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© 2009 Anthony J. Garot
Edits by C. Brian Smith
Erick Gonzalez Montell
Jim "Crash" Kennedy
entitled this trip report "Raising the Bar" because never before have
I been on a caving expedition quite like this one. The number of
participants superseded any previous trip's count; and the launch of a new
website devoted specifically to this project helped to organize and disseminate
information in a way nonpareil to any other trip I have attended.
This particular trip to Laguna de Sanchez was quite possibly the most fun caving adventure that I've experienced. We started with 12 people and then upped it to 24, making this trip the largest Jim "Crash" Kennedy has thus far arranged to this area. The camaraderie was palpable. We had a huge campfire every night, and the local wine—vino manzana—flowed freely. I personally got to dig two days in a row (and digging is perhaps my favorite aspect of caving), and I bolted and dropped into an amazing, albeit noisome, room. In two words: bad air. According to Jim, the group found eight new caves and mapped 16. The meals were huge and delicious. Thanksgiving dinner with the landowner and his family brought the count to a whopping 36. We had fun trying to speak to them in Spanish since English was not an option for them. We also had a movie night, a slide show, and even an '80s dance party—all in the middle of Nowhere,
There were two other
A lot of
the fun of a trip with Jim Kennedy is the pre- and post- trip activities.
Although our plan was to leave Saturday morning, I drove the six hours from
started with the pre-trip errand of buying bulk groceries. Carol
While Jim was in a meeting at Bat Conservation International, Ann Scott called to say she was coming to pick up Ramona to bring her to
It was an
early morning. People started getting up around 6 or Matt arrived soon after to load
up his black 2WD truck with gear. Our two vehicles, loaded with gear and
people, soon departed; we were on the road by about Matt took the Virginians—Joe and
Carol Zochaites—and Steve Yochumn. Jim's Tahoe, named Yeti, took Jim, me,
Ramona, and Jane. Don Arburn, Anne Scott, Kathleen O' Connor, and Roger
Moore drove in Moby—Don Arburn's white truck. If you have never seen
Don's truck, it is large. Don's truck can hold five people comfortably,
including gear. Don's truck is so large that there are smaller trucks
orbiting it in geosynchronous orbit. Yes, Don has a big truck. Team Moby
left a little earlier than our group from
En route, a rope holding the tarp on Matt's truck snapped causing some gear to come off. Everything was reclaimed except the toilet paper and a shovel. Apparently, the toilet paper exploded on the road, possibly causing a white-out!
Crossing the border, all vehicles met at the Módulo CIITEV to get our visas, car permits, and to exchange money. We met Team Moby (Don's group) there, said our hellos to them, took obligatory pictures of the Mexican flag, and handled our paperwork. This ritual is the same basic one everyone goes through when visiting
Dr. Ann Scott taking photo of Mexican flag in a surprisingly clean truck window.
The three vehicles tried to caravan from then on. The first order of business was lunch: seven chickens and multiple Cokes for 700 pesos. At first, the price seemed a bit high, but $54 USD for 12 people really wasn't too outrageous. That's $4.52 per person for delicious chicken barbecued right in front of us.
On the road again, we eventually reached
We eventually arrived at the H.E.B. in
It was dark before we hit the limestone cliff walls at the pass. We stopped for a few minutes to look around, but, alas, we didn't see much. Arriving at Laguna de Sanchez, we stopped to pick up vino manzana and a few necessary perishables for the trip.
As luck would have it, a wrong turn took us through a quick jaunt into the lagoon orchards . . . which we usually do in daylight! After a bit of creative driving, we finally made it to camp.
When we got to camp, we noticed a lot of "firewood" had been cut and was sitting around the old mud fire ring. My first order of business was to move the fire ring out of the mud area. The "muddy fire pit" game was old hat. As it was getting cold, I finished up the new fire ring, quickly grabbed my tent, found a level spot, and then pitched it. I was tired, so I lay down for a bit. Do you know that I actually dozed off? Later Jim, Ramona, and Jane came by to find me. My mistake was getting up; I went to the fire, laughed, drank, and had a good old time chattering about nonsense. I paid for it the next morning.
