Vuc Tang’s 2nd visit 2010
So, after a few days rescuing puppies in (then) Quang Binhs deepest cave Hang Lau, Howard sent Mick, Adam and I back to Tang to finish the project. We planned a super light weight drilling trip with minimal rations and kit to go out for 3 nights. It took some persuading but finally Tang and Phong relented and agreed to getting us all the way to the shaft before 1400h. We spoke at length about the trip, planned it meticulously and I’m sure the other 2 guys had a restless night of anticipation as well, to this remote and serious shaft.
When we arrived at the drop off point with the porters Adam decided that “his back was too bad to go” leaving us in an awkward position. Should we carry on as a pair, or return to Son Trach to try and bulk up our small team? The problems in my mind were 1) the remoteness of the shaft, 2) the extremely serious rigging and descent of the main pitch and 3) having to de-tackle 200m of rope over 8 re-belays on a very loose and un-predictable pitch with just us two. I knew we had over 150m of rope down there that needed to come out, as well as fuel, stoves, food, liquid, first aid, camp kit. The list was endless! Mick was not swayed at all, he was going caving! Adams advice was “I’ve been in more remote places…” So, I guess it was on.
Mick and I pushed the porters hard on the walk in. We needed a quick arrival at the shaft so that we could start getting gear in. Our planned 6 hours in saw us at the shaft within 3. Mick was a machine! On the previous visit I only wanted to descend with 20kg at once as I knew we had to get the old rope down as well. With Micks assurance that he had abseiled in the past with 2 bags of concrete and heaps of scaffolding I figured I might as well get on with it. With 2 huge sacks, a drill and rigging kit I set off down. All of the anchors looked ok. A couple were suspect but backed up with other bolts. I re-plugged the bottom bolts and dropped to the chamber floor. Home sweet home! Mick came down, completely aghast. Amazed that he hadn’t realised what an awesome place we were coming too he was super keen to get on with the pushing. We set up camp and had a brew. It was 1430 - time to go push a few pitches! We set off to descend the pitches knowing we were on for a long day. Maybe we played down how great the caving was here because Mick was gob smacked at the size and style of where we were. We got to the top of the 25m pitch and I set off with the drill to see what was below. A Y hang, a few giggles from Mick at my apprentice style rigging, a re-belay and a landing saw us onto a large gallery platform above what appeared to be a huge streamway. A loud stream was echoing all around us so we leap frogged the bolting effort and Mick set off to the front. We dropped onto a steep ramp and then down another 20 odd metres to land atop a pile of boulders. We had an upstream and a downstream, YES, YOU DANCER! Passing a large and beautiful black stal we climbed down into the water. The passage was large, 15 by 15 and running pretty steeply down. We quickly checked upstream, blocked by boulders (again!) and headed down. After some serious boulder climbing and wet bits we hit another area of breakdown. The stream disappears into the floor here where you can see a younger rift passage taking the flow, but no way through. AGH!
We checked further along the fault. There was an inlet coming in but ascended quickly to an aven. There was another hanging death boulder choke that if you had a spare week might follow through to the water passage below, we didn’t have the time or man power so decided to push on back up. What a day. It was late and we had been up since 0530. We headed back to camp, food and bed. We were both disgusted to discover the mother or father of Carsten’s pit viper. What a treat, a metre long pit viper sat watching us in camp! It certainly took the edge off of the awe of the camp. Sweeny had commented that this was a camp you would never forget, that it was truly incredible. We all agreed, until now!
The next day we set off back to start the survey. It was quickly finished and we set off to the “upstream” of the fossil passage above the slope earlier mentioned. Our shortest survey leg was 40m; we followed this large but highly dangerous passage through more breakdowns to an ending at a climb that was too dangerous to push, too much breakdown, too many loose boulders. The draught was lost by now so we headed out, de-rigging as we went. Arriving back at camp we packed huge loads and set off up the pitch, added in another re-belay and left the porters with the first loads of tackle. On inspection of the bolts for the 3rd time Mick noticed a couple that were pulling out with grey goo oozing out of the holes. We immediately backed these up with new spits and carried on. We descended for a final time, ate, slept, and set off out on the de-rig. Mick set off with a huge load, my load was large enough but I had the task of de-tackling and hauling up the 200m rope. With plenty of cursing – aimed towards Adam and his bad back we made it back to the surface. Tang and Phong met us with rice wine and we started our walk out. I think we under estimated our porter numbers! With another 2 we would still be over loaded. Mick got badly de-hydrated on the way out, but I fixed him up with some Diarolyte. “Must be taken in the early signs of dehydration in children and the elderly!” Adam met us back at Son Trach with beers and surprisingly, a cured back.
