Trip Report: 3 week Jungle Expedition

Discussion in 'Adventure, Hiking, Backpacking and Travel' started by Sisyphus, Jul 18, 2019.

  1. Sisyphus

    Sisyphus Member

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    My friend Leila aka Shogun is working on her PhD. For part of her dissertation, she wrote a computer program that analyzes various map and survey data, and predicts the locations of caves. This is significant because 1) no one has used this type of data to look for caves before, and 2) her method can search UNDER thick jungle canopy, remotely identifying features that cannot otherwise be seen. She ran her program on a section of jungle in Central America and it gave her a map of hundreds of potential cave entrances. Of course, the only way to know if the program actually works is to ground-truth the caves identified by the program - physically travel to each flagged location visually verify what is there. The other part of her dissertation involves collecting data from within these caves. The problem: exploring unknown caves is dangerous and requires a skillset few people possess, especially in that part of the world. The solution: me - experienced caver and technical rope/rescue expert. I can get people and gear into and out of deep holes, and fix problems if something goes wrong. I’ve also had wilderness medicine, land navigation, and jungle survival training. Can you guess where I learned all of these skills?


    Because the university needed someone like me for her project, they would pay for my airfare and accomodations. How could I turn down such an opportunity? Fortunately, I was able to get enough time off of work, and trip planning began (6 months before the initial departure date).


    There were many hiccups along the way, and for a little while we thought everything was going to fall through, but we worked through everything. We left the US together in early June.


    Scientific and expedition gear for 3 weeks. Delta charged me $200+ for all my stuff because **** you. Southwest only charged $70.

    [​IMG]

    First night after we arrived in-country - coordinating maps/gear and planning. Note - we were working in an area not open to the public, and this research has not yet been published. I cannot post any info identifying where we went without the university's permission, so I have blacked out parts of some of the photographs.


    We originally planned to do our work in one country, but could not get permits from the government despite beginning the process almost 6 months prior. Because of that, we made some very last-minute changes to our itinerary. Luckily, we were able to find space at an archaeological camp in a nearby region of a different country. I have some great photos of the cool work they were doing but I can't post them :(

    Because everything was so last minute, we never knew exactly what we would be doing on any given day. Each morning we would wake up around 5:30, eat, and find out what resources we had available. Some days we had a car, some days we did not. Some days we had help from 1-3 camp workers and/or students, other days it was just the two of us. Some of the days we actually visited private property following rumors of caves.


    One of the camp’s rules was no staying out overnight, so we were forced to restrict our search areas to those we could reach and return from within 1 day. The easiest way to travel in the jungle is by river, so the first points we hit were the ones most accessible by water.


    We navigated using Shogun's baby (her super-fancy GPS) double-checked against a paper map. We had maps with “hotspots” her method had identified. We would get as close to a hotspot as we could by vehicle or boat, and then grab our machetes and start cutting our way through.


    Once we were nearby, we would start looking for specific points within the hotspots. It was slow going. We generally hit 2-3 hotspots each day, traveling a total distance of 1-3 miles in.


    Notice how sweaty I am. Temps were 85+, 100% humidity, no breeze whatsoever. I was carrying 50 lbs. of gear and going up and down hillsides, where caves are most likely to be found, while hacking through thick vegetation. We had to force ourselves to move more slowly than what was natural to us (we are both super-fast hikers) because it was almost impossible to cool down. I drank 6 liters of water each day while we were out and still ended up dehydrated by the time we got back! After about two weeks I had finally acclimated enough that the 6 liters was enough.
    Water is heavy. I would carry 5 liters (11 lbs.) and then acquire one more liter while out in the field. Good thing I knew how to find water (thanks, jungle survival).


    Another reason we moved slowly was because we had to take care to avoid natural hazards. Give-and-take or bastard tree:


    It’s called the give-and-take because a poultice made from its bark can relieve pain (such as pain from stabbing yourself on it’s thorns).


    Shed skin of a fer-de-lance near a possible cave entrance. Note snake guards we wore most of the time.


    These are killer bees a farmer is raising for honey. All honeybees in Central and South America are Africanized to some degree. In addition, many species of wasps and stinging ants would make nests on leaves, and we could knock them down while bushwhacking if we didn’t notice them first.


    Each day when we returned, we would update our maps and route plan for the next day. Guy in the red hat is an Australian fellow who specializes in analyzing some of the survey data Shogun’s program uses.

