Filled with cobalt blue water and surrounded by luscious jungle, Mexican sinkholes are incredibly beautiful. Their stunning appearance, however, is deceiving: most of them are dangerous places. These water-filled pits are often hundreds of feet deep, filled with layers of poisonous hydrogen sulfide and most of all very hard to access.
Technically they are flooded caves, but of a very different kind than most of us are used to. Years spent honing the skills of horizontal cave diving, squeezing through tiny restrictions in zero visibility, covering dizzying distances and mastering complex navigation are useless in these huge vertical tubes, where the main challenges are fear of heights, extreme depth and just a lot of empty wet darkness. Sinkhole exploration is a whole different game and Natalie wanted a piece of it, badly.
Her obsession with vertical exploration started a few months before, during her first trip inland. All it took was one dive, the feeling of free-falling into bottomless black water and she was hooked. Months of preparation, training and logistics and the Under The Jungle team was ready for another expedition to the sinkholes of the Yucatan.
I don't really know how I became part of it. It might be my experience with rope-work, or my track-record at surviving chains of bad decisions inside and outside the water. Maybe it's just the fact that I don't complain too much no matter how bad the food is. Whatever the reason, I was very excited to be part of a team of four motivated explorers and a restless dog named Exley.
I am not new to these kind of endeavors, As an enthusiastic urban dweller with a penchant for adventure, my whole life has been a zig-zag between the glow of the city lights and some insane mission at the edge of the civilized world. And while I enjoy sharing stories of my adventures beyond what conventional wisdom considers safe, I have always struggled to pin point the reason why I chose to live like that. It is the beauty of the places I get to see? yes, but not really. "Do you like danger?" people ask. No, I hate danger. Is it the technical challenge? Sometimes it is, but really, probably not. I know for sure it's not the bragging rights, because beyond the occasional like on Facebook, nobody really cares.
The amount of time, money, effort, equipment, training, isolation, pain and risk one needs to endure to be part of this game seems disproportionate compared to an intangible reward that I am not even able to explain with clarity. Yet, the draw of adventure is always there and it is during this very expedition that I managed to understand what it is that makes it so important to me.
So am at it again: in early July I took time off work to fly to Mexico and join the team. We packed two trucks with 65 tanks of exotic gas blends, caving ropes, harnesses, cameras, rubber boots, exploration reels, duct tape, machetes, GPSs, an unreasonable amount of diving equipment and not enough clean clothes. And then we got on our way to a remote and extremely rural province, looking for virgin sinkholes.
The first few days were intense, full of emotions, funny moments, some vertical drama, technical challenges and very long hours moving equipment through the jungle in the heat. Days were long, every morning we left early and never got back before dark, exhausted and starved. It's hard to find proper food or even the time to think about eating. In addition to that, support from anyone outside our team is very hard to come by: we are hundreds of miles away from anyone that has the slightest understanding of rope-work, technical diving or even how to drive a car. We are literally on our own. Yet the morale is high and the new discoveries keep the spirits high and the energy flowing.
Of all the amazing sinkholes we saw, Xcail was by far the most exciting and my obsession with it was obvious to the whole team. It wasn’t just the unique beauty of the place that caught my attention; it was that Xcail was a virgin cave for the very good reason that it was so inaccessible. The only way to the water was through a narrow hole in the ground: a crumbly vertical restriction ending in 40 ft of void that separated the ceiling of the cave from the water surface. Anyone keen enough to explore it would have to go down the rabbit hole, rappel down the dropoff , gear up in bottomless water, and at the end of the dive climb the same rope back out, into the ceiling and through the hole. To make matters more complicated, a dive to Xcail's 200ft-deep bottom would require at least 4 tanks each, plus all the diving equipment; all of which would have to go up and down the same way as well.
To put things in perspective, in the world of technical cave diving, 200ft is by no means an extreme depth, nor a 40ft dropoff is considered an big vertical barrier, but the combination of the two was certainly something to think about. Once in the water, any injury, exhaustion or decompression sickness would make climbing out on that rope a much much bigger problem, especially without any surface support.
