Annual expedition to Tianxing: 2014

Thousand Year Egg, Da Keng Wan with laid-back author. Nicholaus Vieira photograph
Base of Thousand Year Egg, Da Keng Wan with laid-back author. Nicholaus Vieira photograph

ALAN JACKSON STC

The Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society (HMG) has been taking on the immense task of exploring the caves of China’s vast limestone geology since January 2001. This year four ASF members were lucky enough to tag along on the annual expedition to the area of Tianxing this past September, enjoying a few weeks of deep vertical cave exploration.

To provide the full background on the history and accolades of HMG would require a lengthy article on its own. A fairly comprehensive website covering the “who, what, where and why” of the society can be found at Hong Meigui Cave.

In a nutshell: China is a bloody big country; a very large percentage of that country is covered with limestone; that limestone is chock full of empty spaces conducive to a sport called ‘caving’.

Here’s a gallery from the 2014 Expedition: Click any image for a larger version.

In the 11 years that HMG has been up and running its members have participated in over 90 expeditions and have explored and surveyed over 388 km of cave.

The longest individual cave/system is 61 km long and the deepest cave so far is 1020 m (with estimated depth potential in excess of 2000 m in one area). In short — China is a cave explorer’s paradise.

This trip was the 11th annual expedition to the Tianxing area. Tianxing is a small tobacco-growing rural village perched high in the rolling hills of southwestern China. To get there we flew into Chongqing (a massive filthy super-city on the Yangtze River with a total municipal population of around 29 million people).

Chongqing met all my expectations of what urban China would be like — packed with people, high-density apartment block living, traffic chaos, horrendous air pollution and a raging pace of development.

Typical Chongqing traffic. Alan Jackson photograph
Typical Chongqing traffic. Alan Jackson photograph

The next leg was a ~2.5 hour bus ride east on the new (4-5 years old) motorway to the city of Wulong. Apparently this leg used to take around 7 hours by bus but the motorway carves a more direct line with little respect for valleys or mountains; soaring bridges and numerous tunnels (up to 7 km long) cut a swathe through the increasingly exciting karst landscape.

Gateway to South China Karst

Wulong, a small city of around 300,000 people, is a popular spot for local and international tourists; it acts as a gateway to the South China Karst UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Wulong it is usually a short trip up into the hills to Tianxing, via a visit to register with the local police in nearby Jiangkou. However, due to a road closure this year, it took an extra hour or two to get to our destination. The motorway was soon a distant memory as we were whisked up the narrow, gravel, winding goat track with our driver trying to emulate some rally driving hero.

The expedition was for five weeks but we Australians only turned up for the last three weeks. A total of 25 people participated but only seven of those people stayed the full five weeks.

There were 12 Poms (one of whom, Duncan Collis, resides principally in China and has been a driving force behind HMG since the beginning), four Australians (Serena Benjamin, Janine McKinnon, Tim Moulds and me), four Russians, a Canadian, two Americans (Steve currently lives in Shanghai and Erin Lynch mostly lives in nearby Wulong and is the adhesive that formed and binds HMG together), one Chinese and one Indian.

Numbers fluctuated during the expedition but peaked at 24 for almost a week in the middle. It was a lot of people.

Accommodation and facilities were pretty good. Erin’s long presence in the area (11 years), her command of the language and, most importantly, her vivacious yet diligent personality means that pretty much everything has been thought of and planned for in advance.

Empties. Alan Jackson photograph
Empties. Alan Jackson photograph

The expedition had access to numerous rooms (gear store, common room, sleeping areas and so on) and the owners of the buildings, Mr Liu and Mrs Wei kept us supplied with important consumables — principally food and beer.

Water shortage

The only real problem for this year’s expedition was the water shortage. It had been dry in the preceding months and being surrounded by a karst area tends to mean that surface water doesn’t hang around for long. All drinking water was (and always is) brought in in bottles/drums but this year there was very little washing or toilet flushing liquid. Important parts of the body were kept clean with a large supply of wet-wipes.

