OUCC: News from China

22nd July 2000

From Brian Judd

2001 China news contents

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Hi All,

I'll try and get the maps from Madam Tan. I've been having a few adventures. You might be interested in this one after having done the SRT training in Chongqing...(sorry it was written for non caving non China friends..)


'The day after recovering the skeletons was spent sending emails, washing the ropes and equipment and packing to go on my travels again. This time I would be joining members of the Chongqing Explonation Team ( their spelling) and Madam Tan. I learnt accidentally from Zhang Hai that I we would be going to a river cave and I'd better pack my wetsuit. In the evening a policeman turned up with a jeep to take us to the village of Long Tang, 60 kilometres from Fuling up the Wu Jiang River. First we had to go to the airport to pick up a bolting kit that I'd arranged for Zhang Hai to send me. Unfortunately it wasn't there, so again I was faced with the prospect of trying to find natural belays to rig the rope. There was a lot of celebration that Beijing had won the host city for the 2008 Olympics, which the cynic in me suspected was rather a propaganda exercise. At 2:00 am we arrived at the village after an exhausting drive, the last part of which had been up a rough mountain track. Despite the late arrival we were up at the the usual early hour for breakfast and then the prolonged mess around getting ready to go caving. This included meeting the town leaders and tourist officials, and also the local people and children. Apparently I was the first foreigner to this place and the young girls especially started following me about after I took a few photos and made some funny faces. Unfortunately I didn't seem to have the same effect on their older sisters.

I learnt that the cave we were to explore was down in a gorge at a height of approximately 680m and that it had been explored for 4 kilometres. The water came out into the Wu Jiang river and the cave there had been explored a short distance too. It seemed that pitches and rushing water had stopped them making a connection. The distance to travel could be about 8 kilometres with a height drop of over 400m. I noted that the Exploration team had brought a rubber dinghy with them, but I was the only one who had a wet suit. I also noted we were packing an awful lot of food. Further enquiry revealed that the team were planning to stay a couple of days down the cave. I revised my preparations accordingly and bought more batteries for my lights. It's funny how little I knew what was happening because of the language and cultural differences. Mostly I felt like an innocent bystander caught up in the momentum of events. However, I did decide to arrange for sacking and string to arrange rope protectors. I doubted we could make a connection rigging without bolts but was willing to give it a go. My biggest worry at that moment was how to pass the water, especially if it was a rushing torrent. I didn't realise at that stage that this was the least of my worries.

The drive down the mountain was spectacular in daylight, with many steep cliffs and hills covered by forest, while the valleys below contained bright green rice fields and little hamlets. I could see the top of the gorge we were progressing towards for some time and should have made some connections in my mind when I was told it was called 'Di Feng'. I knew from another gorge, in another town, this meant 'Great Crack'. That particular gorge was 200m deep and very narrow. I doubted this could be similar. At least I imagined it couldn't be when I was told we were going to abseil into the gorge, because the walk around to the bottom was very long and difficult. Surely the Exploration Team whose sole SRT experience consisted of 5 days training in Chongqing, weren't planning a big abseil on their new 200m rope? We were led along a narow path at the top of the gorge by a local man. It was interesting because it had been cut into the cliff and in places used natural overhangs from which large stalactites hung. However I couldn't see into the gorge because it was overgrown by vegetation. Eventually we came to a rickety wooden bridge and I was able to see the bottom. It was certainly dramatic being relatively narrow but more worryingly looked every bit 200m deep.

The local man took us a bit further and said this was the place to put the rope. David one of the exploration team who could speak some English now said I must do my work. I suppose I could have refused to have any part of it, but sometimes it's hard to manoveoure out of these things. I'd been brought here from Chongqing, met the town leaders and tourist officials, now Madam Tan and the Exploration Team expected me to get on with it. I knew if I refused it would be a loss of face and the Team could quite easily go ahead anyway. I talked to the team as best I could through David that this could be difficult and dangerous. They must be very careful on the descent, not press the handle of the stop descender too hard, go slowly and use a 'brake' karabiner to slow themselves further. To slow themselves they must hold up the rope not press the handle. I knew Rob, Erin, Lev and Chris had all impressed this on them in training but felt a little refresher course was in order. I now looked around to see if it was possible to rig the rope safely.