And this is why nobody had ever dived there: Xcail was a like trap.
We decided that Vince and I had the best shot at diving it and exploring the bottom. Vince is a good friend, the most qualified deep diver of the team and one of my cave exploration heroes. The few times I had a chance to dive with him, i felt we could read each other's minds, so he was one of the few people in the world I trust when exploring underwater underground. The trouble with Vince is that he is absolutely terrified of heights. The first time I showed him how to rappel down the first story of a building, about 8 ft off the ground, I saw him clinging to the rope, sweating and shaking uncontrollably like he was in front of a firing squad. And this worried me a little. However, after some more training and soul searching, Vince decided he felt ready to face his fears and confident he could master the vertical challenge of Xcail. So in the morning we packed and left.
The road was long and overgrown, running between farmland and virgin jungle for 45 bumpy minutes, that we spent swapping amusing stories of when things went horribly wrong. He told me about that time Natalie drove her truck into a cenote and I proudly shared how I got arrested in Pakistan and got released by virtue of shameless name-dropping. The atmosphere was light and fun, we were both fired up and impatient to get there.
Vince insists that we drink some isotonic fluids on the way: we both know that one of the challenges of working hard in this weather is managing hydration and body temperature. One could survive days without food, but dehydration and heat can kill in a few hours. So he hands me an orange bottle that tastes like apple syrup and misery, then casually tells me he is going to wear a diaper under his drysuit, just in case all this orange goodness we are drinking needs to find its way out during the dive. I sip my drink in silence, hiding my amusement and trying to erase the mental image. Never meet your heroes, for real.
Xcail is at the edge between virgin jungle and a small cattle ranch. Rudimentary fences of barbed wire separate the areas where you need rubber boots to walk in 6 inches of manure from the part where you need a machete to make your way through the jungle. Luckily we have both. In a semi-clean white Tshirt and a giant straw hat, I pick up my double tanks and start walking towards the rabbit hole.
It's really hot, over 100F and, as I squeeze between trees, climb over the barbed wire and avoid patches of cow poop with 100lbs of weight on my back, I ask myself why I chose this over taking the woman I love to Bali. And for a brief moment of weakness the answer eludes me. Until I peek over the edge and see the deep cobalt blue of Xcail's water, the beauty of the jungle and feel the call of exploration. Then it all makes sense again, I know what I am here to do. Hell - I tell myself as I put down my doubles - she might not even like Bali.
After a few more trips back and forth carrying gear in the heat we are drenched in sweat, completely dripping to the point i feel water accumulating inside my rubber boots. Bugs are in my face. Being over water, between cattle and jungle, means we can enjoy an unlimited supply of mosquitoes, horse-flies and wasps. I keep fending them off with my hat, in vain as I realize bugs might be my biggest weakness.
I rig the descent line through the rabbit hole and then we suit up, in silence. Wearing a drysuit filled with 1 inch of fleece in this weather is something that has to be tried once in a lifetime, for weight loss purposes if anything else. The moment you zip up, the clock to heat exhaustion starts ticking and you have to get in the water fast or end up like a raisin in the oven.
We look down at the water through the hole and I ask Vince: "Are we sure about this? Once we are in there, there is only one way out". While it would be annoying to change one's mind now, it is still better than regretting once you are down there. I don't know how much of this decision was driven by confidence and how much was the desperate need to cool off in the water, but he takes a deep breath and responds with a decisive "Let's do it". So he clipped himself in and rappelled down the hole with confidence. After lowering all the tanks, I followed him down, wiggled through the restriction and zipped down the void. Once we are both floating at the surface and happily cooling off, everything feels right again, all the stress and the doubts are gone. We are cave divers after all, and a dark place filled with water feels a lot more comfortable than an unbearably hot vertical restriction infested with bugs. We rehearse the plan, focus and get ready to dive.
The descent was smooth and unbelievably beautiful. Beams of light, piercing through the jungle canopy, danced all the way to the bottom. All around just black water. The cave walls bell out at depth, and we can barely see them as we fall in this huge hollow space.
