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2002 Yunnan Expedition Reports


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Four caves and an adrenaline rush - 20th August 2002

written by Rich Gerrish and Hilary Greaves

[Rich] I opened my eyes slowly, sleep still clouded my vision but I could make out the sunlight streaming into the room and my ears had no problem picking up the sound of knocking at the door. I sat upright and was greeted by the beaming smile of "the manager". He was only 29 years old but looked closer to 40. He mimed that he had prepared something for us to eat and accompanied it with a stream of language I couldn't understand, before disappearing off again into the courtyard. We had no idea what the fella was supposed to be manager of and nor did we know his name, but that didn't seem to matter.

After changing into my warmest clothes I followed the manager across the courtyard. The village looked more like a commune than anything else. Identical buildings on four sides, each containing several living quarters, surrounded a garden with flowers and a plaque. In one corner was the gated entrance and in the other, the communal toilets. Outside some of the doorways sat old men with leathery faces, they puffed away on cigarettes and eyed us with a degree of fascination.

Myself and Hilary entered a room identical to the one we had just left and greeted the manager's wife, who was preparing breakfast, and Xiao Gang, our Chinese contact who had brought us to this strange place.

Perched high in the Tibetan foothills that spill southwards into Yunnan, we were the first foreigners to have entered the village. Judging by the number of disfigured faces, I doubt if many people pass in or out of this place at all. A tiny gene pool and little chance for a spouse outside the immediate family.

We breakfasted on Baozi (steamed bread dumplings), hot yak's milk, and yoghurt that bore a closer resemblance to smoked cheese. We packed our bags with the small amount of equipment we had brought the distance and greeted the arrival of more locals carrying hawser-laid rope, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

[Hilary] I hadn't really expected us to be a small party going to the caves, but as the 11 of us strolled down the track towards the meadow, I reflected on the excitement we were generating and wondered what the locals thought of us, what we were about - two strange white-skinned foreigners turning up and wanting to be shown some holes in the ground. If they were curious, they couldn't ask and we couldn't tell; maybe a good thing.

As we walked, I listened to the upbeat banter I wished I could understand, and within minutes we were at the first "half an hour away" cave, where a small stream sank. Rich and I crashed enthusiastically through the undergrowth, following the water. Xiao Gang and the locals were close behind us. Soon we were standing on the edge of a small pit, the earth in front of us too steep and crumbly to climb. "I think need things" - Xiao Gang. Unable to see where the stream went, we were already regretting not having nrought Things on this lightweight recce of ours.

The locals' thick hawser-laid polyprop, though, sufficed for an initial look. We belayed to a tree and Rich lined me down a steeper but less earthy climb on the far side of the pit, to a ledge. From there I was able to traverse round and climb down on handline - not quite to the bottom of the pit, but far enough to see the stream disappearing into a human-sized keyhole opposite. Going passage!!

Not knowing our precise location, or having a decent map, at this point, was tortuous. We were navigating by 1:500,000 TPC chart and hadn't worked out the correspondence between our GPS coordinates and the map grid, and neither Xiao Gang nor the locals had yet pinpointed us on the chart. We had come in search of The Deepest Cave In The World; the depth potential here was either 1000ft or 8000...

[Rich] Unable to descend any further with the equipment we had we reluctantly but excitedly derigged believing we had just been shown the entrance to a 1000m+ deep cave. The entourage gathered up its various bits of gear and headed off again to cave number two. This time the cave was bone dry, save for the drips of percolation water. A short climb down and a walk around a daylit corner took us to the head of a very chossy pitch. Having lifelined Hils last time around it was my turn to be lowered into the abyss. I tied the rope into my makeshift harness, checked my head torch was secure and gingerly climbed the slippery walls taking care to kick loose rock down before me. Each time a rock fell from beneath me it crashed and rattled for four seconds into the black void below and off to one side of me. Having reached the first ledge we took stock of the situation. I was very glad to hear Hils' words of wisdom. "Given that the stones fall for such a long time we can be certain that we haven't got enough equipment to descend the next pitch, which, due to the size of stones that have fallen down we can also be certain will be big enough for us to follow if we did have the right equipment. Bearing that in mind there really is no need for you to descend any further." Hils barely finished her last sentence before I was eagerly scrambling back up to the safety of horizontal ground. Two caves, two promising leads, one more to go. What a day!

[Hilary] Cave #3 was strongly reminiscent of Tormenta in the Picos - no stream sink, no doline, just a cheeky little hole on a grassy slope, threatening to swallow your ankle as you strolled along the path. The difference was that whereas Tormenta would blow blades of grass back up into your face, #3 defiantly refused even to deflect breath...

