Once that decision was made and the ticket bought there was no going back and Golandrinas began to feature prominently in many of my dreams.
With Wil Howie and Gareth Davies, a wild globe trotting Welshman, we drove to Lafayette (Louisiana) to pick up John Sevenaire and then moved on by various stages to Mexico.
Near the small town of Linares, Wil turned the van up into a picturesque gorge to a high plateau and our first pit, the Pozo de Gavillan, which is used by the Americans as a warm up drop. I had seen Wil's slides which portrayed the hole in a pretty way with the sun shining on the clear water 260 feet below. Today it was different; the day was overcast and the large hole gave me the impression of an abandoned quarry with its sandstone-like walls overhanging in huge, unstable flakes. Wil quickly abseiled down into the lake and swam to the edge and pulled the rope over, enabling the rest of us to enjoy a dry descent and sort our gear out. The swing back over the lake was quite exhilarating and I did the drop twice, trying to get familiar with the idea of hanging about in tandem on the rope.
Tom and Louise Strong arrived in their Toyota after having driven almost non-stop from L.A. to bring the 1,500 foot rope down and, after more Speleo Bopping, we all drove down to Ciudad Valles which is a sort of Mexican Ingleton.
On the journey down I had been informed that our first real objective would be El Sótano, the biggest drop in the world at 1,345 feet and was also informed that it would be good for me as it was not as 'head hanging' as Golandrinas and would break me in gently!
Camping down by the Río Santa Maria we unloaded the rope and began coiling it into three sections for the trek in, and discovered that it was damaged. This was a blow, and after a lengthy discussion it was decided to take other ropes and tie them together. I was too inexperienced to pass a knot on this sort of drop but Wil in his infinite wisdom tried to convince me that I would be alright, and the following morning gave me an intensive course on passing knots, hanging from the road bridge. We parked the vehicles at a small village and loaded with 60-70 pounds each we began the long trek to Sótano. The heat and humidity soon had us flagging and I felt grim, wondering if I was taking on too much. However, when my second wind arrived I felt fit and stayed this way for all the trip. Steadily climbing and taking turns with the rope we crossed the first small ridge and by nightfall were halfway up the second when we made our first camp. Louise Strong, by this time, was making quite an impression and proving as stroing as most of us and even stronger than some. Louise also proved to be quite a female and gave fantastic back massages which she assured me "weren't meant to be erotic - and take that silly smirk off your face!"
The trek into Sótano was reputed to be 29 miles with a vertical gain of 9,000 ft. In reality it seemed much less in distance, but when we reached the crest of the main ridge the following day and looked out across the wide river valley, we realised all our hard won altitude would soon be lost. Slightly above our own level on the opposite mountain ridge we saw a huge hole framed in white limestone that gashed into the dark green foliage of the forest; 'El Sótano de Barro' was indeed an impressive sight. Cursing the fact that we had to lose about 4,000 ft. in height we began the long trek down to the dried out river course and then up again to Rancho Barro.
Camp was established just beyond the village and the following day we wandered about in the forest until two local lads relieved us of some pesos and put us on the right track for the hole. As luck would have it the day turned out dull and cold with a mist shrouding the bare limestone edge of Sótano. Looking down, nothing could be seen, but we sensed the vastness below.
The pit was rigged from a tree with 500 feet of PMI (abrasive resistant rope) at the top and the 900 feet longer Bluewater below. By the time this was done the mist was dispersing and the dimensions of Sótano were being uncovered. Wil Howie made the first descent and we waited almost half an hour before we heard the faint shout which told us that he was down.
