Exploration beyond the sumps of Red Ball Canyon, Sistema Huautla, Mexico

By ANDREAS KLOCKER | Southern Tasmanian Caverneers, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Last year I had the chance of joining an expedition with the aim of extending Sistema Huautla, situated in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Sistema Huautla is one of the largest and deepest cave systems in the world, and probably one of the most beautiful.

Apart from a British expedition in 2013 to dive the most-downstream-known sump (Sump 9, aka the “Mother of all Sumps”), many years had passed without any significant exploration taking place.

This was in 2014, the beginning of a 10-year project called the Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla (PESH), whose aim it is to restart exploration of this cave system and extend it from then approx. 64 kilometers length and 1,545 meters depth to over 100 kilometers in length and a vertical mile (1.6km) in depth.

Before the successful expedition in 2014 was over I knew I wanted to come back the following year, but this time with a particular project in mind.

For me, one of the most exciting challenges in caving is to push virgin cave behind sumps. Many sumps tend to remain un-pushed due to the lack of cave divers who have the dry caving skills required to explore beyond. So there is still lots to be done with potentially big rewards.

Major potential

In that respect Sistema Huautla has more of this kind of potential to offer than most other caves I have heard of.

The big projects I have been thinking about for some time are the Huautla Resurgence and the Cueva de la Peña Colorada, i.e., the active resurgence and fossil resurgence of Sistema Huautla, with the long-term goal of connecting them to Sump 9, thereby substantially extending the depth and length of Sistema Huautla.

Both have major leads but have not been visited for decades, mainly due to the remote location and the lack of cavers with the right skills.

I also knew that my personal diving skills (especially on the rebreather) needed some more polishing, so I opted to leave the resurgence end of Huautla resting for another year and instead find a project that involved slightly less challenging sumps higher up in the cave system.

So on one of the final days of the 2014 expedition I talked to PESH expedition co-leader Bill Steele about some possible projects, and he mentioned an undived upstream sump in the western branch of Red Ball Canyon in Sótano de San Agustín (SA), which had been found in 1979.

Gallery: Kasia Biernacka

That sump being in close proximity to the one in the eastern branch of Red Ball Canyon, through which SA has been connected to Li Nita (making it one of the deepest caves in the world at that time), and discharging large amounts of water, one would think that there is a good chance to find lots of amazing cave passage beyond!

Hence right after the 2014 expedition, American cave diver Zeb Lilly, who was one of my main caving buddies during my first expedition to Huautla, and I started to plan a push in Red Ball Canyon in 2015.

The plan involved heading into SA via the Fools Day Extension (discovered on April 1, 1987 by Mark Minton, Doug Powell and Bill Steele, and which presents the shortest route to Camp 3 from the surface) and work out of Camp 3 to push the sump in Red Ball Canyon (on the map the sump we wanted to dive is the upper sump in Red Ball Canyon; the lower sump, the 1030 sump complex, is the sump connecting into Li Nita).

Expedition leaders Bill Steele and Tommy Shifflett organized all the gear necessary to rig the cave, camp in the cave and aid climb up into Red Ball Canyon and beyond the sump.

The other lucky coincidence was that the route down the Fools Day Extension had been fully re-bolted by the British expedition in 2013.

This left Zeb and me with the planning of the dive gear, which was enough of a challenge since for one we had no idea how long or deep the sump would be and what the cave would do beyond the sump.

Gallery: Dave Bunnell

The only thing we knew was that the sump connecting San Agustín to Li Nita was about 50 meters long and very shallow, so we were hoping for similar conditions in this sump, but every caver knows that caves can do unexpected things, and we wanted to be prepared.

We therefore talked to Bill Stone and the US Deep Caving Team (USDCT), who generously lent us both open-circuit sidemount gear including carbon-fibre tanks, and Poseidon MKVI rebreathers in case the sump turned out to be long and deep. Lamar Hires from Dive Rite also helped out by generously donating several sidemount harnesses, reels and lights.

International diving crew

Leading up to this trip, we accumulated eight cave divers who were prepared to join this project, with half the divers from Australia — Sandy Varin (STC), David Bardi (STC), Liz Rogers (VSA) and me (STC), three from the US — Zeb Lilly, James Brown and Jean Krejca, and one from Romania, Victor Ursu.

Since the expedition would have almost 50 cavers participating over a period of five weeks, we were hoping to have enough help to rig the cave and ferry gear.

