Yunnan 2003 Expedition Updates from the field
Updates from the field:
The following email updates were sent home as the expedition unfolded.
Report from Rich Gerrish: 26th July 2003
We are now into our second week in China. Getting to Yunnan province proved its usual gear transporting mission with far too much kit and not enough people to carry it all. On top of that both myself and Hils have been quite ill with a vicious cold/flu type thing that has had both of us run down and exhausted. On top of the heat, travel, mosquitoes and hassle with the organisation that goes with being the advanced party it has been quite a hectic time.
Hilary and I along with Dr Huang from the Kunming Geographical institute spent a couple of days visiting our old friends in Guli village. Last year we were the first westerners ever to have visited this village in the remote mountains south of Zhongdian and the reason why so little people actually go here came to light when we visited Xiao Gang in Kunming before setting off.
It turns out that the village is an old leper colony. This explained many of the things that we had seen last year but had put down to nothing more than a small genetic pool and inbreeding. Despite receiving treatment for the leprosy and the younger generations being free from the disease and the accompanying loss of fingers and facial deformities the village still suffers from the ignorance and suspicion of other Chinese and as such remains isolated.
Having little time we immediately set about exploring the caves we were shown last year. The first, a fossil pitch (vertical drop) of 30m is still going but was the least exciting out of the two.
The second, a stream sink dropped down two pitches and entered a long section of awkward rifts that were great fun and reminded us both of the caves in Yorkshire. At the end of the rift a third pitch was descended to the head of a fourth which looks to be about 20m in depth. Due to time constraints a halt was called here and we surveyed out of the cave leaving the rest of the exploration for later in the expedition. The total length is roughly 150m with about 50m of depth.
Looking at the maps of this area it is clear that there is huge potential for much more cave exploration here with a large resurgence (cave entrance where the water reappears) indicating the possibility of a much grander system with the hope of a large and impressive master cave too.
The people of Guli Village were, like last year, unbelievably friendly and helpful to us providing us with food and accommodation. When we left both myself and Hils were sad to leave. We have both become very fond of the village, it's beautiful setting, wonderful people and of course fantastic caving.
Dr Huang headed back to Kunming on urgent business whilst myself and Hils caught a bus north to Zhongdian where we met up with the rest of the team.
With nine members so far and a tenth joining us shortly we have far more manpower than last year and this has become evident in the amount we can get done. This year we are also in possession of some fantastic maps which have enabled us to pick the sites we want to look at with much greater success.
Last night Martin Hicks and Peter Talling returned from a recce trip to report that an area of shakeholes pinpointed on the map also contains a possible 50m entrance pitch and many other possibilities. More recce's today are expected to have similar success. I, meanwhile, have been trying to shake off the remnants of my cold and have been kept busy with organising the group equipment into something resembling order so that future caving trips will be more efficient.
The film is coming along very well indeed and I am starting to worry less about selling it to Creative Touch and National Geographic. Even if they do not want it I am sure that it will be excellent given the quality of the footage that I have taken so far.
Tomorrow, myself, Martin and Pete are off into the hills for a days' recce to yet another exciting spot and I have my fingers and toes tightly crossed that our current success will continue and that I will be feeling fitter in the near future.
Until next time, take it easy,
Report from Hilary Greaves: 4th August 2003
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,
Report from Rich Gerrish: 4th August 2003
With the majority of the party heading up into the mountains to recce various areas that looked promising on the maps; myself, Duncan Collis, Liu Hong, Martin Laverty and Lenik Saymo took a bus round to the west of the mountains to explore the resurgence that Hils and Beardy had found the previous year.
Hanging out of the windows of the bus I scoured the banks of the Yangtze for anything that resembled cave development. After several kilometres we passed a huge surface tributary which was shortly followed by the resurgence.
After getting off the bus a little way down the road I legged it back to take a closer look. The resurgence itself is located about 50m above the road and tumbles out to form a waterfall 10m high. By the road the icy cold and crystal clear water thunders through a tiny culvert and turns the steamy heat of the Yangtze valley into something more like the Baltic. Despite having been told by Hils and Beardy that the resurgence was very large I was not prepared for the sheer scale. A rough estimate puts the quantity of water at 4 cubic metres per second. Martin assures me that it is several times larger than the Culiembro resurgence and dwarfs everything in Britain many times over. The cave is locally known as Shui Lian Dong or Water Curtain Cave and is a poorly maintained show cave with a restaurant and guest house right by it. After installing ourselves into a room and having a big feed we wasted no time in getting into our caving kit and heading off to explore.
Crumbling steps and rickety ladders led up to a large fossil entrance above the river outlet and we began surveying up the steeply dipping passage with the roar of the streamway drawing closer with each step. After 200m we popped out on a ledge above the maelstrom and gingerly traversed our way down to its edge. At this point the passage is about 3 metres wide and 10 metres high with the walls dropping vertically into the water on both sides. With no way to traverse the edge of the river we were faced with the prospect of entering the water. Ditching my camera and the survey gear I tried to crawl out onto a large, partially submerged boulder with the aid of a rotting bamboo ladder. As soon as my hand touched the rock icy cold jets of water rushed up my sleeve and spray lashed into my face obscuring my vision and setting my heart racing. Opting for a different approach I tried wading where the river was less violent. Lowering my leg into a bubbling pool it sank like a lead balloon. The air bubbles whipped into the water by the endless cascades gave it next to no buoyancy and as I neared groin depth with still no sign of reaching the bottom I bailed on that idea too. Beating a tactical retreat we discussed the possibilities by shouting over the noise of the torrent.
