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An Underground Perspective on GUE’s Cave Curriculum

It’s difficult to objectively compare and contrast technical courses from different training agencies, and many agencies are less than enthused about the prospect. So when I learned that NSS-CDS cave instructor and training council member, Chris Brock had completed GUE’s cave curriculum, I was eager to get his perspective. On the record of course!

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by Michael Menduno

It’s difficult to objectively compare and contrast technical diving courses from different training agencies, and the agencies themselves rarely encourage the juxtaposition. Each has its own particular philosophical bent, focus, and of course, what the organization deems its secret sauce, which can be hard to quantify. As a result, thoughtful, informed perspectives are hard to come by, though they can be illuminating when you’re trying to grok the depth and breadth of our tech community’s education ecosystem.

Needless to say, I was excited to learn that my former cave instructor, National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section (NSS CDS) instructor Chris Brock, had taken GUE’s Cave 1 and Cave 2 courses—the equivalent to the CDS Cave Diver course with decompression procedures and its Stage Cave Diver course. Note that Brock is also a member of the CDS Training Council and an Instructor Sponsor. Accordingly, I reached out to him, hoping to query him on the record, of course, about his experience. 

The circumstances of the 52-year-old cave instructor’s participation in GUE classes were somewhat unique.  Brock had agreed to assist his friend and fellow cave diver Meredith “Mer” Tanguay, who was completing her GUE Cave 2 Instructor Exam with Instructor Examiner (IE) Daniel Riordan in late 2020, in the midst of the global pandemic. 

Tanguay presciently acted to “bulletproof” her IE class—Mer managing Mr. Murphy—by making sure she had qualified ‘students’ at hand in case there was a dropout. Brock had previously completed Cave 1 under Tanguay’s tutelage in preparation for that eventuality, so when she received a cancellation a week before Cave 2, he was ready to go. What a guy!

I should note that Tanguay, principal of Wet Rocks Diving,  is one of GUE’s ardent, hard working recreational, technical, and cave diving instructors, a Fundamentals Instructor Trainer (IT), and an IE for Rec 1 & 2. She has been diving with GUE for 18 years. She was the first female to successfully complete her GUE’s Cave 1 and Cave 2 instructor rating, and is currently the only one teaching both GUE Tech and Cave, and GUE’s only female Cave 2 instructor, which until now had long been the sole province of the boys. 

As luck would have it, I was able to connect with Brock, a former public school teacher who is also a TDI, IANTD and PADI tech and cave instructor, to ask him about his experience with the GUE cave curriculum. Here’s what the man had to say. 

Let me ask, if you had to pick one word or phrase to describe your experience taking Cave 1 & 2, what would it be?

Chris Brock: Procedural! Everything you do in GUE has a set procedure. For me, having been away from GUE for 10 years when I took my “Fundies” class, it was hard at first to be procedural when I have so much muscle memory from just doing the dives all these years without thinking about it. It was difficult for me. It was very procedural and I had to slow down. 

Danny had a memorable piece of advice for me. He said, “You just have to slow down because your mind is thinking so fast about it and the way you do it. You have to just take it step by step and slow back down.” So, my takeaway at this point is that it was ‘highly procedural.’

Ha! GUE IE Guy Shockey, describes the work of GUE courses is teaching divers “how to do simple things precisely.”  What did you like most about the courses?
Line drills. Photo courtesy of M. Tanguay.

What I liked most about the course was seeing different ways of teaching the same concepts that I teach. I found a lot of value in how GUE does gas switches. I plan to do that from now on and incorporate it into my teaching. 

Now, will I encourage my students to dive in a Hogarthian configuration? I don’t know that I can do that fully, but I think we can incorporate Hogarthian principles into every configuration, even if they choose to use a chest strap and things like that. I think there is simplicity there as well as some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up from Danny and Meredith that will be helpful to students. 

Danny also addressed some of the things that I’ve seen as a weakness to it, to the Hogarthian configuration. He showed me a lot of little tricks that I had not seen before that I will also incorporate. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m going to try to add into my courses as well.

What did you like least about the courses?

I told Meredith and Danny this too: I think the strategy of GUE from what I saw over the two weeks of class, is a whole lot of push, push, push, push procedure. And they push the intensity level so high that some divers don’t have time to assimilate it and let it sink in before the instructors push students further. 

I think you should push a diver only so far, let them relax for a little bit and understand what they’re doing, then push them again. And in that sense, I don’t think there’s enough time for assimilation because there was constant intensity on all 10 dives. There was a push on all of it. So that’s one thing I did not like. 

Anything else?
Chris Brock labeling his cylinders. Photo courtesy of C. Brock.

The second thing I did not like was that in some ways I found it too procedural to where they were stressing valves, stressing lights, stressing and breaking everything rather than teaching these people how to cave dive. [Ed. Note: GUE tech and cave classes focus heavily on scenario i.e. failure-based training.

Teach me proper technique in this type of tunnel, so that I can transfer that learning on how to do it in that tunnel over there. Or teach me proper technique for diving in flow, so I can transfer it to how to dive in a high flow tunnel, that sort of thing. 

There wasn’t enough of that modeling, in my opinion. There wasn’t enough of that kind of modeling from the instructor showing me how to cave dive. I mean the instructor would correct things. She would say, “Your frog kick needs work or has some weaknesses in it.” But sometimes, and I do this—I did it in your class—I’ll say, I want you to follow me and do what I do. I think instructors should do that. Those were the two things I mentioned in my debrief with Meredith and Danny. I told them that that’s not what I would choose to do.

Ah yes, I remember. You had me do that at the mud tunnel at Ginnie Springs, “Follow me and do exactly as I do.” I was going to ask you about that because it really struck me when I worked with you and Reggie [Former NSS-CDS training director Reggie Ross, who passed away in 2019] that your course focused on the cave, the cave environment, and dealing with the cave. 
GUE tech courses are typically scenario-based. I was curious about what your take was on that. I talked to Meredith and she told me that GUE’s focus is 50% on the cave and 50% on what one would call problem-solving. So, you’re saying that it seemed to you it was less on the cave and more on problem solving.

