Afer my speech at ‘Tech Meeting 2012’ Bill Stone asked me to join him for lunch and during the course of the next 12 months as result of that lunch I prepared for the trip of a lifetime!
A full hours one on one discussion with Bill outside of the lecture hall of RF 3.0 in Orlando later that year the trip was moving forward and time was counting down and then before I knew it I was in the cloud forest of Southern Mexico about to go underground.
The trip? I had been invited by Bill to be a full time team member and lead diver on the 2013 project to extend the J2 Cave (Using the ‘Last Bash’ entrance) beyond the point reached in sump 4 during the 2009 expedition. Having now returned many of my caving and cave diving friends ask “Wow, 3 months in Mexico! How many times did you get to go caving?” And I smile inside at their reaction when I say “Oh, 5!” Not many! but once for 19 days, once for 5 days, once for 21 days and 2 separate 1 day trips! Totaling over 1000 Hours under the earth! It all started on arrival at Mexico City Airport with Marcin Gala and the crew from “Room 608” who would be filming the entire expedition for Discovery Chanel as an episode of their “Curiosity” series. After clearing customs with their 17 bags of film gear we loaded two mini buses and set off for ‘Faustino’s Ranch’ (Via a night in Paulo) at the base of the mountain that would be home for the next three months beneath which was the 15 plus kilometer labyrinth of passages that was J2/Last Bash.
After a long drive, the last three hours of which on dirt roads, we arrived late so I slept in the field behind the ranch on the floor in a Bivi-bag to be awakened by a friendly pig at 07:00 the next morning! After coffee, breakfast and a team briefing Inset off up the mountain with Bill and a group of team members to the site that would be our base camp. The walk from the ranch takes us through fields of ‘Slash and Burn’ ever higher until we reach the tree line and enter the cool green gloom of the cloud forest that shrouds the mountain tops and continue to climb. Eventually the winding muddy trail between the trees flattens out and there is no more up, but no view due to the density of the forrest but we are on a flat top to a summit and here will be home for the next 3 months.
We spend the day initially clearing personal spaces for our tents and covering them with tarps then working as a team to clear a large area for a workshop tarp and a kitchen tarp, to build and set up the kitchen, dig a latrine and clear a fire pit and spend our first night round the base camp fire looking forward to the adventures ahead. I spend the next eight days hiking from Base camp down to the ranch, rigging/testing and packing dive gear then hiking back up to base camp. The idea being to day by day acclimatize to the 3000 meter altitude of base camp and to build my fitness by carrying all my gear in increasing loads up the hill on my back. This seemingly crazy idea really paid off when the cave trips started! The heavy gear was delivered to base camp daily by donkeys and drivers from the ranch including our water in 20 Liter drums (Treated with Microdyne) as there are no water sources near base camp and the growing pile of dive equipment bags were delivered again by Donkey directly to the cave entrance some 200 meters below base camp. In camp we had a ‘re-belay’ assessment/practice circuit in a rope circuit up and back down a giant pine tree, with a 2 meter square ‘Dive Platform’ rigged in the crown. The idea was to use this to assess each team members rope skills on arrival and to allow practice but also to give us the opportunity to climb up through the oppressive green gloom of the cloud forrest to clear blue sky above the roof of the forrest to get some sun, watch a sun rise or sun set or just chill out…. this platform became our sanctuary between trips underground.
On day 9 I hiked down to ‘Last Bash’ entrance with Marcin for my first journey into the cave, the entrance is a small crack against a cliff wall at the head of a muddy gully and to be honest very uninspiring! But after a traverse and several tight vertical rope sections it gradually opens out, enters a small horizontal room and then goes vertical again on very large passage in the form of a 170 + meter vertical pitch with 19 re-belays getting larger and larger as you drop deeper and deeper into the earth. From here after a brief respite from the rope on a large ledge the drops continue bringing us eventually to a short wet horizontal section ending in another pitch at 300 meters depth from the entrance. At this point (The limit of the rigging teams work so far.) we tested the cave telephone wire by connecting to it and calling base camp, and turned to head out arriving back on the surface after a 7 hour trip. I was exited to go further but realized the enormity of transporting the now complete pile of 15 20 + Kilo bags of dive gear to the end of the cave to go diving! This first foray into the cave had merely scratched at the surface of the 1000 + meters of descent and 8000 + meters of horizontal cave to reach sump 2, our first dive site.
