Christmas in Mexico

17th Dec. - 3rd Jan. 1993.

As usual, I was rather late organising my thanksgMng holidays to Mexico (I only found out about it three days in advance) and I missed out as there wasnít any space for me. So I was doubly determined to get my Christmas holidays there soiled out. So the week before I went to see the organiser of the trip, Cecile James of the VPI Grotto of Blacksburg, Virginia. She told me all about it and all I had to do was to turn up at the appropriate time at her house and everything else would be sorted.
Cecile only lives about 4 hours from me, not far by American standards, but the public transport being the way it is the only bus took 12 hours cost $100 (70) and didnít even go at a good time. However the lady at the travel agents arranged me a lift in a lorry belonging to the transport company where her husband works. A bit of a strange start.

However it duly delivered me to Blacksburg at 5am and after a couple of hours kip we were up packing the van. And what a speleotank it was. A classic vehicle in which to have an overland adventure. It roared like a dragster, only had three gears, didnít have a dipstick and averaged 15 mpg. This beast was accompanied by a more sedate 4WD Toyota. Still beggars canít be choosers aní all that.

At 3pm we set off to Nashville, passing through the fine caving country of Virginia and Tennessee and arriving at 10pm. At Nashville we took on three more passengers:
Gerald Moni, Paul Smith
from Florida and Mike Moser. As we continued it emerged that nobody wanted to drive, so with pints of coffee in hand Mike and I drove through Tennessee and Arkansas to breakfast in Texas. I was asleep and didnít see much of Texas but what I saw when I woke up sent me straight back to sleep again. As we had to get some insurance at the border town of Laredo we were obliged to doss the following night in the semi desert nearby. At the border we spent a frustrating two hours getting vehicle permits before setting off across the deserted plains to the town of Bustamante three hours away.

Bustamante area has a few caves and information for casual visitors is available in the form of maps and surveys on the walls of the ĎAnciraí Restaurant, which although a little expensive, also serves a fine Cabrito (half a small, roasted goat). Our objective was the Gruta del Precipiclo about 10 miles out of town up one side of the Bustamante Canyon a gorge which cuts through the mountains behind the town. It was discovered by cavers from Austin, Texas who spotted the entrance from the bottom of the canyon and then needed several expeditions to find a route up the side of the canyon to get to It. Visitors to the cave can still enjoy much of the uncertainty, discomfort and frustration of the original explorers because the path to the entrance Is far from well-beaten and there is no water available In the cave or anywhere along the route.



So after camping in the canyon we set off next morning up the hill. After a climb of about 1000 foot up loose scree we missed the path and hacked through some steep and very thorny woods to the ridge of a rib of rock. This was superb scrambling for the neat 1200 foot of ascent with steep drops on both sides and lots of short climbs on solid rock. donít know who was more surprised when I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake but he shot oft into his hole and rattled nervously when I poked him with a stick. The country was heavy going with a large rucksac but we eventually made it to the high point on a large buttress with tall cliffs on three sides and fine views over the canyon the town and the plains beyond. From here the way was down a steep gully full of loose acre. and where the gully ended in a cliff we traversed across onto a six-foot-wide ledge which led to the entrance.

Once Inside we set up camp in the entrance chamber and kitted up to go caving. The cave started as walking through a dry dusty passage this led to a 10 foot climb. We were soon sweating in the 80 degree humid heat when we came across a climb up and along to the top of the 60m pitch (really three pitches of 70ft, 2Oft and 80ft). I began to realise how hard this team were when most of them gave up. The remaining three explored on through a high but unmemorable walking passage to the top of the last pitch which dropped 40ft to the floor of a massive hall. From here the real trudge began up a boulder slope into an even huger chamber with the most fantastic formations in the shapes of columns, totem poles fire hydrants big bosses and all sorts of other things. I trudged alone down the next slope to the final chamber but it didnít go. Then we sweated our way back to the surface to enjoy a pasta and cheese tea. We were running a bit low on water as the other bastards hadnít carried their share so the night was thirsty and dehydrated.

By the morning a pea souper had turned up fog and after climbing the steep gully we soon got lost on the side of the mountain. We staggered about for four hours trying to find the way down but every way we went there were sheer cliffs. Mike managed to get some cliffs between him and us and thought he was going to die when he had to abseil down using a small cactus as a belay. We were just wondering what another night on the hill with no food or water would be like when the fog lifted and the route became visible. We descended to a welcome bath in the warm spring at the bottom.

The next day we drove south towards San Luis Potosi (SLP) stopping off overnight at the town of Real de Catorce to explore some old sliver mines. We arrived at SIP on Christmas Eve and after a quick look round we retired to a pub to enjoy a few tequilas
wi tí
ílocals. Then we went to the house of the Jones family where Nell Pacey had spent a month or so Ďhanging outí last year. The house is a magnet to travel weary potholers with endless tortillas, eggs, beans, chilli sauce and hospitality supplied by Senora Joe.. and her army of nubile young daughters. I passed a great all-night party there getting pissed with Vico the only son of the family and the leader of the local caving dub.
As we had only gone to bed at 1am It was 3pm before we got to Sotano de Tizar. It was at the end of a slippery mud road 30 miles from SLP all negotiated in an overloaded van with bald tyres.

