Read the expedition executive summary here.
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
second deepest known cavern in the Western Hemisphere and the world's 12th deepest. The
present limit of exploration in Cheve - at 10 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 3 kilometers of rope need to be rigged; three underground
camps established; and diving equipment for a team of four needs to be transported to the -1,362
meter level where a series of two underwater tunnels (known as sumps) begins. The final depth
was achieved during a 3-month U.S.-led expedition in 2003 that succeeded in placing a four-person
dive team beyond two flooded tunnels (140 and 280 meters length, respectively). 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 route forward.
No one has since returned to Cueva Cheve and the mystery of what remains to be discovered inside the Sierra Juárez endures. The 2003 dive team made one other important
discovery: the existence of three large waterfalls that enter the cave along the stream passage
between the two sumps. One of these is more than 60 meters in height and crashes into an 80-
meter-long lake. There was no time to investigate these waterfalls in 2003 as the discovery of the
way through Sump 1 and the river canyon beyond occurred late in the expedition. The presence of
these waterfalls is significant. Sistema Cheve is known, through 3D mapping, to have been formed
on at least three different levels as the subterranean river cut down through various
stratigraphic layers over the course of millions of years. The active river today is the
lowest level. But throughout most of the cave there exist "fossil" (old, dry) tunnels of
gigantic proportions some 70 to 100 meters above the river. Because Sistema Cheve is
highly fault-controlled - that is, it tends to follow large-scale cracks in the limestone
strata created when the Sierra Juárez was pushed up from the Gulf of Mexico - these
upper-level passages tend to lie directly above the river passage. A waterfall, then, is
a "geologic drill," which creates an access path between layers. Twelve members of the
2017 team are cross-trained as divers and aid climbers. A 65-person international team
from 11 countries will stage equipment to Sump 1 during the first month of the
expedition. Then three successive teams of four persons will 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 2017 and will be in the field for three months. The primary objective of the expedition in March 2017 will be to
establish subterranean Camp 4 in the air-filled tunnels beyond Sump 1 in Cueva Cheve, and extend
exploration toward the hypothesized central trunk corridor inside the Sierra Juárez by means of aid
climbing up three waterfalls that exist between Sumps 1 and 2. Should this effort be successful the
effort in April and May will focus on extending exploration of the trunk tunnel north towards Cueva de
la Mano. A connection between Cueva Cheve and Cueva de la Mano would produce a 2,597
meter-deep cave and would represent the deepest natural abyss yet discovered.
The current limit of exploration in Cueva Cheve 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. What is known was obtained through difficult exploration and mapping during 17 expeditions
over 25 years' time.The distance actually traveled underground can be three or more times the straight-line
surface distance. It is approximately 10 kilometers of underground travel from the entrance of Cueva Cheve
to the present limit of exploration. 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 three such camps in Cueva Cheve, with
the most remote (Camp 3, first set in 1990) being at the -1,100-meter level, three days from the entrance.
The primary objective in 2017 will be to establish subterranean Camp 4 beyond Sump 1, to scale the
waterfalls leading upwards, and, hopefully, to re-acquire the large high-level dry passage last seen just north
of Camp 3. If successful it will be our further objective not only to explore this overhead tunnel deeper into
the mountain, but also to connect it to dry (air-filled) cave upstream of Sump 1, thus bypassing the need for
diving and allowing for all team members to participate in deeper explorations. A breakthrough of this nature
could lead to rapid extension of the main cave - Cueva Cheve - to depths in excess of 2,000 meters as well
as seeing the possible linkage of other large cave systems. We are expecting that the teams sent to Camp 4
will see continuous underground stays of 30 days or longer before cycling out with replacement teams. The
duration of the expedition is designed to allow three independent pushes from Camp 4 by 4-person
diving/climbing teams. The remainder of the 65-person support team will be staged at various camps
throughout the cave to transport food and materiel to Sump 1 in support of the climbing effort beyond Sump
1. We are optimistic regarding our chances for success. The team is extraordinarily experienced, and
represents the best expeditionary cave explorers from 11 nations.
New Technology for 2017
A close collaboration with
expedition sponsors Poseidon Diving Systems (Sweden) and SANTI have 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. New advances in climbing technology will allow the lead team to scale previously
inaccessible waterfalls to high-level dry 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 2017 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.
A gallery of images from the 2017 Sistema Cheve Expedition can be viewed here.