Still, we were here. And we had polyprop. And there was another convenient tree just uphill of the entrance. And it was my turn.

The first couple of metres were easily climbable, but beyond that, the shaft belled out. It was either sacrificing Rich's thermal and back-skin to a lowering operation (and figuring out later how to get back up), or nothing. I nobly chose nothing.

It transpired that "the manager" had already been to the bottom of this cave, and the locals were having none of our wussy Western belaying methods. They took the rope and one tied it around his waist to be lowered down hand-over-hand by the others. Rich's eyes lit up: "I fancy that."

One by one the party disappeared down the shaft, leaving me with two of the adult villagers and a smallish boy. "Ni qu bu qu?" (Are you going?) "Bu qu." (No.) I was arrogant enough to think I might be useful on the surface.

Eventually voices floated up once again from the bottom of the shaft, and the hauling operation began. It transpired that one (or possibly both) of the surface locals was an ox in disguise. I tried to make myself feel useful by taking the dead rope around the tree and taking in the slack through a classic belay, to cater for the eventuality of a slip, but I could barely keep up with the hauling speed.

[Rich] Seeing the locals lower each other to the bottom I couldn't maintain my desire to get underground any longer and motioned for them to let me down. I felt surprisingly secure being lowered hand over hand by the villagers. When I had untied the rope I ran off into the black space like a school boy. The cave was well decorated with stalactite formations and mixed in with the rocks on the boulder floor were the bones of a yak. Being careful not to break any of the formations or bash my helmetless head on the roof I ducked through short crawls to investigate the passages beyond. The cave was quite small and it didn't take long to follow all the leads to their termination. Satisfied that I had seen enough I headed back to the shaft of sunlight that would bear me to the surface.

On the walk back to the village for some lunch we mused on our next course of action. It was clear in my mind that we should go and look at the nearest gorge in search of a resurgence, or at least to record the elevation that would help us determine the area's depth potential. Xiao Gang related our wishes to "the manager" and our afternoon plans were agreed.

[Hilary] It was a baking hot afternoon and the altitude, though not extreme, had been noticeable as we'd walked the gentle slopes of the morning's tour. We didn't know exactly how far we'd be walking that afternoon, having received two answers "two and three kilometres" and "seven and eight kilometres" to our query of how far the gorge was. I debated what to take with me, settling on the safe option of my standard day pack, waterproofs, first aid kit, survival bag and the like. As we walked down the steep winding path into the gorge, I thought of the return journey and was glad I wasn't carrying any more.

Soon we were at the bottom of the gorge, standing on a wooden bridge, no railings protecting us from the vast brown swirling torrent that rushed beneath our feet. Now we knew (more or less) where we were on the map, and it was clear that the morning's caves couldn't be much more than 300m deep. Win some, lose some.

Still, it would be interesting to see any resurgence. The path continued from the bridge, into the vegetation on the far river bank. I asked the manager (via Xiao Gang) whether the path ran alongside the river, or climbed the bank. He replied that it went upstream to a waterfall.

This turned out to be true only in some fairly twisted sense. As the locals scrambled up the bank, up rotten tree trunks and loose mossy slopes, Rich and I, mindful of the raging torrent increasingly far beneath us, of the precarious nature of every hold we had and ultimately of our own mortality, were definitely the limiting factors in the party's speed. I was at the back, and one of the locals assigned himself a role as my minder. He offered to take my featherweight pack. I struggled not to laugh. "This [pointing at my daysack] no problem," I tried to explain in broken Mandarin, "this [pointing down slope at at the latest clump of moss in my hand], problem."

[Rich] After much sketching around on steep moss we finally came to the view point. My first thought was "We risked our lives to see that". Impressive though the waterfall was it was distant and barely visible behind a heavily vegetated buttress. Slowly however, the cogs in my head whirred - DOES NOT COMPUTE - Where was the water in the Fall coming from? My highly developed speleological mind eventually got it. Although we couldn't see it the water was obviously issuing from a resurgence halfway up the gorge wall! We fixed our position on the GPS and took a bearing and estimated distance to the top of the fall.

With our work finished we reluctantly accepted the fact that we had to return to the bridge. Fortunately the way they chose to go back was slightly less scary, although only just. The manager obviously saw that I was terrified and immediately assumed responsibility for his guests safety. Dancing nimbly across the lose compost that served as footholds he firmly grabbed my right hand from the largest, safest tree on the entire slope whilst my other hand and both feet clung on with all digits to nothing more than grassy fronds. Luckily the way eased soon enough and I was spared well intentioned help.