     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2019
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  2. Sisyphus

    Sisyphus Member

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    We were working in a largely unexplored preserve that is closed to the public. Most current activity is centered around a few known and established digs. We were looking for geology, not archaeology, so our searches took us to areas that had never been formally surveyed. Even though we weren’t trying to, we found a bunch of stuff left by ancient Maya. We would note the locations and pass this data on to the archaeologists back at camp for future study. I can't post photos of most of what we found :( If I ever see you at a class, ask me to show the pictures to you. Maybe in a year or two I'll be able to post them anyway.

    Chul'tun. These were made by the Maya for practical and ceremonial purposes. Some of them stored food, others were used as burials. We found many, many chul'tuns.


    Another chul'tun:


    We also saw a great deal of interesting flora and fauna.

    Deer skeleton:


    Shogun by a large (but by no means uniquely large) termite nest full of delicious protein and mosquito repellent:


    Mahogany tree stump:


    Hummingbird nest:


    Whipscorpion or vinegaroon:


    Scorpion I found crawling up my pants before bed:


    Bullhorn acacia. This plant has a symbiotic relationship with a species of ant. The ants live inside the the “horns” of the tree and the tree makes food for them. If you break the tree, hundreds of ants swarm out and attack you.


    Army ants. I dropped my GoPro and smashed the lens cover taking the video this still was pulled from, preventing me from using it as a helmet cam for the rest of the trip. More on that later.


    Some kind of colorful grasshopper or katydid:


    Oscillated turkey on the roof of a car at camp:


    Spider monkey:


    Spider monkeys are cute and funny until you stay in one place for too long. Then they call their friends and a big group of them will assemble and try to scare you off. At first they will just scream and shake branches but if you don’t leave they will throw fruit, branches, and feces down on you until you do. They interrupted a few lunches like that.
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2019
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  3. Sisyphus

    Sisyphus Member

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    Caves often form inside hills, so we spend most of our time searching on slopes. Lots of climbing up and down exposed rock faces and steep terrain. Good thing there were plenty of bastard trees to hang onto.


    And vines to grab:


    Most points the method identified were not actual caves. It was still good data because they were the types of formations one would look for when searching for cave. These pictures are typical of what we would find.


    Right after we took the photo above we noticed an active wasp nest about 4 feet away:


    It still amazes me that the program could pinpoint something this small:


    We also found larger overhangs aka rock shelters. We called this one “the bus stop.” We had 3 guys helping us that day. They would come in from a city about 2 hours away to work for the season. Some of them looked young but that was no indicator of their ability to get the job done.


    First cave we found!


     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2019
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  4. Sisyphus

    Sisyphus Member

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    I go in first. That’s why I’m here, after all.


    The ceiling is alive with mosquitoes (black dots to the right of the silhouette of my helmet). What’s through that opening back there?


    I squeezed in as far as I could to collect data. I had to push my helmet along in front of me because it was so narrow. The gopro was valuable here because I was able to use to look in even further. Reviewing the footage later, we could see the passage pinched out into nothing a little further back.


    Valley we discovered the cave in:


    Another rock shelter. Shortly after this photo was taken, I was attacked by the most aggressive bees I have ever encountered. They chased me for 150 yards before they finally gave up (we checked using the GPS). I had gotten lazy and put my pack and all my gear down before I started poking around. Usually I take off the pack belt and wear that, along with the pouch, whenever I stop. This matters because I attach my gloves to the belt. When the bees attacked me, all I still had on was my pouch, so I was crashing through brush as fast as I could with no machete and no gloves. I would hit thicker spots, attempt to throw myself through them, bounce back, back up, try to find another route, move another 20 feet, repeat. I don’t know how many times I got stung because by the time I traveled far enough away to be safe I had so many thorns in my hands, arms, and body that it was impossible to tell. I think the thorns actually hurt me more than the bees did. Some of them were still working their way out of me weeks later. We needed to use whistles to find each other when I finally stopped (good thing my kit bag never comes off). I used my ESEE-3 to scrape the stings out of my skin.


    About the kid pictured with me above - remember I said age was no indicator of ability? The first day we got him he was assigned to us because he was "extra," which I suspect meant he was no one's first choice because he was so young. He turned out to be the best guy we took. He had been using a machete since he was 9 and one side of his family was part of an indigenous tribe. Even though he lived in a city, when he was young his grandfather would take him in the jungle and teach him about medicinal plants and other traditional knowledge. He turned out to be a great resource and we specifically requested him every day he was available.