From my point of view, yes. They told us, “The first half of the dive is yours, the second half of the dive is ours,” and they offered some coaching, and modeled and tried to correct our technique. The problem with it was this: Everybody knows—or learns quickly by living through the first few dives—[that] it’s hard to relax during the first half of the course. In the first three and a half or four days of the six-day course, you’re not enjoying those dives. Because it’s all about breaking you down and stressing you out. 

I understand why Meredith says 50-50. Because they do coach on that 50% in. But there was never that time, and maybe it’s because I was there, that she didn’t have to do as much modeling. She could always put me in front, and there you have it. And she could stay out of the team by doing that. Yeah, that’s just my feeling on it; we did have a conversation about it. I think there should be more teaching cave diving techniques and not just breaking every valve under the sun.

Right. You mentioned that you thought there should be a bit more time for students to absorb the lessons between high stress periods. And you have a unique perspective because you are already a cave instructor. But let me ask, do you think that the focus on problem solving—that is, dealing with continual multiple failures—helps students build confidence and capacity? 

That’s a tough one to answer. The answer is yes and no. I think that managing these situations within the team and getting everyone out safely definitely ups the student’s capacity. Where I think it’s a no is that sometimes a set procedure of doing things is not necessarily the only or even—in my opinion—the best way of dealing with certain failures. But it does focus problems back on the team rather than on the individual and the prescribed procedure for dealing with them. 

I do find the whole thing very interesting and very challenging for those making the standards for GUE education. I mean writing procedures that can easily be utilized across all types of diving is a challenging undertaking.

You raised a topic I was going to ask you about, the team. Obviously GUE is known for its team focus versus focus on individual diver. Was that different? How did that come through in the class and how does that compare with CDS training? Did you find more focus on the team in this course than you would in a CDS class? 

Yes, there was much more emphasis on the team because in a CDS course we can teach a single diver and we put ourselves as the dive buddy with them. After going through this process I do believe having that second teammate is very important. Learning how to work together as a team is sometimes more difficult than learning to cave dive.

“After going through this process I do believe having that second teammate is very important. Learning how to work together as a team is sometimes more difficult than learning to cave dive.”



Ha! Like a lot of things, it’s a learned skill, or at least can be improved with training. 

Exactly! In the GUE course, you’ve got to have at least two student divers. Now, in both of these courses we were teams of three. It was interesting, on the first course (Cave 1) we had one guy that had a difficult time fitting in with the team. That’s not to say he was a bad person or anything like that. His personality was just different than the others and it was a difficult mix. The differences in how we looked at things did create some friction in the course as all of us had strong opinions. It was interesting.

In the second course (C2), I was paired with a husband and wife and they were fantastic. Just fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed being teammates with them and we worked well together. Not to say there wasn’t friction on occasion, but never anything where you felt like the team was fragmenting. I enjoyed that piece of it quite a lot. 

Because you learned something?

I actually enjoyed it a lot because for me, it was a different way of thinking about stuff. I’m so used to doing most of these things on my own with one or two students. It forced me to be more conscientious of others around me and I had to make some changes in how I communicated. Having worked with Reggie, I am used to very direct communication. And I had to temper that on occasion with certain teammates because they did not respond well to that. So, I had to adapt. 

Brock tweaking his DPV with an onlooker. Photo courtesy of C. Brock.

That was helpful. Meredith would actually tell me, “Chris, you’re a little too direct; you’re being a little too direct underwater.” And I said, “Well Meredith, they’re doing X, Y, and Z.” And she said, “I know they are. I know they’re making mistakes. But you need to realize that these aren’t people that have done 1000 cave dives. You are raising their stress level with the way you are communicating.” 

So, I said, “You know what? You’re right. I need to work on this.” And so, I enjoyed that piece of it. In the CDS, we rarely teach teams of two and three, so it was good to participate in that.

I know that you did the classwork on Zoom beforehand and then got together for the diving. I have two questions here. First, I am guessing that with the pandemic still raging, more and more instructors from all agencies are conducting Zoom classes these days. How did you find that? 
Second, I’d be interested to get your take on the knowledge content, how it compared to a CDS or TDI cave course. Did you feel it was complete and well presented, that kind of thing?

I think Meredith does a fantastic job. She has gone to great lengths and spent countless hours putting her courses into an online learning environment. She has put a lot of time into lecturing online, presenting PowerPoints online, and providing supplemental resources online, and I found that very, very helpful. 

Tanguay conducted her cave class lectures and meet ups on Zoom.

We were running at eight in the morning until around seven at night, every night. And if you were to throw another hour and a half lecture on that, it would’ve been impossible. I have been using the TDI online course for my students, and I do like it. However, it is a supplement to my own lectures. The difference being that currently most of my presentations are done in person.

I worked through the TDI online full cave module a few years ago as part of my research for a story. It’s very different from a live lecture over Zoom. 

Yes, Meredith does active instruction because there is no packaged online course module for Cave One or Two. So, it’s active lectures and she answers questions and it was very helpful. I learned some things.  There are also some videos that I want to use, and I plan to incorporate GUE.tv in my own courses. So, I found it very helpful. I think the way that she is approaching online learning is the wave of the future and I think a lot more instructors should incorporate that into their teaching.

No doubt, things are going to remain crazy for a while, so this is a good impetus for instructors to think about online learning. I know many GUE instructors have gone that route.

Here’s what it does. As a student you get this very high level of instruction ahead of the course, and then you then have the opportunity to review that material as you’re getting closer to the course. You have an opportunity within the course to go dive and experience it, and there’s the opportunity to have much deeper conversations than you normally would because now you’ve experienced it three times before you ever really get into it. So, you’re already at a state of being able to formulate really relevant questions at the conceptual level versus just rote knowledge. 

