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.
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.