The first place was unsuitable because there were too many rub points. I walked back towards the bridge and found a rock pinnacle to tie the rope to. From here I arranged a deviation to drop me straight down three metres through vegetation to a substantial tree. This would give a complete free hang to the floor of the gorge. The plan was that I would go first with rope and rigging equipment and the three others would lower the rest of the kit down with the rope before coming down themselves. The local man would then throw the rope down to us and we would walk out of the gorge after caving. The best laid plans...I gave last instructions to be careful and launched myself over the edge. I fixed a sling to the large tree and clipped my rope into it. I had a bit of a struggle getting through the creepers and bamboo before I was hanging free at the top. I was pleased with the rigging but must confess to being so scared of heights as not to give more than a quick glance downwards, preferring to concentrate on things in front of me. In caves you generally can't see the bottom and I find that easier. It is completely irrational of course. You can die just as quick falling 20m as 200m.

Pushing such thoughts to the back of my mind I set off down squeezing the handle of the stop gently and feeding the rope through with my right hand. The others were hanging over the sides of the bridge, shouting and taking photographs. I went down very slowly, spinning on the rope. The rope was still wet from the day before so that cooled the stop descender as friction warmed it. I started to enjoy the stupendous view. Shafts of sunlight was shining down, lighting up water falling to my side. I could see the tall walls of the narrow gorge and the cliffs above. My friends were dots above me now and I could see a huge cave at one end of the gorge. There was quite a lot of bounce in the rope about 100m down and I had to be more careful to slow down. I was sweating from the heat and effort although I'd chosen to go down in shorts, T shirt and helmet only. Slowly the bottom came into focus and I reached it to land next to a large dead snake. I quickly unclipped from the rope and shouted up to the others. I stood in the sunlight streaming into the gorge and waited for them to lower the equipment and come down. I waited for an hour and a half, but despite shouting up, could make no sense of what was going on because of the echo. I busied myself taking photos, drying my wet T shirt and exploring my surroundings. The sky was a narrow crack above me fringed by green vegetation. The sun continued to slant down into the gorge. The walls glistened and droplets of water sparkled and fell. It was obvious a large body of water came down this gorge in flood because there were large grey rounded boulders, tree trunks and flood debris, pools of water and gravel banks scattered about. The rocks were pounded smooth by the force of the water. I was happy to note that there was still some vegetation growing 10m up, so that part didn't flood often. Not that this would have been much consolation in a real flood. The gorge was wider at the bottom and about 30m wide at this point. The walls overhung so the gorge was shaped like a triangle. The others did not come so I set off to have a look at the cave entrance. It was not obvious how to climb down it but I found a fairly devious route which was easy. I looked back up the gorge and noticed a tiny dot like figure at the top of the rope. Someone was coming down.

I started to go back up towards the rope pausing to take photos of the figure on the rope. As I climbed the boulders he was lost from view and it took some time before I could see him again. By this time he was lying at the bottom of the rope, so I shouted cheerily to him and he started to get up. I made my way round, by which time he'd taken off his SRT equipment and was lying under a large rock on a bank of gravel. I could see now that it was Mr Xue, not David as intended. He was sweating and grimacing. It took me a moment to realise he was hurt. I shouted up to the others but there was no way of making myself understood. I carefully examined Mr Xue for broken bones, but could find nothing obvious. However he was in considerable pain. I surmised that he had lost control on the final stage of the descent and hit the ground with a lot of force. Judging by his sites of pain he had damaged his lower back and possibly internal organs. There was no question of me hauling him or getting him hauled back up the pitch with these injuries. It was a hell of a position to be in. I had no way of making myself understood, I didn't know how to get out of the gorge other than back up the rope and I hoped Mr Xue didn't have internal bleeding that would kill him. It would take a lot of time to climb back up.

