The story of three years of expeditions to the Sierra Negra in Puebla State, Southern Mexico.
Based on articles by GUSTAVO VELA TURCOTT. Translated by ALAN WARILD
OCOTEMPA PART 1 – 2007
We’d all heard the story of how the GSAB (Grupo Espeleológico Alpino Belga) had stopped exploration of Sótano de Akemabis at –1015 m at the edge of a 30 m drop because they were out of time and had never returned.
That was in 1990 and part of a series of expeditions to the Sierra Negra in the south of Puebla State. Over the years the GSAB had moved the focus of their explorations and had left the area behind.
Motivated by rumours that Akemabis continued, and tired of stressful big expeditions with way too much hype attached, three of us, Franco Attolini, Gustavo Vela and Al Warild, organised a low key expedition of 30 days, 13 cavers (from six nationalities, although most were Mexicans).
Click on any image below to explore the Gallery. All photographs by Gustavo Vela Turcott, unless noted.
Our objectives: have a good time with like-minded anarchist cavers; explore a bit in Akemabis; and, if we had time, do a ‘tourist’ descent of Pozo Verde, another 1000 m deep cave in the area.
Of our three objectives, we accomplished only one.
A distant ‘Freeeeeee!!’, almost drowned out by the crash of water falling 130 m, was how Gustavo let me know that I could use the next rope.
He had just passed the second rebelay and a 60 m stretch was free. The light drizzle on the surface had turned to rain not long after we’d entered the cave and the soil just couldn’t absorb another drop; so what had been just a few drops on our way down was transformed into a good-sized waterfall. We were completely soaked but nearly out. It was my turn to swing out into the waterfall …
There were seven of us in the tiny community of Ocotempa in the Sierra Negra. While some continued to set up base camp, the others went in search of the entrance to Akemabis.
Two of us believed that we knew where the entrance was from our expedition to the area a few years previously. So we two went looking, and after a short battle it was found, well-hidden in the scrub.
After only a short way in, though, we realized that the cave we were in bore no resemblance to the map we had. So our confusion grew. ‘Are we in Akemabis … or is it a new cave?’
A few more hours of searching, instead of clarifying our doubts, only increased them. In the dense cloud forest we found more cave entrances and any one of them could be Akemabis, or so we thought.
If this weren’t enough, our Belgian friends had given us the coordinates, but we didn’t have a GPS (although we were dubious about 1990 GPS points taken under thick forest anyway). The topo map with the entrance marked in the wrong spot didn’t help either so we navigated through the forest with map and compass and explorer instincts.
Tired, we rested beside the track discussing the problem before checking one last doline. Laurencio, a young landowner from Huizmaloc, appeared around the corner. He assured us that he could take us to Akemabis — for a price.
After discussing everything from burro fodder to chainsaws we settled on a price and he led us several minutes uphill to the entrance that we apparently were looking for, although it didn’t even nearly fit the location that we had been given: ‘… only 100 m away in a straight line to the northwest, and 20 m lower than Akemati’. Oh, well, it was a very nice entrance.
The next day Lorenzo and Tony began rigging the cave. Eight hours later they returned, telling how they had found some pits near the top and descended a 130 m pit, only to stop at the top of a 30 m drop. Everything inside the cave appeared to indicate that we were in Akemabis — at last!
Overnight a misty rain had dampened base camp. We began the descent: first a 5 m drop, then another of 4 m, a short ramp, a narrow passage and ZAS!
We hit the big pit over 100 m deep. As we descended we realized that our friends had rigged the rope directly where the water would flow should there be more than the few drops that moistened our clothes and helmets. We commented how ‘interesting’ it would be after rain, but there was not much we could do about it with the rigging gear below, so we continued down to where they had left off the day before.
We rigged and descended the 30 m pit, but instead of finding more pitches, we hit a horizontal gallery. ‘What?? A horizontal passage instead of more pitches? Where are we?’ we asked ourselves. As we realized that the cave no longer looked anything like the line plot that we had of Akemabis we also searched for footprints or marks from any previous explorers, and found none.
