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On this day 2051 years ago Livia Drusilla married young Octavian, later called Augustus, in Rome. Happy anniversary baby. Word is, she made her own clothing. How modest. Bet she didn’t do her own hair.
For Christmas break in 1988-89, John Ganter and I joined Jim Smith and Bill Steele in southern Mexico for a caving expedition. Nita Ka was the attraction, having the potential to be another big deep Mexico cave. But Ka crapped out at a mere 2500 feet (760 meters) deep. Nita Ka was a very fun cave with some big wet pitches, but its unexpected end left us with time on our hands. Jim Smith gave John and me a lead to play with – a little cave a few miles away, discovered the previous year and having a frog in its entrance. John and I accepted the challenge, and off we went with 700 feet of PMI rope, climbing and bolting gear and our survey equipment.
We met a Mazatec boy along the way and asked him the local word for frog. “Ske” was how we transcribed what we heard, so “Nita Ske” was what we called the cave. Years later a Mazatec dictionary was printed, and I looked up the word for frog, finding “ʃkiɛ” with a falling tone on the end. Not bad for a couple of tin-eared gringos.
Nita Ske’s passage cross section more resembled the puny caves of Appalachia that we went to Mexico to get away from than the big passage and deep pits of Nita Ka. But it was virgin cave so we hacked away at it for a few days, cursing as we rigged short jagged pits and passed piles of rope through gnarly constrictions, surveying as we went.
Finally we got to a 50 foot pit (above photo) that needed a bolt to safely escape a rope-slicing edge. We saw bigger passage below. That immediately led to a deeper pit. I tossed a rock over the edge and timed the pit at about three seconds. We surveyed down this pit, measuring it at 170 feet. This pit was slightly less than vertical – not a good thing for easy descent, since the rope contacted the pit walls and knocked loose coin-sized stones down on us as we rappelled. We called it the Bombardier Shaft. At the bottom was a wide high canyon descending steeply down a dry sand slope. Nita Ske was getting interesting.
The slope dropped several hundred feet to a lip of a pit, the last hundred feet being basically an angle of repose incline with refrigerator-sized boulders strewn along the sand slope. We gently dislodged a football-sized rock and watched it glide like an air hockey puck 100 feet down the slope and off the edge of a pit. Four seconds of silence then a thud, followed by rattling and banging as our rock and companions it met along the way crashed hundreds of feet further down more pits or steep slopes at the bottom.
Excited at this find, we carefully descended part way down the slope with ascenders attached to a rope we rigged there in case of a slip. We took notes and discussed what we’d need to bring next time to deal with this monumental obstacle. Our plan was to start bolting out along the wall, well above the lip of the big pit below, in order to eliminate any chance of disturbing any of the big boulders that would spell disaster if one of them decided to take the plunge with someone on rope beneath it. We’d bolt out along the wall until we’d cleared the lip considerably, to provide a free drop down this big pit. It was an alluring but serious place.
As we gazed around the chamber we were shocked to look up and see a faint “89″ and a dot on the wall in carbide soot. We had connected to known cave – no doubt Agua de Carrizo, explored and surveyed down 76 pitches, ten years earlier. Carefully inspecting the slope we finally found a rope groove in the sand, heading straight down the slope and off the edge right in the middle of the funnel. Our hair stood on end. Who would rig such a death trap. Someone much bolder than I. Returning to camp we described the place to Smith, who immediately recognized it as what they’d named The Rocky Horror. The section below it was called The Blast Zone.
A map profile showing the intersection of the two caves (combining our map with the Carrizo expedition’s map) and the gory details of The Rocky Horror is shown below. Two red dots show John’s location in the two photos. The vertical scale is in meters.
I later asked Bill Stone, who’d led the original Carrizo expedition, about this. He explained that, yeah, they had been rather wild and fearless back in those days. Basically, he said, they had no idea what they were doing and were lucky to be alive (aren’t we all). In fact, rocks disturbed on the slope had fallen down the pit and severed the 600 foot rope rigged on the Rocky Horror. Fortunately, this had happened after the group was well beyond that point in the cave. But that had left a team stranded below The Rocky Horror until someone from the surface showed up to investigate their late return.
Our connection to Carrizo left us with a painful de-rig and no need for anyone to return. Two people is simply too small a team for Huautla caving, especially if I’m one of them. The photography suffered. I shot three photos in Nita Ske on our trip there – the only time human eyes have seen the place. Two are included here; I can’t find the third. They aren’t great, but we were busy with the various obstacles, and our gear load was bit on the high side. The first (above) is John setting a bolt at the top of a 50 foot pit in order to protect the rope from a razor-sharp lip. The second (below) is from the bottom of the Bombardier Shaft looking up at John who is on rope, partway down the drop. Not great pictures, but I’m mighty glad we shot them.