2003 Yunnan Expedition Reports
Yunnan Province, China
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Well we are now 3 weeks into expedition, and it has been something of a roller coaster for our hopes...
After meeting up in Zhongdian on 22nd July, the 9 of us spent a week or so doing a series of short 2-3 man recces up into the mountains west of the town, to 4000m altitude and beyond. During this time we found a few small caves but nothing to write home in any detail about. After a couple of delays, Liu Hong, our man from the Yunnan Institute of Geography, arrived on the 28th. Then we split up for a few days: Liu Hong, Rich, Dunks, Martin L and Lenik went round to check out the resurgence cave we found last year; Pete, Martin H and I went up into the hills with some caving kit to check out an area of shakeholes and shafts found on a day recce; Helen and Gavin went on a recce camp further north in the mountains.
Rich is writing a separate report from the resurgence trip, so here is my side of the story. Martin, Pete and I slogged up a rather brutal hill and established camp in a hidden clearing. The next day Pete and I explored one shaft up on the plateau, to a depth of around 40m, but it ended in an uninspiring dig. We emerged to find a rather wet Martin, who had spent the day checking out the area immediately surrounding the shakeholes, but found nothing in particular. As Pete derigged I dropped a second shaft, 8m to a chamber with no way on. With no more shafts, the third day the 3 of us had planned to split up and surface-recce 3 separate routes, but as we set off, villagers reported caves on Pete's route and sweet FA on Martin's and mine. We both jumped ship (being, in any case, not overly enthused by the prospect of wandering around in the rain on our own) and joined the glory team. This involved walking along a good track up a gentle valley northwest of our camp. We walked for several hours but closer to the area where the caves should have been, no-one seemed to know of them. Pete (feeling shit) turned round at a point where the limestone appeared to be crapping out and turning to impermeable shite, while Martin and I continued on up the valley to yet another village, where a woman carrying buckets of milk also denied any knowledge of caves. Coupled with this, the bedrock still looked uninspiring, so we returned to camp by crashing through trees over the top of a mountain and following the next valley down, which also looked crap.
Feeling not overly inspired by the area, the next day we derigged camp and returned to Zhongdian. We had been in touch with the others by text message, so we knew something of how the other teams were getting on. Helen and Gavin had cut their camp a day short as the weather was so grim, and were already back in Zhongdian, waiting to meet up with us. The resurgence team had written: "Resurgence surveyed for 200m, lots of water, way on too dangerous. Will tie up loose ends and get back to you." That wasn't good news; for sure, the cave hadn't ended, but we couldn't explore it this expedition, and it wasn't telling us much about where its water came from, by way of clues as to where to look up top. At this point I for one was quietly feeling not particularly great about the way things were going, having constantly to swallow pessimism and keep trying lead after lead, faced with disappointment after disappointment. But we were used to this, and the hope was still there...
Back in Zhongdian, the 5 of us on the mountain teams went out for dinner. Pete had his mobile on the table and it buzzed twice. One was a message from some lady friend of his, and one was from Rich. "Resurgence estimated at 4 cumecs. 2nd resurgence up northern tributary 2 cumecs. 3rd resurg under Yangtze ?? cumecs. Locals report many vertical shafts up on plateau. TDCITW is here 4 sure!!"
The next day the resurgence gang returned to town and elaborated on their story. Liu Hong had spent hours talking to the manager of the showcave part of the resurgence, and they had pinpointed two areas, pretty close to each other, reported to contain many caves. One shaft was reported to be so deep that the locals had built a protective wall around it and were scared to go near it, "rocks rattle for one hour" [hmm]. Somewhat ironically, the first area was close to where Pete, Martin and I had just been camping, only couple of km beyond the point where Martin and I had turned back a couple of days before. Arse!!
By this point we had our eye on three areas of the mountains: this one, a ridge further south that was pretty much directly above the resurgence, and a limestone peak further north that Gavin was very enthused about from his previous recce. We discussed splitting into 2 teams again, but by this point Pete, Martin, Martin and Lenik had only a few days left on expedition, and it was pretty clear that everyone would want to go to the area of reported caves, rather than off for yet another probably fruitless surface recce. So, crossing our fingers that we would be able to use our full manpower in this one area, we set off en masse. Once more up the brutal hill, with bastard heavy sacks containing food and camping kit for 10 people for four days plus a load of caving kit. This time the weather alternated between scorchingly hot and pissing wet, as we struggled up the logging track, alternately taking our waterproofs on and off and making pathetic attempts to sing songs against the exertion and altitude. I do not want to think about what that walk in would have been like if we hadn't been fuelled by morale and high hopes. Seven hours from the road dropoff, at 6.30pm, we reached the village where Martin and I had turned back, still several kilometres from our intended campsite. By this point however we were all knackered, dark was only two hours away, and we decided to cut the walk short and camp here, at least for one night. Gavin had long since disappeared into the distance, but mercifully he had somehow had the same idea, and as we turned a corner we saw Gavin's and my tents already pitched (Gavin had been carrying mine), bonus!
