april 1, 2018 - may 5, 2018 Featured in National Geographic adventure
The wheels are turning on an old rustic Dodge van that makes its way through the narrow dirt roads lining the hillside of Plan Carlotta, a small mountain town in Mexico. Inside this metal box holds several cavers and three times as many bags ready to devote the next month of they’re lives to the deepest cave system on the western hemisphere.
For full gallery of this expedition
Plan Carlotta is one of those magical places full of karst landscape that litters the hillside providing a welcoming view to the eye. During the day thick fog storms race through the mountains sheltering all views from plain sight, and at night thousands of fireflies light up the sky revealing your way even without moonlight. The streets echo with the sound of music as the local Mazatec celebrate every breathe of daily life.
Bill Steele and team discovered this place over forty-years ago and since then have developed the PESH (Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla) project. Every year a team of explorers would pitch they’re tent on the ground of an empty cement building where they would sleep after spending long hour’s underground. No man would go hungry as long as Vico, the head chef, was around who lived and breathed to ensure everyone was fed.
For the first assignment, a team of cavers would prepare to spend a week underground at the deepest part of the system, 700 meters below surface.There they will find several leads of unexplored passage to be surveyed and added to the map. As sleeping bags were being thrown into the air, they rummage through the gear room collecting items for camp, rigging, mapping, and food to stuff into large cave packs. I, Tiffany Nardico, was asked to be apart of this team as lead photographer to document areas of the cave that have never been captured through the lens.
Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan like getting trapped inside a cave. Each caver picked up they’re heavy overly stuffed packs and dragged them through twelve long hours of canyon passage along with re-belays, swimming, stemming, climbing, crawling, and even ducking under a sump to get to passage on the other side. After setting up camp 4, the team boils water to indulge in some freeze-dried breakfast mix only to notice the water source rising from unexpected flooding in the system. What usually is a fifty-foot swim with one foot of air down skeleton canyon was completely under water trapping them on the other side. That put a damper on plans for the last team member to pack-mule the rest of group food to camp resulting in rations on cliff bars and jerky for most of the time underground. On the seventh day the water dropped enough to make way to the surface where Vico had mole ready to go for the survivors.
While all havoc broke loose underground, above surface Steele negotiated politics with the local Mazatec’s. There are several beliefs that hold value within the culture; one being that the maze like passage underground is a portal to the old spirits and by entering one can disrupt the natural balance. This is why Steele participated in a ceremonial sacrifice, which involved flying a turkey down the main entrance pit to ask the gods for permission to enter. Another belief is more like whispers in the children’s ear that the gringos were papresent to steal the organs of the young. The team encountered a schoolhouse that was in session while out ridge hiking to look for new caves. The children hid behind the shades until I, Tiffany Nardico, used photography as a tool to make a connection and break the ice between the rumor.
This was one of the most memorable trips associated with the PESH project not only was it featured in National Geographic adventure (link above), but there was one major connection from Sotano de Agua de Carrizo to the main system La Grietta making the cave even larger at 670 meters deep.