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  • Writer's picturePaul Bondsfield

700 Metres Deep

I was trapped at the bottom of the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere.

There are mountains that are truly magical like the ones in Plan Carlotta, a small town deep in Mexico. Thick fog storms race through the horizon covering the karst landscape that litters the hillside and the skylights up with thousands of fireflies revealing your way through the late hours of the night.

Bill Steele and team discovered this magical place over forty years ago and since then began the PESH ( Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla) project where every year a team of explorers reside in Plan Carlota calling it home and spending long hours underground.

For my first camp trip I was asked to be the first to photograph past Mazatec Shores, an area where you have to duck under the ceiling underwater to get to the passage on the other side.

Five of us rummaged through the gear room collecting items for mapping, camping, food, and rigging and stuffed them into our packs where were would drag through twelve long hours of tight squeezy canyon passage until we were at the very bottom 700 meters deep...Camp 4.

In the morning we woke up and filtered water for our dehydrated breakfast mix only to discover that the cave was flooding from unseasonal monsoon storms that hit Plan Carlota like a drive-by. Our usual fifty-foot swim down Skeleton Canyon with one foot of air space completely flooded to the ceiling, trapping us on the other side. That put a damper on our plan to have a fellow caver pack-mule down the rest of our camp food in an effort to save weight, therefore we enjoyed our gourmet Clif bars and beef jerky for several days. We even got creative and dissected trail mix to boil the almonds and add curry for flavour. Luckily the water dropped on the seventh day underground allowing enough air for us to pass to the other side and exceeding our planned camp trip by only one extra day. I succeeded in taking the only photos taken at the bottom of the deepest cave on the Western Hemisphere of the world.

For the first time I felt my photography had purpose. Bill Steele and team spent many years developing a relationship with the local Mazatecs with a few topes (Mexican speed bumps) along the way. You see, to them the caves are the portal to the gods and they believe that by entering them we will disrupt their crops and wellbeing. That is why Bill had to participate in a sacrificial ceremony where he was forced to toss a turkey down a pit, something that weighed heavily on his conscience, to ask the gods for permission to enter.

One afternoon as we ventured beyond the hills of Plan Carlotta to hike and seek new cave entrances, we came across a single small room with school in session. There is an urban legend dispersed throughout the hills that the gringos came to visit only to steal the organs of children. As they peered at us behind the shades of the window and halfway outside the door, I walked up to them and told them to put their hands up in the air for a group picture, breaking the ice. They loved seeing the photos through the viewfinder of my camera and frowns of concern turned into smiles. For the first time I was able to use my camera as a tool to make social connections with an indigenous culture despite the language barrier.

You may wonder how in the world I got invited on such a world-class expedition. I had a dream to make a difference with my photography so three years ago I moved into my adventure Prius and hit the road, learning the trade of canyoneering, caving, climbing, highline, and ice climbing. I became fascinated with the people and the stories of unspeakable bravery. With lots of training and networking, I was able to pack-mule my camera around in the most unstable environments, capturing life on the wall, inside caverns, below-freezing conditions, in a waterfall, and high above the ground on a one-inch line. This has allowed me to be a part of some amazing cave expeditions and be the first to photograph unseen territory.

I am on a quest to use my photography as a tool to raise money for expeditions/research as well as give back to the communities.

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