Liu Hong had installed himself in one of the farmers' huts, so while the others pitched their tents and cooked dinner, I headed up to see how the local liaison was getting on. It turned his host family included the milk woman from a few days previously, who recognised me instantly. They forced rice and potato on me (shucks) while Liu Hong filled me in on the cave story. The man of the house, an old guy who looked at least 60, knew of the deep scary cave the locals at the resurgence had described; it was about two hours' walk away. The woman hadn't known about it because in these parts the women tended not to venture far from the house. However one of the kids was a boy, so I asked whether he also knew of any other caves. He did, lots, half an hour away. I went to fetch my map and to drag Rich up from his dinner at the camp, and from the family's information, the map and Liu Hong's translation services, we came up with a plan: some of us would go to the scary cave with the old guy, Liu Hong would start out that way but then go on with A N Other or 2 to quiz more locals at other villages, and some of us would go off with the kid to GPS the nearby caves, maybe coming back to camp for caving kit if any looked promising.
Back at camp we relayed the plan to the others and figured out who wanted to go where. The next day Rich, Helen and I were off to drop the scary shaft; Martin L and Lenik would go with Liu Hong to recce villages; Pete, Martin H and Dunks would go with the kid to check out the nearby caves; Gavin was off up north to try to reach his plateau.
At 10am we set off, laden with 180m of rope plus caving and rigging kit, survey kit, the works, struggling up yet another steep hill with not enough oxygen. After a while we came to a col and the view took my breath away. A ridge of Picos-like limestone stretched off to the right and we could see for miles, several steep high peaks also appearing to be pure limestone. Right in front of us however the ground dropped down to a lake and there was some debate (Liu Hong and Martin unable to agree) on whether the rock in the immediate vicinity was limestone.
After another hour or two we finally arrived at the cave, a shaft with no wall, but a load of tree trunks lain across the entrance. Locals claimed it was a kilometre deep and recoiled in alarm as we approached the pit. Excitedly we collected some rocks and dropped them down. Zero, one, two, crash. Bollocks! With altitude-impaired machinations [that's my story and I'm sticking to it] we eventually managed to figure out that this meant 20m. Best use our 60m rope not the 120 then. Rich dropped the pit and emerged soon after reporting a blind pit that we measured as being 25m deep. Another pit round the corner was 10m deep and also blind. After a quick feed we were shown to another cave, half an hour up the route back, a 10m deep blind pit. A local boy showed Martin and I a fourth cave up on a col, where rocks rattled for seven seconds but we couldn't see what happened in the darkness, the entrance too small to let in any decent amount of light.
We returned to camp and collected stories from the others. Gavin hadn't seen much and was knackered, having walked for about 12 hours. Team Kid had seen a number of caves but nothing looked massive.
At this point it was hard to know what to think of the area. After the others had crashed out Rich and I sat round the campfire and shared our thoughts. We were both deeply disappointed that the scary shaft, one kilometre deep and famous for miles around, had turned out to be a complete load of toss. We had more cave entrances in this part of the plateau than any recceing work this year or last had turned up elsewhere, but none seemed to be going. We could look elsewhere on the plateau, but experience from 2002 had taught us that big limestone peaks didn't mean cave entrances; too many times we had wandered the hills finding no surface drainage but no holes either. Rich in particular was despondent, saying that until and unless a cave yielded two or three pitches he wasn't holding out much hope, and that entrances in themselves, that would probably choke 10m in, weren't enough to get him excited when the truth be told. On the other hand Pete had returned from his trip today enthused about the area, and he was, after all, one of our Men Who Knew About Rocks. Nevertheless, we started to talk about what we'd each do next year in the absence of a Yunnan 2004, and to tell Rich's video camera how we'd feel about "failure".
But we had one more working day up here, and we'd use it. The next day Dunks and Helen went off to Seven Second Rattle and to check out a cave that had been spied on a cliff nearby; Rich and Martin H went to drop the most interesting of the caves the kid had shown us the previous day; Martin and Lenik went dowsing; Pete and I were off to two others of the caves the kid had shown Pete's team. Liu Hong was ill and going down the hill, and Gavin was still knackered. As Pete and I left the camp Rich shot me a glance and said loadedly, "Come back with good news."