After several more days of packing and preparing equipment whilst the rigging team continued there work to reach “The Bivi” camp at -500 meters of depth a three man team entered the cave to sleep at “The Bivi” and enlarge the squeezes beyond by digging away rocks, gravel and other flood detritus. The next section of cave beyond “The Bivi” consisted of small wet stream passage with some small rope sections and 3 major squeezes, a fun “sporting” section of cave for a normal weekend cave trip, but a nightmare for transporting 3 months worth of equipment through the cave. John, Elliott and Corey did a fantastic job of enlarging the extremely unpleasant flat out wet squeeze and the two very tight vertical squeezes before the main carry of gear began. On day 15 Marcin and I headed in to the cave for the push “Phase 1” with a support team we went from the “Last Bash’ entrance to Camp 2A (Camp 2 was originally in the J2 section of cave but was moved to the 2A location at the convergence of Last Bash and J2 when the connection was made) and spent the night there before continuing on an exhausting 11 hour trip to Camp 3 the next day through gigantic ‘borehole passage’ and a beautiful section of active steam where Marcin had to repair, re-rig or replace all ropes on the vertical sections.
The next morning we returned to Camp 2A to start bag hauling from there to Camp 3. Bag hauling is tough, the cave is like the worst obstacle course ever and an intense gym work out whilst cold and wet for 8-12 hours at a time! Basically you pick up 1 or 2 15-20 Kilo bags and walk, climb, crawl and struggle through the earth, then go back and get more! In some sections like the Boulder Choke ‘Breakdown’ of “Donde Homek” a team spread out through very tight and constricted passage and pass the bags man to man in a chain which speeds things up.
The next 8 days were spent moving between camp 2A, Camp 3 and the sump 2 base until all gear for the ‘Phase 1” push was at the sump. The dry cave ends at the base of another rope pitch on a rock bridge above the lake of sump 2. Here the underwater passage is so large that there is no sound or visual indication that this is the J2 river so the sight is a crystal clear turquoise blue lake 5 meters below the rock bridge and I have to say it was so inviting! The 2009 ‘Dive Platform’ was in good condition stored on the rock bridge and we initially rigged it on the ‘Rock Bridge’ as a work table to build the 2 MK 6 CCR’s and he other dive kit before lowering it to water level and rigging it as a kitting up ‘Dive platform’. So eventually on the 10th March we had 2 assembled and pre-dive checked MK 6 CCR’s 4 O/C bailout cylinders, Food and camp equipment, survey and caving gear and our personal dive gear ready and were able to lower all to the platform, kit up, slip into the water and dive off into sump 2. I’ve been privileged enough to dive many sumps in caves around the world and to also visit and dive some of the worlds most beautiful resurgence/spring sites but this was a combination. As I dropped down the dive line, descending below the dive platform and the flood of filming lights the crystal clear water revealed a 10 meter wide 4 meter high ‘borehole’ tunnel disappearing off in front of me with grey limestone walls, stripes of calcite ‘lightening’ and a white gravel floor reflecting our lights.
The sump was dived and passed by USDCT team members on previous expeditions and the thick hand line and telephone cable were intact throughout the sump. The thick hand line was laid to ease the bag hauling required to transport camp, cave, dive and survey gear along with food through to the dry cave and Camp 4 beyond and on this dive both Marcin and I each had a full sump tackle bag and a SANTI dry-bag clipped to our sides. Sump 2 is the first sump reached when entering the J2 system by the ‘Last Bash’ entrance and at less than 150 meters in length and a maximum of 7 meters in depth was a straightforward dive. On passing the sump I unpacked and connected the telephone to the telephone cable and called back to our support crew at sump 2 ‘upstream’ dive base to inform them that we were through, safe and staying then Marcin and I stowed our MK 6 CCR’s safely and shut them down and climbed a huge hall of boulder breakdown passing over the top to enter continuing dry mud floored ‘borehole’ passage leading down to the site of Camp 4. At this point I de kitted and poured several liters of water out of my drysuit, wrung out my under-suit and base layer and informed Marcin that the dive through sump 2 had resulted in a total flood of my suit! Not a big deal with the 15 degrees C water temperature and the short dive time of passing sump 2, but it would be a big deal for the continued exploration of the cave if I could not find and fix the issue. As it turned out the silicon neck seal had be punctured twice like a ‘vampire bite’ under the chin where the suit had been hung over a line but touching the floor at sump 2 dive base over the last few days of equipment preparation. We were saved! Thanks to the custom design of the J2 SANTI cave dry-suits the neck and wrist seals were quick remove/replace along with numerous other cave specific features.
