Another Excursion South of the Border.
Easter 1993
in Xilitla.

After a successful tourist trip down to Mexico at Christmas it was time for a bit of proper exploration. So I decided to team up with Gerald Moni’s annual Easter outing to Xilitla in Northern Mexico. Xllitla is the most northern area which has a reasonable amount of rain and hence has a good potential for discovering active cave systems. Gerald has taken this area as his stamping ground because although it doesn’t have the huge potential for depth, nor is it as easy to discover caves as it is in the more southerly regions around Chiapas, it is within striking distance of the USA for a week’s trip and there are roads into the area making access relatively easy.

I was under strict instructions from my boss that I would get the sack if I was late arriving back the following Monday so good organisation of transport was essential. After the usual epic trying to arrange transport for the 500 mile first leg to Tennessee I eventually set off straight from work with a lift from my house mate Frank to Greensboro, fifty miles away. There I met up with Cecile James who had traveled down from Virginia to pick me up. It was midnight before we reached Gerald’s house on the outskirts of Nashville and we just had time to bundle all of our stuff into Gerald’s truck and we were on the road again with Gerald and Cecile in the front and me laid out on top of all the gear in the back of the truck. I drove the graveyard shift through Mississippi from 3am to 8am and we arrived at the appointed place to meet Paul Aughey, the final member of the team, at a rest area near New Orleans. Unfortunately he wasn’t there and we wasted an hour and a half before we found him at another rest area 30 miles away. After a $5 all you can eat breakfast it was my turn to sleep in the back of Paul’s truck while he drove. After a quick shopping stop in Houston, Texas and a Steak supper in the next town Victoria we reached the Mexican border at 2am Sunday morning.
At 3am everyone was knackered so we stretched out our pits in the desert to enjoy a proper kip (for three hours). Next morning we continued on into Ciudad Victoria for brunch and to get some Mexican currency which, to my astonishment was available by Visa or Mastercard at most cashpoints. Just before the the next city, Ciudad Mante, we stopped to try to find an acquaintance of Gerald’s called Rosco who knew where there were some caves. Unfortunately after extensive enquiries Rosco was found to be out of town so we continued on our way to Xilitla. We arrived at about 6pm and decided to go down a 400 foot shaft by the road just outside town to stretch our legs after the drive. It was a superb abseil, unfortunately it was spoilt by rubbish at the bottom but gave us a good taste of things to come.

We camped at the Bird House, a surrealist mansion built by one of George Bernard Shaw’s pals in the 1930’s when he retired there to fry his brain with opium. Its like one of those optical illusion pictures with steps that don’t go anywhere and everything out of perspective and overgrown by jungle. Well worth a visit.  After breakfast and a quick tour of the ruins we set off for the plateau and our first objective: Sotano de Alfredo. This was the only lead left on the last day of the largely unsuccessful trip in November 1992. Gerald had sent a youth down the entrance pitch but he didn’t try hard enough and came back out with some cock and bull story about killer bees.

It took about 2 hours to drive up there from Xilitla and then a further ten minutes walk up the hill. We got down the first pitch of 140 foot and it didn’t look like it would go but I stuck my head into a short crawl and emerged into a walking sized passage which led to the top of another pitch, about 50 foot deep by the look of it. I was very excited as it was a proper pothole that had never been explored before, so I called back to Paul to bring some more rope. Presently he arrived with another 200 foot and I set off down the second pitch which turned out to be 85 foot with a large ledge at 60 foot. We tied off the rope again and Paul went down the next pitch of 75 foot to emerge in a tall chamber with yet another drop beckoning ahead. Here we had an unwanted break as Gerald had to catch up with the last of the rope. Again Paul led the way down a 95 foot pitch interrupted by two ledges. The rope was about 5 foot short and we had to climb the last bit. By the time I got there Paul was gone, free-climbing the next few drops he wasn’t going to let a lack of rope slow down his Romping into the big stuff. He was doing some quite hard climbing on a couple of 20 foot pitches and numerous 10 foot pitches that followed and it was all I could do to follow him. Eventually we came to a 10 foot cascade into a pool which had very few hand holds, but we found a way over the top which was extremely difficult.

