J2 - Mexico 2013
I began caving with very few books available to read on the subject, four to be exact. The first two were stories that involved Bill Stone, the third was Caves of the Canadian Rockies, and the fourth was the Rats Nest book (Under Grotto Mountain by Chas Yonge). Bill had a bit of a reputation that I have heard about on an expedition or two, as well as through other cavers etc. I figured I should try to cave with him or on one of his expeditions one day, I might be able to learn something after all or just be highly entertained.
J2 was found by Polish cavers during a recci trip in 2004 on one of the many United States Deep Caving Team (USDCT) expeditions to the area. It was quickly discovered that the cave was likely going to go deep. Left going the USDCT came back to explore it in 2005, finding a sump at -633m. Dive equipment was brought in from the US and Al Warild successfully passed Sump 1. During the next week while a team explored further down J2, others began work on a boulder dam below sump 1 and was successful in lowering the sump 5m turning it into a swim. The cave was left again this time at -1000m with borehole out in front.
2006 the USDCT was back, and a few survey shots from their end station the year before they discovered sump 2 (Sifon de los Piratas). The members spent the next three weeks exploring all other possible avenues looking for a bypass to the sump. Nothing. Then in an amazing feat Spanish cavers brought dive gear in from the surface in a single push (-1200m and 10km of passage). James Brown dove the sump and succeeded in passing it, to discover large passageway on the other side and a third sump, the Spanish cavers then removed the dive gear again in a single push!
The cave was not returned to again until 2009. The focus was the diving at the bottom of the cave, sump 3. A bypass was discovered of sump 3 and the large and small passages were surveyed, Sump 3 was dove and mapped as well as the newly discovered sump 4. The 2009 expedition left with two going leads, the first is sump 4 with underwater passage continuing after 200+m. The second was a bolt climb on the upstream side of sump 2, "From Russia with Love". There were some issues with water levels near the entrance as a sump had formed trapping some cavers for a few days without much for food. All exited safely when water levels waned.
A smaller and lighter expedition to the area was organised for 2010, with the objective of exploring a cave that was showing some potential in 2009, Last Bash. The hope was to join this cave to J2 to bypass the troublesome sump 1 and "surprise" sump. After some miserable squeezes in water, the trip was a success connecting to J2 near camp 2A. The team then spent the remaining time pushing the few remaining leads around Camp 3, including "From Russia with Love". The cave stood at 13.5km long and just over -1200m deep, plans were made for another large scale expedition.
I first caught wind of this expedition in the spring of 2011, after exchanging emails with Bill Stone and Vickie Siegel I was on board as a member of the USDCT. Fall came and the 2012 expedition date was pushed until spring 2013.
February 6th 2013, I flew to Austin, Texas to drive the equipment to Mexico (I thought it would be a good laugh). The project was delayed for a week where I enjoyed amazing hospitality of the Mexican/Texas Cavers (notably Vico Jones). This included touring Austin, some Possum trapping and assisting with rebreather assembly, having a 6000psi cylinder extrude its O-ring etc. Finally packed we were racing to the Boarder, with two vehicles to the Sierra Juárez, to participate in a Bill Stone expedition. The drive down was not without a few entertaining moments which included being pulled over at gun point (twice), Boarder officials trying to extort you, and getting lost in the Sierra Juárez to name a few.
Eventually I arrived at base camp in the clouds and rain, after toiling with my 80+lbs bag for 2 1/2hrs through what was described as the Jungle from Predator. I settled in and helped with the finishing touches of setting up base camp. Then something weird happened, I was asked to lead the Sherpa teams. We began by meeting the mules in the cloud forest then carry the equipment into the cave to -250m or so for a warm up then repeat. During this a pair of Russians (Dima Kraev and Sasha Deruga) showed up and decided that I would be a good person to cave with (tough bastards, I almost broke them). After a few days the rigging team, and enlarging team had progressed enough myself, an America (Kristen Anderson), and the Russians made the journey to Camp 2A with me rigging the last few pitches. We then settled in rigging the phone line to Camp 2A and hauling the camp supplies and dive gear from the Bivi (-500m) to 2A. Phil Short (UK), Marcin Gala (Poland), and Miko Harasimowicz (Poland)arrived couple of days later to rig to Camp 3. Once completed Myself and Kristen Anderson (American) joined them carrying equipment to Sump 2. Kristen, Miko and I were then replaced by two other Americans and headed out. I surfaced 9 days after going to Camp 2. The surface time of 4 days was spent recciing, including searching for a missing caver who had gone recciing but did not come back. We found her at 03:00 with a possible broken arm after falling from a 10m cliff what a memorable last night she had (turns out the arm was not broken).
Phil Short and Marcin Gala were prepped at Camp 4 to push sump 4 when I entered again with Sasha, Dima and Miko toiling 8 heavy bags between us (I told you I almost broke them). We had arrived at Camp 2A with the equipment for a third rebreather diver when the divers arrived back to Camp 4 and radioed their report to the surface after a very long day 16hr. They were going to have a rest day then shuttle the dive gear from sump 4 to sump 2 tomorrow then dive out. For what was found, it was "complicated" according to Phil Short. They had emptied 1 and 2/3 dive reels on top of the line laid by Jose Morales in 2009 estimating the sump to be near 600m long (they were asked to recci only not to survey), found their way through the complex underwater passages and surfaced through a narrow half water filled passage into borehole with the J2 river dropping down a pitch. They had returned excited but very aware that the very few people in the 9 person dive team were qualified to do the dive, let alone even get there. The surface was a little shocked at the news expecting them to surface twenty or so meters from the 2009 limit, instantly I congratulated the guys on the job well done and we would meet them at sump 2 when the surfaced in 2 days time. The surface told us to drop all of our loads to make the journey easier, and the dive team to remove all of the camera equipment ?!? We continued forward with the majority of our loads.
