Depth through thought

OUCC News 19th January 2011

Volume 21, Number 1

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

127, China

Rob Garrett

There are expeditions and then there are expeditions. This one, however, fell into neither of those categories [WebEd: who's been reading Peter Fleming, then?]. As a late sign-up I swelled our numbers to a mighty three intent to tackle the not much admired "127" - a compact, sinewy little pothole rumoured to be "the key to the system". The system in question is Er Wang Dong, one of the longest and most pleasant in China. 127, however, is located about an hour's walk up a neighbouring valley and has little in common with its neighbour. Nevertheless, geologists have assured us that it has no chance of crossing beneath the intervening mountains making us preternaturally optimistic.

We three were myself, Duncan Collis (CUCC) and Steve Gladieux (an American caver latterly based in Suzhou). 127 had a reputation for being quite British and the walk up through snow in PVC suits certainly bore comparison with Yorkshire. After the first few pitches we were into Wales, or more specifically Daren with a low wet crawl which was mercifully only 100m long. Back to Yorkshire for a series of sustained tortuous rifts and awkward pitchheads which would grace any Grade V. At -200m we reached the piece de resistance: Riff Raff a 30m lens-shaped rift with an affinity for shredding suits will thee or nil thee. Beyond this is, however, is a short wet pitch after which the cave goes big, or so I was assured as we abandoned our tackle sacks to return to the surface where snow continued to fall.

36 hours later we returned with the rest of the camping gear to begin plumbing the depths of who knew what? According to the brochure the current limit was a further 170m down and poised enticingly partway down a 70m pitch which would land at the level of extensive horizontal development in the neighbouring Er Wang Dong system. Miles of "Borehole" as Americans call it awaited.

Beyond Riff Raff a watershed is reached. The stream goes right down a big pitch into a massive void. We went left along 60m of "fine passage". Well, "fine" if you forget to mention the 12 inches of soft mud which is rapidly approaching the consistency of cold porridge. We were armed, amongst other things, with 100m of Chinese 8mm which was intended for the known 100m pitch currently rigged with 2 knot passes. However, on closer inspection it was more like 7.5mm and the pitch, like the rest of the cave, was covered liberally in mud. By now carrying two tackle sacks each we decided it would behove us to stick with the in situ rigging and push on to camp. Camp, it should be explained, was a slightly nebulous concept. No suitable campsite had been identified since this branch of the cave was pretty vertical from here on and had no known water supply but it was assumed that the borehole, when we found it, would be very comfortable. Just in case, we'd filled a Camelbak with water at the watershed. However, since we'd been caving along the water source in chocolate-coated passages since the entrance the water we collected bore an uncanny resemblance to cold tea. Still, at least we knew its provenance.

Pushing on to the limit we used our only non 8mm rope to rig the end of the 70m pitch, via a knot pass, and land in the much lauded continuation. It was not so much borehole as more hole. Another pitch awaited. By now it was late and we were getting a bit tired and in need of a camping place. Fortunately, the bottom of this next pitch, which could be reached using the tail end of the preceding rope, provided refuge. There was a rocky, muddy floor with some low crawls leading off and an outlet passage fed by a couple of intermittent drips. However, we'd come prepared with lightweight hammocks and we used a mixture of naturals and bolts to set up sleeping space. Two of the hammocks were extremely comfortable. Mine, however, was less so. While the others were all encasing, mine was a veritable g-string of the hammock world. The only way to use it was to stretch it around the body and then use Karabiners to cinch it shut. Meanwhile, a plastic sheet was used to funnel (muddy) drips into a (muddy) Daren drum such that by morning we'd have (muddy) water for (muddy) cooking. That night, however, there was nothing for it but to cook using the (even muddier) water we had previously collected. All in all a fine camp, if only it had had a suitable toilet.

With only one day available for pushing we did a quick recce and identified a promising, draughting lead, which spiralled confusingly downwards with multiple pitches rigged carefully on the 7.5mm to -491m before ending disappointingly in a too-tight rift with a strong draught. The second morning we eliminated various other leads except for one which also draughted picking up a few inlets, rapidly growing to the size of a small rift. This has been left ongoing in approximately the direction of Er Wang Dong (approximately 2 kilometres away, as the hole bores).

As we exited the cave we confirmed the presence of multiple parallel shafts, none of which appear to reconnect, and all of which will require further exploration. With most ropes being left in situ, and some camp gear, we only had one heavier than average bag each to steer through the rifts, crawls and pitch heads. By the time we emerged the snow had mostly disappeared although the temperature at 4 in the morning was still a little chilly. Perhaps a return in the summer...