Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

PESH – Organizing an expedition to Sistema Huautla

PESH  - Organizing an expedition to Sistema Huautla

This is the third in our series of posts following the 2015 PESH Expedition to Sistema Huautla.
Read the first post here, or the second one here.

Whole Earth Provision Co. is a proud supporter of Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla or PESH for their 2015 expedition to explore the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere – Sistema Huautla.

What if you were suddenly tasked with the responsibility of organizing a six week-long expedition to the mountains of Mexico where you would be exploring one of the world’s largest cave systems with a team of experts from around the world? Where would you begin?

It’s a massive undertaking that requires at the very least, a clear set of goals to accomplish; fundraising; skillful assessment of potential team members; setting technical standards for performance; negotiating with local officials, finding food and shelter for a shifting cast of participants and moving gear and equipment across an international border. In other words, it’s a huge organizational challenge requiring attention to a host of details, some of which may be a matter of life or death.

This gives you a rough idea of the tasks confronting Bill Steele and Tommy Shifflett, co-leaders of Proyecto Espeleológico de Sistema Huautla (PESH) as they plan an expedition to survey the deepest known cavern in the Western Hemisphere.

So where does it all begin? For many participants, the first steps towards Huautla are taken at the National Speleological Society Convention. A session devoted to the latest discoveries at Huautla usually results in a list of cavers who are interested in being a part of the following year’s expedition. Their names are entered onto a list and, in late summer, the call goes out to see if they are still interested and asking for descriptions of their previous experience and caving skills. Those who are chosen join other members of the team which include scientists, graduate students, support staff, and members of previous expeditions who return to Huautla year after year.

Group photo of the PESH cavers present on the surface with the Explorers Club flag on April 17, 2015  Victor Ursu photo

Group photo of the PESH cavers present on the surface with the Explorers Club flag on April 17, 2015 ~ photo by Victor Ursu

Based on the previous year’s expedition, a new set of objectives is drawn up. These are quite specific, for example, “Bolt climb in Bazofina Cave – good air flow, one drop in from the surface, on the slope above a major sinkhole valley which should possibly lead to the system deep below.” The objectives will also include the work of any scientists who are studying Sistema Huautla’s hydrology, geology, biology, paleontology and archaeology. Refining the maps and searching for new entrances to the Sistema are also recurring objectives.

Each expedition is built upon the knowledge of previous years. Guidelines are created that list preferred methods of rigging, climbing and moving safely through the caves, including vertical work. Caving techniques vary from country to country and so it is very important that all the members of an international team share common methods and expectations for the safety of all. The reservoir of past experience is also important for sustaining good relationships with local government officials and the Mazateca people. The caves of Sistema Huautla are sacred to the Mazateca, and it has taken many years for a cordial understanding to develop between the explorers and those who depend on the caves for rainfall and contact with the spirits of their ancestors.

Good relationships with government officials in Oaxaca continue to be very important for the expedition as well. In the early days language was a major problem. Negotiations would take place in three languages: Mazateca, Spanish and English. Permission to enter and work in Sistema Huautla is now granted at the local level where the team members are issued cave inspector photo IDs. With the IDs local people are able to recognize that PESH has official permission to be there. Local pride is growing around Sistema Huautla. This year PESH presented a display to the municipal building in Huautla de Jimenez describing the discoveries and including a “Varro Book” – a robust, U.S. National Park Service visitor’s center quality interpretive flip-book – displaying 16 pages of images of Sistema Huautla. The idea is to present sort of a “slide show” of the Huautla caving experience.

Part of the PESH display for the Municipal Building in Huautla de Jimenez

Part of the PESH display for the Municipal Building in Huautla de Jimenez

Fundraising is another important facet in making an expedition a reality. Grants are applied for and donations of money and gear are actively sought. PESH is a non-profit and part of the U.S. Deep Caving Team. Carrying the Explorers Club flag 209 is an aid to fundraising. It’s a testament to the level of professional expertise and achievement demonstrated by PESH. Longtime supporters like PMI – Pigeon Mountain Industries have provided generous donations of rope for many years. Some companies offer pro deals for the purchase of needed equipment. The Collin Street Bakery provisioned this year’s expedition with coffee. Whole Earth has been a contributor over the years as well. In 2015, we sent GoPro Cameras, PESH t-shirts for the team and for giveaways as well as gifts for Mazateca children.

