Brinco Camp 3

After the Infiernillo camp and our abortive Yerbabuena exploration, there was a rapid personnel change – Duwain and Del left and Louise Hose had arrived with Jim Pisarowicz from elsewhere in Mexico. Shortly later, Don and Sheri left, and Jerry, feeling ill, went with them, numbers being made up by the arrival of Patty Mothes and Roy Jameson.

The next major project was to be Camp 3 – another major camp, this time a new camp to be set for the first time in the upper cave, about 350m below the Cueva del Brinco entrance and around two miles inside the cave. As the entrance series of the upper cave is much smaller than Infiernillo, but also wet, we had to arrange for gear packs to split into smaller units and be completely waterproof. As this was a new camp, it was thought best to have a supply run to set camp up, followed by a lighter trip to move in any gear which didn’t make it first time. We spent a lot of time preparing for the first trip, finally getting underground at 2 pm on Monday 6th April. It is the norm here to spend a long time eating before a long trip and to set off fairly late – there isn’t the usual Yorkshire problem of getting out in time for the pub!

The Cueva del Brinco camp III team about to go underground for a week. Left to right:
Andy, Louise Hose, Terri Treacy, Peter Sprouse, Roy Jameson, Patty Mothes.
Photo: Jim Pisarowicz.

Despite its proximity to the fieldhouse, this was the first time I had been into Brinco, but with the heavy gear, we were all moving slowly, so I had a reasonable chance to look around. The first part (the Historic Section) is roomy and dry with many dead formations. We descended a fair way, mostly in steep passage but with a few climbs, until we reached the Dressing Room, where we changed into wetsuits and left dry caving clothes for the exit. This is where the fun starts with a wet thrutch, The Chute, followed by a narrow fissure, The Crack of Doom – to get through these we had to temporarily break our big cave packs down into individual stuff sacks (each waterproofed with several bin bags inside).

This was quite time consuming, but once through, progress in the Lunar Way was faster, though strenuous, until another delay at Mud Ball Crawl. Beyond the crawl, the passage opened out into Rio Verde. This starts out as an old phreatic tube with gour pools on the floor, mostly walking with occasional stooping.

After a while, the gradient increases, and there is a small flow, developing into a steeply descending streamway with steep gours and deep green pools.

Rio Verde leads pleasantly to Flowstone Falls, a 20m freeclimb which we, however, rigged with a line to facilitate descent with heavy packs. The falls drop straight into a swimming canal and further cascade before a series of squeezes obstructed the way. Another steep climb led to the beginning of The Canal – a low airspace wade for some way in muddy water. This ended in a climb up and over a barrier and through a lake to the Speedway Bypass – a somewhat awkward passage breaking out dramatically at the World Beyond.

The World Beyond is a major trunk passage carrying the largest stream in the system directly away from the resurgence for almost two miles. The going varies from deep swims of up to 100m to a meandering stream among gravel banks to climbs over large scale collapse. This ends abruptly where the stream, augmented by a major inlet of unknown source (possibly Valkyrie River), cuts down to the right to form the Angel’s Staircase (another steeply descending stream passage with gours), eventually sumping at -600m. The main way on to Infiernillo and Camp 3 is to the left starting a series of steep climbs over rotting flowstone and a major change of direction at a pitch. Shortly below this was the site of Camp 3 – a roomy chamber with a coarse gravel floor and a couple of deep pools. Here we dumped the gear and had a rest before setting out for the surface.

The trip back out, while not particularly fast, was a good deal easier without too much gear, and we arrived fairly fresh at the Dressing Room, and dry gear. It was only a short run to the surface where we emerged to pleasant sunny daylight at 8.30 am – it had taken us 18.5 hours to set Camp 3.

Needless to say, this was followed by three days of rest before we set off for the real camp. Carrying only sleeping bags and light gear, we moved much faster – the whole party knew the way this time which also helped, so we got back to the camp in just over six hours.

Day one of Camp three (camp days were on average 28 hours, so we went quite a long way ‘out of synch’ with the surface) we set out in a “boys party” of Peter, Roy and myself to investigate southbound leads nearer to Infiernillo, while the “girls party” of Terri, Louise and Patty went surveying in Gypsum Passage – the southernmost part of the system. It turned out that the passages we surveyed had been explored by the team who first found the connection from the Infiernillo side, but which were generally rather unpleasant with muddy chalkification of the walls. Saturnalia did not lead anywhere of great note, and we returned to camp to find that the girls had reached a solid aragonite blockage in a very pretty passage with no draught.

Day two saw the girls surveying a large passage leading from beyond Saturnalia, but which soon broke up into small pointless tubes, while we headed nearer to Infiernillo to investigate a side passage heading north parallel with the main route. Ganymede passage proved to be a major trunk passage but ended in small tubes which descended abruptly over rotting travertine to a lower series which we did not investigate.

Instead, we traversed over lakes in the main route to Infiernillo to find another large passage parallel with the main line, which had also been found from the Infiernillo end. This was easy surveying until the tape got clogged with mud. Day three saw me back in this passage, this time with Louise and Terri, and we reached a complex junction area from where our route turned out to be a dead end.

