In Print

Caving in China by Andy Zellner
TagNet 2006
Article about the Tianxing 2006 expedition.
Text of the article

Around the middle of October, Ashley and I spent about 10 days caving with the Hong Meigui Society, a bunch of very friendly European goofballs who have been exploring caves in China for several years now. This expedition was focused on the Tian Xing area, which is home to most of the deepest vertical caves in the country. One of the primary aims of this year's effort was to connect three previously known caves together, forming China's first 1000-meter-deep system.

After about 40 hours of traveling around the planet in planes, buses and pickup trucks, Ashley and I were dumped off in the tiny village of Tian Xing, which means something like "Sky Mountain" I think. If you've ever been to the Huautla/San Agustin area, it's about the same size - a few hundred people with plenty of dogs and chickens and pigs and poop. They were currently experiencing their worst drought in a hundred years, which was great for caving, but not so good for general sanitation. Most of the cave entrances in the area are located less than a 15-minute walk from the expedition's little concrete bunkhouse on the edge of town.

We barely had time to say hello before we were offered our first caving trip, to check out a deep pit that was discovered about a mile away the previous day. It turned out to be a just a single blind pit, but we still surveyed it out to be about 135 meters deep (about 450 feet). This is considered only an average-sized pit for this area -- their deepest find to date was a huge 499-meter-deep shaft (yes, that's about 1600 feet) not far away. The explorers admitted that you do hit a major ledge halfway down the pit, but geologically, it's definitely one single shaft. At the bottom of that is a large river cave that has not been fully explored.

This first pit was also our introduction to the group's style of ropes and rigging -- lots and lots of rebelays, with REALLY stretchy 9mm rope. Some 8mm even. I felt like I was on a dynamic rope sometimes. Definitely not PMI, but it was still pretty tough. And I admit it was nice being able to stuff 200 meters of rope into a single cave pack...

The next day, we went to help in Zuan Yan Keng, a nearby cave that had been pushed down about 200 meters and 1.5 kilometers horizontally on previous trips, with big borehole and good airflow continuing beyond. We carried in a hammer drill, several long bolts and hangers, and a few push ropes. Since all participants were expected to survey what they explored, we brought in all the appropriate equipment for that, too.

The first half of the cave was very hard and kinda sucked, sortof a Dorton Knob or Luminary multiple canyon levels type cave. Very very very muddy! But eventually we popped out into a much nicer, 15-foot - diameter streamway with huge water-filled potholes in the floor. Like big enough and deep enough that you would have to swim across, but they had bolted traverse lines around the walls so you only got about waist deep in the water. By the time we reached the limits of exploration, we had already dealt with over 20 pieces of rigging.

Between this trip and the next one, we pushed the cave down another 4-5 drops. Bolting was a major pain in the ass because the passage we were in was stuck in a very shalely layer, similar to the Hartselle formation around the TAG area. Nothing solid to put anchors in. We kept hoping it would drop out of this crappy stuff, and finally on our last trip, I used our last push rope to get down a spacious 50-meter freefall pit. Finally, nice clean limestone again! But the rope was a little short, and I could barely get my toes on the floor. If I let go of the rope, it would have recoiled several feet out of my reach. So all I could do was look around, and toss pebbles down the next short drop ahead of me. To this day, the next pit remains unexplored, with good water and airflow, and at least another 600 meters of depth potential left.

The other major cave we worked in was Lan Mu Shu. This was the one they hoped to connect into another cave called Qikeng Dong, and if possible connect them both into an even lower cave called Dong Ba Dong (Dong means "cave" in Chinese). By the time we showed up, Lan Mu Shu had been pushed down 600 meters or so into a level of mazy horizontal development, and a connection seemed imminent. But trips from the surface were beginning to run 18 hours or more, with not much getting accomplished, so we decided to establish a basecamp in the cave near the limits of exploration.

This was successful, and between 5-6 cavers working down below, we finally found the long-anticipated connection. This put the system at 983 meters deep, officially the deepest in China but we really wanted to make it the country's first 1000-meter system. So, while three of us remained behind to survey a few kilometers of virgin cave, two other guys performed a last-ditch push to the bitter end, to try and find a route into Dong Ba Dong.

But there was one catch. In the last few years, a town at the base of the mountain had been building a concrete dam for a water supply, and several months ago the reservoir had started filling up. They have now permanently flooded the bottom 50-100 meters of the cave system's drainage, so our intrepid explorers unfortunately came to a series of swims and sumps, instead of the big passage they remembered from previous trips. So while it's likely that the third lower cave has been physically connected, they were unable to find any tie-in stations to complete the survey. Still an amazing cave though, almost 20 kilometers long now.

We had many other adventures along the way, and we were very grateful for the chance to participate on the expedition. I know it is sometimes frowned upon to show up in the middle of a big project, cave for a week, and then disappear again, but they didn't seem too mad. And this was by far the most organized group I've ever dealt with. Once a survey trip was done, within the next day or so we were expected to enter all our data into a laptop, print out a line plot, and draw up a sketch of what we surveyed, both plan and profile. The sketches and data are then scanned in right there on the premises and copied onto a DVD for safekeeping. I'm not much of a cartographer, but I did the best I could. The end result is that all the work is done by the time the expedition ends, except perhaps the final draft of the map.

I am also very impressed by the group's website, which can be found here: http://www.hongmeigui.net/