A Near-Death Experience.

Atepolhuit de San Andres. 5th - 7th April 1994.

Team:       Pete Hall, Chaz Frankland, Ben Whatley, Steve Roberts (Oxford Uni. Cc), Luis Fernando (SMES: Mexican Underground Exploration Society).

So far the Cuetzalan 1994 expedition was going splendidly. We had surveyed six or eight kilometres of passage, we had connected two major cave systems together to make the fourth longest cave in Mexico at 34km and we had pushed San Andres cave a further two kilometres downstream and left it wide open. A part of the team also spent the Easter weekend with the American Huaultla Expedition helping to recover the body of Ian Rolland, who tragically drowned whilst diving in the downstream sump of Sotano de San Agustin. Not bad for two weeks work When we returned from Huaultla, Charlie and Ben had already prepared all the gear for a three-day camping trip to the end of San Andres Cave where the most promising lead was to be found: a large river passage 5m wide and 10m high, taking a large stream, probably the combined waters of most of the area’s caves. It was heading straight for the resurgence at Cueva de Alpazat and was estimated to be only about 1800m away. The previous trip had explored and surveyed over two kilometres of fantastic, clean-washed, sporting streamway and the potential for our trip looked even better. All in all the most exciting exploration site a caver could wish for.

Over a few beers at the popular and well-named “Totty Bar” we planned the trip. We would take our food and tackle down to camp 1, about four hours in, accompanied for a short way by Jason and Greg on a photographic trip. At camp 1 we would pick up some fuel and carbide and carry on through the new extension down to a chamber close to the end. There we would establish a new bivouac and kip the night. In the morning we would continue on into the big stuff, surveying as we went until we either connected it with Cueva de Alpazat or got bored. Then we would go back to camp, stay a second night and piss off out on Thursday. In the morning I had some chores to do as I had been away at Huaultla but we were ready to leave by noon. An hour later we were at the entrance, a classic sink at the foot of a cliff in a banana orchard in the bottom of a closed valley.

Sistema de San Andres has several entrances around the village of San Andres and this is the lowest entrance, known to us as Killer Bee entrance, giving the most direct access to the further reaches of the cave. We hid our rucsacks and set off down. Climbs lead down through a large entrance chamber to a descending passage with lots of cascades. Here Greg and Jason started to take some photos and we helped with the flashguns. We carried on through Dales Passage so named because you would think nothing of it’s tortuous nature in the Dales, but in Mexico it’s really a bit of a pain up the arse. This drops down a pitch into the main streamway with a major inlet coming from the upper entrances. On downstream are lots more sporting cascades and deep pools leading to the short Eyehole pitch and on to a 20m cascade, resembling the second pitch of Out Sleets Beck Pot. At the bottom of this Greg and Jason turned back and continued photographing on the way out. Ben was wearing his extra-warm, tight fitting wetsuit and he looked like a beetroot, so I did him the favour of cutting off the sleeves with a knife. Charlie and I stashed our gear on ledges well above the streamway in case of flood.

On downstream through a short swim was a boulder slope and the others left their rope gear there. From here the way on is through a massive boulder choke and involves walking, crawling, climbing and swearing between huge boulders for an hour or so, with the way fortunately marked with fishing line. At the far end is a wet crawl before you pop out into a large bouldery passage. Boulder hopping and large streamway lead to the head of a narrow pitch but the way on is to climb up the right-hand wall and forward to the first campsite, reasonably safe in a high level chamber. Here we stopped for a bite and put on our wetsults because the passage drops down a boulder slope to the shore of a canal, the limit of exploration in 1993.