Xiao Gang and the boy were waiting for us at a convenient spot not far from the path. As I stepped beside them I felt excrutiating pain above my ankle. "Aaaargh!!!" I lifted up my leg and swatted the offending hornet that was curling it's abdomen viciously into my sock. Out shot hands to stop me from falling down the now non-existent cliff. I could see the sir now filling with dozens of angry black and orange stripes. "No, no!!!" I screamed "Aaaargh!!!" swatting another hornet from my other leg before charging off at breakneck speed through the undergrowth. The others followed soon enough and we were all pelting headlong down the path flailing our arms and cursing as we desperately tried to lose our assailants.

[Hilary] I found Rich's shades lying on the path where I broke out of the vegetation. Thinking I had reached safety I stopped to pick them up. "Ow!" I was swatting hornets and running again; this time I didn't stop running until I had reached the bridge. Rich appeared on the far side. I held up his shades. "You got stung?" I asked as soon as we were within earshot. He didn't have to answer verbally. Not only had his eyes popped out of his head but he was also walking like John Wayne. Ah, so you got stung there too.

It soon transpired that everyone had suffered the same fate. There was relief that the swarm was over but, for Rich and I at least, fear of an aftermath to come. The sum total of our experience of Anaphylactic Shock was stories from friends and an episode of 999. How long did it take to kill you? Quite a while, Rich thought. How long to render you incapacitated? Not long.

"Don't fancy humping all that around." Kunming, four days earlier [I was eyeing our large red medical bag] We were in Liu Hongs office, sorting kit into a Take pile and a Don't take pile for our "lightweight" recce to the North and we already had camping and cooking kit and a weeks worth of food. "Ain't no point buying it if we aren't going to carry it around." In the end we left the saline drip kit and took the Adrenalin and sharps... "Thank fuck, thank fuck, thank fuck."

Xiao Gang turned round. "I think I need cream." I got out my hill first aid kit and fed him Piriton. Rich and I took some too; the locals declined. Before I had time to repack the kit, Xiao Gang was on his feet and pointing up the hill. "I go okay, I think I no good, I need sleep."

By the time we caught him up Xia Gang was staggering, supported by the manager. He sat down, waving a hand infront of his face, "I no see."

Rich and I looked at each other, then Rich took off his bumbag, thrust it at the other villager and took off up the hill.

[Rich] Rich actually ran round the next couple of bends feeling fit and energetic with the urgency of the situation. After a short distance though the pounding in my head, week wobbly legs and painful hyperventilating lungs forced me to stop. I sucked and blew at the thin mountain air until I could struggle on a bit further. Again I had to stop. This time I sat until I had recovered properly. I thought of Xiao Gang and selfishly wondered how I would feel if I didn't make it back in time. Would I blame myself for not being quicker. Pushing negative thoughts aside I carried on at a more sustainable fast walk. I kept checking my arms at regular intervals as I knew that Xiao Gangs arms were the first thing to come up in an allergic rash. I hoped that I wouldn't suffer the same fate; particularly as I was on my own and was supposed to be another persons hope. Through the seat and exertion I had difficulty focussing on my arms and was not sure until much later that I had been lucky to escape any serious effects. When the going levelled I broke out into a jog, speeding up when the village came into sight. I offered a few hurried "Hellos" to perplexed villagers, knowing I couldn't explain what had happened and burst into our allotted room. I picked up the first aid kit and plunged inside with my hand trying to sort through the dressings, rehydrats and antimalarials for what I wanted. My head thumped violently, I couldn't think straight and my hand sifted vainly through the same dressings, rehydrats and antimalarials. I panicked, thinking that maybe we had left a vital component of the adrenalin kit out: "Stop, breathe, think!" I told myself and then emptied the entire kit onto the floor. Syringes... ampoules... sharps... antiseptic wipes... and... and ... and... gloves! I thought back to the training course and ran through the procedure in a flash confirming that I had everything. As I put what I wanted into the bag, leaving the rest strewn across the floor, the managers wife rushed in. The look of panic and urgency on my face had obviously transcended the culture and language barrier, the whole village knew that something was up!

My ego and inhibitions vanished, I flapped my hands by my sides and made buzzing noises then stabbed my leg with my index finger making screams of pain each time. I stopped, said "Xiao Gang, urgh!" stuck my tongue out to one side, closed my eyes and lolled my head around letting my body slump. I pointed at the gorge before repeating my charade again. She seemed to understand so I took off with the adrenalin kit as fast as I could. The going was much easier on the way down and I had to dig my heals into the gravel and mud of the path to prevent myself skidding off the sharp bends above steep drops. Relief consumed me when I caught sight of The Manager. He and the young man were helping a sick but obviously conscious Xiao Gang to walk. I slammed on the brakes and caught hold of a passing tree, stopping dead and panting hard.

