When we headed south we drove via the Cordillera Blance to get a look at a few peaks. Alpamayo was discussed and at least 3 members of the crew were keen for bagging a 6000m peak. However, we decided that on our next expedition we may be a more setup for it so we carried on south. When we got to the Rio Canete valley we were all stunned at the beauty of it and also that the road was in such good nick! We passed up through Alis, Tomas and Tinco and kept heading north towards the Abra Chaucha pass at 4700m. Just before the pass we noted the Puyo valley to our right and also the amount of shafts we could see there from the road. Game on!
We turned right on the Saturna mine track and rumbled off, bouncing around. After about 10km we turned right at Alalac and 4WD back towards the limestone. We met the local family lad Abel who had walked out to meet us and said we could camp on their land, BASE CAMP SORTED AT 4600! We were in a great location – over a 4800m ridge to the Puyo valley and within walking distance of 10-15 large shafts that Abel had told us about. We even had a decent sized stone and thatch hut for my bivvy bag!
From this excellent base camp at an altitude similar to the local cave areas we started a methodical approach to looking at the block. We prioritised the large shafts and of course Tragedero Puyo and Cueva Puyo that Chris Densham, Nick Hawkes, Ian McKenzie and Pete Whitikar had left with question marks in 2004. With the new 4 guys in the area slowly acclimatising to get to our high camp we headed to Tragedero Puyo first.
The first thing that I noticed on my recce of the Puyo entrances was that the 2004 GPS data was wrong in it’s elevation. The “old boys” had noted the entrance at 4570m above sea level which carried it to number 4 on the world’s highest cave list. My Garmin (later confirmed by 2 separate Suunto altimeters and 2 more GPS) read the cave to be at over 4681m. The same was noted at Cueva Puyo. There was much discussion in camp that night about the Americans “blurring” GPS data after 9/11 and I did wonder if that could be true. Either way, the Puyo valley’s caves and those in the same block to the north and west of the valley are certainly the highest explored group of caves in the world at the moment.
We rigged the entrance shafts utilising our drills and drop ins rather than the old boys who had used spits and Guillaume and I did the push. After 122m (old boys got to -107) the cave went to a horrendous tight squeeze into water. I pushed it with the hammer and drill and nearly couldn’t get back through from the other side. Maybe somewhere else in the world the cave would get capped and pushed but not at 4600m in Peru! The 2 pitch heads that were reported to be awkward in 2004 were certainly nasty but we do think our acclimatisation made our trip slightly easier.
Cueva Puyo was next and what a cave! We got to where the old boys had left a 20m pitch and dropped that through some big stuff into a huge rift – 100m deep. The draft was insane – we all got extremely cold exploring this cave and the temperature was measured to be 2 degrees C. After the rift the cave went to a tight hole and a small climb – both ways found to be impassable. Cueva Puyo was measured to be around 190m deep with some impressive sized passage compared to the Tragedero 60m away.
We started to methodically drop shafts throughout the area concentrating on the block to the north and east and the block to the far east next to the road. All of this limestone is the same as the Puyo caves but is seperated by cols, ridges and peaks. To the north and east we dropped 50 odd shafts – mainly between 50m and 115m in depth. The pit bashing was amazing fun at this altitude and in such a setting. Frustratingly none of the caves went. To the East (next to the road and through the Abra Chaucha pass) we dropped around 20 pits/shafts/caves all around 70m deep. Much frost shatter was encountered – new for some of us and again we couldn’t seem to penetrate through the breakdown. Suicidal Tendencies and Minor Threat were both caves to note in this area – both large with congregating shafts and development making survey drawing a nightmare! Some of these caves we were anchoring to the Hilux’s roll cage!
After 10 days and 100 explored caves we decided to move on. Whilst the team was out caving Nic, Guillaume and I had taken the time to go and check out “The Tomas Block.” We had driven down to Alis, up to Huancaya and back through a road that doesnt exist on the map to base camp. In the middle we had managed to ditch the truck at 3550 and hike up to 4900m in a day – exploring the massive above Huancaya. Lots of sinking water, caves and shafts were noted for a return trip. We also discovered some caves around Cerro Shacoc Mach’ay, Cerro Fierro Mina and Lago Quillcay. All of which were worthy of a return trip. Below Lago Quillcay the sink was noted to drop straight into the bedding and sucked air extremely well – immediately branded El Chupedero!
We discovered a lot of stuff through this area. The Cerro Shacoc Machay area was extremely interesting. We pushed several caves all part of an obvious system and even had a night out digging. Real stream ways with real water were not something we had been used to in the previous weeks down south! Hannah and Rob even climbed a VDIFF route to claim their first 5000m plus peak! Chupedero kept us busy for a few days and we even got to recce the fantastic Rio Canete sink and resurgence – what a place to return to!
Our trip out to the stuff above Huancaya was pretty tough. Carrying 25kg packs we walked from 3550 to 4800m and set a camp for a few days. We explored all of the leads and even a cave at 4862m – the second highest in the world. We even found Inca human remains in a well worn (polished floor and “steps” through the cave) little high cave above Huancaya. All leads were finished with a couple of shafts going to over 100m depth and plenty around 80m.
Overall the expedition has been very successful. We have kept going with the great work started by Nick Hawkes and his lads and have checked out several more areas, recording our discoveries and will publish them for the wider caving community to use. We have got several leads to come back to, one of which is probably the most serious vertical river cave I’ve ever seen which will take much planning (and many sleepless nights) to tackle. It involves around 3 cumecs of water dropping into a boulder ruckle with a black hole behind it. Mess up the rigging and BOOM! We plan to return with a strong team and carry on the work, but for now our energy will be focused on drawing up surveys, congregating data, crunching numbers and sorting through thousands of above and below ground photos. We would like to thank Les Oldham, Jhon Human and the people of Peru for their wonderful hospitality and if you’re interested in reading about our exploits in more detail please watch this space as it updates over the coming weeks.
Andy McKenzie, Lima, November 6 2012