The camp layout was different this trip because of the larger count of cavers. The kitchen was positioned under a screen tent. Two bathroom pits had been dug by the landowner, seemingly for a large party of people. This was somewhat amusing considering that Don had built a toilet box specifically for this trip. In the past, we simply ducked under the fence with a rock hammer, paper, and a promise. A few ill positioned tarps, providing a hint of privacy, completed the bathroom arrangement.
I woke up
early and knew I was going to have a rough day. What is the saying?
"For every ounce of pleasure, there is a pound of pain." Since
no one else was yet awake, I put in my earplugs and decided to go back to
sleep. My first realization of the morning was that I wasn't being
inundated by jejenes! If you are unfamiliar with jejenes, they are nasty
blood-thirsty creatures spawned from Hell. While the bite of the jején is
virtually unnoticeable, it spits a protein into its prey as it bites, the
antibody of which causes red welts to appear on the skin. These inflammations
are accompanied by a fierce itch that can last for several days; for this
reason, I wear long-sleeved shirts while in
It was a slow day overall; people headed out around for a bit of caving and ridge walking. I stayed back at camp, nursed my hangover, and kept Roger company. Roger had decided to remain behind to "keep an eye out" and acclimate to the altitude.
During these few hours of daylight, Matt, Crash, and Jane ridge walked and tagged caves. The tagging of caves was a new concept initiated this trip. Jim had procured blue, anodized aluminum tags that we nailed into trees nearby significant, or potentially significant, Karst features. The quantity of known caves and features was becoming too large to manage. GPS Waypoints taken at these features were averaged until the error was between 3 to 5 meters of accuracy.
Folks started coming back shortly before dark. Ann and I made guacamole that was, if I say so myself, divine. Carol started cooking chicken and mole. People assembled around the camp fire to keep warm and discuss lofty topics. We typically had a huge bonfire each night, nearly wiping out a tree per night. Downed wood was plentiful in this area.
Typical fire we had each evening.
day I led a group into Cueva Culo de Pollo, a cave found on the previous trip
by Jim, Devra, and me. At that time, we knew the cave to have a large
drop, the extent of which was unknown because we ran out of bolts. Team
"Chicken Butt" consisted of me, Steve, Joe, and Jen. Jen began
to feel ill after the initial entrance survey and did not continue past the
keyhole. For rigging, we used a natural initial point; then Steve
commenced to bolt a hanger directly above the pit. Unfortunately, the
hammer drill battery was drained after only two inches of depth!
Unfortunate indeed, now our day was nearly done.
Before leaving, however, our sketcher, Joe, tried to fit through the keyhole just to see if he would be coming back the next day when batteries might be fresher. After some maneuvers you might see in a yoga class, Joe's final assessment: he was just too big. Steve took over sketching just past the keyhole to mop up the point right above the pit where he drilled.
As team "Chicken Butt" finished up and headed toward the entrance, I heard thunder. What?! That sound reminded me that I had left my tent fly open—oh no! The rain proceeded to come down, and then came harder and harder. Then came hail chunks which were about 8mm or better. As our group descended the hill, we overtook Jim's group who were also headed down. Jim decided to take the merged groups to El Infierno for a peek, but my thoughts were only of my potentially disastrous tent. I walked back with a feeling of foreboding doom. The time must have been approximately Don's group had already returned back to camp only moments before I arrived. It turns out that although my tent was sloppy, it was salvageable. I used a rag to remove the excess water; then, later that evening, I dried my sleeping bag near the fire. That helped my mood considerably.
Ramona later found out that her tent leaked. Oh, no!