So after a year of planning and a very long journey on planes, buses and taxis, I arrived in the field house in the village of San Agustín Zaragoza 48 hours after leaving my home in Tassie.

To my surprise, I was told upon my arrival that Corey Hackley, Stephen Eginoire and Steph Davlantes had already rigged the cave down the Fools Day Extension (a series of about 23 short pitches) to the top of the Bowl Hole Series.

We then decided that this same team would continue to rig down the cave while I, at the time the only diver present who knew what dive gear needed to go into the cave, started organising people to haul packs towards Camp 3.

This was when I first noticed that some expedition members obviously hadn’t done that much SRT, looking at pitch heads and rebelays like some cave alien was staring them in the face.

Nevertheless, with a bit of patience we managed to get a fair amount of gear staged at the end of the Fools Day Extension and partway down the Bowl Hole Series.

At the same time, the rigging team continued down the Bowl Hole Series until they ran out of rope just before they touched ground at the bottom of the amazing Space Drop (80-meter free hang).

Due to low energy levels, they then decided to bivvy in the Bowl Hole Series where they also managed to find a stash of rope which must have been left there by the Brits in 2013, and so the next morning, they used that rope to continue making progress towards Camp 3.

After two day trips hauling gear down the first part of the cave, four of us (Matt Tomlinson, Chris Higgins, Mike Green and I) planned on a camping trip to move gear all the way to Camp 3 and do a recon into Red Ball Canyon.

The descent went smoothly apart from some terrifying moments on the Space Drop, which was rigged with the old rope found in the Bowl Hole Series…

On descent it sizzled like bacon in a frying pan, with the descender being covered in the orange colour of the rope by the time people reached the bottom, and on ascent it turned out to have enough sheath slippage to make most cavers’ spines shiver.

Nevertheless, once our nerves had cooled down, we planned to exchange this rope on the next trip and continued down the Upper Gorge.

This part of the cave was by far the most amazing cave passage I have ever seen, with a huge stream cascading down a canyon with perfectly polished limestone wall — very sporty with lots of short pitches, climbs and swims (especially if your pack is loaded with a hammer drill and lots of hardware)!

Soon after, we arrived at Camp 3 in the Sala Grande de la Sierra Mazateca. This camp sits about 70 m above stream level in a huge chamber with a soft floor and some boulders, making it an extremely comfortable cave camp.

Stonehenge coffee

In years past cavers put a lot of effort into moving flat rocks together to form a circle of seats and stone towers — a place known as Stonehenge. This is where we set up our kitchen, with the holy percolator at its center to keep caffeine levels from dropping dangerously low.

After we set up camp, we did a quick tourist/photo trip into Anthodite Hall, which is the largest chamber known in Sistema Huautla and only a 15-minute trip up one pitch from Camp 3.

What can I say — it’s big, beautiful and has some nice formations, but to me the canyons with active streamways, such as the Upper Gorge, are what really gets me excited. I didn’t have to wait long for more streamway action — the next day we started into Red Ball to rediscover parts of the cave first discovered in 1979.

The entrance to Red Ball is a 15 m pitch next to an impressive waterfall, and from this point on there are very few occasions where it is possible to avoid water.

Once in Red Ball Canyon we noticed that this part of the cave is more complicated than we assumed, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise since the original maps/sketches of Red Ball Canyon were hibernating in some dusty survey pile in someone’s filing cabinet, and the only map we had was an artistic version drawn by Barbara am Ende for the book she wrote with Bill Stone on the 1994 expedition into SA (the map shown below).

fools_day

Nevertheless, after a while we got our bearings, found the sump connecting SA to Li Nita, and were stopped by an aid climb heading towards the sump we planned on diving.

On the way out of the cave the next day I bumped into Andy Chapman (I actually heard his unmistakable Yorkshire accent long before I saw him), a good friend of mine from the UK, who was taking my Aussie caving buddies Sandy Varin and David Bardi, who arrived the day before, for a warm-up trip down the Fools Day Extension.

David and the damaged rope from the Jungle Drop — Andy Chapman photograph
David and the damaged rope from the Jungle Drop — Andy Chapman photograph
While I was already enjoying a cold beer in the field house after several days underground, Dave and Sandy had some exciting moments ascending the entrance pitch, the Jungle Drop (a very scenic pitch, but due to its low angle, loose rocks and copious amounts of mud probably the most challenging pitch in the cave).