Mine and Pete's area looked much better than the stuff we'd seen the previous day - much more like proper limestone, the kind I had learned to love in the Picos, poking out from the ground all over the place. Soon we reached the first cave. Pete dropped it. Blind pit. Second cave, a small near-vertical tube. Pete already had kit on so he dropped that one too. He disappeared for a good half hour and I could hear him moving rocks. I took a quick look around but didn't want to venture too far from the kit; mostly I sat by the entrance half dozing. After a while I heard a couple of yak herders on the path below me. I shouted down to them, did they know of any caves around here? Yes, they said, three up on that hill to the right, one up to the left, plus the one we'd just dropped. Pete came up the rope and I went to check out his dig while he went off with the herders. I shifted rocks. I couldn't feel any draught to speak of. An hour or so later I heard Pete's voice booming down the shaft. "Lots - of - shafts -- very - big!!" "Shall - I - come - up?" "YES!"
I prussiked out and Pete informed me that he was going to buy me the biggest chocolate cake in the world because he thought the expedition had just gone big time. Three big shafts that all looked really good, and in the third one rocks rattled for eleven seconds, and he very seriously thought he might just have been shown the entrance to an extremely deep cave, especially as the limestone round here appeared to stretch pretty much all the way down to the Yangtze 2100m lower. I caught my breath and tried with limited success to balance provisional exuberation and caution. We derigged the miserable dig and set off to GPS/drop the shafts. Never mind the first two (and we found a fourth en route by accident when we took a wrong turning), the last was fucking huge, although I made it only a nine second stone drop/rattle. We were both pretty knackered by this point and it was 7.45pm, starting to get dark, but it was our last full day on the hill, and Pete's last proper day on expedition, and as far as I was concerned I didn't care if we didn't get back to camp till 7.59am. I was kind of hoping that Pete would drop the shaft so I could pass out for an hour or two and wake up to hear the story, but he said he was equally happy either to bail at this point or to sit round while I went caving. I ate 90% of the trail food in sight, got into the kit, found some suitable rhododendron bushes to rig off and abseiled towards the darkness. About 20m down I swung under an overhang and put in a rebelay (painfully slowly as I hadn't used through bolts before). I abseiled down another 20m to the end of the first rope. I had a 12m and a 15m rope left. I picked some small stones off the wall and dropped them. Each one free fell for a full three seconds and then rattled for another two or three. I peered downwards. There was no way my light was up to the task. It also seemed pretty unlikely that a mere 27m of rope was going to get me anywhere more interesting than 27m further into the middle of black space. Besides which, I could really do with another rebelay (not entirely happy about the previous one), and judging by my track record with through bolts that would take ages. This one would have to wait for a return visit, which was going to have to happen, and also I might have to kill anyone who tried to stop me from being next down this hole. "Coming - up!" I yelled upwards, and started prussiking. Prussiking at high altitude was easier than I expected, easier than I remembered. When I got out it was dark; 8.45pm. And quickly becoming misty. Pete said I'd missed a good sunset. We quickly packed up the kit and set off for camp. After some route finding hassles (thanks to some friendly villagers for seeing us back onto the path!) we staggered into camp at 10.50pm. Most people had crashed out, but Rich and Dunks were still up, and they sorted us out with food while we gibbered at the camera. We heard that Rich and Martin's shaft led to a second pitch which they hadn't been able to drop because they'd run out of rope (our extra supply back at camp having been pessimistically sent down the hill on a horse with Liu Hong that morning). Meanwhile Dunks and Helen had been unable to find a safe way to rig Seven Second Rattle but the cave in the cliff looked interesting, plus locals had seemed very excited about it, worth a return. Still I felt a string of caution pulling me back, but it was getting increasingly difficult not to be excited. The four of us giggled like schoolgirls. Rich and I thought back to the previous night and rolled our eyes.
That was two days ago. Now we are all down the hill and Pete, Martin, Martin and Lenik have just left by bus: off to Kunming tonight, flying home tomorrow. We are gutted that they're leaving just as things are getting exciting and just as we could really use the manpower, the timing is a bit of a joke. Liu Hong is also off back to Kunming tomorrow night. That leaves 5 of us to head back down south, back across the plain, up the hill, along the valley, over the col and to set up a camp closer to the caves. We have dumped the majority of the kit we had up the hill last time, wrapped up in a tarp in some rhody bushes, so this time we can carry all the caving gear we sent downhill on the horse, plus a whole load more, plus food for a week, longer if we manage to scav some meals off the local farmers. Speaking for myself, I am terrified that all our caves will choke just round the corner and dead excited that maybe one or more will go big time. I don't know when we will next be back down the hill, but I hope to God that whenever it is it will be with more good news!
Till next time, YT-2140m, Hil.