The expedition officially begins when the trucks bearing gear and supplies head to Mexico from Texas. A fieldhouse, which serves as the above-ground center of operations and the community kitchen, and several houses, for sleeping, are rented and prepared for occupancy. The arrival of participants is staggered according to their particular tasks within the expedition.

Dinnertime at the Field House

Dinnertime at the Field House ~ photo by Dave Bunnell

Early arrivals begin rigging the caves and moving supplies into place. At the fieldhouse, team members are expected to help with chores like fetching and treating water, chopping vegetables, and washing dishes as well as cleaning gear, loading and unloading vehicles and generally making themselves useful without being asked. Each caving week has its own goals that are often dependent on the accomplishments or challenges of the previous week. The last week is devoted to wrapping up surveys, cleaning up cave campsites, removing supplies and gear, and derigging.

Once home, reports are written and the whole process begins once again at the National Speleological Society Convention. If you’d like to read more about Huautla and some of the expeditions of previous years we suggest:

• Huautla – Thirty Years in One of the World’s Deepest Caves by C. William Steele

• Beyond the Deep – The Deadly Descent into the World’s Most Treacherous Cave by William Stone and Barbara Ende

• The PESH website

• The PESH Facebook page

This is the third in our series of posts following the 2015 PESH Expedition to Sistema Huautla.
Read the first post here, or the second one here.

What is Sistema Huautla? The PESH Exploration series continues

To Seek the Deep - PESH Huautla expedition 2015

This is the second in our series of posts following the 2015 PESH Expedition to Sistema Huautla.
Read the first post here, or the next one here.

Whole Earth Provision Co. is a proud supporter of Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla or PESH for their 2015 expedition to explore the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere – Sistema Huautla.

In the 1960s, cavers suspected that the Sierra Mazateca, located in northeast corner of the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, harbored caves of great interest. The geology was right and there were enormous crevices that opened deep into the earth. Rocks tossed into the openings took so long to reach “bottom” that would-be explorers knew that climbing skills were going to be essential for any exploration.

At first, the cavers believed that they were exploring several large caves. But as the caves were mapped by successive expeditions, it became clear that they were in very close proximity to one another, so the search was on to find connections between them. Eventually Sótano de San Agustin was connected to La Grieta, Nita Nanta , and eight other cave entrances to create Sistema Huautla, the deepest cave system in the Western Hemisphere, 5069 feet from top to bottom, with over 40 miles of mapped passageways.

Huautla Cave System map

Huautla Cave System Map coutesy of PESH

The map of Sistema Huautla looks as if it were drawn by Dr. Seuss. Long tendril-like shapes twist and turn in unexpected directions as they course downward through the mountains. Many of these passageways were carved by water. The Sierra Mazateca catches the moisture carried by winds coming off the Gulf of Mexico, drenching the mountains with heavy rains. During the rainy season the waterways within the Sistema become raging torrents, causing expeditions to plan carefully to avoid, if possible, the threat of being caught in an underground flood.

Sistema Huautla map with Pena Colorada

click image to view full-size version

Above: Map from Hydrogeology of the Sistema Huautla Karst Groundwater Basin by James H. Smith Jr. AMCS Bulletin 9 p. 85. Yellow line marks a compressed view of the gap between the two portions of Sistema Huautla.

The flow of water through Sistema Huautla can be imagined in the shape of a tree. At the top there are small branches that join together to form ever larger limbs, eventually joining the trunk of the tree. Rainwater finds its way into the mountains and runs as subterranean streams, rivers and waterfalls and settles into pools and tunnels, called sumps, as it makes its way to Cueva de la Peña Colorada which empties into the Santo Domingo Canyon. A 3.41 mile section between Sistema Huautla and the Cueva de la Peña Colorado remains a question mark on the map that hopefully will be filled in by PESH one day.

