In 2005 I spent 2 months exploring a cave in China as part of a mostly British team of explorers. Our aim was to find, explore and map the first 1km deep cave in China.
La Mu Shu was a unexplored cave system. Its in a remote part of China in the Chong ching Municipality and saw me staying in a small hill village for just under two months.
I arrived a week and a bit into the expedition and they had already explore the cave to a depth of about 180m or so.The first pitch is called “Cats and Dogs”. There was a waterfall pouring down the pitch – this was a drop of about 80m or so, this leads to the top of another pitch called Cloud burst.Cloudburst goes down about another 120m mostly freehanging in space! I think I remember one rebelay in it!
At the bottom of this there was a precarious traverse into a small passage where some other team members had spent the last three days hammering out a tiny squeeze connection into a cave system explored to that depth the previous year 2004. It was at this point I joined the expo.
The overarching aim of the expedition was to create the first kilometre deep cave in China. A cave called Qikeng Dong (pronounced Che Keng) and Dong meaning Cave, had been explored to a depth of –900m (approx) in 2002. Its entrance into the hillside was at 1241m above the valley bottom.
The cave Liuchi Aokou Xia Dong (pronounced Lu-Chi-Alco) was an ongoing adventure and had been explored horizontally some considerable way and down a massive pitch (the Penetrator) of approx 250m to the head of another huge and yet undecended shaft in 2004.
La Mu Shu was the cave that fell between the two. If we could join Liuchi Aokou Xia (LAX) and Qikeng Dong then we would have a 1km deep system, the first of its kind in this part of the world.
The objective of the first trip I was on was to survey this hammered out connection. Below is a rough line drawing of the cave survey. The top part shows the plan and the bottom the elevation. LAX is in purple, La Mu Shu in Yellow. The connection that was hammered out is shown in brighter yellow
Going through the hammered out passage from LAX you arrive onto the head of a big pitch (called Typoon) in La Mu Shu and the very crumbly wall traverse called “you fucking fucking bastards”.
The next mission was to get to the bottom of La Mu Shu. Over the next few days teams went in and took on each pitch to get to the bottom. The rock went from being clean washed to being coated in 2 inch thick MUD! Pitch names changed from Typoon (90m) to Pootastic (60m)
At the bottom of these drops we encountered a narrowish rift in pale rock (-350m or so) .We rigged a couple of handlines down wet short climbs. Exploration reached crumbling pitch head. Another short narrow rift reached another pitch. This was rigged down to a wetter rock. Here was quality stripey strata!!! Jugglers pitch was found!
Out of rope, out of battery power, 2 thrubolts left the team had to retreat. This team encountered a flood pulse at ~8:45pm as I was prussiking up. Fortunately no-one was caught in the pulse, but it presented a new danger we all needed to be aware of. Anyone caught in this would be unlikely to survive.
The next Day Chris and Phil went back to bag the glory and get to the bottom!!
“This is pure fucking shit” says Phil.
A short traverse over the rift pitch that has captured the water, steps through a window to a deep sediment filled platform over a muddy pitch head. Anything that touched the floor was instantly coated. Wellies scrabbling for purchase and cursing profusely, Phil rigged down Wallowing in Glory pitch (10m). Another equally brown and sticky platform led the caver knee-deep in glory, to another treacherous pitch head. A 43m pitch landed on a boulder and mud floor.At the end of the chamber a narrow rift spelt the end. Clusters of razor sharp formations almost closed the tiny rift off completely. So, they’d have to return. Chris poked a hole under the wall. A few rocks pulled out , he was surprised to see a low-level crawl continuing. Even better – that distant roar – surely the small LanMu Shu stream could not be responsible for that noise? Phil was packing up the kit.
“I think you’d better come through. It’s not over yet!”
A short scramble down popped out into BLACK SPACE! The roar of water was terrific – they turned right and stopped at a pool to wash off the mud River poured out of a 10m x 10m passage stretching off into the distance.
I was back into the cave two days later ready to survey the river at the bottom. The walls of the stream passage were dark and deeply eroded. Beautiful high-level sand banks on the right would make an ideal camp. A trickle of water off the LH wall was, we surmised was the La Mu Shu stream entering. After a few hours surveying the main waterway downstream, the roof lowered and the river snaked between gravel banks to a low, wide sump. ALAS NO WAY ON!!! Thwarted!! There would be no physical connection to Qikeng Dong this way, not without diving equipment (immensely impractical).
