mountaineers, however, the hard part begins when
you have to leave - the only way out is up.