Bill Steele, the expedition’s co-leader, believes that Sistema Huautla is “probably the best cave on earth – lots and lots of variety.” * It contains passageways so narrow that they are truly the stuff of nightmares, as well as canyons, vertical shafts that could swallow large buildings, 60 story waterfalls and chambers, one of which is large enough to hold a domed stadium. The Sistema also has its fill of geological formations and wonders, the greatest of which may be the magical anthodites. These rare, needle-like crystals grow in clusters that radiate from a common base like flowers and grow downward from the ceiling.

Mike Futrell with rare anthodites

Above: Mike Futrell with rare anthodites – photo from Huautla: Thirty Years in One of the World’s Deepest Caves by Bill Steele

Soon we’ll be looking at what it takes to explore a deep cave. In the meantime, you can follow the PESH expedition on their Facebook page.

This is the second in our series of posts following the 2015 PESH Expedition to Sistema Huautla.
Read the first post here.


*  Bill Steele quote from Men’s Journal. Read the full article here, or the next one here.

Follow the Huautla Deep Cave Adventure!


This is the first in our series of posts following the 2015 PESH Expedition to Sistema Huautla.
Read the next post here.

On Saturday evening, March 21st, Bill Steele received a Citation of Merit from The Explorers Club for his work over the course of 38 years in the deepest and longest cave in the Americas – Sistema Huautla. A new chapter is about to be written in this on-going deep cave exploration, and Whole Earth Provision Co. is proud to be among the supporters of the 2015 expedition that begins on March 24th and runs through May 2nd.

Whole Earth Logo

Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla or PESH is an international group of deep cave explorers, primarily from the United States and Mexico, devoted to the exploration and scientific documentation of Sistema Huautla, the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere, located in the Sierra Mazateca in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Their quest is to leave no question marks on Sistema Huautla’s map.

First explored in the 1960s, Sistema Huautla is now known to have 20 entrances and over 40 miles of interconnecting passageways reaching a depth of 5,069 feet. This year’s expedition plans to push on into unexplored portions of the cave system and hopefully add to its record depth. But there is more to the expedition than the quest for new records. PESH has undertaken a ten year program of exploration that will expand and refine the map of Sistema Huautla as well as study the geology, hydrology, archaeology and paleontology of the caverns and the biology of creatures and organisms living deep within the earth.

Bill Steele, the expedition co-leader, described Sistema Huautla in Men’s Journal last year as “probably the greatest cave on Earth. It’s already the 8th deepest cave on the planet, and it’s longer than the top 16 deepest caves, which means it’s huge. And there’s so much more we haven’t discovered. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Bill Steele being interviewed by Reid Kinslow at Whole Earth on March 23, 2015

Bill Steele being interviewed by Reid Kinslow at Whole Earth on March 23, 2015

Whole Earth has had an abiding interest in caving for many years. A member of our Whole Earth family was part of Huautla expeditions in 1966 and 1967. This year Whole Earth is providing the expedition with two GoPro Cameras, batteries and mounts, fuel for camp stoves, and small items, both useful and fun, for children in the communities near the cave system. In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting stories, videos and updates about Sistema Huautla, taking a look at the history of its exploration, sharing an interview with the expedition co-leader Bill Steele and more. Stay tuned!

This is the first in our series of posts following the 2015 PESH Expedition to Sistema Huautla.
Read the next post here.

McDonald Observatory Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

The Jones family and friends at the McDonald Observatory in 1954

The Jones family and friends at the McDonald Observatory in 1954

A trip to the McDonald Observatory has been on the list of must-see destinations for generations of Texas families. The Observatory along with the Johnson Space Center has planted the ‘final frontier’ firmly in minds of Texans young and old. It’s hard to believe, but the McDonald Observatory is getting ready to celebrate its 75th anniversary!