Returning to the junction, we followed footprints into a large maze area, Medusa’s Maze, which descended down the dip of a major joint to an area with attractive formations.

On day four, both parties worked in and around Medusa’s Maze, and we extended the area downwards until stopped by a large phreatic lift, The Wall, going steeply up which proved rather loose at the top. Below this, however, we found yet another downward lead into smaller passages but with a strong draught. This area, Yawndwanaland, continually stepped north, then down dip, then south along the strike, then down dip, then north along the strike and so on, moving very slowly west on balance until at the end of the day we reached a steep climb down. Louise went to investigate, and found that it dropped into a major north-south passage which must by now be both deeper and further west than the main route to Infiernillo.

As this passage seemed to promise the major breakthrough needed to extend the system at depth under the ridge to the south, where sinks lie up to 1600m above the Infiernillo sumps, both parties were fielded into it the next day. We elected to survey north while Peter, Roy and Patty went south. Our lead, Death Coral Rift, headed dead straight in a high rift floored with death coral, a sort of muddy calcite encrustation that seems to grow in passage annually flooded with turbid saturated water which drains slowly. We shot leg after leg, mainly easy and long, until we came to a shattered chamber. Climbs led to more bouldery passage, still heading north, but eventually we reached a conclusive, though draughting, choke, apparently close to the Netherhall. From here we headed back the 800m we had surveyed to see how the others had got on. After stopping for a few photos, we met the other group just beyond the entry point in enlarging passage.

They had surveyed over 1200m in generally large draughting passage heading south all the way. This passage was now nearly as far south as the southernmost point of the system. We returned to camp elated after fourteen and a half hours, and discussed stretching food supplies to allow one survey team to carry on south. When Peter, Terri and Louise set off next “morning” however, they quickly returned, having found the system was in flood. This meant that the World Beyond would be difficult, but more important, the Canal might be sumped.

Roy, Patty and I set off for the surface immediately, while the others packed up their camp gear. As we ascended the pitch, we could hear the roar of the World Beyond stream. Fortunately, the passage is large, and the stream was by no means impassable, so we quickly hurried on. When we reached the passage just before The Canal, we were relieved to be free of the roar of the stream but worried to find that the draught appeared to be absent. I lowered myself gingerly into The Canal and swum to the lowest point where I found that though the water was higher, there was still a draught howling through the small airspace. At some risk to lights, we all got through, thinking that our troubles were now over – but the sight that greeted us at the end of The Canal soon changed all that. The Rio Verde stream had risen from a tiny trickle to a sizeable torrent crashing down the climbs, making these very sporting, and causing havoc with the lights in the squeezes. When we reached the Flowstone Falls, it became apparent that it couldn’t be climbed, even with my Oldham lamp, so we were very glad of the rope we had rigged, though somewhat worried about possible abrasion in the water. I prusikked first, and re-rigged the rope to move the fairly minor abrasion clear, then illuminated the pitch while the others climbed. The rest of the Rio Verde was equally sporting and it was a relief to reach dry passage at Mud Ball Crawl. A brief panic hit us as we heard a loud roar from the Crack of Doom, but the torrent here proved to be mainly illusory. We didn’t bother to change into dry gear as we slogged slowly out of the Historic section to be met by Jim Pisarowicz just inside the entrance as we emerged just before midday after ten hours caving.

We crashed out quickly in case we had to go back in to take a food stash for the others as we were sure that The Canal would soon sump behind us, but in fact the others came out about three hours after us, having dumped some gear at the World Beyond. We learned from Jim that almost four inches of rain had fallen in the previous three days, as the start of the wet season was approaching.

Whilst waiting to see what the weather would do (it improved) and waiting for water levels to drop safely, we had a day in another local cave, Cueva del Borrego. This was a Swiss-cheese-like maze where a large and well-decorated chamber (The Totem Room) diffused into passages leading off and reconnecting in all directions. Apparently no previous survey trip had managed more than four or five survey legs before people had wandered off trying to identify a “main way on” with little success. Our ploy was to treat the cave as a large chamber with bedrock columns which we needed to survey both sides of. The actual survey legs took little time to record, but the sketching was a lot more time-consuming. I recall the survey adding a few hundred metres to the “length” of the cave, but the term is a bit meaningless in an environment like this.

Terry, Peter and myself retrieved the dumped gear from the Lost World and derigged the rope on a trip on April 28th. This took nine hours underground, mainly because Terri was taking photos which we hadn’t had time or energy to take on the main rigging-in trip or the week-long trip itself. This would be the last trip to any depth on the expedition as everyone else had, by this time, left the area and we were just mopping up before returning to Texas.

