9am and a lean, mean, (ok well 2 out 3 of us) recce team of Snablet, Woody and myself set-off from where the jeep-passable track ended at a small village. Ahead a 5k long, 600m high ridge bisected the valley floor with higher, densely foliated, karst behind and the now walking track continuing eastward, a small sign indicating that it was being improved to jeep status courtesy of EU funding!
Leaving the jeep, driver and usual curious villagers behind, the most obvious of the various continuing tracks was followed with a view to working our way behind the ridge to where the map theoretically showed surface water to disappear underground.Carrying minimal tackle (slings, 10m ladder, 30m rope) a pleasant east and then northward stroll in beautiful karst scenery for 1 ½ hrs led to another village and then backtracking to find a missed westward junction. Along this and 1 hour later, just as we came into view of our final intended village destination, a substantial cave entrance could be seen high up in the cliffs ahead.
Snablet explained to the attentive locals that we where looking for‘Hangs’. They understood but stressed we would need a guide. This was a little surprising as even with my suspect sense of direction and poor eyesight it was hard to miss the overlooking bloody big hole 3k further on and 300m higher. Nevertheless politics dictated we graciously accept the offer and so we followed on behind 5 villagers as they raced across the valley floor, each vying to show the way.
Crossing the surface stream, the path headed steeply upwards. Climbing up limestone blocks, over and along tree trunks and a crawl through fallen trees, led eventually and sweatily, to the entrance. This turned out to be the top of a dramatic doline drop, the opposite wall being some 100m across and with a magnificent daylight arch high above. A truly classic entrance. The guides called the cave Ngoum Chiem
Having expected sinks and resurgences, coming across an entrance pitch proved somewhat unexpected and awkward particularly as we had brought no srt kit. A bungalow-sized boulder split the top of the pitch and, looking down, the floor of the doline could be seen 60m below. To the right of the boulder a very thin trail skirted down a steeply inclined path. Throwing down the 30m rope as a handline, this was followed to a vertical 8m drop onto a ledge. Tying the ladder on to the end of the rope allowed the drop to be passed as a very bouncy pitch. The ledge below was some 10m above the top of the sloping floor of the doline and split by a slippy, 2.5 m wide gash spanned by 2 dubious looking lengths of cut tree/vine. Despite being tantalising very near to the floor; no obvious safe way on could be seen and so a retreat was made with a view to coming back with rigging gear.
Back down to the valley bottom, the accompanying guides were insistent that the only way back to the jeep was via the way we had come and we should have a drink (and by this we presumed they meant the ubiquitous and highly potent home-brewed rice wine) with them at their village. Desperate to avoid this kind offer, being mindful as to the subsequent consequences, we were equally insistent that we must continue down valley and look for were the map indicated the surface water disappeared. Reluctantly and with much shaking of heads, the villagers trooped one way and us the other.
4k on the landscape opened up in front changing quickly from tropical forest to deciduous wood. The trees thinned into a beautiful pasture of almost golf course like trimmed grass before crossing a stream flowing towards us. Across and up the opposite banking our pace slowed as we discussed the significance of the water direction. We agreed we had followed the surface water downstream before climbing up to Nguom Chiem yet here we where, still in the same enclosed valley, now going upstream. A light, albeit dimly flickered, slowly into life.
Turning round we followed the right-hand banking. The fast-flowing stream was some 3m wide & 1.5m deep, the banking 4m high. Obviously in wet weather this took a tremendous torrent. 1k along and the stream turned left into the cliff. Disappointingly the cave entrance proved impassable being completely blocked by jammed tree-trunks although we agreed a couple of hours work might perhaps allow access to the cave beyond.
A powerbar break confab and it was decided we would return with the primary aim of descending the entrance shaft of Nguom Chien but, if that did not pan out, then come back & have a go at getting past the log jam using rope and pulleys.