While David ascended, he dislodged a rock that damaged the rope (without anyone realising that the rope was damaged). When Sandy then followed her heart beat must have slightly accelerated when she saw that the rope was now held together by only a few strands of the rope core … Luckily she doesn’t weigh anything!

Sadly our next push trip got delayed since a proper rainstorm hit the region, making the Upper Gorge impassable. Two days after the rain we tried to get through, but in the Bowl Hole Series we bumped into Chris Higgins and Mike Green who had tried to get to Camp 3 themselves for some photography.

They told us that water levels were still three times normal and thus way beyond where one would try to pass through the Gorge.

At the same time we were told that a Mexican team was stuck in nearby Li Nita due to high water levels, but luckily they managed to exit after several days, when the water levels dropped and before running out of food!

After a couple of extra rest days, enjoying food at Rosita’s restaurant in Huautla, tasting the local mezcal, and sucking up all the sunshine we could find, it was time to head to Camp 3 for the next push.

This time it was Andy, David, Sandy and I heading down as a team. The trip down went well until the Upper Gorge, where Sandy did some of her caving magic and somehow managed to get her gumboot stuck in one of the water pools with her head not too far above water level.

Gumboot saga

With the help of both David and me, we somehow got her extracted and also managed to save the gumboot, but by this point Sandy’s energy levels were slightly below ideal (this was Sandy and David’s deepest cave trip so far).

Nevertheless, after the use of some colourful language and Sandy trying to convince me that a 200-meter dive was easier than “this dry caving thing,” we made it to Camp 3.

The next day, while David and Sandy were recovering and touristing the bottom of SA, Andy and I started aid-climbing up Red Ball Canyon.

From the 30-year-old memories of the previous explorers we were told that we might need a bolt here or there but nothing serious … I would now say they either lost all their memory, had much bigger balls than I do, or some combination thereof.

After the first climb (10 bolts or so), we continued up the stream and found another waterfall pitch with a large pool below. Luckily I could free-climb this and put some bolts in from above. We then called it a day and went back to camp where we were soon joined by Gilly Elor, Kasia Biernacka and Adam Byrd.

They arrived with some more gear including some real food (salami!) and mezcal. After a very social evening and a late start in the morning, David, Sandy and I headed back to continue where Andy and I stopped the day before.

After another free climb up a waterfall, which I subsequently bolted, and after some more exciting canyon passage, we popped out into a larger room where the continuation went up a steep ramp.

Putting in some handlines, we were then suddenly stopped by both the drill battery going flat and running out of rope … about 10 meters of exposed traverse and three bolts from where we could see the passage continuing.

Trying not to be too frustrated, we turned and headed for the surface the following day, leaving the continuation to Zeb Lilly, Katelyn Mahoney, Derek Bristol, and Victor Ursu, who had arrived at Camp 3 in the meantime to take over.

Two rest days followed with the now regular procedure — head to Huautla, have real food (such as delicious chicken, rather than the freeze-dried stuff at Camp 3) and then enjoy evenings with a cerveza and some (or a lot of) mezcal on the roof of the gear store with an amazing view of the San Agustín doline with its clouds above.

Then it was time to head back with David, Sandy, Andy, and Liz Rogers, who had just arrived. Since we had no communication with Camp 3 we had no clue what had happened down there the last few days, but hoped that Zeb and his team had found and cracked the sump.

Once in camp we got mixed news … Zeb cracked the sump, which was about 30 meters long and less than 5 meters deep, only to find a second sump immediately after.

We were also told that the point where we stopped on our last push, running out of battery and rope, was the last bit of aid climbing necessary to reach the sump. Maybe our sacrifices to the cave gods weren’t sufficient!

Nevertheless, the next day we headed to the sump and I got ready to dive. And what a dive site it was!

Sump diver’s dream

Most sumps I dived previously started in a cold, muddy, tight, unpleasant looking pool, but here the water looked clear, the gearing-up spot was a beach with clean gravel, and the sump was surrounded by conveniently placed limestone shelves which we used to store gear — definitely a sump-diver’s dream, and more like a cave-diving entry usually found in North Florida.

Gallery: Chris Higgins

The sump then continued in a very pleasant way and a few minutes later I surfaced on a gravel slope with Sump 2 continuing just a few meters on over a little gravel island.