Yellow Cliff Caves
From the bridge over Chay River at Son Trach, we followed the road towards Cha Noi for circa 13km. We turned left on to dirt track through village and past fields to a large shade tree near a river. The path followed the river upstream past a swimming pool then over a couple of fields. The way then heads west steeply up and over a col to a valley with a small river. We continued following the path on the east side of the river heading south. After several hours you reach the cave in a low cliff. The entrance cannot be seen from path. A small stream sinks in boulders at the foot of the cliff.
We scrambled up over boulders to enter the cave on a high level platform. The stream can be reached at a couple of places by easy downwards climbs. Upstream quickly leads to boulders, with water emerging from between them. Down stream becomes lower until it emerges into daylight, where the water joins a surface stream in a steeply descending gully.After exploring cave it appears that the cliff is one side of a ridge of rock with the cave passing right through.
We traversed north along cliff for about 30 metres. A scramble up behind a flake of rock led to a second cave entrance. Easy walking rift passage leads directly through ridge to emerge into daylight well above the exit to Cave1. The passage is dry and is likely a former, higher level, drainage route. Plenty of bats were encountered! The third cave entrance is an open sided arch circa 20 metres wide and 30 metres which leads through to an exit.
Ledges at different levels have been cleared as sleeping platforms and fire pits indicate occasional past use as a shelter. A small alcove shelf held a fragile earthenware bowl of circa 30cm diameter. This was left in place. The cave is probably the site of earlier drainage development as it is located well above both Caves 1 & 2.
Mr Khi was keen to show us yet another cave deep in the jungle which transpired to be the exit of Maze cave. However this enable Sweeny and myself to return to Pitch cave and relocate the missing entrance of 2009 also confirming that looking for a 30cm opening I n a jungle after a ten years is not a good idea. Whilst camping in the river bed Khi pointed out a small cave on the opposite bank of the river. This was a short through cave with little interest, or so we thought. The cave actually exited in a dry river bed which we eagerly followed. The river bed was a tributary to a larger river which was also resurgence to a large cave. The cave began with impressive proportions but soon narrowed to a rift. Exploration fever had taken over as we waded with excitement over deep pools forgetting that we had cameras in our pockets. Finally the passage closed down after 140m.
Hang 18 was so named because it is accessed from kilometre 18 on Road 20. It was described as a river cave, very close to the road, so we were quite keen to check it out.
We made our way up to kilometre 18 in the jeeps, with Khanh and Nguyen as guides. Arriving at the right spot, they set about clearing and marking a trail down to the left. After about 20 minutes or so, we did arrive at an entrance with a steam clearly visible about 15m down.
Our guides left us there, setting off to look for another cave. We donned wetsuits as it was quite a sizeable steam. Descending the boulder slope, the downstream passage sumped almost immediately. The passage continued to the right for about 50m before dropping down into a swim, which sumped after 15m. A dry side passage above choked after 20m or so.
It was now raining as we headed back to the road, following our guides notches and bent twigs. Needless to say it took us a couple of go’s, but we were soon back at the road. Eventually our two guides reappeared, but they had been unable to locate the second cave, so it was time to return to Son Trach.
Hang Noi Bu
The first trip to Noi Bu with Martin Colledge and Adam Spillane involved an easy walk of some five hours with plenty of rest stops until a steep descent into an enclosed valley. Excitement levels were high as this was our first trip of the expedition. I became more excited on approaching camp to find a running stream, which I had not expected considering we were high up on the karst. It appears that in this area there are some large areas of steeply inclined sandstone beds that provide a chance for the caught water to gather and flow off to where the sandstone meets the limestone.
