Into The Dragon’s Throat
By Bob Manas
I woke up to the obnoxious buzzing of my alarm clock at 4:00 am, that 26th day of January 2000. Serge Javellana was already at my gate yelling, “Tito Bob!, Tito Bob!”, waking up the neighborhood in the process. I scrambled into my clothes and picked up the gears on the way out. We were on our way to this cave system in Montalban that Mike Duran always talked about ever since I started taking up training in “technical climbing” with him about a year ago. He said he knew of a sump inside this cave but never got to see what lay beyond underneath. The plan was just to do a reconnaissance dive into the sump. But what a dive it turned out to be!
It was around 6:30 am when the three of us arrived at a sleepy village, alongside a rocky river, nestled between the steep hills of Montalban. This was rock-climbing country and a center for sport climbers from the city. We found a food stall and had ‘Bread & Lugao’ for breakfast.
“Isn’t this the place where this legendary Bernardo Carpio pushed those mountains apart?” I asked as I slurped the hot porridge.
“Yes”, answered an old woman in the stall, “And now a river runs through it!”
“What about the caves? Are there stories about them?” I asked, trying to get more info.
“Old people say that Bonifacio and some ‘Katipuneros’ used them for hiding and performed blood compacts. During the war the Japanese soldiers fortified themselves inside the caves and dug more tunnels. The Americans had to use flame-throwers to flush them out. Many who refused to surrender committed suicide by stabbing themselves or jumping off cliffs.”
“Huh, very interesting”, I commented, between gulps of 7-Up. “Now, it’s a center for climbers.”
“Yes, but treasure hunters also come around and do digs inside the caves. In fact there had also been murders and accidents through the years.” , added the old woman.
I found myself quiet in thought, “What the hell have I got myself into this time?”
Mike found Frank, a fellow caver and long time friend from the village. He enthusiastically agreed to come along and help haul gears into the cave. Inside Frank’s hut by the riverbank, we started gearing up and discussed details on procedures. Bonifacio’s Cave was located on a 500-ft. slope along a mountainside across a gushing river that was dotted by huge boulders. Wearing our wetsuits, we swam across the cold river currents and hiked up the 500 ft. slope hauling two AL40cuft. tanks, a crate of scuba gears, ropes & climbing equipment, and cameras to document this insane endeavor. We finally reached the cave’s mouth but found the entrance barred by a locked steel gate! What a good excuse to turn back, go home, and watch National Geographic or Discovery Channel instead! But we found one of the steel bars sawed off , probably by a radical descendant still acting with impunity against bureaucratic control. We were able to slide ourselves and our gears through. After a brief respite, we started walking into the darkness of the cave. With lights from our helmets, we illuminated the way through winding tunnels and chambers, lighting up different rock formations with variances in color and texture. As we hiked on, the path began to get muddy and our booties sank into the muck, emitting a smacking sound at each lift of a foot. We passed a tunnel where its walls formed a triangular shape, much like passages of a pyramid. Ignore recent graffiti, and old writings in Spanish could still be discerned along its walls. A guy could get lost in here! We must have walked a good 300 meters inside the cave before we stopped at what looked like to be a fork in the tunnel. Veering to the right, a huge hole appeared and seemed to drop into nowhere.
“Let us rest here a bit while I rig up the anchor line”, said Mike.
“Are we going to rappel down there?”, asked Serge, aghast. “Shit, man, I don’t know how!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll belay you down.”, answered Mike with confidence.
The tunnel to the right was actually a water path and Serge found a small pool upstream to squat in. “Hey, this is fun guys, and the water is cool!”, shouted Serge, wading like a kid.
“Don’t you dare take a leak cuz’ its gonna trickle where were at!”, I snorted. Everyone laughed including Frank so I knew we were in good spirits. Frank rappelled down 60 ft. and landed in a pool of water. All the other gears followed after him. Serge had his baptism – rappelling down a wet and twisting tunnel into the darkness!
“This is really wild, man!”, Serge called out. I followed and rigged my ‘Stop’ Petzl to the rope. Going down was a cinch and I personally like landing in water! After Mike landed we all moved on as the tunnel twisted downwards. Another anchor line was needed and I handed my 200 ft. static rope. Mike had to hammer down pitons to secure the rope redundantly. Rappelling down 150 ft. we finally reached bottom and found a pool of crystal clear waters. From the start of the fork in the main cave, we must have gone down at least 300 ft. to the sump. We sat by the water’s edge in silence, regaining our strength, visualizing our next move. Mike and I started gearing up. Serge and Frank will stay above water and wait. I donned a 40 cuft tank side-mounted to my left, mounted my MLS to my right, and had two Q-40s tie-wrapped on either side of my Petzl helmet. Mike had Q-40s too on his helmet and we both had Poseidons for regulators.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for years”, said Mike, “I’ve always wondered what lies underneath”.