Past 150 ft we find a cloud of hydrogen sulfide, it looks like a layer of dense yellow smoke that absorbs light and smells like rotten eggs: in this dark oxygen-deprived environment, the bacteria that decompose organic debris produce this acid that biologists classify as a broad spectrum poison. A few breaths of this gas are enough to kill, but we are breathing through our regulators and we know we can tolerate a few minutes in this toxic cloud. So we continue descending and find the bottom right past 200 feet. From down here the surface light is nothing but a faint mustard glow.
Vince is laying a line at the bottom through murky water: we want to draw a map of the cave, but most of all, we want to leave a marker with our names on it, to claim the first exploration of this place. After a few minutes we find the wall, Vince ties off to a dead tree: the line cuts through the rotting wood like it's wet paper as we quickly realize how acidic this layer is. My lips are numb and my eyes are burning. My body is fully protected by the drysuit, but the amount of sulfide absorbed through the little exposed skin is enough to give me a headache: we have to leave before it kills us. As soon as we reach blue water, i rinse the foul smell off my mask, clear my head and for a minute contemplate the stunning beauty of this cave. This must be the most spectacular place I have ever seen in my life. Part of me is excited, it feels like we did it, we explored the bottom of Xcail. But I am aware we still owe 40 minutes of multi-staged decompression and two gas switches before we can surface, after which we need to climb up that rope, haul up 500 lbs of equipment, carry it all to the truck through jungle and barbed wire and then it's a long drive to the base camp, which is itself in the middle of nowhere. We are a very long way from home, let alone dinner.
The dive ended smoothly, everything about it felt right and easy, just as planned, I love diving with Vince. As we are floating chin-deep in this pit breathing pure oxygen, I look up: swallows and bees are flying in circles around the opening, the light is blinding and magic. I indulge in a moment of excitement as I give him a high-five. I notice the sun beams are starting to slant, which means it is getting late. I look at the rope dangling from the ceiling: it's time to get going.
I need to get out of my double tanks and into my caving harness to get up there. Any piece of equipment that I drop at this point, would sink right to the bottom and that would really ruin our already demanding day. I swap harnesses carefully, wave Vince goodbye and start frogging up the rope, disappearing through the restriction and back in the jungle.
It's cloudy and the sun is coming down; the sky is flashing at the horizon, a thunderstorm is brewing. I rush to the car, get out of my drysuit and back into my disgusting sweaty and muddy Tshirt. I know it's time to move quickly, Vince is still in the water, i need to go back, pull up the tanks and so the he can come out too. I run back to the rabbit hole and check on him: he is floating face up, looking calm but tired. He attaches the first tank to the end of the rope and I start pulling it up. Then the second one. Then he sends up a bag full of gear. It's heavy.
He tells me he is concerned about dehydration: the irony of being stuck in a hole filled with millions of gallons of fresh water and being thirsty. I send down a bottle of that orange crap he likes so much. Then I pull up another tank, three down, five more more to go. It's not hot anymore, but i'm sweating again, profusely. I have open sores in my hands from pulling the rope up. Bugs are still in my face and as much as I hate to admit it, I am getting tired too. Five tanks up, then six and finally my ridiculously heavy set of doubles. All the gear is out. Vince is still in the water and probably getting cold.
I stick my head into the hole and tell him there is a thunderstorm coming and it's time to come up and go home. It is not an emergency, but there is no time to waste. In one minute the sky goes darker and it starts pouring. Vince clips the ascenders to the rope and tries to pull himself up, he does not look confident. After a couple of failed attempts, i soon realize he is not going to be able to come up that rope. He is tired, cold and still clearly scared of heights. He wants to try one more time, but we really have no time to fuck around. We need to start with plan B now, so I run to get the equipment box in the truck.