Next morning I kitted up in Marcin’s dry-suit and under-suit and passed back through sump 2, de-kitted and climbed the ropes to the rock bridge to retrieve the seal replacement kit and tools and a spare dry under-suit (Along with another bag of gear for further work beyond the sump) before returning back through the sump to camp 4 and Marcin to replace the neck seal and sleep in the wet under-suit to dry it. Back on schedule! We then had to strip down the MK 6 CCR’s and all other dive gear to manageable size/ weight loads for carrying between just the two of us (No support here on “The Dark Side of the Moon”) the 1 Kilometer to sump 4 (A dry passage enabling the bypass of sump 3). This lead to 5 loads each (10 Kilometers of caving) followed by equipment rebuild and test on the next day followed by a rest day. (Being beyond a flooded section of cave that is 8 Kilometers horizontally and 1 Kilometer Vertically for several days with just one other human being for company is a humbling experience, it does feel seriously remote and during the expedition Marcin and I spent a total of 12 days in a 5 and then a 7 day exposure alone.) On the first day of our third week underground Marcin and I set off into sump 4 following Jose’s dive line from 2009 into the right hand branch and with only one line break to repair soon arrived at 300 meters of penetration, the end of Jose’s line and the 2009 explorations. The passage to this point was stunning, meandering left to right in large clean washed passage with white gravel and sand floors undulating in waves and heavily rippled from water flow. Visibility, as with sump 2, was crystal clear and with our Light Monkey Video lights we got a stunning view of the passage. At this point I tied on a new line reel and swam on into unexplored passage, each meter heading further into a piece of the planet never before illuminated or seen by human eyes! As the line rolled off the reel and the passage continued to ascend and descend over gravel and sand dunes and meander to left and right it became obvious that going deeper the sump was not about to surface into dry cave soon as had been hoped and soon the familiar tug on my wrist as the last of the line fed out of the reel confirmed 120 meters of new passage at the crest of a large sand dune with 3 ways on ahead. ! tied on a second reel and checked the right passage first, with no obvious way on. The left passage started to progress curving to the left and ascending, but proved to be an oxbow looping back to re enter the main passage above our own line 50 meters behind us, so I rewound this section of line and set off into the middle passage option which immediately enlarged, ‘The way on!’
Reaching our deepest point yet at 12 meters with the second reel emptying rapidly we arrived at a wall of flowstone steps blocking the passage from wall to wall which we ascended step by step to surface in a small chamber of flow stone around 4-5 meters high, 4 meters wide and 2 meters across. We were through the fourth sump, but was there a way on? Removing our masks and hoods to talk all we could hear was the roar of fast flowing water! A waterfall! The J2 River! excitement rose. Marcin de-kitted whilst I held all his gear remaining in mine and after crawling carefully to protect his Dry-suit through a hole ahead at water level could soon be heard and his light seen to my right. A 2-3 cm airspace allowed us to talk and for me to see his light, dipping my head into the water, having replaced my mask, a square hole lead through to Marcin’s legs in a small chamber beyond. The small hole turned out to be perfect ‘Phil in a MK 6 with 2 Bailouts size (With a bit of shoving and scraping)’ after I’d passed Marcin’s gear through to him and we were able to de kit and safely stow our gear to see what lay beyond. We first swam in a deep water canal of crystal clear fast flowing water between flowstone walls with a stalactite decorated ceiling before the water shallowed and we could walk downstream to a huge Stalagmite and squeeze around it to the left along with the water into a huge borehole passage beyond. Here the water cascaded vertically in a waterfall down a fissure on the right wall and ledges led up to the right to enter a high level large ongoing passage.
We had passed the primary initial objective of the expedition, sump 4, and found continuing dry cave beyond that was now dropping deeper into the earth on day 29 of the 3 month expedition! We were to say the least, ecstatic. After filming all we had found we returned to our dive gear, kitted up and made a very enjoyable return dive along our own line filming en-route to Lake T41 the Sump 4 dive base to de-kit and return to Camp 4 for a ‘double dinner’ having been away for 14 hours and several coffees and to telephone base camp with our great news. There was now a lot to consider! The sump, hoped to be short and straightforward, had turned out to be 510 meters long and posed logistical challenges for the continuation of exploration so we needed to head out and debrief to allow the team to reach a decision as to the best way forward.