Gerardo, the landowner, walked by the campsite accompanied with two relatives who spoke some English. It was conveyed to me that we should not burn the "chairs" around the campsite. Ooops! Not long after, Jim returned with the El Infierno group. Then Jim grabbed a chainsaw to decimate a fallen tree. Matt, Joe, and I loaded the fire wood onto Matt's truck. Jim cut several chair-sized logs as replacements for the "chairs" Gerardo wanted saved. He also cut several larger logs for use in making a rich and robust camp fire experience.
Dinner was costillas, ribs cooked over the fire. Corn and baked potatoes finished the ensemble. The salt on the potatoes was a little heavy, but the rosemary was a nice touch.
Later that evening, around or so, Ron Rutherford arrived with his family. The red dirt road was slippery as snot due to rain. Ron's vehicle right-rear tire nearly was in Cueva de Los Baños. He was rightly worried. A group of the guys headed over in trucks to assist. Don Arburn's truck was the tool of choice (actually, Don's truck is often the tool of choice). Using approximately 75 feet of combined tow-straps, chain, and rope, the pulling commenced. Ron's truck went forward but also slid to the right. If it wasn't for the forward component, there would have been some extremely unhappy folks. Finally, Ron's vehicle was out of danger. Crisis assuaged.
Ron Rutherford’s truck was safe.
The foul weather changed the dynamic of the trip. The slippery roads to Laguna de Sanchez meant no restocking of supplies. Although we were chock full of food, those who drank beer found the supply limited.
The music switched to 80's fare, and a dance party soon ensued. Jen said she was starting to feel better; I hoped she would be able to cave soon.
"Chicken Butt" needed a sketcher because Joe didn't fit through the
keyhole in Cueva Culo de Pollo. First, I recruited Ramona who was then
supplanted by Ron Rutherford. The group of the day was, therefore, me,
Steve, Jen, Ron Rutherford, and Ron's son, Drew.
Steve decided to enlarge the keyhole a bit, then passed through and completed the bolt started the previous day. He used Ron's hammer drill. This time, the bit went into the limestone like a hot knife through butter. After securing the hanger and rope, Steve rappelled down the pit. After some deliberation, a rope pad was put in place, and he continued further down. A particularly jagged and nasty section concerned Steve, so he sat on a ledge, "Steve's Ledge," while I dropped down to take a look. I brought Ron's potent hammer drill with me, just in case. I decided to put in a rebelay bolt for one final drop into a vast room. The oxygen was scarce, the hammer drill was heavy, and I was in an awkward position hanging by a thread. This was just cause for heavy breathing on my part as I made short order of the task at hand.
Below me, the floor looked a long way down, and I would have sworn that the rope didn't actually touch bottom (it did). The total rope length was 50m, by the way. I was already breathing with effort, and since I didn't have a lot of experience with bad air conditions, I decided to let Ron take the lead. I ascended back up the rope, past Steve, all the way to the rigging point near the keyhole. Ron then carefully rappelled down the drop using a lighter to test the air, and made it to the bottom without difficulty. He stated that the air was tolerable, so Steve joined him to assist with the survey. My plan was to wait up top until they were done.
Jen, who was just up at the keyhole, and I had a chat. She decided that she didn't wish to go down. Instead, she took Drew to look for caves, then back to camp. Fifteen minutes later, I became bored. I yelled down to see if it was safe for me to come down. It was, and I descended.
The big room was cool! It was decorated and even appeared to continue; though no one was willing to go further because of the lack of oxygen. Ron continued sketching while Steve and I took photos. Eventually Ron neared completion, and since he was getting a headache, Steve began his ascent up the rope. Positioning the single rope pad proved to be futile. It was tied and retied back into position, but the rope moved to a different position once Steve got higher. Eventually the Steve and Ron were out; then I ascended derigging as I went. I left one hanger in the cave because of lack of wrench. Oh well.
of us got back to camp late, around 7:30 p.m. At this time, it was dark,
and, unfortunately, it was raining again. Within the cloud canopy that
enveloped us, large drops formed from condensation on tree branches, making it
seem to rain even when the rain stopped. A dinner of Mac-n-Cheese blended
with canned chicken was already piping hot. Way better than Beanie
Weenies! Jim and Joe ran out to us with bowls of the steaming, delicious
victuals for us.