In less than 10 minutes the rain has flooded the whole area, turning my path into a swamp of cow shit; as I skip over the barbed wire, the loud splashes of fecal matter make me grateful for my rubber boots. In the truck I pick up what we call the ladder of death: it's an old caving ladder made of steel cables and slippery aluminum rungs: it is both terrifying and exhausting to climb. But it's better than spending the night floating in a cave.
I send down the ladder. I know he is not going to be able to climb that nightmare of a ladder by himself, but he can help me pull him up. He ties himself to the end of the rope, I rig an self-locking pulley system and I start him hauling up. He is heavy and I am able to pull him a few inches at a time.
I am tired, but as I see the rope slowly move up a second wind of energy rushes through my veins, a sense of warmth and excitement. "Vince we are going home!" I think in my head. Every time i pull the wet rope squeezes mud into my open sores, the rain is washing the dirt off my face. Suddenly the air cools off and it gets windy: the thunderstorm is upon us.
Vince is trying to find the balance between the rope and the ladder swinging back and forth but in a few stressful minutes he makes it to the ceiling and negotiates his way through the restriction.
VINCE IS OUT OF THE CAVE! We are both smiling.
Less than a minute later a lightning hits a few meters from us, in a giant boom and a flash. We can't get a break today. Our gear is still scattered around the rabbit hole but it's not safe to pick it up now, we have to hide in the car and wait for the thunderstorm to settle. Vince is in good spirits, excited about the great dive and does not seem too bothered by the vertical experience nor the puddles of manure we have to splash through.
Once in the relative safety of the truck, we start swapping impressions on the dive until it looks safe to go out.
It's still raining heavily. We are drenched. Vince took off his drysuit but decided to keep his undergarment on, which now looks like his bigger brother's soaked green pajama. My white Tshirt, on the other side, is so muddy it looks like a map of a mountain range. None of this matters, we don't even care about the rain anymore. We have been at this for over 10 hours, tired and hungry, but also really happy: we did what we had to do and now we are going home, to meet the rest of the team, to a warm dinner. By the time we are done moving all the equipment and start the truck, we need to turn the lights on: it's dark.
On the way home, some French heavy metal is playing on the radio. I am swatting flies inside the truck with my sombrero, mostly because I am too exhilarated and restless to sit still. Vince decides that his drenched green pajama is too wet and too cold to wear, so he takes it off, without being bothered to change into anything else, so he is driving half naked. I am thinking what a great day it was, despite the bugs, the sulfide, my open sores, the ladder, the storm and all the countless puddles of poop.
At one point he stops the car and as I look ahead I realize we are not done yet: the storm knocked down a tree that is now blocking the road. We get out the car, back in the rain and see if we can move it: the bark is spiny and it's sticking into my flesh as I start pushing. The atmosphere is surreal, I look at Vince and start laughing uncontrollably. We look like shit, we smell like shit, we are stuck, exhausted and hungry but I am the happiest I have ever been in a long time. And this is when it dawned on me: that's it, this is the essence of adventure.
Adventure is facing what you can't control, adventure is focusing on the task at hand because nothing else matters, it's the primordial instinct of fighting back when nature is throwing you a curve-ball, because no matter what happens, you have to get yourself and your buddy home. It's the adrenaline, the laughter and the bonding.
Adventure is a 40-year-old man in rubber boots and a diaper pushing a fallen tree in a thunderstorm so he can get some fucking tacos. And there is nothing else to it, really.
Because before Youtube and scuba diving equipment, before cars, insurance companies and politically correct, during the millions of years of evolution that made us humans, what we today call adventure, used to be called everyday life. It is the way we are designed to live and that is the very reason why I am drawn to it.
Soon after we clear the road, Natalie and Rory show up, looking for us. They are happy to see we are alive and kicking. They too had an insane day. As we get to town we find out the storm caused a general black out, streets are pitch dark and the only place with some light is a taco cart. After ordering a ridiculous amount of food, coca cola and beers, we start swapping jokes and stories of exploration and misadventure and laugh a lot. I don't remember exactly what we talked about that night, but i remember those were the most amazing tacos I have ever tasted, probably just because we really really earned them.