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Mexico

The following is a brief account of the 30 strong Mexico '85 expedition which visited the Xlitla plateau, North Mexico over the Christmas period.

After a two hour coach trip to Heathrow, a 16 hour flight via Amsterdam and Houston to Mexico City, a night in a hotel and a further day by bus Dany and myself along with other members of the expedition arrived in the large town of Ciudad de Valles, situated 220 miles north of Mexico City.

Sunday morning we went in search of the café "Don Juan" to rendezvous with members of our advance party, who over the past 5 weeks had driven our 3 expedition vehicles down from the States, cleared the expedition gear through customs (this took 21 days) set up base camp, and started the serious business of prospecting and caving.  The cafe was easily located, parked outside was a 4x4 Chevrolet truck bearing the insignia "MEXICO 85 British Caving Expedition, sponsored by Johnnie Walker Scotch Whiskey", everything to plan, amazing!  We entered.  "Where the bloody hell have you been", we were greeted by the soft and gentle voice of Alan Thomas who had cunningly followed us from Priddy, "The rest of your lot are asleep out the back", he went on. "I have had lots of adventures getting here, I must tell you".  Some time later, after a meal and Alan's story, the Chevrolet was put through the pain barrier along the Pan American Highway as we headed for Xlitla, the nearest town to our base camp.  Alan was installed in a hotel here and we carried on up a very unmade track for a further 50 minutes to our base in the small picturesque village of Tlamaya.  The following day was spent setting up camp and preparing for the caving proper.

Tuesday morning, we drove to Tampajal, from there 3 hours walk into the mountains gained us the village of Los Horneas, the site of one of our satellite camps. The weather was unusually bad for Mexico, very wet and misty, for this reason we decided to live in one of the cave entrances, this became very squalid during the four days which we were in residence.  Dany and myself had a very good photo trip down a cave found by the team who we had relieved.  April 5th cave has a large entrance ramp 50-60m high leading down to a sizable streamway, this was followed past a previous stal blockade, which had fallen victim of a lump hammer (in the name of exploration), into large well decorated stream passage.  This extended some 3km to the head of a 25m pitch, at the bottom the cave terminated 100m further on at a depth of -400m in a non free divable sump.

We spent the next day doing some bread and butter work, following a young local lad through very wet and soggy jungle at high speed, descending each shaft as he magiced them out of the undergrowth, most of the shafts proving to be choked with rotting vegetation.  All would probably go with digging but we had not come this far to do that.  We returned to our cave home to find that a shaft shown to the others had gone to a 100m pitch, two of them had walked back to Tlamaya for more rope and would return later that night.  It was decided that one team would push on down the pitch the following day, while we investigated a second draughting shaft situated nearby. This we did, and after the passing of a squeeze at the bottom of the entrance climb by John Palmer and Debbie, both anorexic whippets!  A further hour was spent enlarging it to Bob and Dany size, this gained us a large, steeply descending fluted passage carrying a small stream.  In an alcove on the right hand wall two brawn calcite formations closely resembling hedgehogs gave the cave its name, Queva de la Erizo ( Hedgehog Cave).  We took it in turns to explore the cave ahead; it meandered steeply downwards in fine passage for a further kilometre with many free climbable pitches.  We were halted by a lack of tackle at the unstable head of a 7m pitch.

The others had also done well and their cave was still going at -300m.  We returned to base the next day and another team took over at Las Horneos, we had had atrocious weather but a good four days caving.

Christmas was fast looming on the horizon, Alan Thomas had searched high and low in Xlitla for a cafe that would serve roast turkey and Christmas Pud on Christmas Day.  He had even applied his shouting in a silly accent technique, but not even this, combined with his school teacher stern look, brought any joy.  We finally had to settle for spicey chicken, assorted vegetable and sala served on Christmas Eve. Some compensation was gained in the fact that the red wine we had ordered arrived in the form of Bacardi and Coke, oh the joys of the language barrier!  Dany and myself returned to the local bar at Tlamaya to carry on the Christmas Eve festivities.  Christmas passed in a haze.

On the 27th December, Dany and I plus three others set off to an area to the northeast of Xlitla, near the large town of Jalpan, some four hours drive from base camp.  Our main objective was to investigate some sites found previously by a reconnaissance party.  We arrived in Guayabos, a small village situated 6km up a very rough track, here we were instantly taken in by a local family, seated down and fed before we had time to ask for permission to camp.  The friendliness of the local people in this part of Mexico made an impression on all the expedition members.

