Great Wall of Vietnam
The Great Wall of Vietnam, or at least climbing up it, had been uppermost in my thoughts for most of the preceding year.Despite never actually having seen it,I’d formed a picture of the alleged 15m high calcite wall as being something like Malham Cove:solid, pure, flowstone, possibly climbable, bound on either side by wings of limestone rock. Reality, however, was something completely different. The damn thing was huge, no visible rock whatsoever, the base a horrible muddy platform at the end of Passchendaele Passage & overhanging for the first 8m or so.
A crack on the right looked initially as the most obvious line, a quick, Chaplin-esqe slither around the base failed to provide any better option. Deciding we might as well make a start, a calcite boss proves a handy step-up to drill the first hole. Thinking expansion bolts will probably split the calcite, instead we’d have a supply of 120mm & 160mm Thunder Bolts. These look somewhat like the old Warthog ice-screws with the advantage of needing only an 8mm bit but requiring hangers with 12mm holes rather than the normal 10mm alloy caving hangers. The other disadvantage was they need installing with a ratchet & their performance was something of an unknown.
Tapping the calcite did little to inspire confidence but an opening in the surface revealed a more solid sub-strata.Hole drilled, bolt & hanger ratcheted in, etrier clipped & step up.Unfortunately this was to be the only solid bolt for the next 3m’s as the wall above consisted of a thin 2mm calcite skim over mud, the drill bit sliding straight in with very little resistance. Left & right failed to offer anything more solid but 2 bolts side by side allowed a very careful move up. Not unexpectedly, once level with the bolts, rather than pulling downwards on them, they start to slide out! Panicked instructions to Howard for a tight line make the situation a little less precarious & the bolts are weighted once more. 2 more bolts drilled just 1m up & the process is repeated, 1 of the lower bolts slides out in passing. What looks to be better calcite can be seen 2m higher but this means continuing upward & decking from about 8m if it all goes wrong.Slump down on bolts & re-assess.The misery of the situation is increased by water dribbling down from above, Ronnie’s & thermals are now thoroughly soaked.
8m up seems a long, long way when you’re 5k into a cave, 10,000kaway from home,hanging from a bolt installed in something with the consistency of wet putty. Not happy & not sure I’ve enough spare underwear back at camp to continue. Very near to binning it & just hang their considering how to best tell Howard & Mark (Nat Geo journalist) patiently waiting below.As a last resort use pick end of Petzl hammer to bash away the mud revealing a more gravelly lower strata. (Over the next couple of days this constant hammering results in my developing tennis elbow in my left arm) Encouraging shouts from below to the effect it sounds as though I am hitting something more solid. 2 more bolts & then 2 more. Keep looking only upwards. At arm’s length can now reach where the calcite changes colour & has a smoother, more solid texture.Fantastic, drilling now results in a proper biting noise & finally the bolt ratchets in tight & deep.
Just now a question of bolting up bit by bit. Resort to interspersing the longer bolts with 2 interim shorter bolts. Every 10 bolts stop, leave last 3 in, de-rig the 7 below & start again. 10 hours later & its apparent the 15m wall height estimate might have been somewhat optimistic. Can see a ledge above that we should be able to use as a hanging belay stance but run out of bolts some 4m short & call it a day having used 57m of rope. Both of us tired, Howard’s in some discomfort as he’s been taking my weight wearing a normal Avanti harness whilst I’d bought the superb padded Falcon just for this climb.
Next day we pinch the last available 27m srt rope from its current washing line duties, don slimy, damp, clothes from the day before & set off down Passchendaele once more.Delicately up the rope, conscious as to the numerous rub points, calcite dinner plates rain down on Howard.3 bolts then at the sloping belay ledge via having a paddy at Carsten who has turned up to take photos. Carsten’s shouted instructions to his flash assistant’s means Howard can’t hear me asking to take in slack as I intersperse bolting with climbing & this is making me crabby. Shouting down, I invoke the traditional “F” chant of the terminally nervous, Robbie gets the message & suggests to Carsten they should leave.
At the ledge put in 3 horizontal bolts & Howard prussiks up. 2 cavers, 3 bolts, big drop.(As an after note, 1 of these bolts sheers at the head when we de-rig the pitch 8 weeks later). Route continues up & to the right & time saved by being able to occasionally climb couple of metres.Mark turns up at bottom of climb & his light seems a very long way away.
The wall continues vertical for 8m before the angle reduces. Steady progress onto a flat 15m long terrace leading to what looks to be a final 20m wall. Bolting, intermittent climbing & peeling off before it levels off & onto a 45% slope leading up & up.Delicately pitter patter upwards dragging the climbing rope behind, just as it is running out the slope levels & we are up! Large boulder makes a convenient final belay.
By now Mark has joined Howard on the2nd belay stance & both prussik up.Ahead, big cave passage leads towards an exit into daylight about 3-400m forward. Handshakes, whoops of joy & we radio in to confirm line now rigged. Advise base that we’re happy to stop at this point & return to continue exploration as a group but message comes back saying it makes more sense for us to see if we can actually exit the cave or if ahead is simply a doline leading to further passage. Great! Mark asks how we feel & suspect he expects we’ll say ecstatic, overjoyed. The honest answer is the predominant feeling is simply relief, relief that we are up & safe.
The 3 of us walk along a 50m x 50m gour filled passage full of pearls & Howard comes up with the namePearl Harbour in honour of Mark who is blown away by the sheer beauty of this new, unexplored passage. It is fantastic, large, sparkling with calcite, very grippy. Up over a ridge (later trip would discover a large, calcited animal skeleton here) & down easy slope crossing a wet weather, but presently dry, lake.Long rubble slope leads up into daylight.Exiting into dense jungle, we quickly pick up a GPS reading before pushing forward.We can see across a valley but no obvious path. (HSD Exit eventually proves to be 90 mins from the road as opposed to the 1.5 days walk to HSD Ent) Back into the cave & discover, having been out of the cave for only 10 mins for the first time in 5 days, I’ve been leached & blood is dripping down my arm.
Sit in the daylight entrance zone to snack. It doesn’t get any better than this.