In Print

Some you win and some you lose - Tian Xing tales by Fleur Loveridge
Depth Through Thought Vol 16 (2) 22 February 2006
Describes the near connection of Liu Chi Aokou Xia Dong and Qikeng Dong.
Text of the article

I think that the five or six years that Rob Garrett had been away must have dulled my memory. I had asked Rob for an expedition recommendation for 2005 and he had said "Tian Xing." So I'd eagerly signed up for the area that has yielded China's deepest caves, but had neglected to read the small print. I'd swallowed the headlines, the aim to create China's deepest system, at over 1km, by joining three known caves together. But I'd not paid enough attention to Rob's last DTT articles (14.9 and 14.12) as he and Duncan Collis pushed a scrofulous crawl called "Dysentery" in the cave Liu Chi Aokou Xia.

Because in order to make China's deepest cave we needed to connect Liu Chi Aokou Xia, a high entrance, to Lan Mu Shu Dong at lower altitude and then connect Lan Mu Shu Dong to Qikeng Dong (and/or Dong Ba Dong) at the major horizontal development level. And because my first push of the expedition was the task of trying to make that first connection.

Liu Chi Aokou Xia and Lan Mu Shu Dong had been surveyed to within 35m of each other and the passage Blue Balls in Liu Chi Aokou Xia was heading straight for the known shaft called Typhoon in Lan Mu Shu Dong. So far so good, but because the top of Typhoon pitch was in mudstone, not limestone, it was not possible to bolt around to the small inlet where Blue Balls was postulated to connect. Therefore we had to enter by the higher and less straightforward entrance of Liu Chi Aokou Xia and in order to make a speedier exist via Lan Mu Shu Dong, and just hope that there was something we could bolt off if the connection was made.

But first we had to finish rigging into Liu Chi Aokou Xia. The first trip in gave myself and Pete a feel for what was to come. The entrance series was more like being back home, with traversing in rifts and a few small pitches, before the caves breaks out tantalizingly into a larger passage carrying the main stream. Sadly, the way on is soon through dysentery, a mixture of muddy hands and knees crawls, body sized tubes and Darren entrance like rifts. All good sporting fun, except when you are carrying tackle for a deep cave. Because after dysentery is a series of pitches interspersed with rifts before the main stream is rejoined and a 250m shaft follows. That day we made good progress, rigging to the end of You Lucky Lucky Bastards, a deeply annoying catchy crawly rift passage that Rob also had the pleasure of exploring the year before, and insisted on snagging the tackle bags at every turn.

The next trip we rigged the last two pitches to the main stream, but instead of going downstream to the 250m shaft, headed for the side passage Blue Balls. The start of the passage was horrible. All loose and chossy, followed by a squalid muddy flat-out crawl that Rob and Erin Lynch had dug out the year before. Eventually we reached the limit of exploration, a crawling passage with a small stream, ending in a calcite blockage that needed to be hammered. By this time we had been caving in for five hours and were facing an unknown time hammering in the hope of a connection. It was highly possible that we would hammer through the blockage only to find another. However, the motivation was strong; if we connected the caves then the exit out of Lan Mu Shu Dong would probably take us one hour, instead of five the other way. We were committed. There was nothing for it but to get hammering.

But as Rob, Pete and I took turns with the lump hammer, the thought entered my head that this wasn't what I had traveled half way round the world for. The longer we hammered for, the more my anxiety built. There was the real possibility we would hammer until knackered and then face five hours hard caving to get out. I vented my fears on Rob.

Whether this connects or not can we call it 'You Fucking Fucking Bastards' because that's kind of what I'm thinking right now."

We hammered on. Pete was by far the most effective, getting large lumps of the walls to come away. Rob and I were less useful, but took turns to insert ourselves into the slowly enlarging squeeze. After over two hours hammering I was beginning to really worry about what would happen. "Do we need to agree a turn around time?" I asked. We were still facing five hours to get out and we were all getting tired from hammering at arms length in the squeeze. Even if we got through this squeeze we might still have to go out the long way. The building tension was only relieved by an experiment at two person hammering, as I held the chisel and Rob swung the blow from higher up. It did more damage to my thumb than to the rock.

After 3 hours Rob inserted himself in the squeeze and suddenly it went. The relief was immediate, but we were still a long way from the connection to Lan Mu Shu. We made a plan. Rob went on the check if the passage continued, whilst I passed the squeeze and then Pete and I attacked it from both sides to make it Pete sized. It was good to have something destructive to do whilst we awaited news from Rob. I was knackered now after all the hammering, and once on the other side, lying in the small stream that flowed down the passage was unavoidable.

After what seemed like an age, but was only half an hour, Pete was through and Rob was back. "So you want the good news or the back news?" he said. I couldn't take it. "But does it go?" I snapped back. It did. "And is there anything to rig off?" This was the next big worry given we were emerging near the top of a 35m shaft and were in mudstone. But the answer wasn't quite as affirmative as I had hoped.

We passed the gear through the squeeze and went to check it out. The following passage was fairly small and catchy, mainly crawling in the stream. I made a half hearted attempt to hammer off some obstructions, but didn't quite have the strength. Besides, I was sure I wouldn't be back here in a hurry. Just back from the pitch head was a smooth slide down to a pool. The pitch head itself was also smooth and sloping and, of course, in loose mudstone. The rigging options didn't look great. Rob thought he had found something to bolt in, it was certainly hard as the bolt took ages to go in, but what was it? It looked more like calcite than limestone, but at least it wasn't mudstone. Pete and I each found a dodgy natural mudstone backup. I have to say it wasn't out finest work, but I took some consolation in the fact that if my natural failed the passage roof would probably go with it.

Rob had assured us that we were definitely at Typhoon and the rope we'd brought would definitely be long enough to tie into a traverse rigged previously in Lan Mu Shu by Duncan. But I never really believed it, not until Rob shouted out that he could see Duncan's bolts and was about to tie into them. When the "rope free" was shouted I could have cried. The bolt in the strange rock didn't matter. The quality of the back ups didn't matter. The rope protector on the pitch lip only covering a fraction of the rub didn't matter, nor did the tight rig that didn't have room for my breaking krab. When I touched down on the traverse and shouted "rope free" to Pete it was almost like winning the lottery. The relief just washed over me. There was now only 150m of easy prussicking to get out.

Safely out of the cave and back at the ranch after the 13 hour trip my mind was relaxed by the gassy Chinese beer. I started to reflect and realise that the race for China's deepest cave was now on. Whatever the small print the bullshit was true. We were one connection down and one to go. Surely the magic 1km was in our grasp. But most importantly we wouldn't have to go in through Liu Chi Aokou Xia to achieve it.