Luis was saying some rather unkind things about Polish people because the oversuit he had bought off them that morning had begun to disintegrate and did nothing to keep the water out in the fifty metre swim that followed. Beyond this was one of the best sections of sporting streamway I have ever been in. It was in a passage 2m wide and 10m high on average with lots of wading and the occasional swim interspersed with sporting and sometimes wet cascade climbs. The floor was made up of milled potholes of various sizes with deep plunge pools ready to swallow the unwary and huge flakes, ribs and daggers of rock sculpted by the water.
About halfway along the 2km long section of streamway was a 20ft pitch where you had to swim across a pool and climb down a ladder which thankfully hung just beside the considerable volume of falling water. More beautiful streamway followed to a 150m swim in a deep canal, quite tiring and chilly for Luis whose legs had dropped off his oversuit. More wading led to a climb up into a large breakdown chamber and slippery going over mud-covered boulders. In the next chamber we came to a stash of gear signifying the campsite chosen for us by the previous team. We were glad to get there and pretty tired after carrying all the camping gear for the last six hours. So we busied ourselves with cooking and digging out pits for ourselves in the sloping, sandy mud between the large boulders. Tea consisted of vegetable gruel, which we had brought in ready cooked in a Daren Drum, supplemented by pasta, a far cry from the endless chocolate and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) we had enjoyed with the Huaultla Expedition. We got water from a 15ft deep hole down between the boulders. It was all very pleasant, mainly because we weren’t freezing our bollocks off. It was quite pleasant to sit about the camp in just Tracksters and a T-shirt and yours truly, always making the most of warm, beach-like conditions was seen lazing around in swimming trunks, soaking up the dark. About midnight we settled down for a kip.

For breakfast we had more gruel, this time with fruit cake, before selling off to explore the uncharted territory ahead. After 200m of large, steadily descending breakdown passage with a couple of short ladder pitches down slippery boulders, we came to a major inlet on the left. It joined the San Andres stream and flowed into a 3m wide by 10m high passage going off downstream. 30m on down was the limit of exploration at some fallen boulders. Whilst Charlie, Ben and Steve surveyed, Luis and I went ahead to find the way on. After another 50m we came to a boulder choke with a large chamber above. The boulder choke looked dodgy so we started scrabbling up the steep mud and boulder slope. At the top the mud got steeper with what looked like a passage above. But meanwhile Ben had found a way back to the stream through the boulders with a short ladder pitch, so on we went. Another 50m of wading in large streamway brought us to yet another boulder choke; this was getting to be rather a nuisance! There was no way over the top so Luis and I started to look between the piano-sized boulders armed with a reel of fishing line to find our way back. Starting in an obvious hole in the middle of the boulder slope, we soon found our way back to stream level and carried on until we were about 20m into the choke using numerous cairns and carbide arrows to mark the way out so we didn’t get lost Here the way divided and narrowed into crawls and ducks. We checked out numerous leads but they all closed down. One duck had the sound of loud roaring water emanating from it but was too tight to get through. Other ways on ended in squeezes which we felt uninclined to attempt considering the remoteness and danger of the location. After a couple of hours we had checked all the leads and none was going so we decided to return to the junction and have a look up the major inlet. A cascade led to a fierce section of streamway with a couple of short swims and small cascades. After 50m it ended in a 20 foot climb up a sheer wall with all the water cominp out of a hole 10 foot up. We looked out for a high-level bypass on the way back but found nothing. So the trip with everything going for it had come up against a dead end. We made our way back to the camp looking for leads on the way. We derigged both the pitches on the way back to the camp and managed to bypass one of the ladder pitches with a way through the boulders.

Just as I was beneath the boulders the noise of the water down at the cascade suddenly seemed louder but I decided it was just an acoustic effect. There was also a smell of raw sewage but this isn’t unusual round those parts. Blissfully ignorant, I carried on back to camp. Luis and I decided it was time for a brew so we went over to the water hole. Instead of being at the bottom of a 1 5ft hole through the boulders, the water was flowing over the top of the boulders in a big, brown foaming river and we realised the cave was flooding. We ran back up to the camp to warn the others who had been off exploring a side passage. They already knew what was happening as they had found another foaming brown river at the end of their side passage.
With the water as it was there was no chance of getting out, but we were in no immediate danger as we were in a large chamber well above the stream with a large passage sloping away downstream carrying away the water. It was just a case of sitting it out waiting for the water to go down. We sat around for an hour or so and had a brew wondering how long it would be before the water went down. We checked the water every few minutes down by the water hole by drawing carbide lines on the wall and after a while it seemed to be going down slowly.

