Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cueva Zumbo or Underworld Sculptural Exhibit

The day for us began at 5:30 am with a drive to Florida. The cave is technically in Ciales but is accessed from Florida. We met up with Ivan who is always a good friend, joined the larger group and then proceeded to the gatekeeper's house (Pipo?). This gate was put in by neighbors who were tired of junk cars being taken into the jungle and left there. The SEPRI caving group has a good relationship with the neighbors here who are very helpful and gracious.

Jose Morales gave another briefing about the dangers of this particular "wet" cave (hypothermia, falling and breaking body parts, sharp rocks, getting tired etc). We then consolidated into several cars so we could drive past the gate a half mile or more to start the hike in. The group was large (30 people) but consisted of really good cavers for the most part. There were a few people who had a tough time with what Jeff and I consider a walk. It was a hike that could have taken maybe 40 minutes if you kept up a pace and were in shape. It meandered up and down hills in the jungle, not really on a real trail, and as always the journey in the jungle was a big part of the adventure. The elevation gain was 1000 feet maybe. It was hot and humid. As with all the caves we have visited there is no way you would know that it was there unless you went with someone who had been before many times. We wandered through the jungle for 1 3/4 hours and Ivan had the good sense to flag trees on our journey with bright pink flagging tape. Bro was doing the same behind us. Little did we know how helpful this would be on the way out!

We wandered around and found all kinds of fruit on the ground - pomerosa, chinas, and as always lots of bromeliads, philodendrons and flowers. Then we stopped to listen for water. There was old tagging on trees and that definitely assisted us in finding the opening. Listening for the river was key - even though the river was underground!

We got to the small hole and put the wetsuits and harnesses on so we could do the rappel in. It was a short rappel, maybe 25 or 30 feet I think. It was a little awkward with the rocks. Once everyone was huddled in the small area we left harnesses and climbing gear behind, put on life vests and proceeded. Here's a climber rappelling in.

When everyone was ready we saw the first people taking backpacks off, tossing them down into the water with a plop and then squeezing down this crazy little crack! You couldn't reach the river so you just had to let go and plop into the water. It was a crazy start to a surreal cave - our reality for about 5 1/2 hours or so.
After the shock of that entrance we were facing this unreal sculpted area that seemed more like a Disneyland ride than reality. We floated in the river and into the mouth of the rock not even believing the shapes and forms the rock was sculpted into.

Sometimes we would need to float (water was over our heads) and other times we could walk a little. Here we could kind of stand in the water and bend around formations to follow the water down deeper into the ground.

Most of the cave however involved kind of tip-toeing on these really sharp sculpted rock areas. It is hard to see how 3 dimensional this is, but we would be stepping on little spires of sorts or kind of like barrel rims with water running 6 - 15 feet below. There wasn't any way to get there (except falling) but you could see it and hear it clearly. So like characters in a Doctor Seuss book we tip toed for hours stretching our arms as wide as they could go to stabilize ourselves.

Some places would kind of drop down and we would have to hang by fingers and lower ourselves as close to the water as we could get before simply dropping down. When this would happen you didn't really know if there were sharp spires in the water or not...how deep the water was... and how you were going to get back up! But down and down we went squeezing, dropping, tip toeing, hanging our way into the darkness. We went on and on until it kind of ended. Some of the more experienced cavers contemplated and we found out later that they did submerge in the river and emerge on the other side of the blocked area by going through a sump/siphon area that is very dangerous. I was kind of chilled and started to think about how tough it would be to be climbing up all the things we dropped down so we made the decision to take our time going back out while they figured out if it was safe enough to go-to-the-other-side. This was a good decision I think. Now we were at the lowest point and had to travel kind of up to get back. It is easy to forget where you have come from and how you got where you are. Things looked very different coming out. Jeff is looking for a way to get up since the river goes under rock at this point. No other way except up to get out.

After some pulling with the arms and stretching with the legs to hoist our way up we need to find another way to get further up. Maybe the way is in this hole?

Some of these spots were hard since I just didn't have enough arm to span the areas and although I am very flexible the leg just stopped a little too soon in some areas. I really had to think and plan my progress. Since I am kind of small I had no trouble in areas other people had trouble with, but I did have trouble where they didn't. Thankfully everyone helped out to make sure we could all get where we needed to get.

When we arrived at the hole out it was dark and we were losing light. We got the harnesses on and climbed the ropes out just as the rain started and we lost light. Now I was cold. I had an extra fleecy shirt for this reason, but my dry bag flooded with all the dropping and everything was wet. We left with the first group and unfortunately didn't get to say goodbye to many people. When we hiked back it was dark and we looked with our headlamps for the flagging tape to make sure we were on the "trail." The trail was now more of a river and looked completely different in the dark. Absolutely crazy! This whole adventure was crazy crazy. It didn't even seem real. When Jeff and I changed, got in the car and drove back we didn't get home until 10:30pm. The next day we were both really sore in ways we haven't been before. The tops of my thighs and muscles near my clavicles kept me laying on our wonderful Temperpedic mattress longer than usual in the morning. Climbing steps hurt. Lifting my arms hurt. We both had weird bruising patterns on our arms. Then David called and we went for an 80 minute dive at the cuevas in Isabela (Shacks). The walk in the gear was slow but moving in the water helped loosen things up. Monday however was a different story...


Anonymous said...

I always wonder what would happen if there is a big rainfall outside. Would some of these fantastic areas underground see the water rise? I think this gives testimony to the volcanic origin of the island. It certainly entertains your imagination and in some areas it looks like molten lava that cooled off in the shape it was flowing.

My Dad was the Project Manager for the construction of Route 100 all the way to Boqueron and Combate areas and he says that they had to build the road over many cave systems.

Thanks for sharing your adventures with us!


Anonymous said...

Ham - Yes, rising water is a huge problem. When we explored Cueva Represa there were spots that there was only room for a head between the water and ceiling. It opened up after 50 feet or so, so you try to be aware of the taller areas so your life vest will float you up and you can wait it out. The group is very conscious of checking weather reports prior to any trips as well but you could get in trouble. This particular one would be a huge problem if you broke or sprained something - it would be hard/impossible to hoist a person above your head if they couldn't climb up to get out!

Very interesting about route 100...Puerto Rico has the world's 3rd largest cave system (or underground river systems) and I highly doubt much of it is documented! Lots to explore! katrina

Rosa said...

A question, have you heard of any caves in Lares?

Anonymous said...

Rosa - There are probably caves everywhere, but you have to know someone who has been to them to find them. The ones we have gone to have involved hikes of at least 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours through the jungle to get to. I'm sure there are undiscovered ones as well. Very exciting! katrina

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff

I didn’t make it to the trip that day since I have to work but (with the favor of God) we have plans to go this Saturday 12 of Dec. again. This will be my first time in Sumbo but I can tell you that in P.R. there are so many caves that will be impossible to have a map with all this locations. Some are very small but some could be very challenging. Sadly we are struggling with our actual governor (Luis Fortuño) because he wants to derogate a law that protects the karst. Hopefully we are going to stop him!!!!
Hope to see you some day in the “underworld” of P.R.!!!!!!!