Of course heading out is not as simple as it sounds, the day after the push dive to pass sump 4 we had to disassemble the MK VI CCR’s into 3 manageable loads and then carry all the gear back through the 1 Kilometre of cave to the downstream side of sump 2. This took a whole day after which we spent a final night (For this trip) at camp 4, and left early in the morning for the dive out with empty food containers, flat charging batteries and trash to be met by our support team who not only quickly hauled our gear from the dive platform to the rock ledge above but also had a pot of fresh coffee on the go for us (Especially appreciated as we had run out of stove fuel beyond the sump and been on water and food bars for the last 2 days!) along with Cheese, sausage and Salmon Jerky. From here a night at camp 3 followed by a night at camp 2A saw us reach surface 4 days after the push dive of sump 4. The morning after our exit Bill called a dive team meeting to discuss the new plan in light of what we had found. Fortunately our support team continuously delivered pancakes with maple syrup and coffee to me, as they said after 19 days underground I looked like a POW, as the meeting took a while! The end result was that we would revert to Florida cave style tactics in dealing with this sump, using the dive line as our reference only and swimming lighter, neutrally buoyant loads of essential equipment through to explore the cave beyond. We would now take equipment to establish an emergency Bivouac beyond the sump if needed, to allow cooking and hot drink preparation and to enable continued exploration, rather than the original plan to run a thick haul line and telephone cable through sump 4 and establish a camp 5. Other than those logistically driven changes we were back in business.
Before a return trip could be mounted however we needed to resupply the cave with food and charging batteries for all camps and resupply camp 4 (Beyond sump 2). To facilitate this we agrees that Bill and one other support diver would do a resupply trip to camp 4 sump 4 of all gear required for forward exploration whilst a support team would carry the gear for this resupply and all resupply for the cave. Due to a shortage of man power at this phase in the 3 months I volunteered to go back in 4 days after exiting and carry gear to Sump 2, support Bill in preparation and kit up to dive sump 2 and then exit… No rest for the wicked! With the support team I entered the cave and arrived at Sump 2 via a night at Camp 2A and a night at Camp 3 to help Bill with his resupply dive by lowering gear to the dive platform, packing the haul bags with all equipment required for the next exploration trip and weighting them as close to neutral as possible and helping the divers kit up. Bill and his team set of with a bag each, dived through sump 2 and emptied the bags returning to the dive platform for me to repack the bags so they could return back through the sump, getting 4 bags full of gear through sump 2. Bill and his team then spent the next 2 nights at Camp 4 and hauled all the resupply gear to Camp 4 and the exploration gear to Lake T41 the entrance to sump 4. Myself and the support team returned back to Camp 3 for one night and then decided to do a direct exit from camp 3 in one long day starting early the next morning, arriving back in base camp exhausted after a 4 day trip only 4 days after a 19 day push! I spent the next 7 days in base camp eating, reading, eating, sleeping and eating! We were now ready for the main push trip to survey the sump, explore the upper high level passage and the continuing river passage beyond sump 4.
After a necessary 7 days at base camp to recover from the first 2 trips resting and eating I headed back into the cave with Nick and a bag of personal and resupply gear for a direct trip to Camp 3 on the 1st April. Marcin and a new support cave team joined us at Camp 3 the next day with further gear and we then started to prepare gear and pack loads at sump 2 base ready for our dive through on 5th April. Our dive through sump 2 was enjoyable as due to Bill’s resupply trip to Camp 4 for us we had a single manageable load to carry through the sump so we could have a look around and shoot some video. Once through we de-kitted and moved to camp 4 for the night and the next day again stripped down the rebreathers and carried all dive gear and other equipment in 5 loads each through the dry sections between sumps 2 and 4 bypassing sump 3 to rebuild all at lake T41 by sump 4 to dive on. We had learned our lesson on the previous push and knew that especially now 2 months into the project rest days were important to recover between days of intense gear hauling so now ready to dive we spent the next day at camp 4 reading and sleeping and next day on 8th April (A week after entering the cave) we were ready to go. The dive through with gear was tough due to the drag but we had managed to make the 2 bags almost perfectly neutral so with a carefully slow swim pace we passed the 510 meter sump again in 40 minutes. On reaching the far side we exited through the previously noted squeeze to the passage right and de-kitted, shutting down the rebreathers and storing our dive kit on the flowstone ledge. Still in our dry-suits we swam down the canal and entered the main chamber found on the initial push to establish our emergency bivouac where we changed from dive suits to cave gear and made a hot drink whilst preparing the survey and vertical gear. We first set off into the large ‘borehole’ upper passage to the downstream left running up above the water flow. I moved ahead to the furthest point of direct sight and tied on a tape survey station marker and labeled it whilst Marcin took distance with a laser, azimuth and inclination readings followed by distances to Left, Right, Up and Down (LRUD) of his