[Hilary] Xiao Gang, the manager, the young villager and I had made slow but steady progress up the hill, the two villagers half-carrying Xiao Gang while I followed with five walking poles, two cameras, my daysack and Rich's bumbag. Xiao Gang alternated between needing to rest and wanting to hurry back to the village. He took several breaks and more Piriton. The young villager lagged behind to take a piss and once I realised what was happening I lay the poles and gear unmissably across the path and went to pick up his half of Xiao Gang. I wasn't sure how much use I'd be as I was starting to struggle with carrying myself... Fortunately, no sooner had I got to Xiao Gang's side that he needed another rest, and collapsed on the ground.

I assessed my own condition. My limbs and face had swollen up and I couldn't breathe through my nose, and I felt a bit weak and light-headed. I couldn't tell how much of the latter was down to altitude though. I took my second dose of Piriton. Xiao Gang noticed this and heard my noisy breathing, and told the young villager to go ahead with me back to the village, but I stubbornly wasn't having any of it, figuring (if that's the word) that I at least could still walk unaided...

I have never been happier to see Rich. Xiao Gang and the villagers started off again. I, meanwhile, felt myself losing it. I tried to get up but now dizziness overcame me and then I was lying on the forest floor, the branches above me no longer distinct brown and green but a fluid mosaic, dotted with specks of green and yellow. I heard Rich move and felt myself sliding; I was lying on steep ground. "Put your leg back, I was leaning on that." I could hear my speech slur slightly. I cursed myself for not keeping a grip - I didn't believe there was no psychological component to my timing, I had been able to walk until there had been someone to look after me - as I debated whether to keep fighting, or close my eyes and welcome unconsciousness.

My dizziness subsided and I was overcome by a more immediate problem. I rolled to my knees. "I need a shit." "Tough shit Hils, you're not having one, let's go." Rich had hold of my arm and was trying to drag me uphill. I shook him off. "Nah, Rich, it's really uncomfortable." I understood what he meant, but what I meant was: it's either these leaves or my underwear, and I know which I prefer. "I won't be long, I won't go far." Not much chance of that anyway, I thought, stumbling past a couple of trees in a fairly straight line.

"Okay Hils, I won't look but you have to keep talking to me." "Er, well first I'm untying my trousers..." "I don't want to know what's happening, tell me a story!" ... "Hils! Tell me a story!" ... "Hils!! Talk to me!" Uh, my creativity is not at its all-time pinnacle right now. "When I was a young man, I carried my pack." "Okay, go on - and I waltzed my Matilda all over - go on..." "From the." "Hils! Keep talking! Hils! What's next?" "Nah, Rich, it's okay, I never knew this line." "From the Murray's..." "Green basin? You got to keep helping me." "From the Murray's green basin, to the dusty outback." "The, uh, I mean, I." "Waltzed." "My." "Matilda." "All." "Over." ..... "The." "War." Fuck,. that's better.

Rich grabbed my hand as I got back to the path, and I leant on it slightly as we moved up the hill. Rich carried on with the song and I joined in where I had enough breath, where I could be bothered and where the line seemed amusing at the time. "And for seven long weeks I kept myself alive..."

[Rich] The first thing I noticed on arrival was that Hils looked pretty bad, her face was all puffy and her arms had come out in a rash. She remained more coherent than Xiao Gang however so I checked him first. He was still conscious so I was reluctant to give him the adrenaline shot and satisfied myself with finding his pulse. This was a fruitless task though. With my own heartbeat pounding in my head I couldn't tell if I had found his pulse or not. Hils tried and could not find it either. Xiao Gang was adamant he was okay and despite urging him to rest he carried on with the villagers' help.

When Hils tried to get up she slumped to the floor again, her eyes closed. She was incoherent so I squeezed her hand and told her to stay with me. She mumbled on whilst I put on the surgical gloves and carefully unpacked the sterile needle and syringe and assembled them ready for use. I was damn scared, and tried to recall everything from the first aid course, which was ironically the time Hils had passed out on me because I was inserting a needle in her arm. I paused wondering when I should give the injection, now, or could that be counterproductive, later, what if it was too late...

In the end Hils solved my dilemma. "I need a shit." Despite having initial reservations about her state of mind it seemed to do the trick. Afterwards she was more coherent, was able to walk and with relief I was close to being certain that the danger, for her at least had passed. The next we saw of Xiao Gang was him walking unaided, double relief. After a lunch of yak's milk and sweet tea Hils and Xiao Gang crashed out. I was still on edge with worry, wanting to keep an eye on them both in case they deteriorated. In the end the fatigue of the afternoon's events drew across me and I collapsed on my bed, exhausted to the core.