Rune Burnett points to a photo of his younger self from a 1967 expedition to Huautla.
Notes from a visit to Huautla
by Joe Ray Jones
Off on our adventure – an expedition, as it were, to an international scientific venture in the remote parts of Oaxaca, Mexico. One member of our traveling group, Rune Burnett, ventured to Huautla 49 years ago and was among the first to enter what is now known to be a giant cave system. It gives one pause to realize that events of one’s youth can be almost 50 years in the past. Back then, the trip would have taken several days, driving from Austin and camping under strategically located bridges at night. Now the same trip is accomplished in hours with a non-stop flight from Houston to a clean, quaint hotel in Oaxaca city center.
The final leg of the journey still involves a four and a half hour drive from the city, but in a new, comfortable rental car over paved and maintained roads winding ever upward.
We’re driving through the clouds. Curls of dense fog rise upward, twisting like a snake – never straight. In one moment, there’s a total loss of visibility and in the next, the view is restored. Loose donkeys and goats loom in the fog along the side of the road. The driver, my son Holland, keeps the wheels close to the center stripe. There’s an abyss to the right and oncoming traffic to the left including giant buses. There’s no curb or shoulder on the road, just a direct and sheer, eroding drop-off that actually undercuts the road surface. It’s a blind roller coaster adventure. When we’re following behind a large freight truck, a path is cleared through the fog and the traffic.
Plants peer out of the fog as we pass. Giant datura covered with their spectacular hanging bell flowers come in and out of focus. Succulents and maize mixed with ferns and soaring ancient long leaf pines along with roadside stands of banana plants. We see heavily blooming hydrangea in mystical blue and a glowing canopy of pink mimosa blossoms in a brief beam of sunlight. Eight hours after leaving Oaxaca city, we pull into Huautla de Jiménez.
On to San Agustin, a remote mountain village on the top of a remote mountain. It clings to a cliff above the entrance to Sistema Huautla. There are lots of sturdy young people here. All smiles and muscles, everyone seems very happy to be finished with removing the last of the gear from the cave after a very successful season.
On the trail to the Sótano de San Agustin entrance to Sistema Huautla
The approach to the cave entrance cannot be called a hike. It begins in a steeply sloping corn field. Nothing here is horizontal except the narrow, concrete roadway placed on the side of the mountainside like a continuous balcony. The cornfield soon gives way to rainforest with thick undergrowth and a trail of slick, vertical mud. We move from one underbrush handhold to the next – a vertical slog like primates swinging through trees with the savannah left far behind.
The trail is distinguished by a vertical rut in the slimy mountain wall that has been traversed, sometimes multiple times a day, by dozens of international cavers transporting heavy packs filled with technical climbing gear. Each member of our slog lost our balance and verticality, but managed to save ourselves by grabbing handholds of barely adequate roots and stems. How on earth did anyone find the cave entrance in the first place?
We keep going until we reach the most outer lips of the vertical abyss that is the entrance to the cave and the part of the trail called “Mud Slide.” This is it. This is the impasse that stops us in our tracks if we had any tracks in this vertical mud rut. It begins at our feet and disappears into the undergrowth – the rainforest reaching out and clamoring to swallow up all intruders. The mud slide goes on an indeterminate way down into the crater-like entrance to the cave and on ever downward. Many of the native peoples of this hemisphere share a creation story that begins deep within the earth. Seeing and experiencing the main entrance to Sistema Huautla is truly religious in nature and impact. The entrance to this deepest and longest cave in the Americas seems an abyss, a bottomless pit.
Sótano de San Agustin, the main entrance of Sistema Huautla. Photo by Chris Jewell (http://www.peshcaving.org/new-page-1/)
The cavers hike day and night to complete the removal of gear from the cave, but we are not too keen on making the return traverse in the dark, not to mention the possibility of missing supper. We reluctantly call a halt to our advance and face the return journey. With heavy hearts, we clamored back seeking our previous handholds and avoiding our fall outs. It’s hard to tell the position of the sun in the rainforest, but we can sense the growing gloom in the atmosphere which we took for the advancing end of the day.
Midway sliding along our route out, the apparition of Bill Steele, co-leader of the expedition, appeared. He, the veteran of many, many traverses of this route in the past month, had come to meet us in the middle of nowhere. Calling us “wusses” for not immediately diving into the profound mud slide back down the trail, he offered us a quick side venture to a smaller cave just 60 feet away. Sixty feet away straight up! Instead of climbing hand over hand sideways as we had for the past few hours, now we were climbing straight up the vertical side of the mountain slope.
Suddenly, we were faced with exactly the three words in English you never want to hear uttered by your guide “Wow, a Fer-de-Lance!” [Now would be a good time to google Fer-de-Lance to get the most appropriate and detailed description of this most venomous of snakes.] The next comment from Bill Steele: “Man, he took off in a hurry. He’s exactly the same color as these leaves we’re standing on. And these snakes always travel in groups.”
We can’t go down so…
Bill Steele at the alternative entrance to San Agustin
We eventually reach the alternative entrance to San Agustin which loomed wide-jawed above us. At least we could see our feet and maybe any snakes. Our host cheers us up with the matter of fact statement that really big spiders live in these caves. “We’ve identified 12 new species this year.” The roof of the cave is blackened with fire soot, a sure sign of some human occupation at some time, a feature many of the local caves do not share. There are also a small array of petroglyphs of unknown age or meaning.
San Agustin de Huautla is a wonderland of adventure that never quits, but not a wonderland of relaxation.
The travelers, from left to right: Susan Souby, Rune Burnett, Joe Ray Jones and Holland Jones with the Explorer’s Club flag for Proyecto Espeleológico de Sistema Huautla 2015 expedition.
Learn more about Proyecto Espeleológico de Sistema Huautla 2015 expedition here.