As I was shouting to the others trying to make myself understood I heard some other men in the gorge. When I went to see they turned out to be three porters sent down with food, bottles of pepsi and the sacks I'd asked for. I directed them over to Mr Xue and they sat around smoking, talking and laughing. What I wanted them to do was help me improvise a stretcher and carry Mr Xue out, but again I couldn't make myself understood. I felt we could do something with the sacks and ropes if we had two long poles. Getting the poles was the problem. Eventually after laying out the sacks, a stick and drawing a picture I got the message across and they shouted up to the others and gestured that poles would be sent down. Now there was nothing to do but wait. We put sacks under Mr Xue to make him more comfortable. It started to rain and he managed to get up with help and move to a drier spot. The poles did not come down. Mr Xue closed his eyes and I kept checking on him to see if he was still alive. After awhile a note floated down from above. In Chinese and English it read, 'Cancel the expedition, two men are coming to carry Mr Xue out'.

After what seemed an eternity two men came along the gorge. One carried poles and the other a deck chair. They were shortly joined by other men, a video crew and Mr Haung who worked for a tourist magazine. There now started an argument as to how best to get Mr Xue out. Things seemed to be proceeding painfully slowly to me. It was now three years since Mr Xue had fallen. They only good thing was that since he hadn't died he wasn't bleeding internally. I helped them lash the deckchair to the poles and generally tried to chivvy things along. When this was finished we moved Mr Xue gently to the chair and fashioned some sacking to support his legs. We had to move a log of timber to move the chair and then eight men took up the improvised stretcher and started to take him out. Mr Haung now became insistent that I visit the cave entrance with him and the video crew and two students who spoke some English. There was nothing more I could do for Mr Xue and there were plenty of men to look after him and carry him out so I went along with this. It seemed to me that this whole episode had been a huge loss of face and now Mr Haung was determined to save the honour of the Chongqing Exploration Team and Madam Tan. Two of the team had helmets and lights, the two students had electric torches and Mr Haung had a stick. He wasn't very sure-footed and slipped and fell a couple of times, once falling into a deep pool of water. I now started to see the farcical side of all this as Mr Haung was an unlikely leader, middle aged, spectacles awry, floppy haired and also now very wet. I thought somewhat unkindly that now I've written off one of the Exploration Team it looks like there might be another. The phrase 'Bring me another little caver, this one's burst' kept coming to mind. I thought Mr Haung would stop at the entrance, but after stopping briefly to pose for photographs he plunged bravely on. I thought this really takes some beating. I've just seen a man nearly die and be rescued and now I'm being led into an immense cave by a man with no light or helmet, dressed in ordinary clothes and carrying a stick. Mr Haung was clearly not troubled by thoughts like this and continued to lead from the front with his stick while I followed from the rear curious to see how far he'd go and preparing myself for another rescue.

After the first kilometre someone must have relented and given Mr Haung a torch. The cave really was rather splendid consisting of a large river passage averaging 15 -20m wide and at least 50 m or more high. It was too misty to see the roof. It was hard enough to keep upright with two hands free and a helmet light, but Mr Haung was not letting the pace slacken as he carried on into the darkness with his stick before him and clutching a feeble torch. We crossed boulders and banks of gravel, old flowstone scoured by water and tried to keep out of the flowing water. I thought soon the water will become too deep and they will turn back. We crossed one pool and I caught up with the video crew trying to wrestle a crab with its pinchers caught off their bag. I thought nobody will believe me. I was dressed in shorts and T shirt because my caving clothes hadn't come down the shaft and was slightly worried to be so underdressed especially now. Shortly we arrived at a deeper pool. I thought this time we will give up, but I reckoned without Mr Haung. He now proceeded to strip himself down to his blue underpants and start to cross the pool carrying his trusty stick of course. The two students quickly swam and splashed across. I had a cunning plan and decided to leave my socks off to keep them dry and just wear my wellies as I felt sure we would soon be stopped. I stuffed my T shirt into my helmet, left my camera and joined them. The only two others with helmets and lights decided not to come. We splashed through more pools. The cave had narrowed considerably but still we followed the man in the blue underpants and ordinary shoes carrying his stick. The water wasn't freezing but it wasn't warm either and there were screams from the rest of us as the water hit our nether regions. I couldn't help but admire Mr Haung and felt honour had been well and truly restored. However I really wished he would give up now and go back so we could do the cave properly. Oh for a properly equipped and experienced caving team. As the cave narrowed so a tremendous draught set up. In one low and wide section which was mercifully dry it was particularly strong and my T shirt rippled in the breeze as I put it back on. I thought they'll have to give up soon because their torch batteries will run out. The cave now became wider again and we traversed round the edge of the river dashing below.