So I tied off my reel and pushed into no-man’s land with the adrenaline pumping! As in most parts of this cave — above water and underwater — progress was easy. The second sump stayed shallow, was spacious, and it was almost like someone formed the rock to make tie-offs for my guideline as trivial as possible.

The second sump ended up to be about the same length as the first, but even more scenic. I then surfaced in a rift with again a conveniently placed shelf to store my gear (I could get used to this).

Even though the exit was again pretty damn good, at this point I was very aware that being here alone, dropping any part of my gear into the sump would have been slightly less than ideal.

Anyhow, I de-kitted and pushed on … at least a few meters until the obvious happened when pushing upstream — the cave went up, in a pitch sort of way — with lots of water flying over the pitch head. This marked the end of this solo push, and so I returned.

The next day three of us (David, Sandy and I) therefore decided to return with a full set of aid-climbing gear to tackle the climb.

Challenge 1. Check

Despite having large packs full of hardware, including a drill in a dry bag, two sets of dive gear between the three of us, and using a diving technique comparable to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, we all made it to the other side without major drama.

Challenge one ticked off, we then turned our attention towards the aid climb, when we noticed that the dry bag with the drill had flooded. Luckily it was a good German Bosh drill, not a Chinese copy, and after a bit of shaking the water out of it, it fired up again.

Not that the next part of the game was less challenging for either the drill or me … needless to say the aid climb was very wet!

But somehow, with my diving mask on, some free-climbing moves, some bolts, and several useless attempts to keep the drill dry, I made it to the top and rigged a pitch with several rebelays to keep us out of the main waterfall.

Sandy and David quickly followed, and we all ran up the streamway full of virgin cave fever until we got stopped by Sump 3 — shit! We knew that to carry the dive gear up here from Sump 2, do this dive, return, then carry everything back to the previous sump, and do the return dive would be tedious, so David used his big balls (virgin cave fever:commonsense 1:0) to try and free-dive it, with Sandy using her Scurion to mark his way back.

Luckily the sump was short and David made it to the other side (and back). Scraping together our leftover bits of commonsense, we then put rope through this sump — both as a guideline and to make hauling packs while free-diving a bit easier.

The best way turned out to be to get a diver through first, weight the packs so they were negative, and then use the rope as a tyrolean to pull the packs through.

The other side of the sump was a big lake, in most parts just a slight bit too deep to walk in and hence an interesting swim with heavy packs and survey gear in our hands, which needed to stay dry.

Once we got out of the lake it was time to enjoy what was probably the nicest cave section I’ve ever explored! We were in a big room with lots of calcified floors and waterfalls coming down balconies built with flowstone.

Immediately we started to follow the water upstream, where I did several interesting free climbs I wouldn’t recommend anyone to repeat (virgin cave fever:commonsense 2:0), until we came to another section which definitely needed to be rigged.

Endless flowstone balconies

With more aid-climbing gear and ropes in our packs, Liz and I returned the following day to survey the part of the cave we found the previous day and continue following the water upstream.

Needless to say when going upstream in a vertical cave, we climbed and climbed and climbed over endless (slippery) flowstone balconies. I rigged two ropes at the drops I had free-climbed the previous day (those climbs looked much scarier once the virgin cave fever dropped off), then bolted a very exposed traverse, and climbed up more flowstone until reaching an approx. 12-meter climb, which definitely was not free-climbable.

Gallery: David Ochel, Matt Tomlinson & Stephen Eginoire

With me running low on energy, we then returned to Camp 3 where I then enjoyed a rest day while David and Sandy returned behind the sump to get some footage with their Go Pro, and the day after we headed out for sunshine.

At this point we knew time was running low and the cave was getting big, so Zeb and I planned to do two more large push trips, with many other helpers (David, Sandy, Paul Winter, Gilly Elor, Adrian Miguel Nieto, Scott Wahlquist) heading into the cave a bit later to help us ferry gear towards the surface.

The first day we descended from the surface to Camp 3, had a quick snack, headed through the now very familiar Red Ball Canyon to the sumps, dived the sumps, and continued to the place behind the lake where we had left some gear the previous day.

Plan A was to first survey from this point to the current end of exploration, but sadly the DistoX disagreed and went on strike.

Hence we went with plan B, i.e., headed to the current end where Zeb did the aid climb. With Zeb being an aid-climbing speed machine, we soon continued further upstream, rigging some small pitches/handlines along the way.

