2023: Catanamatias: Deepest Cave in the Dominican Republic
The lighter wouldn't light.
Click. Click. I flicked it several times. No flame.
My breathing rate increased. I had a headache. The passage continued ahead, the size of a subway, but it was time to turn back. Four hours in from the entrance, down dozens of rappels, and the air was not breathable. Exploration was over.
* * * * *
In the 1990s, three Italian cavers, with carbide lights and a single scuba tank, apparently entered Catanamatias Cave, in the central mountains of the Dominican Republic, for three days without leaving. They drew a rough map, estimated the depth to be -380 meters (deeper than all but a few caves in the US) and apparently reached an impassable raging river deep in the cave, with continuing passage on the far side, where they turned around. They left little record of their trip, and never returned.
I heard this story from Phillip Lehman, a legendary cave diver living in the Dominican Republic, and knew we had to explore this cave. I visited the entrance in January 2022, as part of a previous caving expedition in the Dominican Republic, and made local contacts. Planning commenced immediately.
Along with eight other cavers, our team from the US, Mexico and Costa Rica spent nearly a year planning. I organized much of the trip - access, lodging, cartography, translation, community relations, Jeep rental. However, I opted to not be the trip leader, thinking the scale of the logistics and the cave itself were past my limits. Opting to not be the leader and select the team myself turned out to be a critical error on my part.
The ten of us met in Santo Domingo in January 2023 and went out to the cave, where we camped nearby under the aluminum roof of a garage owned by a local man named Wilson. Another local man, named Negrito, was instrumental in organization and day-to-day operations. No local was capable of entering the cave, as the entrance series is a 500-foot pitch with four rebelays. Locals had never even seen a harness before!
It took several days to find the bottom of the cave, as rigging was fairly intensive, and then another two days to dive the sumps at the bottom. Another three days were spent completing mapping, and then another three days were spent ridgewalking the surrounding limestone areas looking for additional caves. We did not camp in the cave, although travel time from camp to the bottom of the cave was several hours with gear, and longer coming back up.
Deep inside Catanamatias Cave, we were surprised, and disappointed, to have to turn back at five (five!) separate leads due to bad air. All these passages were large borehole, obviously continuing for great distances. We suspected the trickling streams inside the cave would become larger and larger until emerging at a resurgence a few miles down in the same valley.
Regardless, continuing exploration in bad air is extremely dangerous, and requires high-tech respiration equipment. Should that equipment fail... you're dead.
After the trip, the group split. Unfortunately, this group, not selected by me, had irresolvable differences, with about half the cavers getting drunk in public, burning group gear in a bonfire, and then physically fighting each other. Locals, some of whom had pistols in their belts, were asking us for money and eyeing up our expensive gear. Suhei and myself tried asking our caving group to behave better, to protect ourselves, our gear, and our image. They didn't listen, and continued to burn items that we all paid for, many of which we had planned to donate to the impoverished locals. The two senior cavers on the trip, each with decades of caving experience, tackled each other, one put the other in a chokehold, and they had to be pulled apart by other cavers. Fearing for our safety, Suhei and I ran and hid in the bushes all night, away from our drunk, violent caving partners. We heard them vomiting until nearly sunrise.
The obnoxious behavior of our fellow American cavers was an embarrassment to the humble villagers in this town, and locals confessed to myself and Suhei that they were disappointed with many of the cavers in our group. Most villagers had never even met Americans before. We vowed to never again cave with people we don't already know, and to never again allow liquor on our trips. Suhei and I don't drink, ever, for reasons like this.
Maybe in another 30 years another team, with better respiration technology than is available today, can continue exploration, building on our efforts. We measured the cave to a total depth of -195 meters, and did not reach a raging river. While possible that the Italians went past where we did, it seems unlikely, due to the vast amounts of gear involved in getting there, in addition to them only having three cavers.
We may not have gotten any farther than the Italian team 30 years before us, but now the cave has a working map, is photographed, and the curious locals - who have spent their lives wondering what's inside - finally know.