I like what she’s doing with this. She’s raising the bar on getting the content across. It’s very good, it’s very good.

The class you took was Meredith’s Instructor Examination (IE) to become a Cave 2 instructor. I know you have participated in CDS Instructor Institutes. Talk to me from an IE perspective. How did the instructor examination come across? How did it compare to CDS’ instructor development process?

It was completely different. In the CDS, we can do our IEs in several different ways. Yes, if a candidate has a group of students, then we can just observe them teaching their students and that can be their IE. So, we can do that. But most of the time, candidates come to us. They do classroom presentations for us, they do land drills for us, they do in-water work for us. So we see all of that as instructor evaluators. 

In this case, Meredith had to take care of all of the details and she was being evaluated on everything: from logistics and pacing of the course, dealing with events that happened within the dive, the debrief, corrections that she would have to make in the dive regarding safety, or whatever. We had a couple of instances, two that I can think of. One student had had an ear problem on a dive and then we had a problem with a student that just wasn’t feeling it and he thumbed the dive early. Danny was of course evaluating everything.

It was completely comprehensive. I mean the whole thing was being looked at. That’s a lot different than what we do at the CDS. Meredith was really put through the ringer, without a doubt. 

All of my GUE instructor friends, most of whom have other agency certs as well, tell me that GUE sets a very high bar for their instructors: it’s hard to become one, they have to do a partial requalification annually, and a full requalification every four years.

They do. Meredith had to do her requalification too. She had to do the swims and climb stairs wearing her doubles. The whole enchilada.

So from an instructor’s perspective, how would you compare and contrast GUE’s overall approach versus the CDS’s?
Chris Brock stowing gear after a dive. Photo courtesy of C. Brock.

If you get a good instructor, a good, tough instructor in any agency, you can get a good cave class. But if you get a burned-out instructor, in any agency, you can get a bad cave class. 

What I saw was certainly the cream of GUE rising to the top. I saw Meredith’s best work; her preparedness was point-on because of what she was going through. And I’ve been around her in other situations where she’s teaching and she does set the bar at a very high level for cave instruction. I’m very impressed with her. Very impressed.

I would say GUE’s courses are well suited to people that are very motivated, high-level achievers who love that team camaraderie. And if that personality type is who you are, I think GUE is a fantastic route for you to go. If that’s not the kind of personality that you have, then you might struggle within it. 

“I would say GUE’s courses are well suited to people that are very motivated, high-level achievers who love that team camaraderie. And if that personality type is who you are, I think GUE is a fantastic route for you to go. If that’s not the kind of personality that you have, then you might struggle within it.”

So to say that it’s better than TDI, CDS, any of that, I can’t say that it’s better. Is it more intense? I would think, by and large, it is more intense. I do a lot of stressful stuff in my courses, but I don’t raise it to that level. I don’t know how I would’ve handled that if I hadn’t a lot of experience already. It wore on me over the days. 

In my experience, GUE courses tend to be fairly intense. Heck, GUE is fairly intense. Ha!

Yeah, they are. But here’s one thing, I will say this. One of the debrief questions at the end of the first course was this: Do you consider yourself a GUE diver? And I said, no, I’m not a GUE diver, I’m a cave diver. I’ll dive with anybody, anytime, who’s safe and looks out for their buddy. 

Now, at the end of the second course they didn’t ask that question so I told them, you should’ve asked me that question again. And Meredith said, “Okay, what would you say?” And I said, “I would’ve said, yes, I am.” Because there is something rewarding about being tested that hard, and receiving that credential. You earned it. You really earned that certification. 

“Because there is something rewarding about being tested that hard, and receiving that credential. You earned it. You really earned that certification.”

I don’t know that I am a GUE diver, but will I dive with GUE guys? Sure. Do I think there is some of the bullshit that hangs over from the old days? Absolutely. There is still some of that under the surface that I see, but by and large I have met a lot of really good people.

Chris Brock doing what he loves best. Photo courtesy of C. Brock.
I find your take on the type of diver who might find GUE appealing interesting. In my younger years, I was like, 150% pushing all-out, all of the time to improve my diving. And now, I find that mindset just doesn’t fit me quite as well. I’m more like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, can we just go diving?” Maybe it’s just old age, I don’t know. I think it may actually be a bit healthier for me to not to push all the time. You know what I’m saying? I’m just a little more chill.

I’m the same way, and that’s kind of why I would challenge them. I don’t know if Meredith spoke to this. She could’ve had a much easier IE if I hadn’t been there. I was the guy that was challenging her on every point while she was getting evaluated on her responses to every challenge I made, by Danny. 

Ha! Right, some friend you are! Making it harder.

And Danny spoke about that in our debrief together. He said, “Chris, you brought a whole other perspective and Meredith had to defend what we do. That was good for her to have to defend it. Because you understand the various aspects of cave diving and are coming in and asking, “Why?” Tell me why because I’m not going to believe it on face value like a normal student who listens to the instructor say, “Do X, Y and Z,” and says, “OK,” instead of, “Why do you do it this way and not that?”

And I’m with you—I think that there is a personality type that fits GUE and there’s a personality type that doesn’t. And there’s a personality type somewhere in the middle that fits GUE sometimes but maybe not all the way. Perhaps that is me. Overall, I think it is a pretty solid program. I really do.

So you think there may be other GUE courses in your future? 

I do. I’m looking forward to my next professional development course with GUE. Either Tech 1 with Meredith or possibly a DPV course with Danny. As an instructor in both of those areas I am curious as to how that content is presented as well.

“I do. I’m looking forward to my next professional development course with GUE. Either Tech 1 with Meredith or possibly a DPV course with Danny. As an instructor in both of those areas I am curious as to how that content is presented as well.”

Thanks Chris! Thanks for being willing to share.