position and a sketch of the passage to construct a high accuracy survey (Map) of the passage we were exploring. In this manner we continued in large ‘borehole tunnel’ with a sand/dry mud floor for 150 meters where the passage ended with a ceiling to floor flowstone formation. At this point we returned to our emergency bivouac to kit up in our vertical gear and prepare the drill, hangers and rope to explore the vertical cave taking the J2 river. Sadly (As with many other flood related battery issues on the trip) on plugging the battery into the drill and pushing the trigger we found the drill to be dead and unusable! But thanks to Marcin’s rigging skill we were able to rig and descent the 11 meter drop into the fissure to join the J2 river passage below. This section of passage was beautiful with dark grey/black limestone covered in ‘lightening strikes of white calcite and the crystal clear J2 river cascading along from pool to pool. After the first pitch we were carefully (In light of the remoteness of our situation) scramble our way down the river passage until our progress was halted by a lake in the river that was the width of the passage and appeared to be 8-10 meters long with undercut walls and deep water. Now as Marcin and I were in our thermal base layer and vertical gear only we looked at each other and questioned “What now? Back for the dry suits or go for it?”. Of course we grinned at each other like kids at christmas and went for it trying to use hand holds along the walls to hold our chests out of the water (And failing) and soon reached the shallow water stream continuing down beyond. This lead on to a second pitch, more like a series of cascades and a final drop into another lake, which Marcin again rigged on 3 natural belay points and descended with me following to pass another lake to a small chamber where all the water disappeared through finger width slots in the floor. Looking above a climb over flow stone steps to the left lead up to a squeeze so small it required removal of our vertical gear to a small chamber beyond in the base of a loose, unpassable and again in light of our extremely remote situation rather scary breakdown. After a thorough search around to confirm no other ways on through or around the breakdown existed we returned to our bivouac base frozen to make a hot drink and reflect. We’d reached the end of J2 1000 meters of new previously unexplored cave between the new submerged section of sump 4, the high level passage and the stream way, Time to start the long journey out. We packed up and moved all gear to the down stream side of sump 4 and kitted up for the return dive, dived through sump 4 and returned to camp 4 together after a 14 hour trip and made a huge and well needed meal and coffee before sleeping.
The next day was a needed rest day spent in camp 4 eating, reading and sleeping and the following day we returned to lake T41 at sump 4 to empty and re pack the MK 6 sofnolime canisters, pre-dive check and pre-breathe before heading back into the sump for the survey dive. Firstly we swam the 510 meter length of sump 4 slowly side by side with Marcin against the left passage wall and I against the right using video lights to check the walls from floor to ceiling for any potential missed passages. I had two areas in my mind where there were potential passages, both on the passage right, noted on previous dives. The first was a parallel tunnel running for 20 meters within the original 2009 project section of passage and the second was at the point where on our exploratory dive the first line reel had run out (420 meters into the sump). At this point I followed a side passage to the right which climbed a gravel and sand bank to drop into a continuing rift passage that curved sharp to the left to re enter the main passage on our line after 30 meters of oxbow. This was the same area the previous left of passage oxbow had been noted on the exploration dive of sump 4 showing this area to be in fact 3 parallel passages all interconnecting. Having reached the downstream side of sump 4 we turned and with 2 compasses, 2 depth gauges and a measured tape we coved from survey station to survey station gathering depth, bearing, distance and passage distance to Left, Right, Up and Down (LRUD) for a high grade survey of the sump to complete the data collection. This turned out to be a 150 minute run time dive and gave us an intricate knowledge of the sump. Enough fun! time to work, the inevitable next step was to pack up and remove all gear from the cave. Marcin and I were joined by two support divers at camp 4, after they dived through sump 2 on open circuit, to pack and carry all gear across the 1 kilometer of cave from sump 4 to sump 2 before the 4 of us made 8 man dives hauling bags through the sump clearing all gear and the camp 4 content from beyond sump 2. Once through the sump the cave support team met us to haul all gear up from the dive platform and finally the platform it self. We made an improvised bivouac for the night at the sump 4 pitch head and the next morning stripped and packed all dive gear into loads of 15-25 kg making 17 separate bags.
Marcin and I stayed in the cave after our push and survey dives to assist the first cave support team in hauling all these bags back to camp 3 and then on to camp 2A before finally exiting the cave after a 21 day final trip into J2 via the Last Bash entrance for us. Over the next week the remaining support teams cleared the rest of the cave of all equipment breaking down the camps and in all 40+ bags were removed from the cave. Having spent 42 nights underground, 12 of which camped beyond sumps, and 45 days in the cave out of 70 days in Base Camp high in the Cloud Forrest it was time to head home, tired, 8 kg lighter and very happy with what we achieved in our “1000 hours under the earth”.