Continuing to the end of the ridge ahead, a steep whaleback climb with plenty of limestone steps led to the original valley with the parked jeep arriving back at around 5pm.
Same group as yesterday plus Andy Jackson and Miss Honh from the Hanoi University.
This time rather than heading to Nguom Chiem entrance via either the east or west ends of the ridge, we took a route from behind the village school and headed straight up the centre of the ridge to a col before dropping down near where we had picked up the guides yesterday. Rather than 2 ½ hrs, we were there in just under 55 minutes.
The same guides followed us to the cave entrance. Dropping to the left of the huge entrance boulder, a hanging belay was tied round a convenient tree and a tension traverse made to the yesterday’s stopping point at the ledge 10m above the doline floor.
From this point two possible routes led on, either stepping across the gap and following a very slippy climb downwards or place a bolt and simply drop straight down. Decided on the latter as being the safer option and duly gardened the ledges of the loose rock and, in particular, the 4m lengths of timber bridging the gap. These went down with a grand bang much to the consternation of those at the top unable to see what, or indeed who, it was that had gone crashing down. Once gardened I concentrated on whacking in a bolt. It came as a complete, heart-in-the mouth, shock when halfway through this process I felt a hand firmly grip my shoulder as I was unceremoniously used by one of the guides as a stepping stone to cross the gap. Whilst I sat and gibbered with many f’s & c’s; he merrily continued along the wall disappearing in his bare feet down the slippy climb that I had disregarded as being too dangerous!
The final 10m drop was over an overhang and close to what turned out to be a scarily mobile wall.Once at the bottom and well clear, the rest followed whilst the guide returned back to the surface.
The way was down through thick vegetation slowly thinning as we approached the bouldery doline floor. Making a clear survey station the group split to explore the ways on. What appeared to be an obvious passage directly opposite the entrance proved to be nothing more than a blind rift.Following the walls down to the deepest point resulted in various pits, climbs and rifts, all investigated at length but with no success. Thinking what a bugger, I rejoinedSnablet and Andy, back from their own fruitless searches, for a much needed drink. Only Woody remained missing and he had apparently had taken the least likely of all routes by climbing straight up the wall opposite to the one we had abbed in from.
15 minutes or so passed before Woody eventually scrambled down, his big grin saying it all. “Nothing up there other than this monster passage running in both directions”.
The most unlikely of possibilities had proved the winner and what a winner at that. Up the 30m slope, at times simply relying on friction, to a levelling off. Leftwards and the passage proved to be a balcony ending in some fine formations but rightwards… Awesomely large passage, pristine white gour climbs dropping down climbs into a continuing tunnel. Long survey legs clicking off as the cave trended away northeast in fine style. Utter jubilation.
10 minutes in and I have the tape at point with my back to the continuing passage, Woody taking the clino and compass readings off my lights. Peripherally, a large stick 2m from my left leg begins to slowly move in a suspiciously sinuous manner.I shout “snake” in what I intend as a deep, manly, voice but in reality comes out as an inaudible whimper. A higher pitched attempt has the desired result and the others come bounding down to look. The 1½m, brown, red and green banded serpent doesn’t like the attention, particularly as Woody and Andy want close up photos, makes ominous hissing noises and coils into a spring.Finally Hissing Sid retreats into a wall pocket and makes a stand. We continue on with the surveying but taking a more noticeable interest at what is at foot level.
The cave continues as an absolute cracker, light calcite walls, pristine gour remnant floor, large squared passage, until it narrows to a 30m drop into a black canyon. High up the right, a faint dot of daylight is spotted. The drop looks climbable and a rope is belayed round a convenient boulder and thrown down. The wall is a steep incline of very grippy calcite, dropping in small increments to convenient ledges before a final exposed 6m drop unto the floor below.
In front a T junction,large passage running left & right. Initially we head right towards where we had seen the light.80m on and we are in a calcite box canyon looking up. The way is upwards but would need ropes and other climbing paraphernalia. Andy heads back left whilst we look for easier ways upwards and then comes back after 10 minutes shouting he’s found the way on and had heard roaring water ahead!