We had to admit that we weren’t in Akemabis but some other partially explored cave. Below -200 m there were no marks. A ‘new’ cave is better than an old one any day — we decided to continue.
After walking, and occasionally crawling, we eventually hit another drop. Even though it was small, we descended, hoping to find more pitches to explore, but to our dismay we found a second horizontal passage, and this one even narrower than the previous one; so narrow, in fact, that some spots were only passable by squeezing along the low bedding plane between roof and floor, and sharing it with the water — no chance of getting through here dry!
We got about 100 m further through more bedding plane until we eventually stopped at a tiny 4 m drop. Eight hours in and having strategically left the rigging gear at the foot of the previous pitch, the decision was made to head for home. On our way up we passed Franco and Jon who were on their way down to relieve us. They told us not to hurry as it was still raining and cold on the surface.
First cave flood
Only when we arrived at the foot of the 130 m pit did we realize that there was a ‘little’ more water.
It was Gustavo’s first cave flood and he didn’t fully realise what was happening. He soon found out, however, as the few intermittent drops that had dampened us on our descent had been transformed into a healthy waterfall.
In a few moments we were completely soaked, but we chose to continue climbing rather than spend a cold, wet night below a waterfall that might get even bigger. The worst of it was, looking right, then left, we could see that only 2 m to 3 m away in either direction there was no water falling at all and that our problem was due to the rope being rigged in precisely the spot it shouldn’t have been.
Was it really better to continue and end the torture as fast as possible or drop back down and wait a few hours for the water to subside before trying again? Up, we decided. As we emerged into the evening we saw that it was, in effect, still raining and getting colder — nothing more was needed to make a flood in this cave.
A hot meal and dry clothes made us feel much better as we recounted our adventure to our companions: just how wet it was, and how the only thing that kept us warm was that we kept moving. Now all we had to do was wait for Franco and Jon who were still below.
Two hours later Franco arrived after a similar experience, with the bad news that ‘Jon had a problem’. From below, Franco had called, ‘Look down!’ Jon heard, ‘Come down!’ and did. Once committed, he had decided to keep going and wait in a dry place for the water to drop, rather than have to wait on the rope and get hypothermia.
Clearly, with Jon now trapped and wet it was important to get him some dry clothes and food for his stay. Fortunately, Lorenzo was rested and in condition to volunteer. With a PVC suit and pack full of food and sleeping gear off he went, to return in a couple of hours with the news that Jon was fine and would be out in the morning.
No repeat performance
Early next morning Jon surfaced and Tony returned to repair the rigging and hang the rope completely clear of the water so that if the rain continued, we wouldn’t have a repeat performance. As it turned out we didn’t have another flood, anyway.
In all the excitement, Franco had forgotten to tell us that they had reached the end of the horizontal passage and found another estimated 80 m pitch. Even though it looked interesting, they hadn’t tried to descend it with the short rope they had.
Next day two groups entered. Our group — Al, Franco and Sergio — was to rig the new pit. The beams of our lights hit nothing but blackness and when I threw a rock off the top no sound of it hitting the bottom returned. A truly bottomless pit. Only when I dropped a real rock did I get a faint echo some 8 seconds later. The quick’n’dirty ‘rocometer’ depth formula is 5 x 2t. Just a ‘little’ more than 80 m, then.
Once again the rigging was difficult due to the thin interbeds of limestone and chert which meant the rope had to be positioned with great care. Using the altimeter, we calculated the pit to be 134 m deep to the knot swinging in space and that the pitch began at about -340 m. At the same time the second team of Lorenzo and Gustavo began mapping the cave.
Eight hours later our two groups met on the way out, exchanging long, boring survey stories and hanging-in-blackness-with-the-bottom-still-invisible-way-below stories. Tired but happy, we were all excited.
Early next day Tony and Jon and a 200 m rope headed in to continue the rigging. They spent several hours hanging on the rope in an effort to find the best route down. In the end the top 115 m had several rebelays, but below that, the wall was too far away and the rope hung the final 130 m free.
A 245 m overhang!
A few days before we thought that we’d found an 80 m – 100 m pit. Only when they reached the bottom did they realize that it was 245 m and overhung all the way.