See we were filming the expedition for a Discovery documentary to be aired in November of 2013. We have been recording our progress in diary entries, filming of the exploration as it happens and adding a few staged shots (get the lighting right then walk down the passage). There was no film crew going to ever be able to come with us, let alone into the entrance.
Leaving without breakfast and taking all the food for Camp 4, food for Phil and Marcin with of course fresh real coffee! We left Camp 3 on the arranged ron-de-vue day. We moved to sump 2 with haste to set up for the filming but also to get some food and of course the coffee prepared before Marcin and Phil arrived. They had been without the means to cook food for a day and a half surviving on beef jerky and protein bars. We waited in darkness. Slowly the sumps crystal water began to glow green gaining in intensity until you could see the silloet of the first diver. We met them with grins and hoots of encouragement and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee in the air. After the dekit, food, organization of kit and a story telling and bitch session. We exited like a swarm of locusts moving to the surface devouring all the food in the Camps until we were blinded by the dazzling greenery of the surface. Phil and Marcin were underground for 19 days with only one day taken as a rest day. My team a meager 6 days. I attended the dive meeting the following day which discussed the issues imposed, strategies to be used and had some very tantalising offers to stay, but I was over due on the Huautla expedition so needed to leave. I would try, though, to see if I could change my flight to help support my good friends. I left that afternoon (March 20th) for Huautla hoping I could come back, and take Bill up on his offer.
March 30th I trudged back up the mountain to warm greetings, smiles and hugs from the friends I had made. It felt good to be back, to help out the project. I found out that Phil and Marcin would be heading in on the 1st of April to begin to explore the passages beyond sump 4. Bill Stone and "Honzo" Graczyk had recently finished a resupply run through sump 2 to prepare for what was to come, a possible 30 day stint below. I shaved my head in preparation.
Phil and I paired up for the trip in and opted to travel directly to Camp 3 so we could enjoy the cave at our own pace. I woke during the night with fluids spraying from both ends (note: expedition beards and vomit means picking stuff out of your beard for 30min after the fact). I rested for a day in Camp 3 and felt physically better, but a little sad of missing a day of gear hauling. A few days later after helping Phil and Marcin kit up on the dive platform and slip away underwater (jokingly saying I should come with them to Camp 4) I made my way to the surface with the most musical cavers ever, the Polish!
Two days after surfacing I was sitting next to the Cave telephone waiting for the call from Camp 4. It cracked to life, and Phil began the story of their first push trip beyond sump 4. They had surfaced and rigged the upper passage above the fissure taking all the water, surveying this passage to its conclusion. They then began with the fissure taking all the water. After Marcin worked his magic with the ropes (the drill they took through the sumps did not work due to flooding) they rappelled down adding depth to J2 the further they went. Being in just their Fourth Element long underwear it made swimming the lakes they came to very brisk. Alas all good things come to an end, all the water sank in to an impenetrable boulder collapse ending all leads beyond sump 4. Phil then went on to relay their next plan of action. They were to complete a detailed survey and check of sump 4 making certain that no leads were left unchecked, then the sweetest thing I have heard in a long time. A request that Yuri Schwartz (Russia) and myself come down and dive through sump 2 and assist transporting equipment from the upstream of sump 4 to sump 2 and back to the dive platform on the upstream side of sump 2, I was exuberant! I left with Yuri's drysuit and other kit that afternoon going to Camp 3 solo. My plan was to build and prep all of the dive kit except Yuri's dive harness (needed to be sized) to speed up the process at sump 2 (diving a day earlier). 5 1/2 hours later I radioed from Camp 3 after dropping -900+m through 8km of passage (I was focused). Yuri arrived the next day with the team that was to begin to focus on the climb "From Russia with Love". We kitted up and dove the next day the 220m of very large beautiful passage that is sump 2. Phil and Marcin were on the far shore greeting us. After dekitting we went on a tour of the cave, all the way to sump 4 where we grabbed gear and shuttled to Camp 4 where we would spend the night. April 12th we broke Camp and carried all of the equipment to the downstream side of sump 2, there was a mountain of equipment. Preparing bags then kitting up we were prepared to start doing laps of sump 2 shuttling the gear. Yuri and I were diving open circuit and would do two shuttle trips, then Phil and Marcin would do the rest, Bill Stone and his team met us on the upstream side of sump 2 to take the gear from the dive platform. Yuri and I spent one hour in the sump moving the super negative or super buoyant bags through which made for some entertaining moments. The rebreather divers, Phil and Marcin, spent close to 2 hours underwater moving the gear through when we finished, the staging area was waist deep in gear. We spent the next 8 days packing and transporting the equipment through the cave, with Bill Stone's team. We surfaced in clouds. Phil and Marcin were wiped after spending a grueling 21 days underground. In an effort to remove all of the kit out of the cave I decided to give the project a bit of a boost so I went back in the next day to move the 12 bags from the Bivi at -500m to the base of the shaft series at -360m or something. I gave up after four hours completing my task. I was alone and tired reflecting on my last night in J2, the 34th night spent camped underground in the past few months. There have been many highs and lows along the way, new friendships forged and a truly epic expedition beard grown. The next day I left the Bivi with 2 bags and began the trip to the surface, then up to Base Camp to pack, then down the mountain. It was nice laying in the hammock reflecting on the expedition, time to start to focus on Raspberry Rising and sump 3.
It would have been difficult to write about the entire expedition. I have only given a few of the many adventures but as a general outline. Also you will note there are no photographs posted. This has to do with a publication ban until next year. If you would like to see what it was like watch the Discovery documentary this fall.