Coahuila '94 The Cutting Edge Project by Pete Hollinqs
On Monday 13 June 1 994, 21 cavers from the USA, Canada and the UK drove down from Texas into the Cahuilla desert of northern Mexico. The trip had been organised by Peter Sprouse who also provided a fair chunk of the transport in the form of a 1954 4-wheel drive Dodge Power Wagon. Unfortunately it had only just been rebuilt and proved a little unreliable, but it has the potential for being the perfect caving vehicle.
Our target area was a 20000 hectare cattle ranch in the middle of Mexico's second largest area of limestone. However as we were to find out, low precipitation levels have probably slowed cave development. We approached the Ranch el Nevado via a 90 mile drive from the Del Rio / Ciudad Acuna border crossing. The majority of the route was on unpaved roads, which while passable without four wheel drive when dry, had it rained 4-wheel drive would have been essential.
We camped next to a 50,000 gallon water tank, the main source of water for the entire ranch. From the hill top we had stunning views of the volcanic peaks Cerro Nevado and Cerro Colorado. However the most exciting sight was a 15 metre square entrance visible in the cliffs on the other side of the valley.
The principal problem with exploration in Cahuilla at this time of year was the temperatures of 110°F in the shade (of which there was very little). As a result one of the more popular projects was a draughting dig, especially as it was only a short walk from the road. When first shown to Peter Sprouse the cave consisted of a 6 inch crack, however some serious chemical persuasion the previous winter had resulted in some 20 metres of crawlway that ended in a low chamber. It was from there that digging continued, with a further 15m of crawl being opened up before more explosive was required. Due to problems with importing explosives into Mexico at the time of the Chiapas uprising, we only had a limited supply and so by the end of the week the dig was left still blowing and starting to show a downwards trend.
Throughout the week teams headed off to examine a number of canyons where openings had been seen in the cliffs. The majority of these proved to be only shallow rock shelters, but only after long, steep climbs through very sharp vegetation. One cave, Cueva del Ciento Avispes, a small shelter cave with signs of prehistoric habitation, proved particularly well guarded by a swarm of wasps. In the same canyon Cueva de las Ventanas Groovy (Groovy Windows cave) was also surveyed, with multiple entrances offering spectacular views.
Another group were shown a pit by Benito, the ranch hand. While this proved to be an 80ft blind pit, one of the explorers, wandering around while the pit was being rigged, located Pozo de las Escalera Crystal (Crystal Stairway cave). This proved to be a three pitch cave reaching a depth of 130ft. The cave was well decorated and contained numerous remains both animal and human, including an almost intact deer skeleton.
The Canon de Caballo, was another area investigated by members of the expedition. Among the finds was Cueva Abajo del Castillo (Cave under the Castle), this had a 12m high entrance but was only 20m long. About 2 km down the canyon was Cueva del Oso (it was named Bear Cave because of the bear tracks leading up to the entrance), a 50m cave with numerous archaeological remains including a piece of woven basket protruding from the floor.
On the last day of the trip a few adventurous souls headed off on a mammoth drive to another pit Peter Sprouse knew of. Pozo del Columpio was named after the cable suspension bridge that carries the water pipes over the shakehole. The cave was pushed to a depth of 180ft with no way on at the bottom, but a small draught was noted.
Throughout the expedition much time was spent slogging through canyons and along ridges searching for entrances. At one point a group made a two hour trek to the entrance we could see from camp. Unfortunately this proved to be only a few metres long. As a result of these hikes through lechuguilla and other varieties of cactus, not to mention the acacia like bushes with their one inch long thorns, many evenings were spent removing spines from various appendages. It was during one of these sessions that Marion Smith was heard to remark "this must be one of those Peter Sprouse cutting edge of exploration trips" a voice from the darkness replied, somewhat bitterly "yes, everything has a cutting edge around here". Thus the Cutting Edge Project came into being.
However the viscous vegetation was not our only problem, the fauna also held its terrors, including killer bees, scorpions, black widow spiders, rattlesnakes and bears (they were seen twice during the trip) not to mention the possibility of contracting histoplasmosis or the hanta virus. The roads also proved hard on the vehicles with six tires, a distributor and a rear differential all having to be replaced during the trip.
The area would be well worth a return visit, and I am aware of some of the Cutting Edge team who are planning further trips to ridge walk or continue work on the dig.
I'd like to thank all the members of the Cutting Edge Project (Don and Kay Bittle, Teaka Dearing, Judy Fisher, John Fogarty, Paul Fowler, Mike and Andrea Futrell, Diana Gietl, Peter Grant, Jack Kehoe, Paul Mozal, Ray Nance, Marion Smith, Peter Sprouse, Steve Taylor, Marc Tremblay and Brian Watkins) particularly Jack Kehoe who provided accounts of many of the caves and Steve Taylor for the surveys. I must also apologise for not being able to remember exactly who did what and consequently taking the easy way out by mentioning as few names as possible.
Mendip Caving Group. UK Charity Number 270088. The object of the Group is, for the benefit of the public, the furtherance of all aspects of the exploration, scientific study and conservation of caves and related features. Membership shall be open to anyone over the age of 18 years with an interest in the objects of the Group.