There was no way to traverse the edge, the water was unbelievably powerful, frighteningly cold and resembled a kayakers worst nightmare with nasty boulders and crashing whitewater everywhere. Reluctantly we concluded that trying to explore further was going to be a recipe for disaster, none of us were prepared to take that risk and we headed out amazed by what we had seen and bitterly disappointed by our inability to explore more.
Back at the guesthouse Liu Hong chatted to the locals and discovered that they have explored the cave for over 1.5km but only during much drier months. He also discovered that there was another two resurgences in the area. One was about 200m up the road and came up underneath the Yangtze itself. Due to the rainy season the swollen, chocolate brown waters of the Jinsha Jiang completely obscured this outlet but we were shown its location. The third resurgence was about two kilometres walk up the large surface tributary we had passed on our way and bubbled up into a deep pool with no way to access the cave passage without blowing bubbles.
Possibly the most exciting news however were the stories of frighteningly deep vertical entrances on the plateau 2000m above us. Faced with this information and the resurgences it finally began to dawn on me that these mountains might well contain one of the deepest caves in the world and that my childish dreams of exploring it were turning into a reality.
With all other options exhausted we were left with only one alternative, to get hideously drunk! To our amazement the show cave complex also contained a nightclub with Tuesday nights being a secret gem. As we ploughed through the Dali Red and the odd shot of Bai Jiu we began to fantasise about the worlds greatest through trip. A 1500m pitch series into a giant master cave dropping for another 600m to pop out right next to a mad Chinese Disco!
Beat that Mirolda!
Take it easy,
Postscript: Rich and Dunks and others plan a return expedition to explore the resurgence in February, when locals report the water levels are at their lowest. [Hils]
Report from Rich Gerrish: 14th August 2003
Just returned from a six day camping trip in the mountains. With only four people left on expe we had more than too many things to do. First of all we succeeded in killing all of our good leads. "Blue Poppy Pot" looked like a goer with a few pitches entering a bloody awful but draughting rift with hideous squeezes. My face and oversuit still bears the damage that razor sharp crystals can do when you repeatedly batter yourself against them... Unfortunately the rift crapped out into impossible dimensions that only chemical persuasion would be able to resolve.
Another deep shaft that myself and Hils explored dropped 70m to a snow plug resting on an apparently solid choke of boulders. Despondent but not defeated we changed tactics.
With time running out myself and Hils headed further north to a limestone plateau at 4200m. The scenery up there is achingly reminiscent of the Picos with only the lack of oxygen, Yaks and Tibetans making us realise otherwise. Opting for a light weight approach we crashed in a Yak herders hut and were treated to the delights of the kind of traditional Tibetan fare you don't get at the "Traditional Tibetan" food joints on the tourist trail.
It is a damn good job neither of us have a lactose intolerance as almost everything we ate came from the udders. If it wasn't yoghurt, cheese, milk or butter it wasn't on the menu!!! Well almost, we had something suspiciously like Nan bread only doughier, a little bit of rice supplemented with boiled pig fat and some marrow like veg which was a refreshing alternative. They also do a good line in Caramel which if generously scraped into the yoghurt takes away the sourness that pervades everything formed from Yak milk! The butter tea also grew on me but it is very rich and also a little salty.
As usual the Tibetans were remarkably humble people and despite our intrusion into their daily lives seemed to find our fascination with their mundanities amusing rather than irritating.
A 70 year old gent with a nasty rash seemed to be the boss and he showed us to our first cave of the trip. A very steep walk up to the base of a towering limestone cliff revealed a massive entrance invisible from below. Sloping down at 45 degrees and covered with a mass of scree death a 10m wide and 6m high passage dropped down a short pitch. Despite having brought rope and SRT kit with us we opted not to explore further feeling that it was more important to log as many going leads as possible rather than spend time exploring just a few. The most interesting thing about this entrance is that despite its size we were both ecstatic to discover a slight but noticeable and extremely cold draught!!!
In the afternoon we were treated to more entrances on a walk with two 14 year old and one 7 year old lad. The following day and accompanied by the old gent again we set out to log about another 10 entrances!
Our frustration with the area is unbearable as all of the entrances seem to choke very soon with none of the caves explored to date reaching greater depths than 100m. The geology and lack of surface drainage off the mountains however convince us that a 2200m cave system exists even if it does seem to be very difficult to enter. With the number of new, unexplored entrances we have been shown and the unknown number that must still lie out there undiscovered we are convinced that it is only a matter of time and luck before we find the entrance that bypasses the blockages and leads us into the unknown.
Coming down off the hill yesterday we dipped into our pockets and hired a couple of boys with horses to carry the mountain of kit we had accumulated at camp. Gavin and Helen both leave the expedition now leaving Hils and I with another week of surface recceing. Our last objective is an exercise in exploration and adventure with a tempting goal at its end. Tomorrow we plan to head up onto the area of mountains directly above the resurgence show cave. We have not had chance to look at this area yet due to time and manpower being concentrated on other promising places. Walking up from the Zhongdian side we are going to traverse the entire plateau, spending one day reeceing from a lightweight camp and trying to glean as much information from the Yak herders about entrances, before dropping down steeply the 2000m to the Yangtze side and a grand night out in the resurgence night club!
Whilst we are all bitterly disappointed that we have not found our going cave this year we remain more hopeful than ever with the area and feel sure that more effort will eventually reap its rewards. Yunnan 2004 is a definite date in the diary with plenty of shafts to drop and even more vast limestone mountain to recce...
Report from Rich Gerrish: 17th August 2003
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.
"Not really, we got 100m of streamway ending in a 5m pitch!"
"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.