Camp 1, Cueva de Infiernillo

After a couple of days rest, we planned a week long trip to camp 1 in Infiernillo to explore leads in the lower part of the system. Since the cave entrance is halfway up a large cliff at the head of a canyon about an hour and a half from the nearest road access, and major leads are up to 5 km inside the cave, camping is almost obligatory.

We took the trucks down a rough 4-wheel track to where it fizzled out in the middle of the forest. A long trek down into the canyon following an ill-defined trail led to the base of the cliff. Peter Sprouse climbed up and rigged a rope for hauling. It was during the hauling that Peter’s pack broke loose and crashed down into a boulder wiping out one set of surveying gear and all our water purifier. Once we were all assembled in the 20m high entrance, it was getting quite late, but it was only a half hour trek in huge passage to camp 1 in a side passage above a large static sump.

The first day from camp 1 established a general pattern as we headed into the cave and soon split into three surveying groups working in different areas. After the split, I went with Jerry Atkinson, Del Holman and Duwain Whitis into a complex area near the Confusion Tubes on a photographic and surveying trip. The American style of exploring new caves is the only one possible in an area with so much open and going, so we started surveying into virgin passage, eventually extending this area down to the first running water found, at Gnome Springs.

Confusion Tubes area. Photo: Terri Treacy
Terri Treacy in the Confusion Tubes. Photo attributed to Terri Treacy.

The second day out, Jerry, Randy, Don and myself went into Moria, the westernmost area of the lower cave, discovered the previous year, which was near base level, and had a powerful draughting choke heading out towards the “Great Western System”. Jerry placed a substantial charge in the choke, but failed to clear it. The fumes soon cleared in the draught and we spent two hours digging but without success.

On the next day a “Glub Glub” trip was planned into Isopod River in which a small stream had developed into a canal downstream. This necessitated heading along the route toward the top of the system, climbing up into the Confusion Tubes. From here we trogged along for half a mile in huge passages to a boulder area which got quite thrutchy. Duwain and I opened up a route to a deep blue canal (near the Hitherhall) which we decided to survey. This soon proved abortive in one direction due to low airspace, and the other way eventually led back to known passage, so we tried a dry route which turned out to be an alternative route through the Breakdown Maze back toward Infiernillo. Having spent several hours on this investigation, we decided that we no longer had time to visit Isopod River and so thrashed back to Camp 1 at high speed.

On day four, Jerry and I planned to return to the Gnome Springs area with Don and Sheri, but when we got to Misty Borehole, we decided to look briefly at an unpushed climb at the end of this tube. Don tried out a few moves and suddenly shot up the wall, into a hole and out at roof level, much to our surprise. He then traversed over the top and into going passage and vanished for some time, only to return with news of a major borehole. We hurriedly rigged a handline and ascended to start surveying. The rift above soon turned into a tube and then developed into something unusual for the cave – a classic keyhole passage some 2-5m deep below a 2m tube. There were lots of side leads, but the main way carried all the air and we emerged into a sizeable tube. Unfortunately this didn’t continue too far before a large flowstone blockage, but a side passage led to a an area with cave ice pools and bacon rind stal. from where a beautiful flat flowstone floored tube ascended steeply to a series of climbs. Here we met a small stream depositing calcite which we thought could well feed Gnome Springs, but the water sank into a tiny vertical tube and our route was up the small waterfall into another tube almost blocked by flowstone. The water came from a small passage but the way continued to a deep rift in the floor which we traversed, past a pom-pom stalactite, to a climb down into an increasingly complex and muddy area. Here we ran out of time and after a short run ahead we headed back to Camp 1, pausing only to name the area Ithilien. Back at Camp 1 we found that the “40 kilometre” party had taken place on the assumption that we had bagged enough booty, but that we had been so long that everyone else had now crashed out.

Owing to lack of motivation, and one illness, day 5 was declared the last day of the camp, so we decided to get as far into the cave as possible in two groups – one finally getting into Isopod River and one to take photographs in the Netherhall, a very large chamber about four kilometres into the system. Beyond the Breakdown Maze, the South Trunk continued very large again to the turn off to the lower Isopod River where the wet team were getting changed. We left them and headed into the Monkey Walk, an awkward stretch of passage with low roof and bouldery floor, leading eventually to the Isopod River, a large passage with a small stream meandering between gravel banks, and containing colonies of troglobytic isopods like little piles of white rice in the stream, which gave the passage its name. By traversing the few pools which blocked the passage, we were able to reach the site of Camp 2 on a shingle bank in dry gear, and from here we started to climb up immediately to reach the Netherhall, which contains a 150m high boulder pile – like climbing Great Gable at night.

After about half an hour of upward slogging on scree, we reached the summit and spread out to get an idea of scale before spending the next five hours taking photos. This involved firing off over 60 large flashbulbs for two exposures, each with three cameras set up and the second involving various minions from the Isopod River team. Unfortunately, these photographs later proved to be useless (M3B flashbulbs simply aren’t big enough) and by the time we had made our way back to Camp 1 we had been caving for eleven hours.

The next day, everyone had entrance fever to a greater or lesser extent, but by the time we had taken in the shock of all those COLOURS on the eyes and abseiled out into the heat and the flies, it was mid afternoon. The slog up to the trucks seemed much longer on the way back, and it was dark by the time we reached Conrado Castillo.

Going to Mexico

The 7th International Speleological Congress was held on my doorstep – in Sheffield, in 1977. It was attended by lots of eminent cave researchers from all over the world, but also by a lot of ordinary British cavers with an interest in cave science or photography or surveying (or, indeed, beer). Nick Thorne and I had had a great week at the Congress and had made a definite on-the-spot decision that we would be going to the 8th ISC, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1981.