Snablet maintains surveying discipline as we struggle not to simply rush on ahead. The passage has reduced to about ¼ size and leads down two “interesting” climbs to Andy’s final point, a narrowing of the passage to a beautiful, calcite-floored, balcony with a 2m x 3m doorway through which the noise of thundering water can be heard far below. We try and guess the size of the pitch ahead, 30, 40, 60m? In an attempt to get a better look Andy and myself are lowered over the bulging calcite to a further ledge 2m below.We slide forward, peer nervously over the lip and in the main-bulb x-ion light faintly glimpse the source of the noise and noticeably warm, upward, draught. Magic, we have hit a main streamway.
Combined tactics prove necessary to climb back to the others. Big grins, loads of excitement as we speculate how far down to the water.Superb, superb, superb. Then outwards keeping an eye out for Hissing Sid on the way
Same team as yesterday - plus a horse.
The latter proves particularly worthwhile as we are now carrying 4 bags of rope and bolting kit, photography gear plus wetsuits and personal buoyancy aids and it’s another scorching day.
Knotted sling, used as a chock, pulls rope away from the loose wall on final part of the entrance pitch.Cave photographed on way in, Andy carrying tripod, camera and Darren drums looks like something out of Rambo.
Change into wetsuit and lifejacket at head of pitch, Woody shooing off a tarantula as we search for belay points on the right-hand wall. 50m rope tied off & abb down to yesterday’s ledge. Large and solid calcite boss makes a perfect re-belay then down into new cave. A massive ledge 4m down and then a big drop into the river below. Various ways down, right wall, left wall or behind this ledge to a further balcony. Spend some considerable time looking at all options but no useable natural belays. Drop 5m down left hand-wall and attempt to place a bolt but too soft being completely made up of soft moon-milk. Very pretty to look at, wonderfully reflective but crap for belaying.
Eventually give up trying to hammer through to rock and ascend to the big ledge. Only solid rock is on the right-hand wall, tension traverse to stance and start to bolt. Halfway through, dripping with sweat and suffering from heat exhaustion, shout up to ask Snablet if he wants to give a hand? Comes straight down, finishes off my crap bolt and puts in a far better 2nd in double-quick time. Figure rope will reach but needs further bolt re-belay or deviation to be safe. Also wonder just how deep and fast the water is as no sign of dry land and more worryingly we can see and hear waves flowing along a magnificent canyon passage.
Down from the bolts and great relief as I spy a thread in the opposite wall. Snablet slides down a tape and I eventually manage to tie it one-handed making a great deviation and superb free-hanging pitch.Taking it steady down to the water, to my relief this fortuitously proves to be only knee-deep. As it later turns out, any other landing site would have been in swimming water as this was to be the only shallow section in the whole river passage.
Whoops of joy as the others descend, the pitch being measured at 37m. Decide to explore upstream as this has the most potential and should make for the easier return trip.
Away from the rope the water deepens and rushes towards us through a narrow 1m wide canyon. We survey along clinging to walls, occasionally being swept off and tumbled back downstream. 80m on and the passage widens to 5m reducing the current and making it possible to swim along without having to cling on for grim death.This is great, dramatic, caving. The roof soars out of sight as we paddle along before the passage enters a chamber where we can take a break from swimming by clinging to stals coming down from a now, much lower, roof. More leisurely swimming/surveying before we call it a day at a distinctive formation having surveyed just over 1k.
The return is a lot quicker as we are swept downstream. Woody and I go to have a look at the continuing downstream whilst Andy and Snablet ascend the pitch.The water again deepens as we are carried round a couple of lazy ‘S’ bends before the passage widens into a mud walled chamber, all the water unbelievably disappearing into a rift plug-hole. Getting too near provides a scary moment as the current takes my legs from under me before managing to jam against the walls and roll to one side. That appears to be the end of the downstream passage but still needs a thorough look on our return trip.