After dinner, I helped coordinate the washing of dishes and after-meal cleanup. There was a huge drum of water on the stove—way more than was necessary for the dishes. We started with the normal amount of heated water to wash, then 15 minutes later used the rest as the rinse water. Perhaps 30 minutes after that, Ron came by to collect the heated water he requested to clean his family from poison ivy. Apologies Ron, but we missed that memo . . . .
The incidence of poison ivy wasn't bad the prior trip because it still hadn't grown back since the forest fire. This trip, however, poison ivy reared its ugly head. Carol Zokaites got the worst batch; Matt probably got the second worst; and luckily, I only got a small dose.
Most people went to bed early because of the cold, damp, dark evening. Me, Jane, Jen, and Steve decided to watch a movie in Jim's Tahoe off of my laptop. The movie selected: Army of Darkness. At intermission, Jen and Steve ducked out.
seemed to have stopped, but camp was still in the cloud cover. I was not
entirely enthused about these bleak conditions. Since most of my gear was
dry, though, I made due.
My team today consisted of me, Joe, Jen, and Jane. Everyone's name started with a "J". Well, sort of. We surveyed two caves: Cueva de Llano Sumidero (
Cueva Tres Luces required some exposed climbing, which is primarily the reason it was so much fun. Jane had been in the cave before, so she became our de facto guide. We had a lot of fun exploring the cave, taking pictures, and otherwise enjoying the afternoon.
A hot, plentiful, and delicious dinner of spaghetti and meatballs was nearly prepared when our group arrived back at camp. Earlier, the
there were three teams: a large team assembled to drop El Infierno, a 55m drop;
Team "Dig Dug" consisted of Matt, me, Kathleen, and Ramona. Our objective was to push La Cueva de la Vaca Púrpura (Purple Cow) and La Cueva de Más Cencerro (More Cowbell). Other holes we dug were icing on the cake.
Purple Cow turned out to be just a simple chimney down about 10 meters, measured in Tone-lengths. It continued down and diagonally as a narrow fissure crack—humanly impassable.
More Cowbell showed more promise. Kathleen and I alternated attempts to pry a wedged rock out of obvious passage. The rock was below, at foot level, and none of the tools we brought quite reached it. This elusive rock taunted us by shifting to and fro, but it simply would not drop. Kathleen's tenacity was noteworthy, and since there was only room for one, I looked for other digging options.
I pulled rocks out of a likely possibility and found obvious cave passage below! Woo hoo! I passed the baton to Matt who continued excavating approximately one ton of rock. Matt wanted to call it El Toño Baño, and that's exactly what we did. When Matt pointed out that Tone's Bathroom was "filthy and filled with stuff," I was less sure of the compliment.
Matt tossing rocks like they were pebbles.
Ramona had found a dig location down the hill and wanted my opinion. I was a bit skeptical, but her enthusiasm warranted some effort. I recommended that she get Kathleen and Matt to assist. My idea was that Kathleen would go head first, and Matt and I could lift her back out once she looked around. While Ramona was gone, I brutally smashed several limestone fins out of the way. With a little more cleanup, we wouldn't have to do the Kathleen-hoist after all. Once Matt finished the cleanup, and I removed one boulder, Kathleen easily maneuvered into the hole. Unfortunately, my initial assessment was correct: the hole didn't do anything. Foo.
After a few hours of wielding hammers and pry bars, we were getting tired. It was Thanksgiving, so we wrapped up early and started back toward camp. Along the way, we tagged and recorded waypoints for a few more features. The day was tiring, but satisfying . . . even if we didn't break into major cave passage. Matt and I plan to return on another trip with wedges and feathers to remove a few irritants, especially in El Toño Baño.
