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2003 Yunnan Expedition Reports

Yunnan Province, China

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17/8/2003 - Report from Rich Gerrish

Hi all,

We are now back in Zhongdian and enjoying a little R&R in between sorting out the vast quantities of gear that need to be transported back to Guilin where the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society is based. Since I last wrote Hils and I have conducted the final recce of the expedition. The plan was to spend four days traversing the mountains in an East-West direction via a southern ridge line that lies above our resurgence cave and had been unexplored so far.

After a spectacularly late start due to over indulgence the night before and umpteen little tasks that needed to be completed before we set off we were lucky to get easy lifts in a van and a tractor to speed our way to the start of the ascent. The steady plod up steep high altitude mountains was becoming all too familiar to us but after weeks of hard exercise and acclimatisation it was, at least, becoming a little easier. We made good progress up a known path to an area of shakeholes that Martin Hicks, Pete Talling and I had recce'd on a previous occasion. From here we walked on into the unknown. After taking the wrong track we spent about an hour wandering along logging tracks through a forest. Twisting one way and then another we resolutely kept to our compass bearing as best we could until we finally stumbled out onto the correct road. Back on track again we passed through a Yak herders' village, fending off the ubiquitous dogs with trekking poles and the threat of throwing stones. Once safely past this the going became much easier as we followed a jeep track towards another forest.

As we walked on auto-pilot, our brains shut down to the primary functions of walking and chatting, we barely noticed the surrounding land except for the regular sediment and water filled depressions that characterise this part of the mountains. By chance I glanced up at an irregular feature that broke the monotony of the scenery. I stopped dead in my tracks staring at a V shaped cleft of limestone with a very small cave entrance at its base...

The cave lay about 20m off the track and we ditched our packs to examine it properly and take a GPS fix of its location. Crouching down I peered inside, drips seemed to rain down from the entire ceiling and the boulder slope floor was reminiscent of so many other entrances that choked within the first ten metres. To say I was uninspired would be putting it mildly, exploration would likely be brief and extremely unpleasant. With thoughts of leaving it logged for next years expedition to explore I dug out my head torch and zipped up my fleece for extra warmth. Bidding Hils a quick farewell, I ducked through the entrance and hurriedly passed underneath the showerbath. To my surprise the passage height rapidly increased to walking size and at the bottom of the boulder slope a left turn was accompanied with an inlet entering from the right. Mildly intrigued I set off slowly down the large passage, the dim light from my run down head torch and my unaccustomed eyes barely allowing me to see where I was putting my feet.

Relying on my hearing instead I followed the sound of water to reach a blank wall. My confusion didn't last long though as I realised I had walked into yet another inlet. Back tracking the way I had come I located the way on and was becoming increasingly interested in the size of the growing stream. Thoughts of returning to the surface to report a going lead were rapidly diminishing with the onset of exploration fever. My eyes were adjusting to the dark now and my pace increased to match my heart rate. Sideways now through a narrow section, then duck down under a low ceiling, back upright and onwards to the sound of falling water ahead. Just as I was starting to have fun the passage dropped from beneath me leaving a black void into which the small stream fell...

Standing on the edge I could make out the floor not far below and quickly assessed my chances of getting down to it: zero. Thinking of Hils on the surface I quickly turned about and set off for daylight, taking care to count my paces on the return to estimate the length of the cave so far. As I breached the showerbath and crawled out onto the grass I deliberately avoided eye contact with Hils.

"How goes it?" came the obvious enquiry.

"It craps out." I mumbled despondently.

"Oh well."


"Not really, we got 100m of streamway ending in a 5m pitch!"

"Piss off!"

"Nope, dead on mate, it's a goer."


We checked the GPS which read 3902m above sea level and looked at the map which put us in an interesting location With all the depressions in the area it was obvious there was cave underneath but it had seemed so unlikely that we might find a way of getting into it with the all covering sediment blocking everything up. We hugged jubilantly and devoured a pack of Oreo mint biscuits to celebrate. After, we both set off to explore the cave together and take some video footage of our find.

By the time we regained the surface it was starting to get dark and we still had another two kilometres to go before we reached the village we hoped to camp near. As we packed our bags I couldn't resist the urge to shout and scream with delight. Out of everything I had seen so far, this cave gave me vibes like no other. At that moment in time I was convinced we had found a second entrance to the resurgence approximately 2000m below...

After successfully following the right track though the woods we came out into a large Yak meadow wreathed in mist and greying with the onset of night. After a short and semi incomprehensible chat with the herder we were ushered into a dark hut lit only by the embers of the cooking fire. After dining on noodles and pork fat we showed the two men and one woman the video of our days exploration. They seemed delighted by the technology and our adventure, despite the language barriers, and before long we crashed out on the floor of the hut, cavers, herders, dogs and all.

Morning dawned foggy and overcast. We watched them milk Yaks for a bit before having a breakfast of unleavened bread, cheese and butter tea. After ascertaining that they knew of no other caves in the area we decided to push on west instead of spending the day receeing the area further. At 10.30 we finally bid farewell to our hosts and once again entered woods where we soon lost the track and ended up contouring steep heavily forested mountainsides where we relied totally on the faith in our map, compass and GPS. Eventually gaining the top of the southern ridge we hacked on along a vague path long overgrown since the 1970s maps were drawn up but were occasionally blessed with stunning views of the Yangtze river far, far below us. As the path petered out totally we dropped down to some huts on the side of the ridge where we were met with more negative responses regarding the presence of cave entrances. Continuing down, the answer was the same at every group of huts we came across and we decided to abandon the recce and head straight for the resurgence instead. We were already cutting it fine regarding the transport of kit across China in time to make our flight and felt a few days to relax would be a far better way to end the expedition than a load of stress and sleep deprivation.

Down, down, down we walked dropping the 2000m from summit to valley floor. Darkness drew in and we passed by endless villages and were hounded by dogs the entire way. At 9.15 we staggered out onto the welcome tarmac of the road after an epic 11 hours of almost relentless walking and hacking through rhododendron bushes. Removing our boots at the resurgence guesthouse was an exercise in olfactory torture but the welcome taste of beer and rice offset our disgust with our own stench!

So ends the final episode of exploration in Yunnan this year. We have much to look forward to next year. I think I speak for the expedition as a whole when I say we are more enthused than ever about the area. It's sheer size and scale have meant finding caves has been more difficult than we imagined but maybe, just maybe, we are now at the stage where luck will swing in our direction. With a February expedition to the resurgence in the pipeline and a return to the plateau next July we all have our fingers tightly crossed that the mountains are about to give up their secrets and open up the depths we eagerly expect to explore.

Yours to -2001m. Rich. --