Footnote by Meredith:

Meredith Tanguay in her element. Photo by Annika Persson.

Appropriately challenging both “normal-track” Cave 2 students and a student with over 1000 cave dives in the same class most definitely added another layer of difficulty to my Cave 2 Instructor Exam class. It was certainly a challenge, and I like challenges, so I thank Team FIYD FIYD for that! [Ed.—Inside joke] Our job as instructors is to provide challenges to improve on each diver’s starting set of skills and help them become better and more efficient, even the ones that are already solid divers. This makes every GUE class different and customized for that unique team of students.

Additional Resources:

Meredith Tanguay, principal Wet Rocks Diving

Chris Brock, principal, Cavediving.com


Michael Menduno/M2 is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning journalist and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for more than 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” 

His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving and he produced the first tek.Conferences and Rebreather Forums 1.0 & 2.0. In addition to InDepth, Menduno serves as an editor/reporter for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, a contributing editor for X-Ray mag, and writes for DeeperBlue.com. He is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA), and a member of the Rebreather Training Council.

Cave

SUMP POTION #9

Located high in the Sierra Mazateca mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico, Sistema Huautla has captured the imagination of elite cave explorers for more than 50 years. Join photographer SJ Alice Bennett and cave/tech instructor Jon Kieren on Beyond The Sump’s recent March/April 2022 expedition to Sump 9.

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Text by Jon Kieren. Images by SJ Alice Bennett.

🎶🎶 Pre-dive Clicklist: 붐바야 (BOOMBAYAH) by BLACKPINK curated by Steve Lambert

Sistema Huautla, in Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the most iconic and expansive cave systems in the world with over 30 entrances, more than 100.7 kilometers/62.5 miles of known passage, and reaching a depth of over 1500 meters/5000 feet, has been an obsession for cavers around the world for over 50 years. Every year, several groups such as Beyond the Sump (BtS) and Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla (PESH) mount expeditions to the region to explore. Surrounded by karst topography with several other gigantic systems, such as Chevé and Kijahe Xontjo are close by, there is surprisingly only one main exit point for the water flow (based on several dye trace studies), the Huautla Resurgence. Huautla is still being actively explored from the plateau to find the allusive connection with its resurgence. Terminating in a 9th sump at 81 m/264 ft depth, it is logistically extremely difficult to push the end of the line from there. This leaves exploration from the resurgence as the most likely tactic to make the connection.

Santa Ana Cuauhtémoc.

Nestled deep in a canyon 1200 m/4000 feet below the sleepy little town of Santa Ana Cuauhtémoc in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico, is the Santo Domingo River. The Santo Domingo is fed by multiple water sources from various cave systems in the area including the Peña Colorada, Agua Frio Resurgence, HR Resurgence, and the Huautla Resurgence. The Huautla Resurgence was first explored in 1982, followed by expeditions in 1984 and 1995 led by Bill Stone. In 2001, Jason Mallinson and Rick Stanton pushed the cave to a maximum depth of 65m/215 ft and reached a sump pool where a dry cave passage heading off could be seen 10m/30 ft above, but with vertical muddy walls stopping the divers from being able to exit the water. Beyond the Sump, expeditions began exploring the resurgence in 2016 and 2017 where they found an exit from Sump 2 into a dry section, named “Passage of the Cheeky Monkey”, which was thoroughly explored and mapped, with several sumps found along the way. When time ran out for the 2017 expedition, several questions remained unanswered. Primarily, “where the hell does all the water come from?”, as the only source of water seemed to come from a small flowstone restriction affectionately named the “Squirty Hole”. A question that would need to wait five years to be answered.

In late March, 2022, Beyond the Sump set off on another expedition to Santa Ana to find the way on to “Sump 9”. The team consisted of Andreas Klocker (AUT/AUS), Zeb Lilly (USA), Steve Lambert (USA), SJ Alice Bennett (UK/GER), Ben Wright (UK), Rob Thomas (UK) and myself, Jon Kieren (USA), with logistical support happening remotely by Alejandra “Alex” Mendoza (MEX). Bios on the team can be found at: Beyond The Sump-Team. This is a log of our experiences and discoveries.

The team posing during a quick pit stop on the way from Tehuacán to Santa Ana.

28 March, 2022

The entire group met for the first time in Tehuacán. Andreas, Zeb, and Steve had driven down from the US, while SJ and I had driven over from Tulum, and Ben and Rob had flown in from the UK. Everyone’s travel up to this point was relatively uneventful, except for SJ. She had managed to badly sprain her ankle the night before, leaving us questioning how the first couple of weeks of the expedition would pan out for her. Both trucks were packed tight, but room was made for the Brits and SJ’s swollen ankle for the remaining four-hour drive up through the Sierra Madre mountains to Santa Ana. The drive is spectacular, beginning on the north western side of the mountains where it is an arid desert filled with giant cactus and ending at an elevation of about 5200 ft in a lush green mountain forest.

After a quick stop for tacos and to grab a “few” bottles of mezcal, we arrived at our field house after dark. We quickly scrambled to unload the trucks into the concrete box we would call home for the next four weeks. We hastily set up our beds, and a bottle of whisky and mezcal made a few quick passes around the room to con- gratulate our arrival before lights out.

Sunrise view from the field house.

29 March 2022

Church bells rang at 5:30 am which woke both us and the surrounding livestock as the sun began to rise through the canyon below us, a truly remarkable sight that I highly doubted I would ever grow tired of. First order of business was to dig out the coffee pot and tea kettle. Once adequately caffeinated, we started organizing all of the equipment for base camp and diving. We set up a makeshift kitchen with two small camping stoves and a fold-out table. After a batch of scrambled eggs were devoured, everyone started tearing into the dive equipment and getting personal kit and team resources organized. We assembled a boosting station in the field house and set the compressor up outside. Regulators, cylinders, and rebreathers were scattered everywhere, and SJ was busy with camera equipment. Morale was high as everyone made predictions for what the cave was going to do.