This seemed like a long way to go for just a week long conference, however much fun, and I’d always fancied some New World Caving – Mexico seemed to be the scene of major new exploration and looked like a very attractive destination for an aspiring expedition caver. One minor problem was that Mexico had a wet season starting about May, putting an end to caving trips, whilst the Congress wasn’t until July. That meant that there weren’t any Mexico trips tied in with the Congress, and it would mean a long time away from home.

Undeterred by this, I had written to the Association for Mexican Cave Studies looking for a trip, and had asked for some long unpaid leave from work. I got a very encouraging reply from Peter Sprouse suggesting that I would be welcome to join the Proyecto Espeleologica Purificación for most of March and April, and a flat refusal from the UKAEA on the unpaid leave. So I handed in three months notice and started sorting out US visa and Mexican tourist card, paying the fees for the Congress and a pre-congress caving camp in Alabama.

There was a level of panic as departure date approached and my passport hadn’t come back from the US embassy, resulting in a personal visit, and then a trip to get it from where it had been posted to, arriving the day after I had left. The Mexican tourist card was a lot less hassle.

Departing from Heathrow on March 11th in typical British rain and low cloud I expected sunny Texas to be a pleasant improvement, but arriving in Houston in the middle of the night (six hours late owing to a fault in the wing of the Pan-Am plane at Heathrow), I had to wait some time until I could get a Greyhound bus to Austin and found the weather was just the same – a poor start soon to be improved upon as frantic last minute food and gear buying took place in increasingly hot conditions. After five days of this, based at AMCS ‘headquarters’ as a guest of Peter Sprouse and Terri Treacy, we hit the road to Mexico. The sheer length of the drive across Texas started to bring home the scale of this continent. We reached Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, the next day and from there we headed towards the mountains and the Rio Purificación at Barretal. After a last swim in the river we set off up the long dirt track into the hills, starting out flat and straight, past large cacti in the fields, but becoming abruptly steeper as the Sierra Madre Oriental reared up ahead. The track soon became a four wheel drive test piece like the Alum Pot track laid over Hardknott. This lasts for a good fifteen miles passing over the Paso del Muerte, an entertaining bit of road eight feet wide cut into a cliff face rising several hundred feet on the right, and adding an air of seriousness to the almost sheer half mile drop into thick forest on the left. Rounding a tight bend, a vista opened up on the right, of the Cañon Infiernillo, in the steep headwall of which is the massive entrance of Cueva Infiernillo, the bottom entrance to la Sistema Purificación. As darkness descended, we arrived at Conrado Castillo, a tiny forestry hamlet, which was to be our base for the next seven weeks.

A bit of agriculture supplements forestry as a way of life in ejido Conrado Castillo. Photo: Andy.

The first day was spent organising gear, and in finding our way round the immediate area. The next couple of days saw us in small groups checking out some smaller caves and learning how the AMCS did surveying and rigging. The latter proved interesting. Having identified a potential natural belay, the approach was to hit it with a hammer and see how much of it fell off (quite a lot). If what remained was deemed to be enough, the belay was used (I couldn’t help thinking that the rock was now smaller and far more cracked than when we’d arrived…). Three hours were spent in Pozo de Maguey Verde one day and another couple of hours in Sima Doble the next.

Our first trip into the Sistema Purificación itself, was via the Entrada de los Franceses, an entrance direct into the highest part of the system, Valhalla. This is a complex fossil phreatic maze in somewhat crumbly rock. The first part of the cave is generally dry and we caved in jeans and shirt sleeves down a series of low passages and then many climbs, always leading down over solution-etched rock in wierd forms. One or two parts of this area are quite narrow, and as we were carrying quite a bit of gear, our progress was not too fast in the warm cave (generally about 15°C in the upper part of the system). A change of character in the cave to darker, firmer limestone somewhat reminiscent of OFD was closely followed by the sound of running water and we soon emerged at roof level above a five metre climb into Valkyrie River, a recently discovered stream passage whose source and destination are unknown.

We unpacked gear and got changed into wetsuits in the roof passage and then climbed down into the stream. Upstream through beautiful blue dolly tubs, a series of shallow lakes led to a wide sump pool held back by extensive gravel banks. Here Randy Rumer donned a mask and tried free diving with an electric lamp. The roof levelled out at about -2m in very clear water but Randy needed a large rock in his wetsuit to get enough weight to go further. A small bell about 2m in had no air and as the sump could be seen to go many metres in crystal visibility he retreated. Don Coons dived a couple of times finding nothing new, but the visibility started to deteriorate, so we decided to head downstream to survey in going leads.

Downstream from our entry point, deep canals in blue water with calcite encrustations made pleasant going to a sump with a bypass. From here we split into two parties to survey cave which soon degenerated into muddy grovels which closed down or sumped. Nonetheless, there were some good formations, and pools with cave pearls. We reached the surface after 13 hrs underground.

Sunday 22nd was spent in R&R, and a visit to some shorter local caves, Cueva Desmontes and Cueva Tecolote, with some surveying.

Unfortunately, there are none of my own photos from the first part of the trip, as I made the error of posting my slides home from Texas. UK Customs and Excise opened the parcel, but failed to seal it up again, losing all three films. Kodak slides lost in the post go back to Kodak in the hope that people can reclaim them, but by the time I was home and knew they’d been lost, the three month period during which Kodak hang onto them had expired.