“Well, let’s do it and find out!”, I said
I turned on the MLS and its powerful lights illuminated the pool. Finding a protruding rock above water and making a primary tie-off with my line, I yanked my reel forward towards a narrow tunnel and into the unknown! A constriction came into view but easily widened as we moved along an underwater corridor. The viz was great! I saw this rock sticking up on the right and decided to do a wrap. As I wrapped my line around, silt flew off from its resting-place. I proceeded to swim with caution, slow and easy! Looking up, a narrow air pocket appeared above but I ignored it and concentrated with the corridor. There was another larger opening, down and up ahead! I needed to do another wrap. As I tried to coil the line around a rock, the line kept slipping , turning the clear water into mucky soup! I decided to abandon that wrap and pushed on into a wide chamber with really clear visibility. A tonsil-like rock formation hung from its ceiling. I could hear Mike shrieking with delight through his regulator. We were inside a chamber of a cave at 30 ft of freshwater, 300 ft. below the main tunnel which was 500 ft above the river. I noticed a passageway going to the right and swam along it. It led to another chamber but what caught my attention was another constriction leading to another opening. I paused, looked at Mike, but he just stared back. I tried to signal that the constriction might be tight, but again only got blank stares. I checked my pressure gauge. My air supply was fine. I took a second look at Mike and signaled if he was OK. I got an ‘OK’ sign back. Pulling my reel forward, I pushed into the constriction and found ourselves in chamber # 3 at 40 ft. of the clearest freshwater we ever saw! The bottom was composed of white pebbles but laced here and there with sediment. We didn’t notice any visible aquatic life inside nor did we see any clues or signs of ‘Japanese Treasure’. Frank was hoping we would find something valuable.
I checked my pressure once again and it read 2000 psi. Following the ‘rule of thirds’, I gave Mike the ‘thumbs up’ signal indicating ‘to turn’ the dive. Mike proceeded to turn around and grabbed the line, while I started reeling in. “Here we go!”, I thought as I reeled along. The visibility turned a serious zero as we swam back inch by inch through the constrictions, tunnels, and chambers of the cave. There were times when Mike’s fin would hit my face because I couldn’t see in front except for my reel and light! I didn’t care! “Just get me out of here!”, my thoughts screamed. Exiting the sump seemed like an eternity. I would occasionally bang myself on a wall or hear my helmet scrape the ceiling, but I continued to reel in line. After what seemed to be forever in trying to be ‘super-cool’, I finally saw a glimmer of light above! It was Serge and Frank! We were out!
Mike and I stood in waist water in the sump and for a moment, there was utter silence. We took our helmets and masks off and stared at each other. Suddenly he just blew off with laughter and shouted with delight! “Hayop, Pare!”, talking loud now, laughing insanely, and dancing around the pool, Mike was in seventh heaven! He had indeed been dreaming about this for years. And it turned out to be an ‘extreme bitch’ of a dive!
“What was it like down there?”, Frank finally asked.
“What was it like?”, I repeated, “It was like going through the throat of a dragon”. He laughed and I knew that he understood. We rested a bit and remained in a joyful mood. It was now around 2 pm and we were still by the sump. I remember crossing the river around 9:30 that morning. We were starving! I used my Petzl ‘Ascender’ to go up with the rope and was glad that I get to use these expensive climbing equipment Mike conned me into buying. I was surprise that I still had extra strength left for the climb back. But the walk out of the main tunnel just about killed me! Carrying a coiled 200 ft., wet, static rope across my shoulder and a scuba tank, after an extreme dive in a sump, was too much for my poor muscles. I was exhausted! After much huffing and puffing, I finally made it to the riverbank. As I swam with the equipment, the swift current swept me towards a boulder fall. Mike just happened to be sitting next to the boulder and leisurely extended his arm. I grabbed it as I sped along and found myself safe behind the boulder, just like that! It was 3:30 pm and we were famished!
After much needed rest, lunch, and idle talk, we all agreed that future trips will just be limited to dry caving and help map the caves of Montalban. But I knew that the Dragon’s Throat shall beckon us once more!