“Interview” is caving club “Pod RB” initiative dedicated to discussions with cavers from all around the world. What they share about their life above and under the ground, their caving experience, stories, dreams and future plans you can find in the following lines…
Tell us something about yourself in terms of speleological experience.
I’m 38 years old and joined a caving club in 2011. I was born in Israel but grew up in the United States and have lived in Europe for the last two years. I went on my first expedition to Mexico in 2013 (Sistema J2) and have been going on expeditions and exploring caves ever since. I am a sump diver as well and generally enjoy all technical aspects of cave exploration (like bolt climbing, rigging etc). As such I am particularly drawn to deep alpine caves, but I have also spent time exploring some of the long mazy caves of the United States (Jewel, Wind, Lechuguilla etc). I’ve been involved with expeditions in Mexico (Cheve area, Huautla, Huautla resurgence, and diving in the Cerro Rabon area). I have also been on expeditions in Canada, France, Austria, Slovenia, and the Arabica Massif (Krubera).
How have you started dealing with speleology and why are you still doing it?
Ever since I was a kid I was drawn to caves and other aspects of geology (minerals, volcanos, etc). Everyone in my family thought I would become a geologist but during college I wandered astray and ended up studying particle physics. When I was 10 years old I went on a “wild cave tour” at a commercial/tourist cave in California. The tour involved a 30m rappel, which really impressed me. It took a long time for me to join a caving club (they are less advertised in the USA), but finally in graduate school I joined one. At first I was just doing sport trips just for fun, but after about a year and a half of caving my friends from the club and I discovered a small new cave in the Marble Mountains of northern California. The original entrance was very tight and I was the only one small enough to fit. I squeezed through in advance of my friends discovering several chambers beyond leading to a pit. I’ll never forget that feeling of my first time being in a totally unexplored cave. So that curiosity of wanting to see what’s around the corner is a part of why I’m still doing it. The other component is the people you meet along the way – I have caving friends from all kinds of different backgrounds all over the world.
To which club/organization do you feel you belong? Tell us something more about this group of people or organization, something about the main drive behind your activities and projects.
I’m a little different in that I have moved around geographically a lot over the past decade (and usually not to places with many local caves!). After graduate school I bounced around from various different postdoctoral positions. As such I ended up joining many clubs along the way and going caving all over the world. Right now I am of course mostly involved with the United States Deep Caving team (USDCT) https://www.usdct.org/sistemacheve_2022.php for the exploration of Cueva Cheve. I have also done a lot of diving expeditions with Beyond the Sump https://www.beyondthesump.org and am a member of Karst Underwater Research https://sites.google.com/view/karstunderwater/home.
Can you tell us about the Oaxaca region (Mexico) in terms of cave exploration, what makes it so special?
I don’t know of any other place in the world that has the kind of caves Oaxaca does – deep but also very long. They can be incredibly decorated while also having impressive waterfalls and stream passages. Also, because they are very long there is a great logistical challenge in exploring them, particularly with Cheve where it’s normal to have very long underground camps (my longest was 25 continuous days). I’ll talk more about this below.
Would you share with us about Cheve cave and how you chose to dedicate your energy there? More details such as depth, length, level of complexity, a brief exploration history, exploration specifics, major breakthroughs and potential will be much appreciated.
Sistema Cheve is very special in that it has the potential to be the deepest cave in the world. Once a connection is made between Cheve and its hydrologically known (via dye trace) resurgence, Cueve de la Mano, it will be close to 2.7km deep. Cheve is currently 1,529 m deep and 87,246 m long. The distance from the entrance to the known limit of exploration (that we reached in 2021) is 11,774 m. It takes 3 to 6 days to get there, depending on how much gear you are hauling. In 2021 we had a major breakthrough and surveyed 21 kilometers. There was a National Geographic documentary made about that expedition called “Explorer: The Deepest Cave” which can be viewed on the Nat Geo channel or Disney Plus https://www.natgeotv.com/asia/explorer-the-deepest-cave. However, in the end of 2021 we did a 75 m bolt climb at the bottom of the cave which ended in a flowstone block. So, the way on to continue exploration was unclear.
In parallel I also organized a reconnaissance return to Cueve Charco in 2021. Charco is a 1000+ m deep, notoriously tight and challenging cave that is also hydrologically connected to the Cheve resurgence. However, once we had the breakout in Cheve in 2021 Charco seemed obsolete. Another breakthrough that was made in 2021 in a smaller cave that has the potential to connect to Cheve. In the beginning of 2021 this cave was just 100 m deep but after the breakthrough we got to 250 m. I further focused on this cave during the 2022 Cheve expedition. However, exploration progress was very slow due to the tight and muddy nature of the cave.
