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.
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.
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.
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