I rigged into the rope and double checked everything before I eased myself down the few feet of sloping rock and over the edge where I had to look down to clear a piece of carpet rope protection. Between my feet the rope went straight down and melted away into space in the biggest hole anyone could ever imagine. My mind blew a fuse as I stopped on the lip of the overhang and tried to take in the vast dimensions. El Sótano is on the slope of a mountain and to my left the high side overhung with large grey slabs and to my right, 1,500 feet away, the lower rim ran into a huge overgrown gulley. Beyond the rim a panorama of distant hills spread out into a blue horizon. Behind me (1,000 feet away) the opposite wall dropped sheer into the depths to join in oval symmetry as the shaft narrowed in to a darker-greenish, circular hole. It was like looking down a gigantic cliff into an even more gigantic well, and as I swung clear away from the wall I concentrated on moving slowly to keep the rack cool and took in the strange swallow-type nests and plants on the facing wall, which gradually got further away as I descended.
The exposure was so great as to be unreal and I was quite surprised at my calmness, which was almost fatalistic as, looking down into infinity, I could gradually make out the knot slowly moving up towards me. The sense of illusion was heightened as I realised the knot was only at 500 feet, with 900 feet to go, yet seemed almost on the floor of the shaft!
"Here it comes", "Slow down", "Stop a foot from the knot", "Get the jumar on - damn these bloody gloves", "Missed the trigger", "Blast, the rope's still moving", "Quick! Get the jumar on .... hell, too late!!" ..... these were my thoughts as I acted out the instructions given me by Wil. Alas, the thick gauntlet gloves I was wearing made me fumble and I was slow getting the jumar on. My other mistake was trying to lock the rack by lifting the rope; 900 feet of rope doesn't lift easily and I lost the few vital inches that made the difference. I quickly poured some water on the rack and reviewed the situation. Gareth's borrowed jumar rope was a bit on the short side and the knot on this, together with the knot on the main rope, had eased into a position between the two prongs in my rack.
The two main 'crabs' on my 'Whillans' had also got in there and somehow my camera strap and cord had got twisted around the jumar rope. Altogether it was a bit of a balls up. I unfastened my camera strap and then cut free the safety cord, taking care to keep my knife clear of the rope. With the camera out of the way I fixed a knee cam to the rope and tried several times to get the Lewis rope walker on my left foot onto the rope. I soon became very tired as I strugled to hold 900 feet of rope up whilst trying to fasten the rope in the rope walker. Gradually I began to realise that my system was not designed for this sort of manoevre and, using the knee cam and a spare Petzl, I tried to prussik up the rope but was held back each time by the weight of rope pulling me back at my waist. I tried to unscrew my 'crabs' but again these were locked solid on a twist with the weight and I could not free either of them. After more struggling I realised that I was not going to get anywhere without cutting the main rope below me but I didn't want to upset Wil, especially as he was down below. I sat for a while weighing up every alternative and looked down at a very faint blue dot which was Wil's helmet and watched two curious white dots fluttering down and down, and slowly realised that I had dropped my gloves. "Wil", I shouted.
"Yes, Jim?" he replied.
"I have a bit of a problem", I answered.
"Hang about, I'll come up", came the answering shout, and then a word of warning, "The rope is going to bounce!"
Suspended almost in the centre of Sótano could be the ultimate experience, yet when the rope began to bounce up and down and gyrate I experienced even more sensations, so I started taking photographs to take my mind off things - like how long will it take for me to hit the deck when the rope breaks!
Eventually, the "Howie bring 'em back alive service" popped into view between my legs and Wil's homely face seemed a thing of beauty (I must have been freaking out!) The face studied the conglomeration of metal and rope and smiled a weak sort of "Christ, what a bloody mess" smile. I waited for words of wisdom. "Yes, you seem to be all of a tangle - but don't worry, Jim lad, we'll soon have you out of all that", said Wil, and we then proceeded to do a sort of "daring young man on the flying trapeze" act as Wil handed me various jumars and Gibbs which I clipped on for him as, gradually, he moved up the rope and over me, taking care to stand on my balls in the process..... We had one nasty moment when some safety string on his Gibbs popped with a loud report and I threw my legs around him in the "scissors" as I didn't want to lose him at this stage; yet all was well. We did have a slight argument when he told me to take my knee cam off. "No", I said, "I like that on, but I'll take this off".