Around about the second kilometre I noticed that the students had now taken the lead and were switching their torches on and off to conserve them. They were like a pair of whippets running ahead and finding the best way forward. They'd be unbeatable with proper equipment and traing I thought. I had to change the batteries of my LED light using the batteries from my dive light. They asked me how long they lasted and I foolishly replied that new batteries lasted 9 hours. That was all the encouragement they needed and they were off again. I tried to explain the batteries weren't new, but they'd gone. I noticed my torch now seemed like a searchlight compared to theirs. Luckily I didn't tell them I had another spare set of batteries in the dive light. I hung back as best I could thinking yet again what I was doing here with this lack of equipment, dressed in shorts. Surely I've put those days behind me?

The trouble was of course that the cave was far too exciting. It really was marvelous. Huge and dark with a river flowing and roaring through it. There weren't that many formations, but there was one tremendous column stretching high into the roof. Other formations had been eroded away by the water and the rocks were etched into fantastic shapes. Drips had made deep holes in banks of sand while the timber washed in had turned pure white with the fungus growing on it. These delicate strands of growth in the darkness were quite beautiful and I regretted not bringing the camera. Around about the third kilometre they said they would go for another 10 minutes. It was more of course. I felt I'd stuck my neck out more than usual and had let this adventure carry me quite far enough. I was more than relieved to finally turn round, but as everyone knows the trauma usually happens on the way back. In fact I worried too much about the cave as the two students quickly found the route we'd come in and none of us hung about. I've forgotten to say how my cunning sock idea had back fired on me as anyone who has walked over rough boulders in wellies alone for 4 kilometres will testify. So I was mighty pleased to get back to my socks and I expect Mr Haung was quite glad to get his clothes back on. I was also glad to see that the others had left spare torch batteries. We reached the cave entrance at 9:00 pm. to find no one there and the gorge in complete darkness.

I discovered now why the local men had not been in a hurry to carry Mr Xue out. The gorge was really like a continuation of the cave, in fact it was a cave for part of the way. Getting Mr Xue out by stretcher was quite an undertaking. I later found out it had taken 8 men 3 hours. At some points the track was too narrow and only two men could carry it. At others they had to turn the stretcher on its side with Mr Xue clinging on. I was keeping a wary eye open for snakes because I'd been warned about them yet again and David said there was no cure. Then I heard a loud plop into a pool and saw a large warty frog sat in the middle. I mentioned this to the others, meaning look at that interesting natural specimen, whereupon one of the students jumped into the pool and pursued the frog until he caught it. He was very grateful to me and grinned triumphantly saying they make good eating. Call me Mr Picky but...I walked in front trying to warn the frogs but he caught two more and was probably more delighted by this than the cave.

I was glad to see that Mr Haung was at least tired as we clung to the path up the side of the gorge. Everybody slipped a few times and were saved by vegetation but it was impossible to see if how close we were to the edge. Mostly my mind concentrated on placing my feet carefully. Towards the top we heard a shout and soon met a road and the jeep waiting for us. It was gone midnight when we got to the village for a big meal and beer accompanied by many toasts.

Mr Xue had been transferred to Chongqing hospital from Fuling with Madam Tan where he was found to have a broken coccyx, a damaged 11th vertebra and internal bruising. The others couldn't understand why I said he was lucky. I explained what I thought had happened. He had probably gripped the handle tightly when he started to go down fast instead of raising the rope through the brake karabiner. The former would just have made him go faster. In a brutal but not fatal way it was a valuable lesson and they all promised to study SRT more before embarking on such stunts again. Of course I wasn't blameless and maybe I could have tried harder to stop them. We got away with the cave experience and it really was a good one and quite an adventure. I made a lot of new friends and valuable contacts. Fortunately I didn't have the frogs for breakfast.

The next day we went to the hospital with a huge bunch of flowers to find Mr Xue reasonably comfortable considering but the doctors have ordered two months bed rest. He's now planning a big canoeing expedition. I found out he is only one of six men to have canoed down the Yangtze River, so he's pretty tough. He promised to learn a bit more about SRT before embarking on any more vertical rope stunts.

I want to go back to Long Tang and Di Feng properly prepared to try and make that connection! Maybe this time we'll walk into the gorge.