Sleeping quarters in the field house.
Andreas organising gear for the first dive day.
Steve packing the truck while brushing his teeth.

Steve, Zeb, and Andreas were supposed to have a meeting with the town council to finalize permission to use the road leading down the canyon and set up operations in the cave. We had no doubts we would gain permission, but it was important to play the local politics and stay friendly with the community. The meeting didn’t happen, but we were assured “mañana” (which often means “later” as opposed to the direct translation of “tomorrow”). Instead of holding the meeting, Steve, Zeb, and Andreas were handed a bottle of moonshine made from sugar cane, called aguardiente. In an effort to be diplomatic, they graciously accepted a drink, and then another. Soon they were hooked into a few hours of hilarity trying to socialize in broken Spanish while the rest of us waited patiently for word on what our plan would be for the next day. We would need to wait until 5:30 am when the church bells rang to assess everyone’s energy levels and see what we thought about the “beg for forgiveness” tactic for finalizing permission before deciding to head down into the canyon or not.

30 March 2022

We decided to go for it and started to set up in the canyon. The 1219 m/4000 ft descent down to the canyon took about an hour by 4×4 truck and was absolutely breathtaking, second only to the hike to the resurgence. The hike was a fairly easy- going 1.2 miles, but took about 40 minutes each way with heavy loads and several river crossings. Luckily, we were able to keep most of the heavy kit in the cave for the majority of the expedition with only CCR bottles, the “cave cascade” (a few lightweight high pressure carbon cylinders we had set up in the cave to refill cylinders), and other little bits and bobs of personal kit needing to be transported in and out each day.

Andreas, Steve, and I did the first dive to reline and survey the first sump and rig the waterfall. Upon surfacing at the waterfall, a wave of “holy shit, this is remote” hit me quite hard, and the smile would not come off my face. While we dove, the rest of the group (minus poor gimpy SJ, who was stuck at the field house knotting line) did two more gear hauls from the truck. Everyone was pretty beat, but nothing a couple Victoria beers and a few liters of gatorade wouldn’t fix.

In the evening, we were able to meet with the local officials for formal permission to use the road and access the cave. We donated some pesos to fund their annual celebration of the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata, which we also had to promise to attend.

Despite Steve’s insistence on K-pop for our daily soundtrack, morale was high.

The 4×4 squeezing out of the narrow driveway on the way to the canyon.
The road down the mountain was often shared with cows and horses. Or broken down cars.
Ben and Jon scrabble over boulders towards the cave.
The second river crossing.

31 March 2022

Day 2 of diving was productive. Zeb, Rob, and Ben were able to set up the gear line for the far side of the waterfall to hang the deep bailouts, run line to 140 feet, and set the deep bailouts. Andreas, Steve, and I did a few gear hauls through the canyon. The next day, Steve and I planned to reline and survey the second sump out another 1200 feet or so at a max depth of about 215 ft. I was excited for the “real” diving to begin.

Rob preparing to go under.

1 April 2022

Instead of the fiery red sunrise through the canyon, we were suddenly in the clouds and surrounded by cold mist, chugging coffee and tea but still struggling to wake up. The group appeared tired from the few days of intense hiking in the canyon, but moods lightened as the coffee hit, and we started to think about today’s dive. After today, we would likely begin pushing the leads left over from 2017 and searching for the way on to Sump 9. I was a bit apprehensive about making it over the waterfall with my Fathom CCR on, and felt a bit jealous of the side mount and chest mount units other team members were using. The waterfall was only about a meter high, but had high flow and razor sharp jagged rocks protecting it. I figured if it was a big hassle, I’d switch out my Flex2 side mount unit for future dives to make getting to sump 2 a bit easier.

On our drive down to the canyon, we were stopped by a group of enthusiastic locals. With big smiles on their faces, they insisted we get out of the truck and follow them up a small trail in the mountainside. As we followed, we could see smoke coming from a pit, and a strong scent of something sweet in the air. The group wanted to show us how they were processing sugar cane to produce piloncillo, an unrefined sugar commonly used in Mexican cooking. We were given a block of the piloncillo, which we later used to make syrup for pancakes and French toast when we started getting tired of scrambled eggs.

Steve and I had a great dive. We crossed the waterfall to sump 2. I made it over with my Fathom on, but it took a bit of effort. I was thinking that switching to the Flex for the next dive would make life easier, especially if we would be hauling more cylinders and scooters over the waterfall. Sump 2 was just a truly stunning, big passage with rolling hills all covered in silt. Our max depth was 56 m/183 ft on this dive, with about an hour of deco to do upstream of the waterfall. We laid another 365 m/1200 ft of line while swimming, setting up the next team to re-line all the way to camp 1 in the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey, and check what was thought to be the most promising lead discovered in 2017, referred to as the “11 meter lead”.

Andreas and Jon during a clean up dive hauling gear back over the waterfall.

2 April 2022

SJ came down into the canyon for the first time today. Her ankle was still in pretty rough shape, but life in the box on the mountainside had become dull. She had been as productive as she could be by knotting line and photographing the town. She also managed to make no less than four new boyfriends, led by a 6-year-old who kept bringing his siblings and friends into the field house and proudly exclaiming “gringa!” while pointing at SJ. He then would lead them around the field house showing off all of the strange equipment we had scattered about.

SJ trying to stay sane while knotting line and being stuck at the field house during the first week.

On our way into the canyon, we were hailed by another group of farmers just a little down the road from the piloncillo farm. As they enthusiastically led us to their farm, we could smell the pungent aroma of fermenting sugarcane before we could see the still. They first showed us how they crushed the sugarcane plants to extract the juice, which we sampled. Rich, sweet, and syrupy, it was hard to get down with the thought of the hard hike through the canyon ahead. Next, they showed us where the fermentation was taking place in large tubs next to the still. We were offered a sample straight from the still, which we had to decline, as there was much work and diving to be done yet. So we promised to stop back at the end of the day to have a drink.

