Chris Higgins Explores Cueva Cheve and Nita N'Tau
Slide, stand, sit, slide, stand, sit… Hanging 450 feet off the deck, in a totally dark void, moving up the rope like an inch worm camera in tow, I can’t help but think, "What am I doing…" How had I found myself deep in a cave days away from sunlight?
May 3 2017
I found myself deep in this massive cave after being invited to join two separate expeditions in Mexico. The first expedition was with the US Deep Cave team in the infamous Cueva Cheve.
Jason Lavender standing on the ceremonial alter looking into the entrance of Cheve.
Cheve is the second deepest cave in the western hemisphere with the potential to become the deepest cave in the world. This particular expedition was being lead by Bill Stone who had staged a three month expedition in hopes of diving the second sump. (In caving a "sump" is a flooded passage.) This sump lies over 1,400-meters-deep which is around 4,800 feet below the surface. In order to make this dive possible, the team set up five underground camps which allowed divers and cavers to refuel and resupply thanks to the immensely strong cavers who shuttled gear in and out of the cave daily. I joined the team in hopes to photograph the cave in a light that no one ever had before. Since the last expedition in Cheve was in 2004, no one had ever photographed this caves massiveness with modern digital cameras. I wanted to change that.
Cheve Base Camp
Jason Lavender making his way across a traverse deep in Cheve
My photo team consisted of Jason Lavender, a friend of mine who doubles as my underground photo assistant, as well as two other expedition members (Jordan Toles and Oscar Berones). After arriving at surface camp and gathering all of our supplies, our team took off underground towards Camp 2, which was located 860 meters below the surface. The trip to Camp 2 took 12 hours of rappelling and climbing with 50lb packs in tow. The next day we made our way deeper into the cave and finally found ourselves over 1000 meters below surface. This meant that it was now time to turn around…and climb out. As we began to photograph our way back out we paced ourselves as the travel was slow and difficult. Cheve is filled with passages with massive breakdown containing giant rocks and boulders which tower almost to the ceiling of the cave in some spots.
The Low Rider Parkway ~-1000m
Our third day was spent moving towards the surface from Camp 2 back to Camp 1. As we climbed out we spent the day photographing as much of the cave as we could in between the two camps. As we climbed over giant boulders, we finally came to a short break from the breakdown passage. We had made our way back to the sculpted stream passage known as the Salmon Ladder. The Salmon Ladder was infamously named for the ropes course that keeps you out of the frigid stream water below.
Jordan Toles and Jason Lavender cross ropes in Cheve's Salmon Ladder
Jodan Toles in what we called the Super Soaker
When we emerged from the Salmon ladder we found ourselves at the bottom of the famous Sacnusum's Drop. This drop is an impressive 150m (495’) waterfall climb. The climb was so massive that we needed walkie talkies to communicate so we could get the perfect shot.
Jordan Jason and Oscar Climbing Sacnusum's Well
From there we finally made it back to Camp 1, but still had a long way to go to see daylight. The next day, or at least when we awoke, since no one really knew what day it was, we continued out way to the surface.
Jason Lighting up Camp 1.
We found ourselves traversing more of the breakdown followed by a half dozen or so of what we call nuisance drops (drops under ~50 feet).
Jason Climbing one of the dozens of nuisance drops.
Suddenly we see it. Daylight gleaming in from the entrance. We spent the next few hours enjoying the feeling of making it to the surface and snapping several more shots as we slowly emerged.
James Brown and Jason making their way towards the "Light"
One last pose from the photo crew before heading to the surface
Back at camp on the surface, Jason and I said our goodbyes and packed up our camp and the next day headed to our other expedition.
Plan Carlota the base camp for the PESH expedition
From Cheve, we caught up with the PESH team, lead by Bill Steele, who was staging an expedition in Sistema Huautla, Mexico. This was my third year caving with the PESH team, so I was eager to pick up where I had left off last year. During the last three expeditions, I had made it my goal to light up and photograph some of the largest rooms and pits Huautla has to offer. The first year, I was fortunate enough to cave in San Augustine and photograph the massive Anthodite Hall, which is nearly 1000 meters below the surface. Along with the incredible Space Drop which is a free hanging 100 meter drop.