Caving gear cleaning was restricted to the bare minimum — for inspection of PPE safety. The toilet became increasingly unpleasant as the expedition unfolded. Trogsuits were standing up by themselves, everyone was covered in a general layer of pig shit and cave mud (often the same thing in rural China) and the general odour was pretty bad. Fortunately we all smelled as bad as one another.

Karst scenery near Zuan Yan Keng entrance. Alan Jackson photograph
Karst scenery near Zuan Yan Keng entrance. Alan Jackson photograph

The first priority of the expedition was to push Zuan Yan Keng, or People Go Down Cave (PGD). PGD is not a translation of Zuan Yan Keng — keng means ‘pit’ but Zuan Yan is more a geographical reference than anything else. PGD had first been found, a mere 150 m from ‘down town’ Tianxing, in 1994.

The first part of the cave consists of a complex series of small active inlets and oxbows with numerous dead ends. During the 2005 expedition the cave was revisited as a distraction from the main push in another cave, Lan Mu Shu, and progress was made to a large active stream passage.

Several hundred metres of deep pools (‘lobster pots’), short cascades and ledge traverses have formed in the most appalling rock imaginable (a band of mudstone sandwiched conformably between limestones).

Time ran out with the cave at -177 m deep and 1.7 km long and wide open streamway passage. A little more progress was made in 2006 which saw the end of the horizontal streamway passage reached (now coined Comfortably Numb) — it terminated in a ~50 m pitch. The nature of the rock still hadn’t changed but, thanks to some extra long through bolts, the pitch, christened Crappy Crapola Crapstone, was dropped and some real limestone was found again. The survey only made it to the top of Crappy Crapola (-207 m deep and 2 km long) but the way on beyond the 50 m pitch was open.

Strong international team

Imogen Furlong had been on the 2005 expedition and PGD had been eating away at the back of her mind for years. Imo has caved extensively internationally and had little trouble pulling together a strong international team from the contacts she’s made over the years for a proper PGD push in 2011.

By the time we Aussies arrived at the end of week two the known parts of the cave had been rigged (with quite a bit of re-bolting with long bolts in the mudstone) and four push/survey trips had been undertaken. The cave had taken on a more vertical nature and it was then surveyed to -550 m.

The ‘local experts’ (Duncan and Erin) had theorised that PGD would connect into the underlying large master system, Dongba, most likely in an area near Glycogen Chamber (a huge 160 metre diameter chamber) — the trend of the passage and the water volume matched an inlet in that area.

This had seemed likely until the water sumped at -500 m and the way on became a dry, breccia-filled phreatic passage heading in the opposite direction.

Two more bounce trips to the exploration front followed before a decision was made to set up a camp. The first of these two trips had wasted some time trying to push through rockfall in the base of a large chamber before giving up and installing a bolt traverse into a promising looking ‘up’ passage above the chamber.

The second trip showed that the up passage continued going with very large dimensions but more importantly there was a junction with a fossil streamway that got us back on the downward path.

The old streamway seemed to terminate not long after in a mud-filled chamber but an unpromising-looking low passage heading off from the top of a mud bank surprised us by slowly changing to stooping passage, then standing passage, then downward-trending passage.

It was now taking 3-5 hours to get to the pushing front (then 4-7 hours out again), depending on the group, which wasn’t leaving much time to explore on a 14-20 hour push trip. The expedition rules that enforced the ‘survey what you explore’ principle as well as taking both back- and foresights for every leg and sketching to scale both plan and elevation meant that progress was slow.

An 18+ hour bounce trip

This made for excellent quality survey but it often also meant that an 18+ hour bounce trip would only yield 100-150 m of new passage, sometimes less — not a good return.

Setting up camp had its own drawbacks, mainly the amount of extra gear that needed to be carted in and, ultimately, carted out, too. Another positive, though, was the reduced wear on your gear; repeated trips to -600 m on muddy ropes wreak havoc with your descending and ascending gear and the pile of dead Stop and Simple bobbins/pulleys was mounting back in the gear store.