Squeezing sugar cane into juice before the fermenting process.
The team watches with great interest.

The diving for the day proved to be less productive. SJ was able to take some photos of the canyon and divers prepping to enter the cave, but the dive was called early due to a rebreather failure. The line was still extended a few hundred feet, so all was not lost. But the line still did not reach the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey nor had any leads been investigated. Morale was a bit low.

At the end of the day, we stopped back at the aguardiente distillery and were poured a fresh bottle to be passed around. Before taking a drink, Steve asked how much alcohol was in it. The man proudly proclaimed “22 grado,” which Steve interpreted as 22% and took a chug. His eyes went big, he handed it to me, and I took a big swig for myself and quickly realized that “22 grado” does NOT equal 22% as I handed the bottle on to the next person. Realizing we needed to leave ASAP or it would be unlikely any of us could drive the truck home, Rob (who seemed quite pleased with the aguardiente) offered to buy the bottle to take home with us. With the transaction complete, we headed back up the mountain to get to the bottom of this “22 grado” business.

Steve organising his dry suit in front of the cave entrance.
Andreas’ pre-dive excitement.

3 April 2022

Another cold and cloudy day. I was tired, and my back felt broken when heading down the mountain. I needed a day of rest but knew we needed to push on. I switched to the Flex and headed in with Steve on DPVs to line the cave to camp 1 and check the 11 meter lead. I immediately realized I was overweighted with the Flex, steel side mounted bailout cylinders, and extra safeties and deco gas that were to be installed in sump 2.

Crossing the waterfall, I tore the right ankle of my drysuit, which I noticed as soon as I got back in the water on the other side. Knowing I had heated undergarments on and plenty of battery power for the couple hours of deco we might end up with, I decided I would be fine to continue the dive.

With each stage drop, I hoped my stability would improve, but it didn’t. I struggled on, Steve and I making it to the far side of sump 2 to search for the way on to Cheeky Monkey. We made our way up what we believed to be the correct path, doing our deco as we circled up towards an air bell. We did not find the 11 meter lead where we thought it would be, and realized we were in an area known as “Jason’s Eyes,” a dry section first discovered in 2001 by Jason Mallinson which had no way on. Steve asked if I wanted to surface to look around and chat about where to look next, and I reluctantly raised my thumb and pointed back toward the exit. I was super uncomfortable being overweighted as well as needing to dive back to 65 m/215 ft and have an hour or so of deco before the waterfall with a flooded drysuit. Plus, I knew that if we dragged this dive on much longer, I was going to start making mistakes. So we re-descended from our 3 m/10 ft stop and headed back toward Sump 1, when I was abruptly stopped at 9 m/30 ft as I could no longer inflate my wing or drysuit.

Grabbing the cave wall, I realized that the two liter cylinder I had dedicated for wing and suit inflation was dead, clearly a result of struggling with being overweighted and unstable. I got Steve’s attention and communicated the problem, and we started to inventory resources with an LPI connection. We had an O2 bottle, which would not be great for suit inflation considering I was already shivering in the 18º C/65º F water and would desperately need to use my heat during deco. The 50% bottle we were to drop at the deco station heading to camp 1 only had a QC6 connection, which would be no help to me. And that left only my side mounted bailout, which was 15/55 trimix. Certainly not ideal for suit inflation, but better than starting myself on fire. I plugged in and filled my suit with the icy trimix as we started to exit. I had to constantly switch the hose from my suit to wing as we scootered out but managed to make it back to the waterfall with only an hour of deco, which was manageable with my heated vest on full blast.

Jon getting dressed before a not-so-great dive.
Steve getting in the zone.

We were unsuccessful in completing our tasks for the day, and I was in a world of self-pity from my poor decision to change configurations without a shakedown dive. We went back to the field house to conduct some experiments regarding the actual alcohol content of the Aguar. Tomorrow we would rest and re-group. Morale was low.

8 April 2022

The past few days had been challenging. Several attempts at exploration in Sump 2 had proven unsuccessful. We had scoured the deep section, and the fabled 11 meter lead, and others like it, which all pinched off quickly. While there was significant flow coming out of these tight passages, they were simply Swiss cheese that was not passible by humans. Maybe after a few hundred thousand years or so, they would be big enough so we could jam Steve in there to take a look, but for now, we were going to have to focus our search in the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey and the sumps within it to find the way on.

Logistically, this would mean exploring from camp 1 to avoid having to pass a waterfall and do a 65 m/215 ft dive prior to surfacing and hiking gear a couple thousand feet through dry cave to the Sump each day. We would be using the next day as an opportunity to rest and get the first camp team, Rob and Andreas, ready to set off for a couple of days in the Cheeky Monkey.

SJ’s ankle was feeling well enough for her to dive, so we’d done a couple of shakedown dives to test the ankle and get a feel for the cave before starting to shoot the next day.

Steve and Zeb making an aguardiente offering to the cave for good fortune.
Zeb and Steve mixing cave dinner and packing dry tubes for the first camping attempt.

9 April 2022

SJ and I entered the water for a photo dive shortly after Andreas and Rob pushed off for camp 1. About 30 minutes into shooting, we noticed lights and the sound of scooters buzzing toward us. It was Andreas and Rob, obviously having had some sort of problem and aborting early. We decided to exit with them to see if we could assist somehow. Turned out they had a dry tube failure when they made it to the end of Sump 1, drowning most of the camping equipment.

With only 9 days of diving left, and time starting to run out, we couldn’t afford any more mishaps if we were going to figure this cave out. A serious team discussion was had to decide on the schedule for the next few days to prioritize exploration, as well as to ensure that we would have opportunities for documentation. We planned to prep and re-group again the next day, then Steve, Zeb, and I would head into camp 1 for a very long day of poking around in the Cheeky Monkey to determine what the objectives should be for the first camping team.