An old camp site was occupied, and improved upon, next to the stream. Hammocks set up we were impatient to go and look at the cave. Our guide bat man led us down along the stream to where it disappeared in shingle and boulders. A short way beyond, a climb over larger boulders revealed the entrance to Hang Noi Bu. A roughly 10m arch led down some climbs to the head of a pitch. Things looked interesting for tomorrow’s exploration.
An early start the following day saw the first drop quickly rigged to a large ledge where a pitch dropped away into the blackness. With no natural belays, and no drill, I looked around for an alternative descent. Behind and under the entrance pitch some holes in the boulders revealed an alternative hang with natural belays. Unfortunately the route was guarded by an angry looking snake on a nest with eggs in it. The belay was just above, and a quick jump through the hole and onto the rope managed to avoid a bite.
A couple of rebelays saw us at the bottom of a 26m pitch. A tall rift continued down a couple of climbs to the edge of a very big pitch. I had a quick look over the edge but judged it would be better rigged with a drill. It looked superb dropping away far beyond even the reach of my powerful Hope light.
A return along the rift revealed a small side passage that led over calcite false floors to a 4m climb that needed a rope. The continuing passage quickly enlarged to the edge of another impressive pitch. This one looked a lot more clean washed, extending upwards as well. Debris on the side indicated this was the sink when the surface stream was in flood, sinking beyond its present position.
It was Adam’s turn to drop some pitches, so after evicting a large rat from its bed behind a fine natural belay, he set off down. The pitches that followed were all in superb smooth polished grey limestone. Adam made good use of chock stone boulders to rig several pitches until our 100m of rope ran out on the lip of another big drop. Trundling rocks returned a great echo and expectation was high for a return visit. Martin set off back up the rope first, hoping that ratty was not making a meal of our nice new rope tied around its nest.
It was probably 2 weeks before we got the chance to return with so many other objectives to look at. At last Robbie Adam and I were walking back up the trail to Noi Bu. Sadly Adam was feeling sick and decided to return to base. This left Robbie and I to grab all the glory. By pushing the porters on we managed to reduce the walk to 3 hours, and soon had camp set up again. Impatient to plumb the depths, we were soon back at the entrance. Drill in hand the initial pitches were soon rigged clear of our unfriendly snake. Feeling that I had probably grabbed more than my fair share of pitches, I passed the drill over to Robbie. We decided to descend by the original big pitch as the survey seemed to indicate they would join at depth anyway. The bigger drop would probably also use less bolts.
Robbie was soon happy in his work. I watched his descent with envy as deviations went in and gradually he disappeared from sight. Soon the call came to follow down the magnificent shaft where avens joined, finally landing next to an excited Robbie at the top of another pitch. I was graciously re-assigned the drill. Descending a steep calcite ramp, I landed on a ledge above what looked like a final 15m drop. A quick rebelay on some stal bosses and I descended into a large passage going off into the distance. United we decided to make a quick dash down the passage to see what might be in store for tomorrow.
The passage was about 8m square with a lot of mud coated stal hanging from the roof. Going by the mud banks on the sides the whole cave probably fills to the roof in flood. Convinced we were in for a big day on the morrow we decided to exit as the day was now getting late. The walk back through the jungle in the dark was full of expectant plans and ideas of where the cave was headed.
Our guides were pleased to see us back with our news and shared their rice wine with us around the camp fire.
Heavy rain came in overnight, but this did not stop us being back at the entrance by six thirty. I turned my light on, only to have it give the battery low signal. Cursing I changed to my spare only to get the same signal. Now down to my backup Myo, I tried to catch Robbie up. Back at the big pitch as we started the survey Robbie revealed he had no back up light, so I was a little apprehensive about a long trip. I need not have worried! Only one hundred metres beyond our previous days limit the roof came down to a dirty sump. With much disappointment we de-rigged and were back in camp by ten thirty. It was hard to believe an entrance and obvious sink like this could end so soon. The running water from the valley was never seen in the cave. Had we been at home in the Dales, no doubt we would have been searching the river bed for the wet entrance. Still the cave had provided plenty of excitement of a vertical nature and is surely only an indicator of more to come in this new area.