We turned back; with difficulty. Continuing into the unknown, another significant stream entered from right at the bottom of a deeply eroded canyon. Things looked up as we spotted a little cave fish.
We caught him in a glove and removed him to the surface, he was subsequently identified by an Ichthyologist as a one of a new species of fish! Very exciting! He is totally blind and adapted to living permanently underground.
Over the course of the next few days all the inlet stream passageways were explored and mapped. Our knowledge of the cave system was increasing and the map now looked something like this:The Green shows the 700m or so decent through the series of pitches. The blue shows the main stream and inlets at the bottom. The blue wiggly arrows show the direction of water flow (the black is all the undiscovered and unexplored bit!
Now we faced a long haul out of the cave. I was in the last team out that day – I went first, followed by Duncan, with Chris bringing up the rear.
The Safety protocol we worked to was that once someone is at the top of a pitch they wait for the person behind to reach the bottom, shout “ROPE FREE” wait for a response and move on up. In this way you can maintain voice contact on the way out and ensure everyone is okay.
It had been a particularly long, long trip and we’d been underground for I’m guessing about 18 hours . Nearly out, I was half way up Typoon waiting on a ledge for Duncs to get to the bottom.“ROPE FREE” – I waited – no answer…waited…. ”ROPE FREE” again – waited -no answer.
Now, my watch had broken a few trips back so I had absolutely no idea of the time, and as I sat on this ledge, I kept dozing and snapping awake. I cannot explain really just how exhausted I was. I had no idea if I’d been waiting 10 mins or 1 hour. My time perception was fucked. I thought – maybe I should go down and investigate where he is, then but what if its only been 10mins?
It was then that I saw him. Sitting next to me on a rock….the Red Indian! He had a red bandana on and appeared to be rolling a cigarette. I thought it really odd that he wasn’t wearing helmet.
Meanwhile, the muddy ropes had taken their toll on Dunc’s croll (a chest ascending/jamming device) until it was about as thick as tinfoil. The entire front had opened on him half way up the “Pootastic” pitch. He’d tried continuing by holding it in place with his hand but it just SNAPPED off. Now he was precariously hanging off one ascender in space…..It was a serious situation. He’d started by trying to set up a system using his top jammer as a chest jammer, and a tibloc as a top jammer, but couldn’t manage to make it work. The rope was too muddy for a tibloc to hold (they rely on friction) and no matter how hard he tried he kept sliding back down the rope, unable to gain any purchase. Getting more and more tired, he had to do something! So, thrashing around on a rope in midair, 50m above the nearest ledge, he’d rigged up another system, in which he used his decsender as an ascender. Painfully slow, locking off each time he took a step upwards he started to make progress. It took over an hour to travel the remaining 20m to the top of the pitch.
“FUCK ME I’m hallucinating!” Pooooof! The Red Indian disappeared.This is the only time I have ever hallucinated as a result of sleep deprivation. I heard something from the bottom of the pitch. I shouted “ROPE FREE” – the reply “OK” – I carried up.It was only at the top of Cloudburst that voice contact was fully established. BUT it wasn’t Duncan! It was Chris!!! Catching up to me he told me what had happened. I got to the top and gave him my ascender. Chris went back down the cave again to give it to Duncs so he could get out!
So by now I’d been caving in La Mu Shu for a month.We’d derigged the main way down the cave and with two weeks left we needed to work out the next move to connect with Qikeng Dong.Rob decided to go back and rig the dodgy wall and traverse the other side of Typhoon. Just as hairy as you “fucking fucking bastards” it was aptly named “Beggars belief!”On the other side of this, the cave went off down a passage and got seriously muddy.From here on in the pitches were gloop. We named the pitches things like ‘Covered in Chocolate’; ‘Comedy of Errors’; and ‘The Taming of the Poo’ and ‘Lense Lickers’.Once to the bottom of that series the cave entered a rift. This rift was tight and knarly the walls had sharp formations that dug into you and bruised you to buggery as well as ripping your over suit to shreds.Chris and I went down as a two-man team to push the rift and survey. Armed with a drill, spare battery and about 200m of rope in two mega heavy bags (in case we broke into something bigger). Surveying was slow and laborious. Because the rift was so tight and line of sight so poor, we could only manage survey legs of less than 2m at a time.