Steve watching as Andreas and Rob descend on the way to camp 1.
Jon swimming out of the cave though the first arch.
Jon swimming though the double arches in Sump 1.

In the evening, we had a chance to meet up with Bill Stone and his team who were exploring a nearby dry cave. It was pretty surreal to be in Oaxaca with Bill, hearing him tell stories of exploration in the area, as well as to discuss what we had found and what we thought the cave might do. Bill was convinced the Swiss cheese we had found could not be the only water source, as it was rumored that during the rainy season the resurgence produced a geyser several meters tall. We discussed what our plans were moving forward, and Bill seemed to agree that the sumps in the Cheeky Monkey must be hiding something.

10 April 2022

A day of rest and prep for a long day tomorrow. There was a celebration in town for Emiliano Zapata with parades, fireworks, and lots of mescal and aguardiente. It began last night and never really ended. We were supposed to attend the festivities that evening, but hopefully only for a short while as we were planning to leave the field house at daybreak to be in the water early morning.

The music and festivities in town added a joyful feel to the somewhat mixed emotions in the field house. Excitement, stress, and anxiety. Morale was pretty high considering the pressure we were under.

A festive parade walking down the mountain through town.
Tacos were hugely enjoyed by the team.

11 April 2022

A long but successful day. Steve, Zeb, and I pushed off early in the morning and spent the majority of the day in Cheeky Monkey. From the beach where we surfaced, it was about a 30-minute hike through fairly rough terrain, but no serious climbing required. Hauling dive gear did create some challenges, though. We checked Surprise Sump first, which had not been dived before, and it turned out to be the biggest discovery we’d had the whole month. Immediately upon descending, Steve noticed darkness beyond the duck under in front of him. As he shouted for joy through his loop and descended with a line peeling off the reel, hearts started pounding as we realized what might have been right under the team’s noses during the 2017 expedition.

One of the very many o-ring failures during the expedition.

After a hundred feet or so, it surfaced, followed by a short hike and another sump which had an upstream and a downstream, and then another waterfall on the upstream side. Not the borehole we were hoping for, but there was more cave here than we knew about the day before, so that was a huge plus, and it seemed to be heading in the right direction–toward Sump 9. Logistics would definitely get more interesting, but we had a good idea of what resources would be needed for the first camping trip. We exited the water a little after 6 pm with rejuvenated spirits and confidence that we were on the brink of breaking this thing open.

13 April 2022

SJ, Andreas, and I were supposed to do a photo dive today. On our way down the mountain, Zeb’s truck’s suspension started making some terrible noises. When we inspected it, we noticed the leaf spring hanger bracket had torn in half, leaving the leaf spring pressing up into the bed. With no option, we slowly drove the truck back up to the field house to start the process of finding parts and tools. After a quick team meeting, we made new plans based on best and worst case scenarios. Best case would be that the truck was fixed today or early tomorrow morning, and we could get a camping team in to push from Surprise Sump for a few days while SJ and I got as many photos as possible. Worst case, we wouldn’t have time left for camping and would have to do the best we could with a couple of day trips.

A very broken bracket.

SJ and I drove down to Tehuacan to pick up a new bracket while the team tried to get the old one off. At the suspension shop, I was struggling to communicate with the woman at the parts counter. She seemed to know what we needed, I was just trying to verify the part number to be sure we weren’t about to make a 7-hour round trip and return with the wrong part. A kind man waiting in line asked us in decent English what we needed, and I explained. He said, with a sly grin and a wink pointing at the woman behind the counter “she knows”. The woman looked at me and smiled. I shrugged and nodded as she grabbed the bracket and darted off while saying something to our new friend. He told us she took it in back so the shop could press the bushing into the bracket for us. While we waited, we chatted with the man about what we were doing there. He seemed intrigued, was enjoying the stories of our adventure, and I was showing him some photos of caves in Tulum on my phone, when the woman returned with the bracket. As I was paying her, two young men were trying to give SJ a couple sandwiches and pepsis. When she tried to refuse, the woman behind the counter got very excited, gesturing for us to take them. Apparently, when we said we had come 3.5 hours down the mountain to get the part, they were empathetic to our situation. And based on my ragged clothes, matted hair, tired face, and sand-fly covered body (SJ looked great as always), they must have assumed it was quite the journey and refused to let us go away hungry and thirsty.

When we got back to Santa Ana, the team let us know they were unable to pull the old bracket, and that we’d have to take the truck to the nearest town with a mechanic first thing in the morning to try to repair it.

Team discussions in the field house.

14 April 2022

It took until about 2 pm to get the truck fixed, but determined to get some work done, Steve, Zeb, and Andreas decided to push off for camp 1. They were in the water by 6pm, planning to reemerge on the 18th at 4pm.

Zeb stuffing a dry tube with Jon posing questionably in the background.

While driving the truck back up the mountain, I noticed the brakes seemed a bit soft and the steering a bit stiff. However, this was my first time driving Zeb’s truck, and without much other choice, I kept making our way back up to the field house. When we arrived at the house, it was noticed that power steering fluid was leaking below the truck. By then it was after 8 pm, and there really wasn’t much we could do about it at the moment anyway, so we all promptly crashed out so we could get up early and try to sort out the problem in time for SJ and I to finally get in a proper photo dive.

15 April 2022

We topped off the hydraulic fluid but were unable to determine the source of the leak. Ben and I drove the truck around on the more benign roads at the top of the mountain with no noticeable leaks or ill effects on the steering or brakes. So we made the decision to head down the canyon and take some pictures. SJ on the camera, me on lights, and Ben as a model. All went off without a hitch, and the truck made it back up the mountain with still no signs of a leak. I was happy about that, but quite wary. As my dad says, “Problems don’t usually just fix themselves…”

Ben swimming above river pebbles in the cave.
Ben ascending one of the many ups and downs in Sump 1.