Shaft at Kilometre 30 Road 20
In between our multi day trips, we took a trip to kilometer 30 on our old favourite the Ho Chi Minh trail or road 20. I had not travelled this way since 1990and enjoyed a road mainly free of bumps, and surfaced as far as the old war shrine. The track beyond deteriorates, but can now be negotiated by a four wheel drive jeep. After much bouncing around, we arrived at K30. Our guide and his mates led a team of myself Andy Mackenzie, Robbie Burke, Robbie Shone, Carsten and Phuong off into the jungle. After 10 minutes a halt was called whilst the Vietnamese went in search of our objective. Carsten passed the wait by taking some posed walking shots, before shouts and whoops confirmed the shaft had been found.
Ten minutes steeply uphill, and we arrived at the lip of a very large shaft some 20 metres across, with a large arched roof on the uphill side. The floor could be seen sloping away into the darkness. It looked very promising, and as I was carrying the drill, I pushed to the front to claim pole position for the descent. After a few tree roots were cleared, I placed a couple of bolts, Andy handed me a big bag of rope, and down I went.
The walls retreated and soon I was abseiling in the centre of a large chamber. A large bat colony clung to the roof, and beyond them I could see another small daylight entrance. Touch down was made on a steep slope. Leaving the rope behind, I continued the descent down steep calcited slopes into a larger chamber. Unfortunately at the limit of daylight the cave ends abruptly with walls on all sides. A disappointed return was made, noting the many formations. The pitch was about 50m, with a similar descent over a horizontal distance of about 100m. The chamber was some 50m wide in places.
Phong Nha Side Passage
Whilst the attempt to re-visit the end of Phong Nha was ultimately thwarted by rising waters just before The Pagoda, we did manage to check out any obvious side passages from Uncle Ho’s Chamber to just before Turd Hall.
A previously un-noted passage on the left-hand (east) side beyond Kneecrunch Inlet, but before the swims of The Black Lagoon, gushed clear water out into the main brown- stained river. This resulted in approx 650m of interesting walking/stooping/crawling/ducks in a mostly comfortable 3m x 2m passage concluding in a terminal sump preceded initially by 2 side sumps shortly before end. All 3 large/clear & eminently diveable although insertion into the cold waters resulted in large clouds of slow clearing silt.
Further trips might well result in more discoveries off the main passage.
Loong Con can be found by following the path from the dry river bed up to the top of Garden of Eden doline, a further 45 mins walking along, at times, karst hopping terrain leads past an old hunters camp to an obvious 15m x 15m doline entrance dropping straight down as a 65m pitchinto a huge chamber.The entrance pitch is a fantastic, rigged off a thin tree on the very lip; the rope drops straight through the ceiling of a huge chamber, a bit like dropping down into St Paul’s Cathedral but a lot bigger. No abrasion at all which was just as well bearing in mind the bouncy characteristics of our 9mm rope. As you descend, the walls of the chamber speed away & you begin to get a grasp of the huge size (150m x 150m?) plus the number & size of the various calcite bosses sprouting up from the chamber floor. At the bottom the floor rises to some magnificent stal formations before dropping steeply down over broken boulders from the roof above. Strong rays of light pierce the chamber as the sun passes overhead creating an almost laser-like spotlight exposing hidden corners. A quick look around the perimeter reveals only 1 obvious continuation, a drop down through boulders on the east wall. Initially this was dropped down 2 x 10m pitches ending in a further, drafting, 15m pitch before lack of rope stopped play. A return with extra rope & an electric drill meant a safer descent & the 15m pitch was pushed plus 2 further 10m pitches (unsurveyed) before the cave ended in a chamber with a very strongly drafting, but miniscule, rift. Digging, battering the walls with lumps of rock, stopped once we cast an eye upwards & discovered sofa sized perched boulders staring back with malevolent intent. Loong Con is in a very interesting area being above & beyond the end of The Alcove in Hang Son Doong, our geologist had previously indicated that there should be further cave. If the draught is anything togo by then it might be worthwhile spending further time exploring the large wall/floor perimeter or seeking further surface entrances. No surface or underground water however means that camping can be problematic if intending to stay for more than a couple of days.