Eventually Paul managed to rig a couple of knotted slings on the cascade as an escape route and we pressed on. Just round the corner there was another 15 foot climb with nothing to hang on to which we just about managed to get down before being confronted with a 30 foot pitch which was impossible to climb. Well satisfied with our 400 foot of depth gained we headed out to the surface. We planned our return on the following Thursday when we would have some back-up from Victor Granados and friends who were turning up from Mexico City.

We were still excited as we drove down the rough road to our main objective, the village of Neblinas. The people there were very welcoming and upon enquiring whether there were any caves in the region we were almost immediately swamped with offers from people who wanted to show us their hole. We were beating them off with a shitty stick!
We soon had a fine campsite next to the church and a guide organised to show us the local caves the following day. To top it off there was even a beer shop in the village and we spent a pleasant evening getting pissed with the schoolteacher, Raphael, and bullshitting about the speleological potential of the area. Sure enough our guide, Izac, was there on the dot of 8am but unfortunately he had to wait for us to get up. Then he set off up the hill at a tremendous rate whilst telling us to bring plenty of rope because one of the Sotanos was about 200 meters deep.

“Bullshit!”, we replied packing a 200 foot rope. “These farmers are always exaggerating.”
When we got there we were almost fit to drop from the 90 degree heat and we cast a stone or two into the ‘hole which was in the middle of a steeply sloping cornfield.
They rattled down for a few seconds but it was difficult to determine the depth. “It’ll be reet” we thought as we tied our 200 foot of rope to a sturdy tree. I was volunteered to go first and I went down to the knot with no sign of the bottom in sight. So I peeled a rock off the wall, which fortunately was just within reach, and dropped it down. I saw it fall for three seconds until it faded into the darkness and it hit the bottom after just over five seconds.


“Hmmm!” I thought to myself, “A bit deeper than we thought.” After climbing to the surface and pulling up the rope, we went to another entrance and Paul had the honour of first exploration. But it was a 40 foot deep shithole. Still you know what they say:
Some I win, some he loses!

We staggered around during the hottest part of the day not finding any more caves and by 2pm we were aware that we were suffering from varying degrees of heat stroke. So after a long siesta back at the camp, lzac woke us up to see if we were going potholing again. He wanted to see how deep the hole was. By 6pm we were on our way back up the hill again with our longest rope of 625 foot. It was dark when we got to the hole so we threw the rope down and I descended to the bottom. The shaft was oval 40 foot by 20 foot all the way down 510 feet into a chamber with leaves, branches and bones on the floor. The debris sloped down into a mud floored chamber and a narrow way on led into the final chamber beautifully decorated with sharp formations. After a quick root round it was obvious there was no way on so we did the long sweaty climb out. It was 10 o’clock before we got back to camp to enjoy a few more Carta Blanca beers.

Next morning, Wednesday, our guides were round earlier than ever to take us to some more caves down in the valley about 1200 foot lower. Samson, our principal guide for the day, told us about one cave which they had entered for about 200m but had turned back because they were afraid of the dark. He also mentioned that a local landowner, a Senor Ezequlel Rubio had not only given his name to the cave but also hidden 14 loads of silver and gold coins in there during the Mexican Revolution. So we made our way down the hill through the jungle to the river where we were just about ready for a quick dip. The entrance was a flood resurgence about 100 foot from a sizeable choked resurgence making the potential altogether better and we set off crawling in only to be halted by a sump after a few feet. And a brown murky static sump full of bat shit at that. The other way seemed to close down so we went back out and told Samson that this obviously wasn’t it. It had been about 20 years since he was there so we scoured the mountainside for the real entrance without success. Eventually Samson said he was sure this was it and why didn’t we go back in and look properly? On the second examination I dived the sump which was very short otherwise I wouldn’t even have attempted it. But it only led to a tight airbell and the next sump was longer. Then Paul made a proper attempt at the other way on which led through a couple of squeezes to a walking size, cleaned washed passageway after 200 feet. This led downstream down a short climb to the expected sump. Upstream was a canal leading to a large sump pool with deep water. The way on was under the right hand wall and after swimming across to it I found I could get my legs under and kick air on the other side. I deliberated for a few minutes but in the end sense prevailed and I didn’t dive. We made our way out and relayed the news to the others.