The following day we carried our tackle up into the surrounding hills aiming to descend the reported shafts above.  We systematically worked our way through a number of these, all with the same result, all were very dry and dusty, adorned with bat shit and choked around the 50m mark. Our resident geologist, Alf Latham, weighed up the situation and declared in best scientific terms, “this is a real bum area”, we all agreed and returned to our truck.  Our next port of call was Puerto de Animas on the main road north of Jalpan, here locals had told us that there were large caves where a river disappeared and then re-emerged on the far side of the hill. They were right, the problem was that they had been previously explored by the Americans, all the same, they were well worth the visit.

We spent the following day in the sink end, this proved to be about 1km of mega passage, well decorated, brought to a sudden end in a very stagnant sump.  Before returning to base on the morrow, we visited the resurgence cave, this was  a very picturesque railway tunnel carrying the main stream, opening out into a large decorated chamber.  The streamway terminated 1/2km further on in a good size clear inviting sump pool.  A dry flood overflow passage, explored on the way out, gave another 1 1/2km of big mud floored passage ending in a muddy chamber. This must be close to the upstream sump but no connection could be found.

We returned to base for the New Year, a group of us decided to celebrate by going to a dance advertised in Xlitla, this proved to be in a building site (the Spanish influence, I suppose!).  Everybody stroved towards their desired state of drunkenness and the locals looked on in amazement at our rendering of "Auld Lang Syne" as the magic hour passed, six hours after the real English one.  All was well until the return journey in the early hours, the vehicle in front of me sprung a puncture, I swerved around it and drove off the edge of the track.  I sat there in amazement as the thing rocked on the edge of a rather steep drop above the valley floor many feet below.  "Oh dear", said everybody and deserted the vehicles to walk back to base. The next few days were spent persuading a rogue from a Tamzunchale rescue truck company, firstly to lift our truck out of its predicament, and secondly to let us have it back.  During this time our third truck had broken down leaving the expedition rather immobile although teams still managed to get out by using local buses.

With the New Year’s problems behind us, and two vehicles back on the road, a team of 10 were off again, this time to visit Ixtacapa, an area not far from Xlitla.  There were two caves still going here, left by a team on a day trip to this area.  On arrival we asked permission to use a half built hut as a shelter, this was granted. Before we had finished erecting our poly sheet, a woman appeared from the mass of spectators that had gathered and told us that she had a house we could use.  As I have said before, the friendliness of Mexicans is amazing.  The house was a large wooden one, just right for our needs, we accepted it gratefully.  At a team discussion that evening Dany and I volunteered to go with a local guide the following day to explore the caving possibilities of the Tancuilin river gorge.  This proved a major undertaking, it took us about an hour to reach the top of the gorge, we then descended 300m plus down the steep, heavily vegetated sides, at the bottom it was apparent that finding entrances would be impossible in the short time available as the gorge was so immense and dry water courses emerged from the jungle in all directions.  After a quick dip in the river we lugged ourselves and our un-needed caving gear back up the gorge, arriving some hours later back at the house, hot and sweaty.

Our remaining two days here were spent shaft bashing, photographing and surveying the two going caves which were now finished, and also exploring some short, but well decorated, caves that we had found.

After our couple of days back in base we set off on what would be our last trip out into the hills. As you have probably realised, the system is to spend 4 days out and then return to base.  This gives everybody the chance of going to different areas and doing a wider spectrum of the expedition work,  i.e. photographing, surveying, pushing etc.  The time at base camp allows for getting cleaned up, shopping, drawing of surveys, and generally relaxing between caving bouts.

Since we had last been to Los Horneos, the caves there had been pushed to their conclusions and attention had been moved lower down the hill to a village called La Mesa (the table), tucked into a high valley. Two large caves, both 3km long, had already been found here but had sumped around the 300m mark.

