20/04/2014 – 24/04/2014
Martin Colledge, Dave Ramsay, with Mr Hoa and a host of other porters.
After a late start we drove up to KM 44 on Road 20 where we picked up a surprise army escort, because of this we did not have enough food so Mr Hoa has to go to the local store to get more provisions. This delay means it is even later before we actually start walking and we only walk about one and a half kilometres before we set up camp by a river, this was not the two hour walk we were expecting so we assume we will have to have to walk further tomorrow, but as we don’t speak Vietnamese and none of our porter/guides speak English we don’t actually know, it’s going to be a magical mystery tour!
Hang Hoa/Vuc Heo
After Breakfast the next morning the army man goes home (so much for the extra rations, but at least we won’t starve), perhaps he was satisfied that we are just harmless individuals. From the camp we walked straight up and down a big hill on a well-used path, at the bottom we joined a stream (Khe Roung?) and followed this downstream for a bit before turning off to our next camp. We set up camp quickly and then it’s off to the cave, which is a 0.5m x 0.5m hole with a powerful draft blowing out. The cave is called Hang Hoa and 3m in is a squeeze which I can just fit through, but no chance for Martin. The draft is very enticing but as we have no hammer (it’s back at camp!) we start to bash the squeeze with rocks. After a while Martin passed his helmet to Mr Hoa, a big mistake as he put it on, breezed through the squeeze and disappeared, there is no way Martin is getting through without a hammer so it’s officially grabbing time and I set off after Mr Hoa to see what lay ahead (any more tight squeezes and it would be game over as we didn’t have time for a prolonged campaign). Once through the squeeze the way on was a climb down and then walking and climbing in a large passage to a huge daylight shaft, Martin will definitely fit down this! I manage to persuade Mr Hoa to turn around so we can go and look for the shaft. Once outside we find that one of the young porters, Heo, has found it (so it’s called Vuc Heo) so we climbed up the slope to the top of the shaft which is very impressive, we measure the depth at approximately 40m using the Disto-X.
We returned to camp for lunch and discuss what our best course of action would be and decided to attempt to enlarge Hang Hoa as this will save on rope, which is in short supply, and rigging Vuc Heo looks to be difficult due to the (apparently) shattered nature of the rock.
After lunch we returned to Hang Hoa and made short work of the squeeze before surveying through to the daylight shaft of Vuc Heo, straight ahead we could see one (probably two) massive high level passages, the highest is about 30m up and unreachable except by a prolonged bolting campaign but the lower one can be reached via a careful climb up perched blocks. From the top the view back out to the entrance is beautiful with sunbeams streaming in and illuminating the clouds which have appeared in the shaft, looking into the cave we see that we are in a massive “chamber”, we can’t see the roof or all of the far wall but there is a huge stall which we measure at 38m high. The obvious way on was a steep and loose slope which the porters (who had joined us) were keen to descend but we managed to persuade them not to attempt this by saying that without a rope this would be certain death and what would we tell their mothers, so they amused themselves by chucking ever bigger rocks (boulders) down the slope which is certainly very long and will use up a considerable amount of the rope we have. We didn’t have the ropes with us so it’s game over for the day but we’ll be back tomorrow, on the way out we checked round the edges of the Vuc Heo shaft and found two separate pitches but neither of these carried a draft so there was not much hope for these.
The next day Martin, Hoa and I returned with the ropes and bolting gear, at the top of the slope is a solid wall, two bolts here gave a solid start and a re-belay at a giant boulder just as the slope steepened allowed a start to be made down the loose and muddy slope, a deviation kept the rope away from the worst of the loose blocks. This was good for about three quarters of the slope before it got even steeper and then pitched, a calcited boulder provided another re-belay but this was on the wrong side of the slope so a tension traverse was needed to get to a decent final hang point, when this was done, the 100m rope was 5m short of the floor, but an extra 10m rope easily made it.
Upstream ended in a choke after about 100m, across from the foot of the pitch was a 10m pitch to a section of clean washed boulders that obviously carries a stream at times, but downstream there was an obvious large passage so we started to survey in that direction. Apart from some short sections with formations it was all steep dirty slopes or large blocks so progress was slow as care was required and route finding not easy, we traversed across to the start of the passage which was a col formed by massive large blocks and no obvious route on. Some time was then spent searching for the way on but all our efforts seemed to be either blocked or to end in calcited pitches with no belays, and, as we had no rope there was no way to descend these. Eventually we found a route that went underneath the boulders and across to the next col where I was sure I could hear water below, which pleased Martin as this was what he had been hoping for.
