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Last Updated: Friday, 26 March, 2004, 01:21 GMT
Trip organisers reject criticism
Part of the Cuetzalan cave system, courtesy of Combined Services Caving Association 2004
Cavers know they can be cut off in the Cuetzalan cave system

British divers have rescued the last two out of six explorers trapped in a Mexican cave system but the mishap has grown into a diplomatic row.

The incident has sparked local anger amid claims of poor preparations, reported refusal to use local help and even a military cover-up.

But organisers insist those suggestions are wrong, as Paz Vale, the expedition's technical consultant, told BBC News Online:

British cavers have been exploring caves in the Cuetzalan area alongside Mexican, American, Canadian and Belgian groups since the 1970s. In that period over 100km of cave passage has been mapped and surveyed.

The vast majority of these expeditions have involved civilian cavers. In fact, although five of the current expedition serve in the military, all of them are there in a civilian capacity simply fulfilling their love of caving and desire to visit and understand the unknown.

Ultimately this work will benefit the local population as it will lead to a better understanding of the conditions that affect the Cuetzalan area.

The leader of the current expedition has... planned for all likely eventualities - including this one

Weather conditions in Cuetzalan are well known to the cavers who have visited the region. The weather is known to be unpredictable and cavers have taken measures to get as much information as possible, including reports from TV, radio and the internet as well as acting on local advice.

Since the early days of cave exploration in this area, explorers have been aware of the possibility that cavers may get periodically cut off from the surface by a temporary increase in water levels.

Water level

Many parts of the cave systems are dry, providing plenty of opportunities for cavers to continue their explorations despite being cut off from the surface. In Alpazat cave in particular, there are a number of camps and food dumps to allow continued exploration of the cave system despite the fact that the entrance may be closed.

In this case the water level in the entrance rose while two teams were doing a swap over - one team was on its way in and one was on its way out.

Expedition member by waterfall, courtesy of Combined Services Caving Association
Weather conditions are well known to the cavers

The six that are in the cave, their exploration work finishing some days ago and before the world became aware of their situation, are currently located at one of the pre-established camps and are in no physical danger from rising water.

The leader of the current expedition has, over the last couple of years, planned for all likely eventualities - including this one.

The plan being followed by the team is almost certainly the best suited to local conditions and the one which will ensure the safety of the six sitting it out in Alpazat.

I know on a personal level, as some of those underground have become close friends in recent years, that they too will also agree that the plan currently being followed by the expedition is the best one.

As for the reported refusal of help from local authorities and rescue services: There is in fact little that anyone can do by way of rescue.

No mystery

Alpazat is a system that requires a high degree of experience and equipment to explore, and knowledge of the cave is limited to members of previous British and Mexican expeditions.

The people most capable of dealing with the current situation are the expedition members themselves and the divers who have flown out to assist them.

Attempts to do anything other than wait for the water level to drop would entail greater risks

There is no mysterious reason behind this move - the divers have been in the Cuetzalan area before, are aware of the conditions that affect the caves and were always part of the contingency planning.

In the event that any team inside the cave was expecting an underground stay of more than a few days, divers would be sent in to establish physical contact and to ensure food supplies were maintained.

Attempts to do anything other than wait for the water level to drop would entail greater risks to the trapped team and to the rescuers.

Common courtesy

British cavers, and cavers from many other nations, have been active in Mexico for many decades working alongside their Mexican counterparts sharing information and equipment. It is common practice when arriving in any area to try and locate someone in authority to make them aware of an expedition's presence and to seek any permission that is necessary.

In addition expeditions always enquire as to whether it is acceptable to investigate entrances and other sights of interest with the people who live in the immediate area out of common courtesy and a desire to help protect the environment in which they live.

Mexican caving groups in Mexico City have provided invaluable assistance to the team, as they have to previous expeditions to the area, and we thank them for that.

Similar thanks are due to local cavers and non-cavers who live in Cuetzalan and the surrounding villages, many of whom are close friends of the British team, who, though choosing to keep a low profile, are giving invaluable assistance to the team.

UK cavers prompt diplomatic row
25 Mar 04  |  Americas
British cavers wait to be rescued
25 Mar 04  |  Americas
Britons trapped in Mexican cave
23 Mar 04  |  Americas

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