It is my great honor to interview legendary cave explorer Bill Steel for the latest in my Interview with an Explorer series! Bill Steele has explored the greatest caves in the world, appearing on National Geographic Explorer, NOVA and other TV shows in addition to his career as an author and keynote speaker. Bill is an Explorers Club fellow and the recipient of numerous awards and other recognition for his many contributions to science and exploration.
He’s also recently launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to purchase equipment and supplies to further explore Sistema Huautla, the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere.
Tell us about your current project.
It’s called Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla (PESH). Tommy Shifflett and I launched it in 2014 as the restarted, renamed, rebranded project to continue the speleology of Sistema Huautla in Oaxaca, Mexico. Our goals are: 1) Conduct month-long expeditions for ten years, 2014-2023 2) Do full speleology, meaning all the disciplines: geology, biology, paleontology, archaeology, cartography, and technology (gear development, etc.) 3) Support Mexican cave scientists 4) Take the depth of the cave system from 1475 m to 1610 m (which is 5,280 feet, or a vertical mile), and the length from 65 km to 100 km 5) Publish our findings.
I consider Sistema Huautla my masterpiece of exploration, as do some of my colleagues. It currently stands as the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere, the 8th deepest cave in the world, and the longest of the 17 deepest caves in the world. I wrote the book “Huautla: Thirty Years in One of the World’s Deepest Caves” about my trips there 1977-2007, and plan to write another one when we finish our current project.
What inspired you to begin this expedition?
Tommy Shifflett and I are veterans of many expeditions to the caves of the Huautla area, beginning in the late 70s, and continuing most years until 2007. After that we started going other places in Mexico, China, and elsewhere, including many US states.
In 2011 I heard from a young British caver/cave diver who was interested in organizing a major expedition to go to the very bottom of Sistema Huautla to dive the deep water sump there using mixed gas. He asked for assistance with logistics. I came through for him in many ways and asked if Tommy and I and a couple others could join their expedition at its end. While there, Tommy and I talked about how much we love that cave and area and how much work remains to be done. So while waiting for our planes in Oaxaca, we sketched out on a napkin our new project name and goals.
What do you hope to learn from this experience?
We just completed our third expedition. We’re up and running. Things are clicking. We have a long list of accomplishments of the 2016 expedition. One chief one is that we made the best progress yet with community relations, in hopes of eventually being allowed to explore the highest entrances, to the north of the known extent of Sistema Huautla, where the more isolated Mazatec Indians live, who have ancient-held beliefs about the caves and the cave spirits in them.
What would be your advice to someone that wants to take on their own larger-than-life challenge?
Understand that it will not be easy. It will be hard. There will be obstacles at every turn.
In October 2015 interview I was asked, “How did you finance and make the time to do your explorations?” My answer concluded with this sentence: “Following your passion and making a difference in this world is not about taking it easy.”
Who is your favorite explorer, adventurer or scientist?
I am well read on the subject of exploration and have a bunch of favorites: Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortez, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, John Colter, Kit Carson, Walter Bonati, Reinhold Messner, E.A. Martel, Norbert Casteret, and Roger Brucker. My favorite scientists are: Patti Jo Watson, Alexander Klimchouk, E.O. Wilson, Lee Berger, Bob Ballard, and Oscar Francke.
Two weeks ago I got home from an intense six week-long PESH expedition. I’m writing about it and have already started making a list of objectives for next year. I’m hearing from cavers from various countries who want to go next year. Tommy and I decide in September who is on the team the following April.
I’m represented by World Explorers Bureau and I’m leaving in one week to do a two week cruise ship speaking gig in the Mediterranean Sea. I find the time on those ships do some writing. I’ve got two books underway now, both about caving, of course.
Thanks so much to Bill Steele for sharing his incredible adventures! And be sure to check out the video about his expedition below!