"No!" shouts Wil, "Not that - the knee cam!"
So the knee cam came off and I suffered agony while Wil climbed over me. Once in position the maestro was able to organise things. I pulled up some of the rope from below and handed it to Wil who held it while I prussiked higher until, with the rension off the rack, I was eventually able to free the various jams and get the rack off. It felt good to be free again, yet we still had difficulty getting the Lewis foot ropewalker on again and without the rope being held from above it would have been impossible. Once it was on I relaxed as I slowly lowered the rope, only to tense up again when the ropewalker turned out to be on upside down. We had to repeat the whole process and put the rope walker on upside initially down to compensate for the change in rope direction. By the time I was organised and rigged in for the ascent I was feeling tired and both hands were knotting with cramp.
Moving up the rope I began to warm up but with only a hundred feet to go my foot cam suddenly felt odd and, looking down, I saw the sheath splaying open. The pin was being pulled through as the wire safety split ring straightened out and was forced through the sheath. Once again the Petzl came into action and I was thankful I had spent some time rigging this with a tape that had some loops for either feet or harness - and this is what got me out.
I was informed by the others that I had spent three hours on the rope and Tom Stroing made the wise decision not to go down. However, Gareth and Louise made the drop and then did the return climb in one and a half hours, which is fast - too fast as it turned out for they had left some loose rope at the bottom under a log, and when we tried to de-rig the rope was held from below.
After two hours struggling, with Gareth perched over the fierce drop on another short rope, we found it impossible to free the 1,400 feet of rope. It was getting dark and the camp was along way down the mountain so we had to retreat. The walk down through the forest was rough with three lights between five and constantly losing direction, but eventually we smelled wood smoke and heard John Sevenaire, our camp guardian, shouting.
Later that evening we discovered that we were short of water, so Gareth and I volunteered to go down the mountain, to Rancho Barro, to the well.
"We will be back by midnight", I said, but the others persuaded us to take sleeping bags just in case we got lost. "Rubbish, us Brits never get lost!" said I. Two hours later we were lost.
By now we were very tired, hot and thirsty, with but a mouthful of water left we staggered down the spur of the mountain and slowly came to the conclusion that we were on the wrong spur. We hadn't a clue which way to go, then I remembered that there were lots of dogs at Rancho Barro, so we began barking, and a chorus of dog barks answered us from another spur higher up. Wearily we trampled back up to the tree line and cut across to the pther spur, barkign (or, by this time, yelping occasionally) and being answered by dogs, which sounded quite vicious. We approached a hut and suddenly we were surrounded by snarling dogs which snapped hungrily at us as we made a rapid retreat. "Hmm, wrong dogs", said Gareth.
An hour later saw us creeping round another isolated dwelling wondering how to wake up the inhabitants without alarming them. "What's the Spanish for knackered, dying of thirst and lost", I was asking Gareth, when an old peasant appeared and took us partly on our way to Rancho Barro. Thankfully, we filled the water containers and then Gareth made the discovery that we had left the chlorine tablets at the camp. I tried to say "you Welsh twit" but by this time I was so thirsty that I could only croak. We were faced with a choice of drinking the water and getting amoebic dysentery or spending a rough night suffering from thirst. We settled for the latter but with our feet in a bucket of water. The next day we found that Louise had descended to free the rope.
We met Mike Boon in Mexico City on Christmas Eve, and had a wild party before moving on to Cuetzalan.
We arrived here in fog and left again in fog. However this is one of Mexico's most promising caving areas. The place is like a giant pepper-pot with huge caves swallowing up rivers and, as yet, no risings discovered. Mike Boon and Pete Lord have turned into a pair of Mexican Eli Simpsons and are revered by the visiting American cavers who call them 'Sir' and touch their forelocks frequently when addressing them. There was some talk of putting up a statue to Mike Boon, but it was considered indecent by the local council and was dropped.