They searched the pitch bottom and the chaotic boulders that covered one end but found no continuation. A day later Lorenzo and Al also went to the bottom to search a little more. They spent hours poking between boulders and climbing the walls, but found nothing.
On the way up they surveyed the pit and lower part of the bedding plane passage that remained unmapped.
A day later and five of us managed to derig the cave and take a few photos. Back in camp we summed the metres and got 593 m deep and 1627 m long. The joke was that if we could find only another two pitches like that last one, we’d pass -1000 m. Pity it didn’t work out that way.
Our cave needed a name. Akemawho-knows perhaps? Pozo Negro, (Black Pit) as a companion to the nearby Pozo Verde (Green Pit)? The ubiquitous Mexican country radio was playing as usual ‘el Santo Cavernario [Holy Caveman], Blue Demon y el Bulldog …’, all ‘actors’ on the popular Mexican wrestling scene. El Santo Cavernario it was.
With only seven days remaining we had (finally!) been shown the real Akemabis. We spent the week rigging as far down Akemabis as we had time and people for. We only reached -730 m, not the bottom, but there’s always next year.
Months later we found out that the GSAB had entered the cave now known as Santo Cavernario. Once they saw our photos they remembered it very well. In 1990 the passage below the 134 m pitch was plugged up with boulders, water and mud, and impassable to humans.
They climbed a few walls, but found nothing. In 1990 it was a 180 m deep cave. The cave must have been opened by one of the many floods that have swept through the cave between 1990 and 2007.
OCOTEMPA PART 2 – 2008
A year later we were back with 19 cavers from six countries. Once again, the organisation was Mexico-based.
This time we knew the entrance to Akemabis, and down the first 700 m. Just weeks before we started we got word that the survey didn’t actually go right to the bottom; the last bit had been estimated.
So, with the depth in doubt and none of the survey stations retrievable, the decision was made to map the entire cave.
As it turned out, we got an almost identical position for the previous last survey point. Perhaps we wouldn’t have known that we were there though, had it not been for our survey, unless of course a sausage packet jammed in a crack is an internationally recognised survey marker and we just didn’t realise it.
Beyond that last point we found three ‘bottoms’, the first at -1051 m, Blind Speleo-Politician Sump.
Because it was taking so long to get down and back out we set up Camp Misery at the first comfortable point for many hours.
The next deep point we found was beyond a narrow section and four pitches down where the water disappears between boulders at the base of a large ascending shaft: Happy Ending Chamber at -1101 m.
Our next deepest point reached was -1092 m, via Pinto’s Guts — clearly a less than pleasant place — and another ascending shaft with water cascading down it. I remember looking up and thinking ‘one day the Ocotempa Speleo Club will come down this way’.
After adding about 150 m of extra depth we extended the cave from 1015 m to 1101 m deep and 3219 m long. Those who can add up will realise that this doesn’t.
Let’s just say that it’s the sort of thing that happens when cavers estimate the last bit of the cave as being 150 m deep.
The year before, during our search for Akemabis, we had found a cave only 15 m from the track with a comfortable walk-in entrance that we descended about 30 m to a narrow slot with a strong draft coming out. As we knew that it wasn’t Akemabis, we left it — but didn’t forget it — and looked elsewhere on the mountain.
In 2008 we returned to the cave believing that it would connect with El Santo Cavernario whose entrance is only 30 m away. As it is so close we called our new cave El Santito — The Little Saint. Two years later we still haven’t found the connection between these two caves, even though with further discoveries, their closest points are now only 10 m apart.
So, as an easy option, while we were taking turns at the bottom of Akemabis, we explored our way down Santito to -523 m. To this point and despite the tight first pitch, Santito was a very nice cave indeed with spectacular pitches following a small stream. The last 250 m was a clean-washed cascade on-rope all the way. The water disappeared down a narrow crack and an overflow pitch kept on dropping, but we were out of time.