The other issue with camping was water — we’d lost the water at -500 m and the only obvious spot to camp was at the junction at -550. This meant we had a 50 m pitch between us and our water supply and urine disposal spot!

Team 1, with a bit of support from some bouncing sherpas, headed in and set up camp on day one with the intention of staying two nights. A second team of three also headed in on day one, but only to stay one night, to do some sherpa work and do some geology (Erin was the official rock-nerd keeping a track of strike, dip and faults).

Our soft Western Australian member, Tim Moulds, was a member of Team Geology but he only made it to -200 m before deciding to leap across a turbid pool of unknown depth and substrate.

What he found in the bottom of the pool was a rolled ankle — there’s a reason we usually keep our Western Australian cousins quarantined behind a few thousand kilometres of desert but, unfortunately, the resources boom in that state has lead to an increasing number of them earning enough money to afford the airfares required to escape.

Sherpas in shining armour

This incident had threatened to make it difficult for the remaining members of Team Geology as in theory it would mean they’d have four bags between two people, one of whom was not a two bags kind of caver, but luckily the bouncing sherpas in shining armour turned up with the good news that they’d double packed it right to camp despite having been instructed to drop some bags on the way.

Note: it’s easy to trick an unsuspecting Russian who speaks zero English into taking his bags further than originally planned as he didn’t know what the original plan was anyway! All’s well that ends well, although it was a slow trip out with the limping gimp.

Team 2 headed in the following morning and Team 3 (The Russians) headed in that evening, after sleeping all day in preparation. This would allow us to ‘hot bed’ three of the six beds in camp and improve efficiency.

I headed in with Team 4 the following morning. We met Team 1 as they headed out halfway along the cave. They reported that the cave was going (down) and they’d found a massive chamber (Devine Retribution).

This was our first update in a couple of days as the Nicola Radio was refusing to work. When we got to camp Team 2 had just got back from their push and had spent the day surveying the big chamber. We set to trying to fix the radio and tried to push a shitty drafting squeeze near camp.

We failed on both accounts, but we did at least get the camp radio to receive — we just couldn’t transmit for some reason. The message from the surface was that the survey data put the exploration front at ~40 m vertically from a connection with Dongba and instructed us where a likely tie-in station would be. This was relayed to the Russians and they headed off expecting to come back with good news in the morning.

We awoke from our slumbers in the morning to the distant shouting of the Russian version of ‘rope free’. Masha eventually dragged herself into camp and confirmed that the connection had been made.

This was great news but also slightly disappointing news … what would we do now? Only Erin had visited the section of Dongba that we’d connected into (seven years previously) so only she knew the good leads and she wasn’t due at camp until the evening.

Rather than head down and waste time blindly wandering around a partially explored area we decided to head back up the cave a bit (to -430 m) to push a lead we’d spotted over the top of The Gash (a 30 m pitch above the sump).

Flying Monkeys traverse

We figured this might provide a way back to the water the other side of the sump. Team 2 was all tuckered out and headed for the surface while the Russians went to bed.

The traverse over the 30 m pitch (Flying Monkeys Traverse) went in easily enough and we were delighted to find large phreatic walking passages. We pushed one to its termination (trending up) but noted two other good leads unexplored.

Back at camp that night we formulated a plan with Erin. She and Andy would head off in the morning for a super long push day beyond the connection. Nick (the super Canadian caver) was coming in the next morning at light speed and would catch up with them and assist.

Another three were also coming in the following day to push the up lead behind camp and then help start the derig.

Imo, Serena and I (Team 4) would head back to our lead over The Gash and then head out. The Russians left that evening.

The following morning I couldn’t resist having a quick trip down to the connection — I had to get my male-induced ‘must get as deep as I can’ urge out of the way.

