Page 7 of 24
Hang Son Doong lower series
On our return to camp we found Snablet in waiting with a much appreciated brew , his Trench foot cleared or at least bearable. Conversation soon turned to our day’s explorations of the inlets. Of interest was the pitch Sweeny and John had descended in the oxbow passage below the first daylight doline. With no survey kit and a number of leads presenting themselves the pair had decided that a return trip would be required. One discussion point was the amount of water and the prospect of a wet trip. I sniffed an opportunity here as a proud owner of a wetsuit. It was agreed that Sweeny and myself would begin a survey through the wet sections with Martin C, John and Snab following on. Sweeny appears to be the other insomniac in the team so an early start was made.
The pitch in the oxbow passage below the first doline was descended 42 meters into a stream way which rushed past and soon disappears into boulders. A climb up over boulders led to a fossil passage with pools of cold water to a balcony overlooking a large river passage. John and Snab had caught us up by now with a worrying tale that Martin had a bad fall in the entrance series and had been lucky to escape with only bruising to his arm. The rigging bag was passed ahead to Sweeny, as he carefully unpacked and prepared the drill the unmistakable sound of metal bouncing on rock was heard, a pause, a splash and an awful lot of swearing. Convinced that the driver for the bolts had just fallen into the river below Sweeny cursed his clumsiness. No problems, plenty of friable naturals presented the fearless Sweeny plenty of options for rigging and he soon disappeared down the 22meter pitch into a large stream passage below. Not convinced by the belays those above tipped out the rigging bag to see what we could find, and there glinting in our LED’s was the driver.
A bolt was set and I joined Sweeny in the river below leaving John and Snab to re rig the pitch. Landing on a sandy beach was a relief as the current of the water was surprisingly strong; some concerns were voiced about our ability to swim against the current. Prudence was used and we swam upstream a short way to test the current and discovered the upstream sump. The previous day I had a nightmare with flooding of the MDL, now, faced with an electronic survey device (Disto) in hand and the prospect of a long swim, we set off with some trepidation. Downstream was followed for over 200m of swimming terminating at a sump. On the swim back an oxbow section was followed but not surveyed. Mid way we had also noted a dry passage which we returned to on the swim back. By now the rest had descended the pitch; with no wetsuits they endured the chilly swim to join us in the exploration of the inlet. A sizeable passage was followed with several ox bows but sadly it soon ended at a large boulder choke. Back near the river passage daylight could be seen high above, the source unknown but believed to be from the first doline. This will require specialist climbing techniques to reach. At the pitches we had three SRT kits between four of us, we had the inevitable delays and excitement of passing kit back down with associated re-belays and noise of water. Safely at the top with the pitches de rigged and some heavy looking bags we discussed our next plan. Sweeny and Martin to slowly porter the heavy loads out, John and Snab to explore the large side passage in the Rat run just before the second doline. Both teams were faced with the prospect of traversing and climbing very loose boulder sections. Bidding each other luck we went our separate ways.
The roar was sickening; the cave shook, froze to the spot Sweeny and myself confirmed we were both alive. What about the other two had their climb collapsed? Then the shout from John ‘come back’, dropping the sacks we dashed back around to see the two lights of our friends. ‘What happened?’ We all asked. Finally we agreed that it must be thunder from above, a storm. This quickly changed the dynamics of the trip with the prospect of river crossings and flood pulses we all agreed to exit. Water was pouring in from hitherto dry inlets leading to concerns for the crossing. This turned out to be relatively easy, so much so we de rigged the line. Darkness had fallen and so was the rain. Route finding in the jungle in darkness is best avoided especially with heavy sacks and fatigue. After a few wrong turns we hit the river! Ah the river, this was a dry river bed before! Oh dear. On we went wading and boulder hopping until the camp lights were seen ahead.
A very relieved Martin greeted us explaining the severity of the storm. Our idyllic camp site on the river bank was perilously close to flooding. The waters rose and so did our camp.
The site of the fire spluttering and being extinguished in the turgid waters below signalled the abandonment of camp. The jungle men disappeared high up above our original position to establish a new camp on the slopes above. With hammocks they soon had a comfortable dry bed for the night. For us, the prospect was the jungle floor in the rain on a 25% slope. Will we ever learn? Huddled together toes ‘dug in’ each convinced the others had the flattest section we slept fitfully.
The next day we sat in sunshine and watched the swollen river tracking the levels as it receded slowly, inevitably we concluded it would not drop sufficient to make an exit. At least there was time to construct a better bivi. We woke the next morning to thunder, the water had dropped but still high, however we felt we should take our chance. Wading upstream was challenging but passable. We were amazed when we reached the inlet tributary from Khe Rhy as this was the source of the problem, the river was swollen and heavily silted, yet upstream the water from Hang En was clear and normal levels. We stopped for breakfast at Hang En savouring the sunshine as well as the brew. Almost an epic!