OCOTEMPA PART 3 – 2009
It was the third year running that we had met in the pleasant provincial city of Tehuacan in the South of Puebla State, Mexico. Our group of 13, as in previous years, comprised mainly Mexican cavers, as well as cavers from Australia, Spain, USA, France and Switzerland — the international mix, really.
As usual, we combined our resources and put in equal amounts of rope and anchors as well as money, to pay for the main costs of food, petrol, caving equipment and renting mules to carry our gear up the two-hour climb to base camp.
In all we had a ton of gear and so needed a ‘mule fund’ to pay for our gear carry.
Once up the mountain we set up camp for all of March in our friend Doreteo Cuello’s front yard. While some organised the camp and equipment, others did warm-up trips into the nearby caves.
But the weather refused to cooperate and remained unstable, mist and rain making it less than ideal for cave exploration. We’d already managed two floods in two years. Perhaps we should have been getting used to it.
Even so, we started down El Santito, but with more care than usual, in order to rig further out of the water down to the deep point of -527 m that we had reached the year before. This would take us some five days, sharing the work between groups with a different group descending each day.
Rig, survey, carry …
With the rope rigged to our deep point in El Santito, the exploration became deeper and more interesting. First to -620 m. At -500 m the water enters a small crack, so from there on, as the cave becomes drier and drier, the risk of a flood diminishes. Then -692 m. Typically we were in groups of three: one out front rigging and the other two surveying along behind and helping carry the gear.
The next day saw -805 m, the major part of which was a 70 m pitch with a lot of loose rock and huge blocks threatening to fall. The rigging became more technical (speleodiplomat speak for ‘right sod of a bottomless traverse with no footholds and slippery wall’) in order to avoid the hazards. The journey from the surface to the lead, explore, map and return to camp took some 20 hours to reach -918 m — and the cave continued.
By mid-expedition we’d almost reached a kilometre deep. The weather continued to be unstable, but without affecting our enthusiasm because we were about to reach -1000 m. It was only fitting then that, as it turned out, it was the ‘all Mexican’ team of Franco and Gustavo who pushed the exploration down from -918 m. They rigged six pitches and explored to -1005 m — without a bivouac — and became the first Mexican team to explore past -1000 m under Mexican soil.
Of the nine 1000 m deep caves in Mexico, eight have been found and explored by expeditions from other countries with only minimal or no Mexican participation.
They also stopped with the going passage now covered in lovely sticky mud.
‘A clean pig never explores’
The next team didn’t get so far and surfaced telling how caves in their native Pyrenees were never so dirty and they wouldn’t be going back into such a horrible hole.
Cavers the world over are never slow to ‘take the piss’ so we called that part Chancho limpio nunca explora (a clean pig never explores). A day later we skipped down the next pitch and beyond the slightest hint of mud, only to descend ‘another ascending shaft with water cascading down it’.
I remember looking down and thinking, ‘Looks like we’ve beaten the Ocotempa Speleo Club to the connection.’
We’d dropped in just beyond Pinto’s Guts in Akemabis, right on top of the ‘connect here’ survey tag I’d left the year before. Not a bad feeling, exploring two 1000 m deep caves in two years — just a pity that by joining them we still only had one cave.
We decided to call the cave Sistema Nogochl. (‘Cuello’ means ‘neck’ in Spanish and nogochl is cuello in the local language) and is the name of the families that live in the area around the cave entrances.
The final length of Sistema Nogochl (Akemabis + Santito) is 6308 m and the depth from the top of El Santito to the bottom of Akemabis is 1182 m. A connection with Santo Cavernario would make it close to 1300 m deep.
Just to make sure that we have plenty to do for a few lifetimes yet, we did some recce caving on Tzonzecuiculi, the limestone mountain that rises another 1000 m above our camp. There are caves up there, too, one already over 300 m deep, plus many more caves to be found around camp.
The members of the expedition wish to thank the mountaineering shop Limite X for their support; Ajalpan Protección Civil; the communities of Ocotempa and Huizmaloc for their help and support and for allowing us to explore their caves and Laurencio for allowing access to his land.
And a special thanks for Doreteo and Apolonia for allowing us to live in their front yard, for the handmade tortillas and for allowing us to explore their caves.