That night Erick showed up with much needed cerveza as well as some pork and chicken soup dishes. Being a holiday, and always wanting to keep good landowner relations, an invite had been extended to the land owner and his family to join us for dinner. Gerardo, Gloria, the three girls, and two of the boys showed up. Alan, the nephew, and Edsgar, the son were unable to make it due to chores. None of Gerardo's family speaks English which I think created a slight initial awkwardness. Later, the
The feast was deep-fried turkey, baked honey-glazed ham, mushroom stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, and asparagus in butter sauce. Although we had 34 people, there were still plenty of leftovers. Unfortunately, leftovers were of little use because of the sheer volume of food that we brought. Therefore, leftovers were typically thrown over the fence to the pigs.
Misfortune hit me when a terrible headache vexed me. Since I was physically exhausted from digging all day, I went to my tent to lie down. I woke about 1.5 hours later feeling much better. It was probably just a muscle tension headache due to smashing rocks. I got up, put on an extra coat, and then went to sit around the campfire again.
enlisted me to take a look at Hoyo Encantador (Lovely Hole). He had
reported that it blew considerable air, and in the cool weather, vapor.
Jane joined us making a group of three.
We hiked the 660 m from camp over rocky terrain. The hole didn't need to be rigged at all, and after a bit of cleanup, I sent Jane inside to take a look. Over the course of the day, we pushed the cave some 10 feet. We used Jane's bat bag (actually Jim's) to haul dirt and rock out of the hole. We found a herbivore skull as we continued. We made a fun crew. We had tunes, we had laughs, and we pushed cave; what could be better?
Jane Slater models a herbivore skull.
Jen and Kathleen showed up after a few hours from dropping El Infierno. Jen went into the pit to take a look, and then apparently she started to dig. Tap, tap, tap . . . ouch! She soon emerged saying that a rock dislodged and hit her in the mouth. Later, Ron and Drew came by to take a peek inside.
Since this was the last day of the trip, we finished early to eat dinner and to start the chore of packing. After dinner, Jim and I took care of the finances, which I had been tracking in an Excel spreadsheet. This was my first caving trip with a NetBook. I found the NetBook to be useful for taking trip notes, doing the finances, and even watching movies. While Jim and I worked out the financial details, Ramona and Steve sifted through more than 6 GB of collected images to prepare a slide show. They whittled down the count to a little more than 200. The projector was run from Ron's 500 Watt inverter connected to an extra truck battery brought specifically for inverter use. Nice! I cannot speak for everyone, but I enjoyed reminiscing and seeing what other people had been doing during the trip.
Jen departed camp first because her flight out of
Our first stop was to Gerardo's home to offer him excess food and supplies that we didn't use during the trip. We took a tour of his place to see piglets, kids (both types!), and other livestock. We said our goodbyes then headed toward Laguna de Sanchez. Caesar, Gerardo's son, joined us for the ride. He would eventually walk back home on his own.
Jane Slater with a kid.
Reaching the town of
Continuing down the mountain, Ramona and Jane jumped atop Yeti (Jim's Tahoe) for a roof ride through breathtaking limestone scenery. We stopped at El Cercado to collect the deposit on beer bottles and toss the garbage from the trip.
Our motley caravan stopped for lunch in the town of
Continuing with our journey, the two vehicles arrived in
The Lov Pub in
Later, we heard that both Ron and Don were also extorted by the Mexican "law" at the bridge before the border. Although I have been extorted before in
We arrived home late.
to Jim, our group mapped 16 caves, including about eight new ones found on this
trip. We placed anodized aluminum tags on more than 70 cave entrances and
Karst features. GPS waypoints and track logs were abundant.
The general consensus was that the trip was good. Congratulations to Jim "Crash" Kennedy for pulling off an amazing adventure.