Anthodite Hall in San Agustine
The Space Drop in San Agustine
In 2016, we had set our sights on Nita He. Currently Nita He isn’t connected to Huautla, but the cave stands to add three more massive pits which holds the hope that one day we will find a connecting passage. Unfortunately, the locals who farm right up to the entrance’s edge had different plans. So we spent the following days looking for N’Tau. After several days of crawling into caves filled with the local's garbage we gave up hope of finding the lost entrance.
Searching the Surface for in signs of Nita N’Tau
N’Tau seemed to be completley lost, until this year. During this expedition, after intense studying of topo maps from the 1970's we found the elusive entrance. We then spent the next three days rigging the cave to get ready to photograph.
Mark Mitton setting a bolt in N’Tau
The cave proved to be much more difficult and demanding then we had originally thought.
Adam Haydock pushes his way through what was described as walking passage to us…
On the fourth day, with the cave rigged, we set off to make it to the TAG shaft. Coming from TAG (the name for the Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia’s plethora of caves) we could not wait to find ourselves rappelling the pit. Coming to the top of the drop, you were staring into complete black. Nothing could be seen not even the walls! The pit was reported to be around 130m (430’) so we dropped a 150m rope, which we had painfully carried through the whole cave to drop the pit with.
Lee White making his way into N’Tau with the “long rope”
Elliot Stahl and Lee White took on the daunting task of rigging the pit which proved to have more ledges then we had imagined. This forced us to return to the surface, to gather more rope.
Within a few hours we found ourselves staring at the void in the TAG shaft once more. Lee disappeared into the darkness. As we waited, finally our Walkie Talkie crackled to life “I’m on the last bolt and it looks like a straight drop the floor from here!” he reported. Before we could even celebrate Lee’s voice came over the Walkie Talkie once more “I’m short roped…”The rope was ten meter from the floor so once more we found ourselves retuning to the surface to make yet another go at rigging the pit.
Lee Returning to the top of the pit after being short roped
The next morning , I found it difficult to rally the team to return, for the fifth day. The cave that had beaten us down every day we had entered it. As we drove up the road one last time certain we would make it to the bottom our rental car slipped off the road.
Driving it like it’s a rental...
We spent several hours digging it out before we once again found ourselves staring at the void at the top of the TAG shaft with a 60 meter rope in hand for good measure. Finally, we all made it down the pit, becoming the first people in over 30 years to make the rappel!
The TAG shaft in all of its glory
After exploring the bottom of the pit, we instantly found there were leads everywhere leading to more passage deeper into the cave, which means more potential for this cave to eventually connect to Sistema Huatlua. If connected, the TAG shaft would become the deepest drop in the system. With the thought of adding a massive new pit to Huatula, we spent the rest of the day, and even the night photographing Nita N’tau and exploring leads.
Adam Haydock take a much needed shower while climbing the TAG shaft
One of the 9 smaller drops that lead to the TAG shaft
Finally, we retreated once more to the surface and headed back to camp. Unfortunately, my time in Mexico was running short, so I didn’t have the opportunity to return to the TAG shaft to explore the leads, but needless to say I’m anxiously awaiting a new expedition next year!
A final meal before we all return to our normal lives for a few months.
Chris Higgins got his start as a remote location photographer by traveling to some of the most breathe taking and extreme environments in the world that words alone could not describe. Over the last few years Chris has conquered some of the highest peaks on the continent and explored it's deepest caves. Chris carries his camera with him hundreds of feet underground to reveal a part of the world most could only imagine as well as to the tops of some of the most breath taking mountain ranges in the world. Chris keeps his social media pages updated often with his latest expedition so you too can be a part of the adventure. Instagram Facebook