    On the penultimate day of our trip, we hit pay dirt big time. After lots of overhangs, rock shelters, collapsed openings, and chul'tuns, we found a giant sinkhole, probably caused by a cave collapsing. Its a good 40 yards wide and 70-100 yards long, with a land bridge remaining that spans the center. We estimated it’s between 120 and 150 feet deep, depending on which side you are measuring down from. At the bottom there appears to be a good-sized cave entrance. Even cooler, all the "experts" told Shogun there were no features like this in the area we were operating.


    Here’s where Shogun’s method shines. It doesn’t show up on a topo map.


    It’s also hidden by canopy from the air. Hell, it’s completely invisible from 20 feet away on the ground!


    We had 3 people helping us cut through the jungle the day we found it. In general, the laborers were fairly indifferent to what we were actually doing (with the exception of that kid). They are seasonal workers for the camp and this is just a job to them. Some days they helped people dig, other days they cut trail. When they saw this feature, they were almost as excited as we were. They had never seen (or heard of anyone seeing) something like this anywhere nearby. They were all taking selfies and videos at the edge with their phones. When they heard we were planning to go down to the bottom, they were even more interested. They thought we were crazy. The next day was supposed to be their day off. Not only did they want to come back to watch, one of them said he didn’t care if we paid him or not! Of course we did pay him.

     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2019
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  5. Sisyphus

    Sisyphus Member

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    If something went wrong while we were down in the pit, there would be no one to call for help. That night we rehearsed emergency procedures, and I taught Shogun how to haul me up from the top using a simple mechanical advantage. Yet another skill I learned from RAT classes.



    Final day. 70 lbs. of rope, rescue, medical, and cave gear.



    After we arrived at the pit, I set up the mechanical advantage system and showed everyone how to use it. I decided to rappel down the locked-off haul system using a valdotain tresse as my autobloc. If I had a problem, the three people at the top could hopefully pull me up without doing any rigging whatsoever. BTW those are Jeff's pulleys and rope. My gear order didn't arrive in time so I had to borrow his LOL.


    Breaking the edge. Note the bastard tree with the spines scraped off by our machetes.


    Here is a better view of the land bridge (taken from the inside). The possible cave entrance is just outside of the frame at the bottom left. On the other side of the bridge is another area of equal or larger size.


    I descended about 15 feet and realized this route was too unsafe to continue. The wall was literally collapsing as I stepped on it. What appeared to be solid rock was not. I was concerned about rockfall, especially on the climb back up.


    Loose rock. I could kick softball-sized pieces off with my feet. Not something you want raining down on you.



    Tailless whipscorpion (Amblypygid) on the pit wall:


    I changed over and came back up to the top.
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2019
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  6. Sisyphus

    Sisyphus Member

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    I had identified two prospective routes to the bottom. Both of them turned out to be unsafe due to rockfall (no good pics of 2nd location). We had time for one more attempt. I crossed to the other side of the land bridge, where we had no clear view of the bottom or the edge because of the heavy vegetation. I was hoping all the plants would help hold the dirt and rocks in place. The drawback was that I couldn’t see any hazards I might encounter on the route down or if there was even a safe place to come off rope at the bottom - if the rope reached the bottom. I’m confident enough in my skills that I knew that if I had a problem, I could change over come back up.There was no way to feed the rope down without it becoming hopelessly tangled, so I had to stuff it into my caving pack, clip it to my harness, and feed it out as I descended. I had to stop frequently to lock off and remove stems and branches by hand as I approached and broke the edge (which I couldn’t even see). Hanging from a 9 mm rope over a 100+ foot drop is no time to be swinging a machete around! I had my ESEE Imlay in case I had to cut myself free from something. You can see it in some of the pics secured to my harness.


    Remember I said I smashed to lens cover on my GoPro? It still worked, and I needed it to take photos of the drop this day. Unfortunately, I didn't think it was still waterproof. My solution was to put it in a plastic bag and take it out as needed. This meant no wearing it as a helmet cam as I did the pit bounce, since it was constantly raining and everything was wet. I would periodically lock off and take short videos as I descended instead. As I did this on the final drop, I put the camera back in the bag only to discover the seam had split. The camera fell 80-100 feet down. I miraculously somehow recovered it on the ledge in the photo below. It still worked. How fortunate. From now on, I bring spare lens covers with me.

    The rope JUST BARELY made it to the bottom. Well, not really the bottom, but a part of the wall that looked like it wasn’t too steep for me to carefully climb down. Red is the route I took. The sapling at the start was supposed to be a handhold - as soon as I weighted it to lower myself down, it came right out of the ground and I gracefully tumbled the last 15 feet or so the bottom.