It was at this point I really wanted to quit the expedition. I thought to myself:“I’ve left my job and travelled half way round the world to simply to lie on my side in a shitty hole in the ground, covered in mud and getting freezing cold and for what?!? There are beautiful mountains in this country I’m never going to see, because I’m stuck down here. Obviously a poor and negative state of mind!The rift started to open out and get deeper below us. It was getting really fragile underfootm, with these false floors and torturously dangerous. We turned back declaring the passage was just “Too shitty to push”
Of course when we got out and entered the data in the computer the passage was heading straight for – you guessed it – Qikeng Dong!
If it was miserable below ground the surface wasn’t much better.It started to drizzle. Now we Brits do drizzle, but it aint nothing but a thing on the Chinese mountain drizzle once it gets going.EVERYTHING gets wet, nothing dries.
I REFUSED to get into wet undersuit- one more time… its SO demoralising. Its hard to explain how difficult it is to get motivated to start on a trip down La Mu Shu. Tired, wet, cold before you even go underground.So I went to the local Chinese village shop to see what was dry. I spied the very latest in lycra undergarments to go caving in in the local shop. bright pink and a bit on the small side, but they were just the job! And at 20p a pop they were practically free. I bought the lot! Disposable dry undys!
Remotivated in my dry clothes, I went back underground.Too Shitty turned into a massive long rift. Despite our initial excitement it might connect, it was explored to its shitty end and stopped short of breaking back into the La Mu Shu streamway. Certainly not to anywhere near Qikeng Dong anyway. You can see it here in shitty brown and note the length of the rift (the horizontal section on the elevation)!!!!
Heading back down into the cave to start to pull the ropes out from “Too Shitty” and the muddy pitches, I was the last one of the team down Comedy of Errors. I was half way through changing over from the end of one rope to another and only clipped in by one karibiner into one bolt in the wall in a free hanging stance, when something hit my head. Then a barrage of debris hit me, ‘BANG BANG BANG’ I could hear it raining down on my helmet and pummerling my back as I pressed myself tightly against the wall. I screamed “BELOW” to warn Neil below me.When it stopped I was really shaken and I could feel hot tears of relief pricking at my eyes. I took a deep breath and very very slowly rigged the rope and continued the decent.
I was totally conscious of the fact that something might have cut through the rope below me so I went as slowly as the slippy muddy rope would let me.
When I made it to the bottom, Neil came over to me and burst out laughing….what had hit me had been huge clumps of mud and some of them had stuck onto my helmet and piled up ontop of my head!
In my shocked state I hadn’t even noticed.
Okay so all this close to death experience may sound like highly exciting stuff, but being in a tiny medieval type village in the middle of nowhere is about as boring as bat shit once the novelty wears off!!
- You can sit on a plastic chair in a concrete room and read
- Or do your survey stats homework
- Or there is always taking apart the drill and reassembling it!!
- Being me – I prefered the getting drunk option!
In the last week we pulled out all the stops…
It went from drizzle to rain.
With only a four days before we had to pull the ropes out and leave, rain was not a good sign. Rain gives an increase risk to flood and non of us was happy at that prospect! There was another pitch possibility, still down the muddy route, but branching off before Too Shitty about 50m up. It might just go to the same place but was worth giving it a go.
Paul, Neil and I went in as a derig team to pull ropes back out of the deeper part of the cave and leave them for a later team Rob and Duncan who would rig to the bottom push the cave as far as they could in the time available, AND then start to derig, then Phil and Carmel would come in and continue the derig. It would all have to work like clockwork in shifts to get the task complete in 4 days with only 7 team members still in China.
Paul Neil and I went in first. We got down and started derigging the remainder of the tight rifts, it was hard going as the cave rope was muddy and therefore fucking mega heavy to pull up and out (needless to say I was a lot fitter then!!!). I remember that there was a point, after one tough squeeze, where I felt depleted of energy reserves and I sat down and ate a Snickers bar, silently sniffling to myself – taking bags of muddy rope through that tight sections was highly draining.