Six of us were soon changed and down the hole. A short stoop led to the first pitch of 10m followed by another of the same size. Then there was a ledge above the next drop of 230m (yes thatís 800 foot!) in a big oval shaft. The rope was conveniently coiled In the shape of a big wheel which we rolled down there. Then, in true American fashion we tied it to a large ate) and off we went. Unfortunately the air was stale further down and we suffered with severe bouts of panting and sweating on the way up, especially the tat bastards. The pothole continues on down to a depth of over 500m with lots of pitches but we didnít have enough rope or inclination to bottom it. In the spring when all the washed-In leaves have finished rotting away the air freshens making breathing easier. Again we had another late night by the time we got out of the cave.

The next day we drove down to Taxco to the south of Mexico City. An old geological college was the site of the Mexpeleo Ď92 caving conference and the next day, while everyone else was arriving, we got a trip to the easy cave of Sumidero de Zacatecalotla. The entrance was a large stream sink in a closed depression at the sink line where the water ran off the volcanic rocks up the hill. Several climbs down through chambers full of bats led to an easy 100 foot pitch. More big stomping stuff led to three more short pitches eventually ending in a gravel choke. We had a good root around but, being the favourite haunt of the local Mexico City cavers it was all well explored. By the time we got back there were 70-80 people at the conference and we had an impressive slide show on some of the local river caves as well as some boring ones on geology and stuff.

The next day a huge team assembled to go to two river caves Cueva de San Jeronimo and Cueva de Chontacuatlan. They are both about 6km long with plenty of swimming and fun. When our team got to the entrance of San Jeronimo, Raul Espinasa, our leader and well-known Mexican caver, said he thought it would be exciting and how right he was. The entrance was a swim in fast flowing water - too fast to swim back - so we were committed. Walking and swimming in huge passages we headed into the cave. It was so big the that we could still see the light from the entrance when we were well over 1km in. There were a few difficult river crossings and cascades before the gradient eased to a walk over sand banks. The water was grey and chilly as it had come from snow melt on a nearby volcano and the people without wetsuits were shivering. We had to stop at one point to let a caving tarantula cross our path. Then we came to the former highlight of the trip, the Monumental Fountain. This used to be series of pure white gour basins and cascades rising 80 up the right hand wall but unfortunately a rather savage flood knocked It down a couple of years ago. Now its mostly just a pile if rubble.

Carrying on, there were more sandbanks and rocky river crossings in passages generally about 100í high and 80í wide until we came to the low bit only about 60í wide and 20í high, which sumps In wet weather. From here it was only another hour or so to the ash where we met the team from Chontacuatlan, who had similar impressive report.

After acme well-earned beer in a nearby hostelry we headed back to camp.
The next day many people were having a tourist day so I teemed up with Victor and Sergiio from Mexico City. Unfortunately the van was out of action due to multiple punctures and worn out tyres and we had to take a load of wankers from Missouri to give us a lift. We eventually reached the entrance at 2pm. Sergio told me all about the cave as he and I rigged down the nine or so drops, the largest being of 50m. And who better to tell me as he had found it. The pot was reminiscent of Swildonís Hole In the Mendips but with plenty of well watered drops and a bit of everything to keep the potholer happy. The difference was that the water was at 26 C so I was neither hot nor cold in my cotton boiler suit.

Sergio and I felt we had done our bit so we took our share of rope and bombed out. Then we enjoyed a fine tea of Tortillas, eggs and beans provided at a house in the village. Then we sat around enjoying some glasses of Mezcal (like Tequila). By midnight we were getting a bit worried as we had been out for 3 or 4 hours. So we walked back up to the entrance just as the Missouri cavers were starting to emerge. It seems that they werenít Ďard enough and they were using the Gibbs system of jammers which is slow.
The next day was the lest one and many people
werenít caving. While the rest of my team went to not find a shaft to bash, I took the wise decision of going with the Mexicans who know where the caves are. We went to the Cueva de las Granadas, a large but short resurgence cave taking the water from La Joya and other caves in the area. It was a 7 km walk to the entrance as we didnít have a 4WD vehicle and we got some views of the volcanoes around Mexico City, well over 100 miles away. However these disappeared in the afternoon in a cloud of smog from the worldís most polluted city. We wandered among the 100 pretty tufa cascades which go all the way down the valley from the entrance for a while before going In. The cave was uneventful apart from the 60m swim to the sump at the end where vampire bats flutter round your ears. This sump has been dived by the ĎDracoí group from Mexico City through three short sumps to a longer deeper fourth sump. In an attempt to connect to La Joys and other local caves.

I was shocked when the president of the Mexican caving union hired a horse to get him back up the hill. What a cissyl

We stopped at a farmhouse for a plate of delicious chicken stew as the ingredients of the next meal ducked around our feet. Then we went back to Mexpeleo for the last night feast and plea-up, the highlight of which was an ornamental fountain full of bottles of beer. After some more slide shows where people went ssshhhl if you made drunken noises we got down to the seriousbuisiness of dancing and drinking bottles of Tequila. At the crack of noon the next day we were on our way back to the USA. We stopped overnight at SLP to enjoy an au-night New Years Eve party with lots of fireworks. I was ready to follow the example of Pioneering Pacey and doss around and go caving for another month or so but It wasnít to be. After a lot of hassle due to most of the tyres on the van blowing up and wearing out on the way back we pulled into Blacksburg 48 hours later and I hitched back to Sanford.

I would recommend Mexico to anyone who
enjoys world class caving. Experts in misery and horror are advised to keep clear as the caves will be far to good for them. Watch out for the next installment when I go back at Easter.

Pete Hall.


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