Mission Impossible Divers Were Recently In Their Own Cave Drama
Two of the divers working on ‘Mission Impossible’ to free the 12 schoolboys and their football coach in Thailand this week, had just returned home from a major expedition to Mexico where in its closing stages a team of divers was also trapped underground by rapidly rising flood water.
For British cave divers Chis Jewell and Jim Warny, who were rushed out to help in this week’s epic rescue, the mission in Thailand bore an uncanny echo of what they had just personally experienced on the other side of the world.
The elite cave divers had been part of a major expedition to Mexico in April and May this year which nearly had a tragic ending. Here a team of six divers had to run for their lives when unexpected rainfall suddenly started pouring to the cave system they were exploring and ended up trapped a kilometre underground with no exit, very little food and just the wetsuits they were wearing.
One of the expedition leaders, Andreas Klocker, 38, takes up the story: ‘I was humping gear in an area know as the Grand Lagoon deep inside the system when the silence was broken by a deafening noise as if two giant water turbines had suddenly been turned on.’
He knew they were in trouble. Despite this being the dry season in Sierra Mazateca, an isolated mountainous region in the Oaxaca province in the south of Mexico, the only explanation for the noise was that an unexpected downpour was rapidly filling the extremely challenging cave system they had been exploring.
Andreas said he ran to another team member who was running towards him up the pitch. ‘He immediately told me that the water level in Sump Three had just come up by almost a metre,’ Andreas recalls. ‘Putting those two bits of information together – both the thundering noise at the Grand Lagoon and the fast-rising water in Sump Three – it was clear to me that we were in big trouble. My face must have looked worried, and Zeb, who has probably spent more time with me in very remote cave passages than anyone else, realised immediately that this was serious.’
They decided to make a dash to safety – quickly three divers who were still underwater were ushered out and they all headed an area known as the Whacking Great Chamber – a cathedral-like space nearly a hundred metres high. If they could get there they would be safe from drowning, but the water was rising fast and in the narrow passage leading to the chamber was, at its worst, just 10 centimetres from the rock ceiling.
Two of the divers plunged into the water and swam the 10 metres to check it was safe. They managed to run a line through the rapidly filling passage and the others quickly followed.
But while they were safe in this vast chamber, they were a kilometre from their now flooded exit. They had four granola bars between the six of them, the wetsuits they stood in and one space blanket. The gravity of the situation soon sank in and privately they all started asking themselves some daunting questions.
‘What if it the water keeps rising?’ ‘When, if ever, will it drop?’ ‘Could the natural high water mark leave them trapped?’ ‘How long have they got?’
Gilly Elor, 33, from the United States, described their predicament: ‘The only action we could take once trapped was to lie still in the dark, conserving energy and headlamp batteries while attempting to keep warm, and hope that the water level would drop -- which we knew was our only way out.
‘That first night, as the water level continued to rise, nobody talked. What would we have talked about? Our outside lives? I think we were all contemplating the possibility that we may not get out.
‘Eventually, the water level began to slowly drop. We continued to huddle in the dark, listening to the sound of the gurgling water and coming up with theories justifying why every noise was a good sign. As time passed we also grew weaker from lack of food. After 48 hours we split two out of the four bars six ways. I think the trick in this situation is not to think or fantasise about the food you can’t have’.
It was 69 hours before the waters had dropped enough for them to escape and exhausted and extremely hungry reached the cave exit after several hours of scrambling through muddy and treacherous passages. And then, after not having eaten for three days, they had to ascend the canyon walls over 700 vertical metres before reaching their base camp late at night.
The full story of the team’s expedition plus an account of their involvement with the rescue operation in Thailand will appear in the print issue of DIVE out next month. Subscribe to DIVE