La Yerbabuena

Wednesday 1st April
Set out with Jerry about midday to walk to La Yerbabuena, a village about 7 km away (straight line). We had minimal bivvi gear and food for 3 days, plus a rope to drop a cliff of ~100′. The weather was fairly cloudy and much of the walking on wooded hillsides, so we made reasonable time on the 10 km walk. Above one particularly steep grade we came to a place where the road ran along a ledge blasted out of the solid rock for a couple of hundred metres. The view here was excellent, though hazy, and we could see the 400m cliffs of the cañon we were aiming to enter- a couple of notches could be seen in the wall, one of which we would use. To the right – ahead of us on the road – was the cleared area of La Yerbabuena. It took a while to reach the settlement where we had a refresco and got water before heading up through the village to find a camping spot. We slept under a tent flysheet under some trees – which would have been fine except for the rain which fell in the evening. We kept dry from the rain but got pretty damp from the condensation in our bivvi bags.

We cooked on petrol stoves, but were using our carbide lights to see. A whole series of insects (mostly moths) found the carbide flame fascinating. Each one would flutter about and crawl up the lamp, testing the bright light with an antenna which instantly sizzled off. Far from putting them off, this seemed to merit closer investigation, and by the end of the evening the lamps were surrounded by piles of self-immolated bugs.

Thursday 2nd April
Woke up fairly early and made breakfast after which all our actions were closely watched by four Mexican kids and a dog. Spent a while drying gear before packing up and moving down to the village where we left most of our gear in a house with the family of one of the kids.

After getting water, we went up the hill to the cañon rim, where the view was spectacular and a descent route looked unlikely. Jerry soon found a route down – very steep and loose – about 70% of the trees were firmly anchored but almost none of the rocks, so our descent was accompanied by much crashing of loose debris. After a long descent, we noticed that rocks now crashed for a short way, then went silent for a few seconds before a single, loud, crash reached us. We expected to find a vertical drop of ~30m which had stopped the previous party, so we found a “good” belay and rigged the rope, but it was soon apparent that a drop with a 4-5 second fall time was more than 30m and our rope was far too short. Once over the lip and able to look down, we saw that the rope went just beyond a ledge from where rocks fell free, taking ~4.2 seconds before we heard the splash. Say 80m or ~250 ft to the water. We had rigged directly above the resurgence which seemed to have ~1½ cusec flowing, but the cliff was undercut below us so we couldn’t see the nature of the rising. The changeover from abseil to prussik just below the ledge was rather exposed (very similar to the top of Malham Cove but more spectacular – 300m cliffs to the left and jungle all around). After I had ascended, Jerry went down for a look, whilst I clipped myself securely to our main belay. Suddenly, on the other side of the gully, a random tree keeled over and a sizable log slid off over the edge of the drop. There was nothing I could do to stop this – it was well out of my reach – I just shouted “Below!” and hoped it wasn’t too close to Jerry. Fortunately, although close and giving him a nasty fright – it did miss and didn’t damage the rope.

Back on the slope above the drop, we retreated fairly easily (although a bright green snake just above head level in the trees was an unwelcome bit of the scenery). We spotted an impenetrable fissure draughting fiercely outward on the way up. Further up, a cave entrance was visible part way up the cliff and reaching it looked fairly easy, but the climb got harder and more unnerving as we got further up, so we gave up. Near the top we found a very short cave with no air, so Jerry sketched it and tagged it before we retreated to La Yerbabuena.

After picking up our gear we descended to the water trough to get water and then went in seach of a rock shelter cave since it looked like rain again. Jerry soon found the Yerbabuena Hilton – a long rock shelter with room for half a dozen – we made ourselves at home, cooked a meal and lit a fire – I fell asleep early and it didn’t rain.

Friday 3rd April
Hot – the theme for the day. Went to get water at the village and then set out to walk back to Conrado Castillo. This went fairly well at first, with odd stops for rests and taking photographs, but soon got hotter and hotter as the day was sunny and fairly clear. Being more uphill on the way back, the way got weary and we decided to go via the road rather than the trail, preferring ½km extra to a 200m ascent. Just off a hairpin on the road Jerry and I went to look at a cliff which falls free for ~400 ft with an excellent view both towards La Yerbabuena and the coastal plain. The cliffs to our right were probably ~800 ft – pretty impressive. The final 2½ km on the road were pretty hot and tiring and it was a relief to get back to the field house after six hours on the road. Discovered that the other party had got back the previous evening – one pit ran out of rope but the mine didn’t really go. Patty Mothes and Roy Jameson had arrived in our absence, but Duwain and Del had taken off and gone home, so we were still ten.

I had a number of fairly successful slides from this trip, but made the mistake of posting three boxes of photos home from Texas. They made it to the UK, but HM Customs and Excise opened my parcel and didn’t trouble to seal it back up again with any care. Whilst the bigger items arrived home (including my written journal of the trip), the boxes of slides didn’t, and by the time it occurred to me that loose boxes of Kodak slides probably got sent to Kodak UK for tracing, it was too late, as Kodak only keep them for three months (about the time it took me to return to the UK and discover their absence). Jerry wasn’t carrying a camera, and none of the others photographers on the expedition came on this trip, so no photos now exist.