We worked very well as a team though. Then we were at the base of the pitches. Paul had already sorted the rope from his bag and headed out taking a couple of short lengths. Neil and I set about untying the knots and sorting the ropes for Rob and Duncan’s push the following day, down the un-explored pitch. I then decided to make a move out. I went to get on the rope- but I couldn’t see the rope. I knew I was tired and I had a look around but – but it was gone!
“I swear the rope was just hanging there” I said to Neil pointing
“where is the rope?”
We just looked at each other – silent panic exchanged in that one look. GULP!!Neil starting yelling…. yelling up to Paul …soon I was joining him…. “HELP…..PAUL…..HELP….STOP….”..fortunately it was dry in this part of the cave and the echo enabled him to hear us from 200m above on the Comedy of Errors (quite incredible really) and he came back down and as if by magic the rope reappeared! He’d dragged it up and hooked it over something by accident (an unfortunate hazard of ascending sometimes).
We got back to base camp and decided to rest up a day.
We went for a walk the next day and came across a farm:The Farmer, a friendly guy, invited us into his Kitchen, where he was cooking up some peanuts, inside their shells. The kitchen was small with two fires, made up within what looked like a block of mudbrick. He was roasting the peanuts in a huge wok on top and he called to his son to fetch some more wood. His son took the twigs and branches and put them in the fire. At the end of the roasting time, his son put his hands into the fire and systematically removed the charcol and unburnt wood. putting it out in a pile of dust on the floor. Nothing was wasted in this household. The peanuts were placed between us and we ate, they tasted really good. The BeiJo (local distilled alcohol) appeared and we all had to drink – from bowls.The farmer got drunk easily and bacame animated making long speeches…..that non of us could understand….
It was starting to get dark and we needed to leave, Neil and I had a big derigging trip the next day (from Rob and Duncans trip) and I wanted to get a good nights sleep. The farmer was keen for us to stay and eat a meal (and drink more BeiJo). But we decided to make our escape and got up to go making our excuses. Now, the farmer insisted we took some peanuts, thrusting great handfuls into our hands and pushing peanuts into our pockets as we backed out of the farmhouse. We made it back to Tian Xing village. We joined the others for our standard fare of pig fat , chilli and marrow soup.After dinner – a swaying figure entered the kitchen. It was our friend the farmer, still absolutely hammered. He has followed us. He sat down. He wouldn’t leave and we couldn’t force the issue, after all the hospitality he had offered us, yet we didn’t want to be too tired for the derig trip and make mistakes, it was a tricky situation.After a while he drifted off…and we were able to get some sleep. This was really lucky for us!!!
Meanwhile Rob and Duncan were underground for their final pushing trip. In typical Rob style, he’d found another obscure ledge to traverse across!!! He’d then headed down armed with enough rope to get to base level. Bombs away. He dropped down into the blackness and was very lucky to see buttress of rock presumably separating the shafts (it was difficult to tell as the size of the area was so big the light got lost).
Rob then swung onto this buttress to access a “water” shaft, with water flowing down far wall. He rigged the rope down 90m against wall. This shaft had superb acoustics. So it was named the Octave Aven (in red below)
Rob and Duncs finally hit floor able to stand up after 4 hours of rigging. At the bottom, it looked like they might be going to hit a sump as there was lots of mud around and the stream flowed into a small horizontal passage, but there was a draught. They set about surveying this small passage.Following this led to 20m or so of stooping and crawling and they reached a point where the water flowed off into a flat-out passage 1/3 full of semi-liquid mud which would have to be excavated to make progress. The lads were cautious as the rain meant there was a real possibility this passage could flood and that would be BAD NEWS…. so they left it. The last section explored in 2005 is in RED above. You can see in the elevation JUST how close we are to a Qikeng Dong connection, but we were thwarted.
Result = No connection in 2005
We pulled all the ropes out in the remaining 48 hours.So near yet so far…….
2006 POST SCRIPT
In 2006 a return trip to the area saw a connection to Qikeng Dong made via the Octave Avens.:DI’d like to big up the 2005 team. Cave exploration is 100% a team effort, no egos, just effort. I’m not going to bullshit, there are personality clashes, but its a very strong team, you rely on others to watch your back constantly and you do the same.Thank you for staying with this story to the end!!!