Serena and I both went down, making ourselves useful by carting some rope and water down for the push team. I can now say I’ve been to -720 m, a new PB, and that Tasmanian caves are not deep enough.

We had a good long day on our way out pushing one of the two remaining leads we’d left the day before. We found dry passage that headed the same direction as the sump, surveyed to a point one metre lower than the sump and left a wide open lead to return to one day (or one year). We got out in the wee hours of the morning after some 64 hours underground.

The Dongba team had an epic day with more leads than they had time for. It was a pity that the connection wasn’t made till so close to expedition end. Another seven years should see the remaining leads suitably mature and ripe for another bout of exploration!

Mammoth derig

The derig team filled in its day finishing the aid climb in the ascending passage above camp. This led to a long horizontal section that yielded some 200 m of new passage, ending up some 340 horizontally and 90 m vertically from camp, with ongoing leads.

The next few days were dedicated to the derig. The initial derig team had an epic and got rope pulled out to -470 m and camp gear out to -320 m.

The next team got all the gear up Crappy Crapola (I think I did that pitch four times that day with more bags than I care to remember and I must admit the Western Australian put in a good effort that day with a heavily strapped ankle and restored some lost honour) and trips over the next two days finally saw the last bag hauled up the entrance pitch.

As well as the downstream pushes in PGD there were other projects on the go. Upstream in the main PGD stream passage (Comfortably Numb) some 800 m of passage were surveyed over six trips. It terminated at an aven at -81 m. An easy connection to this point in the cave would mean avoiding the squalor of the entrance series, saving lots of transit time. All up PGD, to the connection point with Dongba, came in just a fraction under 5 km in length.

Karst scenery on the track to Da Keng Wan. Nicholaus Vieira photograph
Karst scenery on the track to Da Keng Wan. Nicholaus Vieira photograph

Da Keng Wan (Big Pit) and Liang Feng Dong (aka Beer Cooler) were two (now one) cave(s) that served as a welcome distraction from all the PGD action. The two caves were ultimately connected. DKW started out with a stunning 20 m entrance into a wide canyon which the sunlight poured into dramatically at certain times of the day.

Thousand Year Egg

After a few trips a large chamber was found (~150 m long by 40 m wide) which kept the surveyors busy for a while. A few spectacular decorations in the chamber, one a ~10 m high egg-shaped blob of calcite (Thousand Year Egg), made for some good photography.

Thousand Year Egg, Da Keng Wan. Nicholaus Vieira photograph
Thousand Year Egg, Da Keng Wan. Nicholaus Vieira photograph

In the end this cave exceeded 1.5 km in length and was left in wide open streamway passage at -258 m — another one for a future expedition.

Beer Cooler, as the name suggests, was a nice little drafting entrance conveniently located on the track not far from DKW which served as a fridge for post trip beers.

All up it was an excellent expedition for me. It has left me wondering why I chose to wait until I was 31 years old and a father before I started putting my hand up for international expeditions — I should have spent my early twenties, when I didn’t have a mortgage and children, skipping from expedition to expedition. What a pity wisdom only comes with age.

CREDITS

Tianxing 2011 would like to thank the Ghar Parau Foundation, Starless River and Petzl America for their support. We would also like to thank Andy Eavis and Oxford University Caving Club for the loan of equipment.

Finally, thanks go to our Chinese contacts including the Institute of Karst Geology in Guilin; Panjie and the People’s Government of Wulong; and Mrs Wei, Mr Liu and the villagers of Tianxing.

Meet Alan Jackson

Based in Hobart, Tasmania, Alan Jackson got vaguely interested in caving in 1998 but it wasn't until late 1999 that he discovered something new underground and since then 'interested' has been replaced with 'obsessed'. Weekend trips to the Junee-Florentine karst area in southern Tasmania keep his appetite for virgin cave satisfied but he gets away on international expeditions (New Zealand, China, Vietnam) and mainland Australian trips (when desperate enough) when domestic politics allow (i.e. not nearly enough).

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