We spent our usual day shaft bashing, this paid off towards the end of the day with the discovery of a large draughting shaft, Lawrence, of Speleo Nederland fame, descended this.  It proved to be 50m deep with two ways on, both pitches.  He returned to the surface to report his findings.  Owing to the lateness of the hour, it was not worth returning to the camp for more tackle.  Dany and Lawrence looked at some other shafts nearby which proved to be part of the same system while John Palmer and I bolted the head of one of the second pitches.  On our way out we noticed two large snake skeletons at the base of the entrance pitch, hence the name "Cave of the Dead Snakes".  We returned the next day and descended the second pitch; this was 50m broken by a re-belay.  On from here we followed good sized scalloped passage carrying a small stream, passing a duck gained us the top of a series of photogenic flowstone cascades.  More passage and a final 10m pitch dropped into a huge chamber, well decorated in its higher levels, 1km from the entrance. No way on could be found from here.  Lawrence caught us up having had no luck with the second of the ways on.  John Palmer and I exited while the Flying Dutchman and Rupert Skoupta finished the survey.  The cave was photographed by Dany the next day whilst I sunbathed, sorry, looked after camp!  The locals are reasonable honest but it's best to keep an eye on things.  Whilst on our return journey to base we took the opportunity to look at Guaguas (Parrot Shaft), a very impressive 200m deep, 200m wide daylight shaft which has the reputation of giving a greater sense of exposure than Golondrinas.

It was now Saturday, the 18th January, we had to have all our kit in Mexico City by the 24th January for shipping, which meant that everything had to be well dried and packed by the 22nd.  Anything left wet, with the prospect of three months in transit back to England, would smell horribly at the least.  For this reason we must start closing down the satellite camps and start the process of washing ropes etc.

While this was going on we managed to fit in a trip down Hitchuhuatla cave, an American find near to our base camp.  A 130m entrance shaft is followed by a 50m second pitch, at the bottom of which 3km of magnificent stream passage can be followed to a terminal muddy sump - a fine trip by any standards.  Also during this period Golondrinas was visited and descended by a few of the brave. There are problems here with locals demanding money and a guard on the rope is well advised, I quickly volunteered for this job.  The depth of the shaft does not become totally apparent until a boulder is observed disappearing downwards for 12-14 seconds.  I abseiled over the edge on a 30m rope to get some shots of the heroes on the main ropes.  The walls bell out after the first 4m and are 30-35m away 25m down.  I sat on the end of the short rope and did a very careful changeover, emptied my trousers and tried to hold myself still enough to take some snaps.  A few minutes later we were treated to the very impressive sight of thousands of swiftlets returning to their nests, they circle in the sky above the shaft and dive bomb at high speed into the hole, this causes a loud roaring noise which resonates around the walls.  The marathon task of hauling up the special 400m ropes followed, some Yorkshire wit remarked that we could do the 20' in Swildons with one of the ropes in its plaited state, this is quite true.

A large truck and driver had been hired to transport our gear back to Mexico City.  The plan was to load up early evening on the 22nd then return to the bar where the landlord and his wife were holding a farewell meal/party for us.  The truck would then leave around 4am with as many drunks that fancied the 15 hour trip on top of the mountain of gear.  The pair of us decided to stay along with a few others and leave the following day.  We were awakened from our slumber from under the porch of the bar by locals arriving for their early morning draughts of Cana, a fire water made from distilled sugar cane.  No member of the expedition had managed more than four of these and walk back to the camp site.  The landlady’s beaming smile greeted us as we entered into the back yard, in her hand she held a tray bearing glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice topped with a raw egg. We grinned and took our medicine bravely.

There were now about twelve of us left in Tlamaya, five of us to catch the night bus from Xlitla to Mexico City, and the remainder to drive our two remaining vehicles (we sold one) back to the US of A.  We loaded the vehicles, said our tearful goodbyes to the very tearful locals and drove out of the village past the school where the children had been brought out from their lessons to line the track and wave goodbye to us. Leaving this beautiful place with its super people was difficult.

The night ride to Mexico City passed quickly, arriving at 6am we booked into a hotel so that we could wash and brush up for a lunch engagement that had been arranged with the Johnnie Walker distributors in Mexico City.  The meal was excellent and the company of the Mexican businessmen bearable, after lunch we were treated to a tour of the earthquake damaged sector.  This resembled a film set showing the aftermath of the blitz in the Second World War.

The following day we left for England, again via Amsterdam, landing early Sunday morning and so to the Hunter's by lunchtime.

The final score was 20km of new passage explored and surveyed, over 100 entrances noted, the deepest cave was over 600m and most importantly a good time was had by all with no deaths, injuries or diseases.

Bob Cork