16 April 2022

A day for surface photos. SJ had plans to photograph the canyon as well as take some simple shots in the cave entrance. It was a light and easy day that should have wrapped up quite early. However, as we started to pack up and leave the cave for the day, two by two, our entire host family, all 13 of them, started coming around the corner walking toward the cave. It was surreal, we hadn’t seen a single other human in the canyon for weeks, and there out of the blue, was the whole family. Dragging half sleeping children, the happy and excited adults hastily climbed the rocks up to the cave entrance. They were amused to hear that our friends were several kilometers underground and wouldn’t return for a few days yet. After a bit of climbing around, we all started to make our way back down the canyon toward the truck. After the first river crossing, SJ noticed one of the young mothers struggling to carry Liam, the two-year-old. She gave me a nudge, and I turned and offered to carry the little guy. At the next river crossing, we noticed they had a whole camp set up at the edge of the river. As we approached, the young mother offered us a drink, took Liam back from me, and before we knew what was happening, they had reignited the campfire stove and were preparing a late lunch for us. We ate some of the most amazing refried beans on the planet while the kids played in the river until the abuela (grandmother) started packing up a few things. I looked at her and asked “vamos?” (We go?), to which she loudly exclaimed “VAMANOS!” (Let’s go!) With a smile on her face, as everyone scrambled and had camp packed up and were hiking again within moments.

Ben showing the small cavern and explaining that the three missing team members are camping in the cave right now.
Late lunch on the way back at the family’s camp.

After encountering the family, our day suddenly became much longer than we had anticipated. We got home after dark, exhausted from another hot day hiking in the canyon, yet rejuvenated from the experience we had just had. It had been hard to keep morale up with the never ending issues we encountered, as well as less than stellar productivity, but to be able to share a bit of what we were doing there with our caring and supportive host family was truly an experience. They thought what we were doing was truly remarkable, which it really was; it was just hard to remember that when facing failures and adversity. So, a little reminder by way of the smiles on the faces of our new friends gave us quite a boost. We ate dinner quickly and settled in as early as we could. One more shot at cave photos the next day. Before Steve, Zeb and Andreas come out and mess up the vis hauling all of their camping gear out.

Jon swimming into the cave through the first arch.

17 April 2022

SJ and I were able to get in a nice long photo dive. As we were packing up to head out, we saw lights flicker below the surface. Steve, Zeb and Andreas were back a day early, not necessarily a good thing…

Jon’s HUD glowing while swimming through Sump 1.

As they emerged, one by one, there were no high fives or cheers of joy. Just a content look on Zeb’s face as he calmly stated in his mild southern drawl, “she doesn’t go”.

Arriving at camp 1 after 8 pm on the 14th, they had set up camp and prepared for the following day’s explorations. Over the next two days, they scoured the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey and the sumps within.

They dived Surprise Sump, the newly discovered Gold Star Sump, as well as checked the stream way beyond the new waterfall, and searched every corner of the dry cave. The downstream section of Gold Star Sump pinched off into swiss cheese where there was a significant amount of flow. The stream way beyond the waterfall also pinched off into another flowstone restriction, similar to the Squirty Hole. No new sections of dry cave were discovered. Based on observation of the amount and direction of flow exiting downstream Gold Star Sump and the small restrictions in Sump 2, the team estimated it is approximately equal to the flow coming over the waterfall in Sump 1 as well as exiting the resurgence. Concluding that all water sources have been discovered, none of which will allow a human to pass, and no passable dry cave is accessible.

Disappointed, but content that every corner of the Huautla Resurgence had been checked, they decided to close the book on the project and head out a day early.

Visibility got worse with the water levels dropping towards the end of April.

The next few days were dedicated to more photos and cleanup. With 12 safety and deep bailout cylinders remaining in Sump 2, scooters staged at the waterfall, several safeties in Sump 1, six shallow bailout cylinders, rebreathers, and personal gear for seven divers left in the cave entrance, there was a lot of work to do. However, with teamwork, we managed to get everything out of the canyon in just three days. Our backs a bit sore, and our dreams of big going borehole passage beyond Sump 2 unrealized, moods were a mix of relief to be finished and a reluctance to leave, knowing we would likely never have a reason to return to this truly remarkable site.

Completing a project is a bittersweet feeling, of course. While sad there’s no more cave, there’s also a feeling of content completion. We did everything possible to find the way to connect the resurgence to Sump 9 of Sistema Huautla, and we are probably the last team to ever see the inside of the resurgence for the foreseeable future (or ever), which is pretty damn cool. We also had the opportunity to spend time with new friends in a truly remarkable place with extraordinarily gracious hosts. So, in all, I would certainly call this year’s Beyond The Sump expedition a success.

Jon swimming through a tunnel in Sump 1.

Additional Resources

Wikipedia: Sistema Huautla

Explorers Club: Sistema Huautla, Mexico – the 50-year original exploration and study of the deepest cave in the world

NatGeo: One of the Deepest Caves in the World is Even Bigger Than We Thought

Exploration groups involved with Sistema Huautla:

Beyond The Sump | www.facebook.com/CaveDive
Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla (PESH) 
United States Deep Caving Team

SJ Alice Bennett has been photographically documenting the world around her since she was a kid. After completing a diploma in Graphic & Communication and a B.A. in Visual & Motion Design and moving to Quintana Roo, Mexico in 2017 she’s turned her focus on the underground rivers of the area. Her documentary style of shooting is well known for capturing the emotions of the moment and creating a sense of being there with her. She has a passion for documenting exploration and has worked as a freelance photographer and graphic designer around the globe and just joined the InDepth team. Watch this space.


Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his career over the past 13 years to improving dive training. As an active TDI/IANTD/NSS-CDS and GUE Instructor, and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep extended range cave dives (the more deco the better), as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favourite places to share with the world. 

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