We are following the Cheve exploration progress with huge interest and would like to hear more about your 2023 expedition.
2023 was a hugely successful year. The focus was on finding a “short cut” to the bottom of Cheve. After 2021 the logistics of getting to the most remote camp (camp 7) were becoming almost unfeasible – we were coming close to the point that the amount of resources (food, battery power, fuel etc.) that needed to be consumed just to get to the limit of exploration was more than could be carried in. So, in 2023 we had multiple strategies for finding a new entrance that would lead directly to the bottom of Cheve so that exploration could be continued. I focused again on the new cave from 2021 – its position is such that it could prove to be key to not only making that short cut but also finding the way on. We had a big breakthrough this past year and more than doubled the cave’s depth from the previous year (it’s now 734 m deep) and established a third underground camp (C3P). We ran out of time but the cave still goes. This will be my main focus again in 2024.
We heard a lot about Bill Stone. How do you work as a team?
He provides guide service when we are in borehole. Meanwhile, I lead the way through the tight passages.
What about other favorite regions, caves or areas of interest?
Too many to really choose from! I’ve done several expeditions in Slovenia over the years and have some good friends there. So that’s high on my list. As a cave diver I also go to northern Florida many times a year (I even moved there during the Covid pandemic), so that is certainly a very special place to me.
What are your plans on current and future projects?
My main focus in 2024 will be a two month long return to the Cheve area and continue exploration in the middle karst area – I think we are in a position where we can have another major breakthrough there. I also have a major sump diving project in one of the few alpine caves in the US (called Main Drain) tentatively planned for fall of 2024.
What is your approach toward attracting new speleologists in terms of preparation and training (examples, duration and accents of training, etc.)?
My advice to new speleologists going on their first expedition (or joining a new project / new team) is to first talk to the expedition organizers and learn what the conditions will be like. Every cave is different and requires different skills, preparation, and gear. Before going on my first expedition in 2013 I trained for a few months to make sure I could conduct myself safely and efficiently while traveling through the cave – which would be my first 1000+m deep cave. General physical fitness is also pretty important. Because I lived in California at the time (and did not have any vertical caves nearby) I constructed a static rope training system in my living room to simulate climbing up ropes with a heavy pack. That said, it’s more valued and important to be safe, helpful, and team player than it is to be the fastest or strongest caver. My main advice for new cavers on a project is to approach the organizers and ask what you can do to help.
If you have experience with incidents in caves, would you share this with us, so other speleologists can learn from your experience? What would be your advice in case of such incidents?
The most dramatic incident that happened to me was getting trapped for 69 hours during the 2018 Pena Colorada expedition (https://www.beyondthesump.org/return-to-the-pena-colorada-2018). This was a diving expedition in the hypothesized overflow resurgence of Sistema Huautla. During the course of de-rigging the cave (I was diving in Sump 3 at the time) we heard a loud “boom” and the water level started rising dramatically fast – we had already been camping in the cave for about a week at the time and later learned that it had been heavily raining on the surface for days. There were five of us and we ran from Sump 3 towards a very large chamber (which we correctly assessed would not flood to the ceiling). We got there just as a smaller tunnel sumped behind us. Our cave camp was further upstream (into the cave) and when we tried to go there to grab food/sleeping bags etc. we discovered the passage had also sumped. So we were trapped without food, camping gear, or dive gear. We had nothing but our wetsuits, a single space blanket, our headlamps and four granola bars. Without our dive gear we had nothing to do but wait for the water level to drop – and it was unclear if it would and how long that would take. Fortunately, the water level did drop enough for us to get back to sump 3 where our dive gear waited and we were able to exit the cave. You can read a little more about this story here: https://www.sidetracked.com/cueva-de-la-pena-colorada/
The other scary incident that happened to me personally was a few years ago in a cave in Slovenia where I took a 6m fall. I needed stitches and had some bruised ribs but was lucky enough to not need a rescue. I exited on my own with the help of the cavers from the DZRJL club (https://www.facebook.com/DZRJL).
I learned a lot from both these incidents, but one common takeaway was that I was pretty lucky to be with the people I was with at the time. In both cases people (with perhaps the exception of one guy during the flood) behaved calmly and worked together to deal with the situation at hand.
What have you learned through dealing with speleology?
Aside from all the technical skills I picked up along the way, the main thing I learned is the value of teamwork. Exploring extensive caves like Cheve, Huautla, etc requires a lot of people and an immense amount of planning. Nothing can happen without a group of highly specialized people coming together.
Would you like to share something more with us?
Feel free to get in touch if you are interested in helping out!