The A.M.C.S. (Association for Mexican Cave Studies) rent a small dwelling just outside the town. This was to be our headquarters and I was soon introduced to the various inhabitants:- Rick Rigg, who is Desperate Dan SMith's right-hand man (if you don't know or have never heard of Dan Smith don't worry), Joseph Liebers, Bill Liedman (who has a thing about psychodelic mushrooms) and Lew who doesn't say anything (America's Talking Pete). This was how tings started, nice and cosy, but suddenly we were descended upon by two truckloads of Texas cavers.
American Mexican cavers are the most intense I have yet met. Bulgarians, for instance, are really keen because they have to be - one word from their shop steward and it's back to the salt mines - but Americans seem to do it voluntarily. They spend all night talking about caving (even when the pubs are open!) and all day getting together their gear, which includes a kind of mini drug store (medicinal except in Liedman's case), complete first-aid kit, needle and thread, compass, barometer, clinometer, pedometer, tape, spare carbide lights, six electrics, inflatable boats, night lights, rucksack with spare clothing, thermometers, candles, matches, cameras, underground bird-watchers kit, bug bottles, waterproof pad and pencil, SRT gear, pocket calculators and .... the list is endless. So alltrips started about teatime and, together with Rick, Bill, Wil and Gareth and one Mexican caver Alihandros, I found myself on a trip to investigate a 100 metre pit that Rick had discovered in Piloztoc.
The caves in this area are extremely humid with a temperature averaging 60 degrees Farenheit, so caving in westuits is a really sweaty experience and water bottles are a necessity; for even though most of the caves contain water it is highly polluted from the vilages above.
After about a quarter of amile into the cave, down two small pitches, we came to a large passage where a shale band had been washed out and left like a hanging slag heap overlooking a largish pitch which Rick reckoned was 300 feet deep. I flung a rock and it didn't sound that far, then someone else reckoned it was 400 feet and we had an argument when I said it was 250 feet. I watched in amazement as Rick brought out a stop-watch and a pocket calculator! Someone was stationed above the drop with an aerodynamically suited rock, 5" by 5", and on the command 1,2,3, dropped it. Rick did this three times to elimiate errors and then computerised everything, allowing for wind speed and humidity etc., etc. After several minutes of intense mental activity he stated that the pit was 245 feet deep. Wow! I was impressed....! After another even more complicated manoeuvre, where Bill Liedman discovered that his rope was 100 feet longer than he thought, the pit was found to be 230 feet deep. After half-a-mile of new exploration we broke into the huge, 200-foot wide river passage of Zoquiapan.
This account could go on at length so I will curtail it: after a glorious New Years Eve, where several of the worst inebriates (myself, Boon, etc., etc.) climbed the 70 feet maypole in the churchyard at Quetzalan, we all split up and headed for different caving areas. There must be enough cave exploration in this area to keep British and American cavers occupied for twenty years!
Being a potholer and a big pitch man I have been fascinated by the stories about this huge shaft ever since it was 'discovered' by American cavers. Trying to imagine a free drop of 1,100 feet became a permanent pastime and I used to spend hours on top of Lakeland crags, quarries, cliffs and tall trees, in fact I even went up Blackpool Tower, but still couldn't conjure up the right atmosphere ... soon I woudl find out. The walk in was a totally pleasant experience, mainly because our three hard Americans wer doing their 'Macho' bit by insisting on carrying the rope. John was doing his own thing thus leaving the three normal boozy type Brits to stop at every little 'Refresco' stand on the trail and have a beer - with Martin there was an added attraction, for everywhere he goes the locals insist on buying him drinks.
We sauntered up the 1,000 year old trail, taking care not to get too near Wil, Louise and Tom in case one of them wanted a lift with the rope. Unfair really; we did ask them - once?? Eventually, the magical mystery tour ended when, after a hard slog to beat fast approaching night, the three of us arrived at a ploughed field which Gareth assured us was the camp site and then made me, much against my better judgement, come and look at the hole.