Clear blue Jacuzzis

The cave was getting more and more spectacular with insane amounts of flowstone, waterfalls, lakes and flowstone slides into clear blue Jacuzzis. I don’t think cave exploration can be much more exciting than this (maybe with cave mermaids in the pools?)!

Sadly the turning point was again set by the amount of drill power we had, with the cave looking like it was flattening out above. By the time we got back to Camp 3, both Zeb and I felt slightly more than worn out … absolutely wasted might be a better description.

We somehow managed to get some food into ourselves before crashing, hoping that we’d have enough energy for what was going to be our last day of pushing behind the sump.

Knowing that we really needed a good survey, we then returned with a second DistoX and backup old-school survey gear, which turned out to be a good decision.

Apparently Leica does not make their tethers cave-proof, which resulted in the DistoX taking the airborne untethered way down the pitch that Zeb had bolted the day before — needless to say this resulted in the DistoX’s immediate death, RIP!

So we got out the tape measure (what an awful piece of gear) and while Zeb was sketching I swam/climbed up the cave with the tape measure between my teeth. Just before the point where we turned around the previous day, we then rigged two shortish drops into a dry offshoot of the main passage, where at the end we looked down onto an amazing flowstone river.

Since we felt like this place was just too beautiful to damage, we left it untouched and built a permanent survey station at the beginning of this dry offshoot.

Above the final pitch onto the flowstone river was a dry space that could be used as a camp/storage place.

Exiting this dry offshoot, we reached the sad point of the trip where both the time and energy levels told us it was time to turn around and leave the rest of this amazing cave for a future trip — I hope I will be back to continue at some point!

Now it was time for a good night of sleep before the hard days of dragging gear out of the cave. The next morning we all ran up Red Ball Canyon one last time to carry all the gear towards Camp 3.

We then dropped all the dive weights and some stainless bolts/hangers next to Bill Stone’s hydrogenerator (a leftover from the ’94 expedition) where they can easily be found again for a future trip, followed by three runs up and down the Upper Gorge between Camp 3 and the 620 depot until all bags were at the 620 and the ropes were removed (thanks Paul Winter and Adrian Miguel Nieto).

Packing and derigging

After a very rudimentary camp at the 620 depot, we all took as much as we could carry and headed for the surface where we bumped into Scott Wahlquist and Tommy Shifflett who came down for a day trip to help us with the bags.

The next few days were then spent doing several day trips down to the 620 depot to get the remaining bags and derig the cave.

Luckily there were lots of people helping and all the gear made it out of the cave, including several ancient ropes (approx. 12mm rope, super heavy and so stiff you needed a hammer to de-knot) that we found in the cave from previous expeditions.

We also used the last few days to enter the survey data to see how what was found fitted into Sistema Huautla and where the new parts of cave behind the Red Ball sumps were leading.

To everyone’s surprise the cave didn’t head towards the north as most people had expected, but cut back to head south. Overall though the horizontal distance of 580 meters of new survey was quite short considering the vertical distance of almost 200 meters that we climbed!

At the point where we turned around, the cave seemed to become flatter and we were still following the full amount of water that goes through the sumps further down, so the prospects for pushing this lead towards the surface are insanely good!

It was now the sad time of this expedition when it was time to pack up and head home, but we’ll be back!

CREDITS & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

All this exploration behind the three Red Ball sumps would have never happened without the help of many cavers, so a big thank you to all (in no particular order):

Sandy Varin, David Bardi (two of my best caving buddies in Oz, now die-hard deep cavers), Gilly “Gillymonster” Elor (who wants to challenge her in a pack-carrying competition?), Andy Chapman (with special thanks to him for his patience in improving lots of rigging while using his very colourful Yorkshire accent), Zeb Lilly (a damn good caving buddy and great surveyor — which also meant I had to do none of my dreadful sketches) and all the others mentioned above! Hopefully waiting for next year’s expedition will not feel like eternity …

Meet Andreas Klocker

Andreas Klocker got hooked by caving in 2008 while doing his PhD in Tasmania, Australia, and soon after combined his caving and diving addiction to become a cave diver in 2011. In Australia his main focus has been on cave exploration in the Junee-Florentine, an area known for Australia's deepest cave systems, remote sumps and huge exploration potential. In the last couple years he also turned his attention towards major cave systems in Mexico, in particular Sistema Huautla, where he enjoys the challenge of combining deep 'dry' caving and challenging cave diving in one of the world's most amazing cave systems.

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