So while Chas and Luis started thinking about tea, the rest of us went off to survey the side passage. Walking for 200m led to a junction with a large flooding stream passage. Left and right was a passage similar to Lancaster Hole Main Drain. It was a cross-over passage rejoining the major inlet above the cascade we hadn’t been able to get up earlier. It was potentially a very good lead with a good chance of connecting with the nearby system of Chichicaseapan. It was difficult to judge how far it was to the floor as it was full to where we were standing with very fast flowing, brown, boiling water. All that we knew was that it was more than three feet because that was how much it had risen since Steve had been there a little while earlier. It was frightening yet mesmerising to watch the power of the water and we spent a couple of minutes there before running away.

Back at the camp the tea of gruel and tortillas was under way and aperitifs, in the form of a Sigg bottle of brandy, were being served. The water in the San Andres stream had dropped significantly and the cascades were roaring much less than before. We thought the water would be down by the early morning so we planned to get up at 4am and set off out in order to get out by lunchtime in case there was another afternoon shower the next day. Just as the gruel was ready, the roaring of the water decreased noticeably. I went down to the water hole to check the water and found the reason. The water was no longer gushing across and through the boulders, it was ponding up from below. A feeling of shock and panic rushed over me and I ran up to the camp and relayed the news to the others as calmly as I could. I ran down the other way from the camp, feeling as if I was in a dream and wishing I would wake up and sure enough there was a pond of water there stretching out to the walls of the chamber on all sides. A sick feeling came over me when I realised that if the water kept rising we would certainly be drowned.

I needed to do something to take my mind off the situation and stop me going mad. A snap decision was made to pack up all the gear and move it all onto the highest boulder in the chamber, about 15 ft above the camp and in about three minutes flat it was done. While we were packing up, water suddenly started gushing out of Steve’s crossover passage in an Indiana-Jones-style raging torrent, seeming to fill up the chamber even faster and frightening us even more.

The others all climbed up onto the boulder but I decided to stay at the water’s edge and see how fast it was rising. So I sat on the mud by the water and measured out a six-inch handspan on a boulder. I tried to time it but my mind was preoccupied and I kept forgetting how long I had been timing it for. Eventually by using the stop watch I found the water was rising one handspan in about two and a half minutes. This gave us 50 minutes until the camp flooded, another hour until the water reached the highest boulder and we would be treading water, then a further hour until the water reached the roof and we would drown. The water had already risen about 25m and only had about 10m to go to the roof.

It was a sobering thought. I wouldn’t say that my life flashed before my eyes but it made me think about my family, Sarah and my friends and what a mess it would be if we all drowned. Charlie was smoking continuously and even Ben smoked his second ever cigarette of his life. Steve said that he kept blacking out on his perch and could only attribute it to fear. Luis was uncommonly quiet and pale. After a while Chaz came down and it appeared that the water was rising more slowly taking about five minutes to rise six inches, although we still weren’t sure that it wasn’t because it was filling up a wider part of the chamber. Eventually it got to within six inches of the campsite and stopped rising. After about twenty minutes stationary it started to go down at last and we let out a cheer.

