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Summer 2006 Issue
    Cover Article
    Message from the Editors
    NOLS Expedition Behavior: From Conception to Mantra
    Wild Side of Medicine: Blisters
    Advocates or Educators--and What's the Difference?
    A Noble Cause
    Q&A with John Gans, NOLS Executive Director
    Backcountry Safety Tips
    Mexico's Big Drops: A NOLS Tradition
    Uncommon Trails
    Recipe Box: App-Saroka Crisp
    This Job's a Trip
    Day 82 of 77: Lessons Learned from a NOLS Course
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Mexico's Big Drops—A NOLS Tradition
By Steve Kral


The 1972 explorers at a Mexican restaurant: (left to right) Jim, Haven, George, Martha, Linda and Allen.

Over the past 35 years, three generations of NOLS instructors have pushed their technical limits in the challenging vertical caves of Mexico’s Sierra Madre jungles.

The fun began in October 1972 when Haven Holsapple and George Hunker (father of 2006 expeditionary Louisa Hunker) convinced Martha Wakefield, Allen Robinson, Linda Miller, Jim Ratz and Beverly Mathison to head south and explore Mexico’s subterranean wonders. Although appearing comfortable in the photo above, they reported bouts with rain, insects and vicious jungle plants while approaching a diverse series of “warm-up” caves.

Trading vehicles for burros, the intrepid group then made the arduous trek to El Sótano de Barro (Pit of Mud). Discovered earlier that year, “El Sótano,” still Mexico’s deepest known pit, had only seen three other descents to its 1345-foot (410 m) floor.

Some of the team watched the ropes, chatting with gun-toting locals on the rim, while the rest made the hour-long drop, ascending later by moonlight.

Sixteen years later, in 1988, Mike Bailey, John Gookin, Nene Wolfe, David Wiseman, Rich Brame, Chris Gerow and Joe Farrell embarked on a similar journey. Like the 2006 NOLS expedition, their highlight was “bottoming out” in Sótano de las Golondrinas, but they also marveled at the variety of fauna in and around the caves they explored—including vampire bats, pizza-sized spiders and rare blind cave fish. On their way home, the group scouted caves near Carlsbad, New Mexico, laying the foundation for what became NOLS’ Southwest branch.

Subterranean landscapes have drawn generations of cavers at NOLS.

1972. 1988. 2006. Every 16 years or so, a new crop of NOLS instructors experiences the rewards and challenges of plumbing Mexico’s deep caves. "My wife Paula and I relish Louisa's achievements, seeing ourselves in her accomplishments,” Hunker says. “It's gratifying to watch your children find excitement, decades later, doing the same things you did, exploring the same wild places, and using their outdoor skills teaching for NOLS."

This speleo-adventuring brings new skills and expertise directly to NOLS students—future visitors to the globe’s fragile stygian realms.

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