    Hope I can make it back up to that rope. In caving, we call the area of the ground where most rockfall ends up the ‘breakdown zone.” For safety reasons, we never stand in the breakdown zone if we can help it. Now that I was able to get a good look around, I could see that the entire bottom was one large breakdown zone, and I was standing on loose rock several feet deep. I decided to get my data and get out ASAP. This is also when we decided I would be the only member of the team to make the drop.


    There is a pretty good chance I am the only human being who has ever stood here.

     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2019
  7. Strigidae

    Strigidae Moderator Staff Member

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    EXCELLENT!!!!!!!!
     
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  8. Sisyphus

    Sisyphus Member

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    Time to check out the cave entrance. The rock down here was unstable just like everywhere else. Upon closer inspection, the back wall of this overhang had collapsed. No cave.


    Note the cracks in the overhanging rock. I was relieved that the cave had collapsed because I didn’t want to see an open cave that I couldn’t explore for safety reasons. That would have been frustrating.


    Looking up from near the entrance to the overhang. You can see the approximate location of the first route I tried. The photo above of me standing at the bottom was taken from near the origin of the red arrow.


    Time to come back up. I wasn’t too keen on staying down there any longer. From the bottom I could see and hear that the pit was in a constant state of slow collapse and I was wondering about the stability of the land bridge I was standing under. I couldn't get back to the rope the way I fell but I was able to pick my way along a ledge another way and make a running jump to the platform the rope was hanging down to.

    Our guys that day were under the impression that I was on some kind of suicide mission. Shogun snapped this picture as I ascended. She said that all three of them sat silently except to respond to my radio calls. It took me a few minutes to climb up, which must have seemed like forever to them. At one point the guy in the striped shirt got up and walked away because he couldn’t take the tension. I'm so used to being on rope, I sometimes forget how strange and scary it is to a lot of people.


    Success! I ate a lot of brush on the way up. In case the rope people are wondering, I came up on a 3-prusik system. I opted not to take my frogging rig due to weight and space considerations.


    We taught our guys some rope skills, including a few knots and how to coil rope, while we were setting up and breaking down.


    He showed us how to use leafcutter ants to close an open wound:


    I chose the final two photos for a reason. Note what our friend is wearing - cotton clothes that look like they came from the thrift store. His shoes and backpack were the same. Meanwhile Shogun and I are wearing $300 of technical fabrics, plus our expensive packs, fancy boots, etc. and still feel like we are at the edge of our capabilities. Goes to show that the single most important part of your kit is your mind. He was more comfortable than we were in the wilderness with some cheap clothes, a $5 machete, and a plastic jug of water than we were with months of planning and combined thousands of dollars of equipment. I might have had 5 days of jungle survival training, but he's had YEARS of it. Yet conversely, I was totally at ease on a rope while to him bouncing a pit sounded impossible until he saw me do it. Knowledge and training, not the newest gadget, is what opens the world to you. Don't wait - get out there and TRAIN!
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2019
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  9. SEMO

    SEMO Member

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    Good stuff man.
    Great write up.
    I will look forward to the archaeological pics in a year. :)
     
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  10. Trailmaster

    Trailmaster Member

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    Fantastic trip report!
     
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  11. CWB

    CWB Member

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    absolutely excellent review/story. I felt like I was there with you. thanks for sharing
     
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  12. anrkst6973

    anrkst6973 Member

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    That was a spectacular report! What a thing to be able to be a part of!
     
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  13. RocketmanDane

    RocketmanDane Member

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    Here and there...
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  14. Rich275

    Rich275 Member

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    Um, WOW! Just WOW!
     
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  15. Bushman5

    Bushman5 Member

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    Yea this.

    Amazing!!
     
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  16. IW17

    IW17 Member

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    Top notch. Thanks for sharing with us.
     
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  17. Hawkeye5

    Hawkeye5 Member

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    cool trip!
     
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  18. Se7eN

    Se7eN Member

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    very cool. Thanks for posting
     
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  19. Reno Lewis

    Reno Lewis Knot-A-Challenge Champion

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    Just friggin incredible man, than you so much for taking the time to both document this and share it with us.
     
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  20. R Stowe

    R Stowe Moderator Staff Member

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    That's an awesome expedition report. Thanks for sharing the photos and incredible write up. That's some old school Nat Geo stuff.
     
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