Monday, February 18, 2013

Caving in South China - Hong Meigui's Spring Festival Expedition

I went to participate in this year's Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) expedition of the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society. The objectives sounded exciting: Establish camp in (and push leads off of) Da Luo Dang Tiankeng. In particular, explore a multiple-seconds drop (when throwing down a rock and listening for it to hit the bottom) downstream, where the explorers had turned around during a previous expedition, since they didn't want to take their chances to get flushed down it in the rainy season.

View of camp, and into Da Luo Dang Tiankeng.
The tiankeng (Chinese for "sky hole", "heaven pit") is most easily accessed by cavers through the San Wang Dong system, rather than climbing to it on the surface and dropping into it. This involves a 2-6 hour trip (depending on amount of gear to carry and other factors), mostly through walking passage and some borehole, but with a few shorter vertical drops, smaller spots, and climbs on the way. We established camp in the passage that opens up into the tiankeng after a few dozen meters; the floor is relatively flat, and there was evidence of previous human use in the form of two cooking hearths and a little rock wall to protect against the wind, presumably created by miners a little while ago. We brought custom-made, floor-less, light-weight tents with us that were attached with strings to bolts and features in the walls, in order to protect ourselves from the draft when in our sleeping bags and capture some of our body heat -- a common technique when camping in drafty cave passage.

It was funny to stay in a cave camp that would see daylight during the day. And cold, since we had direct access to the surface climate. (As opposed to the usual 12 degrees Celsius that is typical for the caves in the area.) Camp was maintained for ten nights total, Angela being the only one down there for the full time without getting a surface break. Erin almost made the record, but then her and I were faster than planned on the de-tackling day before breaking down camp for good, and managed to drag a load of gear out of the cave all the way to the surface, earning ourselves a break from the freeze-dried dinners underground and going back to sleep one more night in the cave. Early on in the expedition, Madphil and I had spent a day bouncing to the surface and back to get more rigging gear, our supplies of rope being exhausted much sooner than expected. (Our trip lead to the entertaining question of what a reverse call-out time should look like: Send a rescue party to the surface if we aren't back in cave camp by the next morning? ;-)) And to add yet another surface trip for myself, Devra and I joined the team leaving the cave during the first wave of de-rigging and departure from the expedition. I spent a surface day to rebook flights, and then solo-caved back in to bring food supplies for the remaining days.

View up in Da Luo Dang Tiankeng.
Once derigged, all the gear was transported back from its / our temporary home in the village of Er Wang Dong (Houping area) back to Tongzi, and us remaining expedition members spent multiple days cleaning gear and wrapping up things. The accomplishments of our group of (at peak times) eight cavers during not quite two weeks of caving included:

  • Exploring the downstream passage, spear-headed by Carl. The ~ 80 meter pit was rigged, and passage was explored until the remaining leads were still promising, but require better preparedness for cold, wet caving.
  • Madphil and Rob spent most of the days aid-climbing upward, using a total of not quite a hundred bolts. Their noses directed them straight toward Tian Ping Miao Tiankeng, a (relatively!) smallish sinkhole known from surface topography and now connected into the system. Sadly, no interesting leads were found off of it.
  • Erin climbed up a steep slope in Da Luo Dang Tiankeng in order to determine its extensions, and to her surprise found passage that showed evidence of miners (nitrate, maybe?) spending time up there, processing stuff, and having built a system to traverse a series of rifts as evidenced by wooden stemples and ladders apparently used to ease traveling at a certain elevation in the rifts. We spent multiple days exploring that passage without finding an obvious way on - when we ran into climbing leads in the last days, the only hammer drill left in camp conked out at the first attempt of using it.
  • Beardy and I got a good amount of decent photos on the trip, I think. I wish I had brought my second slave flash unit...
Upward, by means of hammer drill.
I enjoyed this trip a lot, it was a great mixture out of new and old caving friends, skills, and personalities. It also was a good opportunity to get me comfortable again with (and remember where my limits are when it comes to) slightly more involved expedition caving - traversing along fixed lines, (free) climbing relatively exposed climbs, etc. I'm ready for the next one! :-)