Struggling back upstream, we ascend the rope, leave our wet-suits and life jackets at the balcony head, change into Ron Hills and thermal tops before heading for the surface.
This time our driver arranges for a local and his horse to meet us at the bottom of the climb up to the cave entrance at 4pm as it looks probable we will be de-rigging today.
Quickly to the head of the balcony pitch where we carefully check our drying wetsuits for any uninvited, overnight squatters.
First we complete the downstream survey leg and explore round the broken final chamber before swimming back to the rope and heading towards our furthest upstream point. The narrow canyon at the bottom of the pitch proves entertaining with one of my kneepads being flushed off on the way in!
We survey on. More gloomy swimming as the passage narrows until, about 150m on, the cave nips in at a calcite boss to what at first believe to be a final conclusion. Closer examination, however, reveals whilst the rift air-space closes in to 6”, through this narrowing the passage can be seen to widen about 1½m ahead, a howling draft is coming towards us and underwater, the passage feels a lot bigger. Passing back my lifejacket and glasses, Andy holds my helmet through the narrow rift to light up the passage beyond while Woody holds the end of the tape slings. A few shallow breaths then, pushing down, I gingerly feel my way down and under the calcite boss before ascending the other side. Reaching back for my glasses, light, buoyancy aid, the “wet cave kit” is re-assembled and I swim ahead. 20m on; the passage continues to widen and the roof turns back into a high rift.
Back at the squeeze, the news that the cave is ongoing is not exactly met with unbridled joy. Andy ties off our last remaining rope at his side and passes me the other end to belay my side before coming through quickly followed by Woody. Things become a little crowded as this point the passage is only the same width and height as the ‘narrows’ in Dowerbergill but with a floor of bottomless water. Woody shouts that Snablet is coming through the squeeze rather than the sump.
Looking back he appears to have managed it with ease when he stops. “I’m stuck”. It’s abundantly clear that this is not simply a “stuck” but a genuine, 100% stuck.
The usual giving him something to pull/push on does absolutely nothing. The squeeze is a very narrow, tapering rift with a knob of calcite at knee level. Snablet has come in sideways, got all but his lower legs round the slight corner and then dropped ever so slightly downwards. Reversing proves impossible because of his inability to raise his body means the knob of calcite pushes into his knee & coming forward is equally impossible because his lower legs simply will not bend round the slight corner. We know this because he tries; he tries really hard until the pain proves too much. Anyone knowing Snablet will appreciate how hard a caver he is and that when he has a go at something, it's a damn good go. He remains jammed solid.
Matters become quickly very serious. Woody dives back through the sump to help and with him at on side undoing his ankle zips and me at the other undoing cuffs and collar, slowly, inch by inch, Snablet's 3mm steamer wetsuit is peeled off. Coming forward still proves impossible but, and with much painful effort, a bruised and scraped Snablet now manages to raise his hips and reverse. Looking at the rift again, it’s amazing that he managed to get through as he did.
Unfortunately, in the ensuing struggle Snablet’s helmet and ion lamp had disappeared into the depths below. The bottom can't be seen or felt and the walls are greatly undercut. It is time to call it a day and get out. The final act is to retrieve the can of Halida from the tackle bag and have a swig of nicely chilled beer whilst kicking water at “Snablet’s Bar”.
De-tackling went smoothly albeit the gear quickly piled up. Eventually we arrived at the bottom of the hill at about 4:45pm to be met by a patiently waiting guide with horse.
So that was the end of Nguom Chiem for 2003, the cave is still going (although there are differing views as to it’s further potential) and it is certainly one of the few caves that the locals have not so far trodden. The daylight route needs to be pursued and there is open streamway beyond Snablets Bar. A superb sporting cave, great caving with a great bunch.