Located on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, the Observatory was endowed by a gift from Texas banker William Johnson McDonald. When the first telescope was dedicated in 1939, it was the second largest telescope in the world and under one of the darkest skies of any major observatory in the continental United States. Today there are multiple telescopes and a wide variety of research projects underway, including studies in planetary systems, stars and stellar spectroscopy, the interstellar medium, extragalactic astronomy and theoretical studies in astrophysics and cosmology. The McDonald Observatory also welcomes the public with daytime tours and activities, Star Parties and special viewing nights.

May 5, 2014 will mark the 75th anniversary of the McDonald Observatory. But why wait to celebrate? A number of events are planned across the state of Texas to observe this important anniversary. The first event takes place in Austin this Saturday evening, October 19th at the Blanton Museum. Dr. Frank Bash who served as director of the McDonald Observatory from 1989 to 2003 will speak on “The Frontier and McDonald Observatory.” He sees today’s astronomers standing at the edge of a new frontier peering into a truly vast unknown. Dr. Bash will discuss some of the important questions in astronomy and the McDonald Observatory’s contributions to finding answers, including the quest to better understand dark energy. A reception will be held at 6 pm, followed by the talk at 7 pm at the Blanton’s Edgar A. Smith Building on the University of Texas campus in Austin.

Another event will be held in West Texas next week. If you’re planning to be in Fort Davis on Monday, October 21st, head to the Jeff Davis County Library where you can hear Dr. Tom Barnes talk on the McDonald Observatory’s planned research into dark energy.

If you’ve never made the trip to the Davis Mountains and the McDonald Observatory, the 75th anniversary year is a great time to visit!

Greetings from the Pale Blue Dot!

Whole Earthlings Wave Hello to Cassini

Whole Earthlings Wave Hello to the Cassini Spacecraft

Greetings from the Pale Blue Dot!

NASA called it the first interplanetary photobomb and Whole Earth Provision Co. was there! On July 19th the Cassini spacecraft turned its camera towards Earth and took a picture. Cassini has photographed the Earth once before, but this was the first time that Earthlings knew in advance that their picture was going to be taken from a billion miles away. NASA hoped that people around the world would go outside to wave at Saturn while the photo-shoot was underway. Always happy to do our part, we gathered outside the Whole Earth office in Austin and sent salutations to Cassini and the ringed planet.

This is only the third photo of the Earth taken from the outer solar system. The first, the Pale Blue Dot, was taken 23 years ago by Voyager 1 from beyond Neptune. The other image was taken by Cassini in 2006. Why did NASA have Cassini take a picture of the Earth today? The spacecraft was taking advantage of an eclipse of the Sun by Saturn which made the Earth visible just outside the E ring.

Whole Earth ad circa 1970

One of our very first ads (1971)

Why is an image of our planet at such a distance so important? It’s a reminder of just how small we are in the great cosmic scheme of things and how precious our planet Earth really is. The Pale Blue Dot inspired Carl Sagan to write:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. …The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It is said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

from Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Long Nights Moon of December

Photo: Schmeegan

Tonight we welcome the Long Nights Moon of December. Our nights are longest near the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere so tonight’s Full Moon will be sailing across the Texas sky for over 13 hours. Why not bundle up and take a stroll in the moonlight and admire our celestial neighbor? But don’t forget, the root of lunacy is Luna!

Geminids, the last meteor shower of 2012

Okay, we admit it. The trailer was a bit extreme. Chances are you won’t be seeing giant explosions. But you might see a fireball! So head on out to the country for the last big meteor shower of the year – the Geminids! The show starts on Thursday, December 13th around 9:30 pm CST. Look to the northeast. The meteors appear to be coming from the constellation Gemini, just to the left of Orion. For the best viewing, give your eyes a chance to adapt to starlight. When you can see all seven stars in the Big Dipper, you know your eyes are ready. The number of meteors will increase through the night peaking between 2 and 3 am in the morning of December 14th.

The Geminids were first seen in 1862 and seem to be intensifying every year. Under the best conditions, as many as 150 meteors may be seen in an hour. Our friends at Earth and Sky remind us that “meteor watching is a lot like fishing. You go outside. You enjoy nature all around you. You hope you catch some!”

For more information on the Geminids and December planet sightings take a look at this short video from the Jet Propulsion Lab.