If you were to ask the average person—anywhere in the world—for the name of a Mexican cave—you would probably get in reply, “that cave with the giant crystals,” in reference to La Cueva de los Cristales connected to the Naica Mine 300 meters below the surface in Chihuahua, now celebrated thanks to extensive coverage by NatGeo and Discovery channel.
During the years that Naica was drawing international attention, cave explorers from all over the world were flocking to other points further south in Mexico, for example to San Luis Potosí, Guerrero and Oaxaca, areas which have long been considered “the new frontier of caving.” Here cavers have a high likelihood of being among the first human beings ever to boldly set foot where “no one has gone before.”
Maybe the best example of such an area is the Huautla Cave System located near the city of Huautla de Jimenez in Oaxaca's Sierra Mazateca mountains. Exploration began in 1965 and since then numerous expeditions mapped over 75 kilometers of passages and found 20 entrances to the system. In the late winter of 2013, an international team of cave divers entered the cave, rappelled through crashing waterfalls down chasms as tall as skyscrapers and carried out eight separate Scuba dives past “the mother of all sumps” to reach a depth of -1554 meters,making Huautla the Western Hemisphere's deepest cave... and now the longest of the 17 deepest caves in the world.
In 2015, 47 speleologists from seven countries (Mexico, USA, UK, Australia, Poland, Switzerland and Romania) participated in a six-week expedition to venture into parts of the system which had not yet been explored.
“We explored and mapped in two caves 700 meters deep,” said veteran Huautla pioneer and Explorers Club member Bill Steele. “You need a lot more than 700 meters of rope to reach those points because you have horizontal traverses to do on the way down...and it takes a whole week just to put the ropes in place.”
Newly reorganized as PESH (Proyecto Espleleológico Sistema Huautla), Steele's team now includes Mexican biologists who, during this one expedition, discovered six new species of troglobitic life.
“We had paleontologists from INAH,” continues Steele, “and boy, were they happy because they discovered Pleistocene (Ice Age) animals which had fallen into a natural trap. All their bones were right there, perfectly preserved, animals like giant ground sloths. It also appears they found the bones of a gigantic bison (Bison antiquus). Imagine: bison in the mountains of southern Mexico!”
During April of this year, PESH organized the third of ten planned expeditions, from which Bill Steele has just returned.
“I'm home at last!” posted Steele on El Cinco de Mayo after a six-day drive from Huautla to Irving, Texas. “All I want to do is rest and watch CNN.”
When asked what the PESH cavers had accomplished this year, Steele stated that new passages had been discovered, bringing the length of Sistema Huautla to 75.3 km, and its depth to 1560 meters. He added: “A total of 46 speleologists from six countries participated this year (USA, Mexico, England, Poland, Canada, and Switzerland). Five of these were Mexican cave scientists working in the disciplines of geology, biology, and paleontology. Of special note was the discovery of the first complete skull of a Pleistocene sloth (Megalonyx Jeffersonii) in Mexico, which has been extinct for over 12,000 years. It was recovered by Ivan Alarcón of INAH. A lot was done in the Huautla area caves, but There's much work remaining. I think only half of the cave has been explored.”
It should be mentioned that Bill Steele has dedicated a great deal of his time and energy to knowing and befriending the local people in the Huautla area, who are mostly Mazatecs (“People of the Deer”). With the help of Huautla English teacher, translator, and now beginner cave explorer, Alma Rodríguez, Steele gave fourteen presentations about PESH's work to around 800 students living in the area and actually took many of the school teachers and children caving. Texas-based Whole Earth Provision Company created a brochure in Spanish explaining all about PESH and its goals, which the foreign speleologists found very useful when encountering local people on their way to and from the caves. “Next year we hope to have this brochure in Mazateco,” says Steele with a smile.
The caves of Huautla are located in valleys filled with rare flora and fungi, the most famous of which is a mushroom called Psilocbe, supposedly used by John Lennon and Bob Dylan under the spiritual guidance of a local Mazatec curandera, Maria Sabina. In the past, the curanderos have objected to explorers entering certain caves due to ancient beliefs in “cave spirits”. Approaching this problem from a new angle, this year Bill Steele arranged to meet with a Mazateco curandero who performed a special ceremony for the speleologists “to get things right with the cave spirits.”
Where does Huautla stand in relation to the rest of the world's caves? “Way back in 1987,” says Bill Steele, “a famous French caver named Phillipe Roullier approached me deep inside the cave and said, with his German-Swiss accent, “Bill, I do believe this is the most magnificent cave on earth.” Twenty-nine years later—after numerous stupendous additions to the cave, Steele hears more and more speleologists saying the same... “And wait till you see what we discover next year!” he adds with a knowing smile.
Would you like to visit the Huautla caves from your living room, without getting your clothes muddy? Have a look at Peshcaving.org, a beautiful website with great pictures, and be sure to click on the many links listed.