We wandered around stunned for a few minutes still too afraid to talk in detail about what might have been. When it was clear that the water really was on its way down, we got all the stuff down off the boulder and warmed the gruel up again. After tea we settled down to bed. Sleep was difficult because the water was glugging and gurgling as it went down, but the thing that kept waking me up was Charlie telling me how far the water had dropped every half hour. Eventually the water started to gush noisily through the boulders again. We woke up at 4am and had breakfast (more gruel with leftovers) then packed up camp. The water level had dropped well out of sight down the passage and the volume of water in the water hole was down to about five or ten times the original flow rate. It was interesting to note that the flood had come up high enough to flush the toilet without washing away the bog paper on a ledge by the crapper! By six we were ready to go but with water levels so high, we didn’t know if we would get out. We left all the tackle we couldn’t carry: a couple of ladders, a survey tape, food and carbide but our sacks were still quite heavy.

At the canal the water was a metre higher than normal and a group of stalactites, which we had used to hang from for a rest on the way in, nearly barred the way. Fortunately there was a head-sized air space between them. At the first cascade the water roared through a crawling sized slot. Chaz and Steve crawled through swallowing plenty of water while we looked on apprehensively. The rest of us found an awkward climb over the top. More roaring cascade climbs interspersed by energetic wading against the current led eventually to the six metre pitch with a huge deluge of water roaring down with the ladder thrashing about in it. This was the obstacle I had been dreading the most and I was glad when Chaz offered to go first. With spray stinging his eyes, he swam across to the foot of the ladder and managed to climb out of the water onto a submerged ledge. From here he pulled himself up hand over hand until he could get his foot in the rungs (the ladder was a bit short of course). Then he climbed up with heavy water washing over him until he got over the lip into the swirl pool at the top. One by one we helped each other onto the ladder and climbed up.

Endless cascades followed with endless wades, traverses and swims in between. But with the pitch behind me I suddenly felt better. We finally got back to the canal, swam through and reached another milestone as we scrambled out onto the boulder slope leading up to Camp One. Here we stopped for a second breakfast of peanuts and chocolate and a well-earned rest before setting off on the second half of the trip out.

Nobody was surprised when we lost our way in the large bouldery passages leading to the choke but we found it eventually. The choke starts with a flat-out crawl to a wet crawl. It was a good job we hadn’t arrived much sooner because there wasn’t more than a foot of airspace as it was. We were losing momentum and it seemed that for every five minutes we were moving somebody had to stop for five minutes to fettle their lamp or get the gravel out of their wellies. Eventually Charlie, who was worried most about the risk of another afternoon storm, announced he was “pissing off out and wouldn’t wait for any tucker.” This provided the required impetus and Chas, Ben and myself set off in one group closely followed by the other two. Beyond the choke, the last low swim was open and soon we were at the 60ft pitch. Steve, Ben and Luis had sensibly left their SRT gear at the top of the boulder choke five minutes downstream from the pitch. Charlie and I had stashed our gear on ledges at the bottom of the pitch about 20ft above the water. Charlie found his gear buried in a sandbank 50 metres downstream and mine was hanging, freshly laundered from the eyehole belay I had clipped it to. Fortunately the pitch was well rigged and we were soon up. We set off out in the same groups as before leaving the pitch rigged for another party as we couldn’t carry the rope.

After the eyehole pitch we passed a couple of major inlets and the going became easier. The same ball-ache at Dales passage and the interminable cascades of the entrance series, now with only lightly roaring water rather than the heavy water of before, led us to the entrance chamber and the daylight we had been craving. It had been a long three days and the looks on our faces in the survivors’ photo spoke a thousand words. On the walk back up to Cuetzalen we were finally able to talk about what might have been.

This episode put a damper on the whole expedition in more ways than one. A profound Paranoia affected everyone when they went caving for more than a few hours, manifesting itself in an inability to think of anything but the weather and brown waves of foaming water. Several people went home early and the others weren’t inspired to go and push the important leads deep inside the caves.
San Andres Cave remained unvisited for the rest of the trip except for a quick de-tackling trip to the 60ft pitch and lots of tackle had to be left behind. Cuetzalen has got some of the finest, most sporting caving in the world to offer, its just a shame about the weather.

Pete Hall

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