Beyond the col was a steep slope down, which I followed to water but unfortunately this looked to me like it sumped immediately, I turned around to let Martin know but he’d already found another route down through boulders to the stream. An exhaustive search revealed sumps in either direction. That seemed to be it, we surveyed down to the water but on our return to the final col we spotted a climb up through the calcite barrier which had appeared to block the way on, at the top of this there was black space beyond.
A short difficult climb was followed by an easy ramp through massive formations, at the top of which we emerged into another large breakdown chamber. The far end looked terminal and we think it’s all over, but again, searching revealed a way on (to the right), which had been hidden behind a massive “organ pipe” formation, into yet another breakdown chamber. Across and down this we reached a low muddy area which obviously sumps at times. We may have thought it was all over in the last chamber, but, it is now, as there was no way on from here. We returned to camp to (hopefully) communicate to the porters that we needed to move on the next day.
Hang Foot and Mouth
After an early breakfast we broke camp, which was a relief as it meant that we had managed to tell the porters we needed to look elsewhere, and followed the path past Hang Hoa up a long steep hill before descending an equally long hill on the other side to a camp by a river. The cave was less than 400m downstream from the camp, but the GPS gave it as only 150m away from the Foot and Mouth entrance to Khe Rhy, however, our entrance was 20m across with a steep boulder slope down to a stream (or two!) and we had been informed that the Foot and Mouth entrance was a small bouldery entrance that had only been seen from the inside, so this looked promising.
Downstream looked small so we decided to survey this first and this was 90m to cobble chokes. We then went upstream, although it soon became apparent that this was also downstream! We had surveyed for about 600m, passing a few side passages that were left for later (but these were never looked at), when we arrived at a junction with a 2m leaning stalagmite tower. At this point we were fairly sure we were in known cave as the survey had shown a corner marked as ‘Leaning Tower’, so we decided to return to camp, eat lunch and look at the survey before returning to cave upstream from the tower to emerge at the Foot and Mouth Entrance. The theory being that we had just found a new entrance into the Khe Rhy system, unfortunately this was not to be as every route we tried just got us back into our original passage, having disproved our theory we just had a quick look at the downstream passage, which was all very impressive. A total enthusiasm failure meant we didn’t survey any side passages on the way out, a pity as we found out later that these would definitely have been ‘new’.
The next day was the usual start of a breakfast of rice, peanuts, pork, soup, beef and the cucumbery thing, we then ‘discussed’ (sign language) with the porters where we were going and what gear we would need. Today, we were ‘told’ was ‘a walk uphill, followed by a short downhill and then a little flat section to the cave entrance, once there we do not need ropes’, apparently. It was as hot as ever when we set off up a very steep hill with not much of a path. It was also a bit of a nature show as en route we spotted a big lizard and a tortoise (we didn’t eat them!).
When we finally arrived at the cave we could see that it was a fairly big entrance of steeply sloping boulders with a load of bats roosting in the roof. The cave was obviously fossil and the altitude was above 500m so we resolved to survey it as quick as we could in the hope that we could get as close to Phong Nha that night as possible.
At the entrance an easy climb down underneath a large boulder entered a flat floored chamber; up a slope at the far end of this was a 60m x 110m chamber with some large formations and a massive block (at least 15m x 20m). At the far end of this the cave narrowed but soon opened out into yet another large chamber, this one had a flat roof and floor, very little in the way of formations and was not very high, empty really, so we called it ‘Vacant Space’. Again there was a narrowing before another chamber, 100m across, flat roofed, flat floored and with little or no distinguishing features, but impressive in its’ own way, I thought it looked like pictures of the Nullabor. There was one single solitary stalagmite in the midst of all that nothingness, which looked just like a cactus, Martin commented that it was like a Model Desert which we thought an apt name. After two further small chambers the cave closed down, we had surveyed it in just twelve legs.
We arrived back at camp with plenty of time to spare and thought we could make it back to Phong Nha in time for beer and food, so after a hasty lunch we set off. The porters had other ideas and seemed determined to go slowly, the next four hours passed with the porters dragging their heels while we tried to get them to go at a sensible pace. Eventually we arrived at the first camp at about four pm, one and a half kilometres from the road, when they started to put up hammocks we stopped them, pointing out we could make the road, a long discussion followed during which we realised that they were under the impression that they would lose a days pay if we got back early.
Once we explained to them that they would be paid for the extra day there was no problem and we made the road in double quick time, only one problem, there was no ‘phone signal so we couldn’t call for a lift! Apparently the ‘phone signal is a bit dodgy at this location so we kept trying and after about 45 minutes Hoa was able to contact Khanh to arrange a lift which arrived at eight, meaning we got back to Phong Nha at ten pm, too late for food so it was just Choco Pies, Custadas and 333 Beer at the Thahn Dhat Hotel.