In deepening dusk we thrashed through the jungle for a short distance and stood on some bare limestone blocks taking in a large oval hole, 200 feet by 180 feet. It seemed ominous and awe inspiring and when Gareth, the Welsh gnome, heaved a bloddy great rock in and began timing it, the deep sonorous boom which came from the depths struck terror in my soul. Gareth looked at me and grinned an evil Welsh grin.
"What do you think, Jim boyo?" he said, "I'll bet you don't sleep tonight".
The following day we reunited, rigged the pit and Wil, our gallant leader, vanished over the edge whilst I got ready fastening various devices on my person.
Much later, under Louise's expert advice, I rigged on and forced myself over the lip on five bars and hung suspended in a bush. My life in full of anticlimaxes .... I heaved my way down the rope and looked at seven acres spread out between my feet, Golandrinas is not a hole, it's an experience. As I pulled my way down the first hundred feet or so I gazed in wonder since after the first 15 feet the walls belled further and further away until I was suspended in a giant dome, with thousands of birds circling in small groups near the vague backcloth of the far away walls - grey, green and soft with illusion. I had the feeling I was descending into an illusion. The distances became so unrelated as to appear unreal and the small flocks of green and yellow parakeets wheeling and turning like multi-coloured dots only seemed to heighten this feeling of floating in space in a vast pleasure dome. My fifth bar was proving so difficult to get off that I ignored it and continued heaving up the rope until I began to move easily and really experienced pleasure. Down below the seven acres began to spread out, taking on contours and looking less like a map. The lower walls took on angles and sharp lines appeared as I gathered speed.
I saw a dot move amongst the boulders below and heard a shout. It was Wil, still a long way off, and I scarcely seemed to be moving. I glanced at the rope, whistling through my rack, slowed down and became aware that I was descending into a huge pothole with steep slopes of rock debris, a semi-twilight musty world of moss, soil and isolation. The bottom of Golandrinas suddenly rushed up towards me. "Keep the rope moving through your rack", said Wil, as I staggered back and sat down, quickly unzipping my warm bars. I wandered about at the bottom of this great shaft taking pictures of the others as they appeared dot-like on the sky-line and watched Tom's cautious descent. Then followed Gareth and Louise's blasé flying, for this was their second time. Gareth gave us some Welsh singing as he came down and I must admit it sounded rather fine.
At long last the moment of truth. Wil rigged in and climbed up past the damaged section of rope and I followed, fiddling about with my borrowed gear for a long time as I didn't trust anything after my Sótano experience. Wil soon established a good rhythm, 20 steps and wait for me, then 20 steps and wait again; one climbed while the other waited. This suited me and after five or six cycles we could sit back and rest. The Howie SRT system was perfect for this. I felt completely at ease once I was far enough up to kill myself if the rope broke. I mean, there's no point in worrying about it then, so I enjoyed the view and the generally enthusiastic chat that Wil was giving me from above.
The parakeets were getting ready for their evening flight and we watched the increased activity as we climbed. Slowly I became aware of a pain in my right side where the continued pressure of a carabiner was making itself felt. I was blowing a bit so Wil dropped the pacing to 15 steps and by the time we were nearing the white limestone I was beginning to feel tired. Wil decided to lean down at this time and shake me by the hand.
"Been great climbing with you Jim", he said (I thought he was going to cut the rope), only 100 feet to go and you're making good time, you old sod".
After looking up at the white rock and the reflected sunlight I glanced down at the vastness below and received the odd impression that the shaft was filled with a lake and that the walls were reflected in the still water just below me. I shook my head and focussed my eyes and the ilusion was dispelled. I think it must have been the contrast between the light rock and the sharp delineation where the grey-brown rock takes over. Another few moves and we were fighting through the bushes and out.