When Samson entered the cave the sumps must have been dry making an easy way in. It would be a fun and interesting exercise to siphon the one sump into the other as a romp into the big stuff is guaranteed on the other side. It was too late for a trip up to the main resurgence which, apparently, comes out of a cliff further up the valley as we had to get to Xilitla to meet Victor and the others from Mexico City. So after a quick lather up in the river we made our way back up the steep hill to Neblinas. They were waiting in the Restaurant when we arrived and we proceeded to have a very fine slap-up tea of corn chips, chilli sauce, cheese, tortillas (like chappatis), chicken, etc. The service was very slow so we ended up getting our own drinks from the fridge in the kitchen. We told them about our successful week and we all made plans for the morrow. Paul, Bernardo, Carlos and I would make a second push at Sotano de Alfredo and Gerald, Cecile and Victor would go prospecting a bit further down the hilt.

After camping at the Bird House again we set off bright and early for Sotano de Alfredo straight after breakfast. We were in the cave by 12 and rigged down to the previous end in an hour or so using our 625 foot rope and stringing it out along the few short horizontal sections. Our judgement was perfect and the rope just reached the bottom of the last pitch. There was no sign of the Mexicans as we set off down the first of the climbs, eager to push the cave as far as our ropes would allow. We rigged a couple of the more difficult climbs with bits of old rope to save the best of it for pushing and arrived at Monday’s end point. Paul started rigging and soon we were down the next three short drops and were looking down a bigger drop into a large rift chamber, clean-washed with a calcite flow entering down one wall from a 70 foot high aven. A rebelay (unusual in the New World) landed at the bottom of the chamber with 100 foot of spare rope which we stretched across the chamber and dropped down the next 20 foot pitch. This led to another 20 foot pitch followed by a larger pitch all lightly showered by a small stream. Paul went first down to a large ledge where the rope ran out. Unfortunately we didn’t have any more so after making a thorough inspection of the way on, a pitch of approximately 90 foot we started to make our way out. It wasn’t until we were at the chamber with the 100 foot of spare rope that we thought to re-rig that pitch with a shorter rope and drop the longer rope down the final pitch in a last ditch attempt to get to the bottom.

Of course all this took time and the Mexicans were getting fed up so they made their way out with some kind of poor excuse about carbide. Eventually Paul and I abseiled down to the bottom of the last pitch expecting to find another pitch straight away. But we were in luck, the passage went horizontal. A narrower walking passage went on for another 200 foot to, guess what? Yes another pitch this time about 20 foot and no chance of free climbing it. Another bit of horizontal passage could be seen leading from the small chamber at the bottom around a corner. This time there was no chance of re-rigging to get any more rope so after a good bit of mutual back slapping we turned round and went out. The rope got quite heavy on the way out especially as a lot of it was wet and we were glad to find the others camped in the field near the entrance as it was 9pm and pitch dark by the time we got there. Cecile, true to form, had cooked a big tea of sausages and beans for us to stuff our faces.

Next day we were up bright and early. While the others did a bumbly trip prospecting around the nearby village Paul and I went back to Neblinas to check out a large 50 metre pitch on the top of the nearest hill. The walk up was steamy and tiring on a path through thick forest. Wildlife was abundant with some very colourful but lethal snakes which the locals slaughtered immediately. However that turned out to be the best part of the day because when we got there the cave turned out to be 30 foot deep, totally choked and full of bats.  It was time to set off back to the USA, so after a meal and a kip in Ciudad Valles on Friday evening we set off back arriving at my house at 4am on Monday morning with eyes like dinner plates. And I was still at work at 8am to avoid being sacked.

Again a very worthwhile excursion south of the border with one of the most important caves in the area partially explored and still going. Gerald and the rest of the Tennessee cavers will be back down there in November to finish the job off. Stay tuned for more exciting news from Mexico when Chaz Frankland and I return there next Spring.

 

Pete Hall.

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