Alan Jackson, Dave Ramsay, Adam Spillane
All three cavers on this trip were Xuong virgins and two of us were Vietnam virgins, with only the previous day’s trips under our belts. None of us really knew what to expect but we’d heard the walk in could be epic in hot conditions. It was cold and raining. My bag, which had failed to arrive with me on the flight over, had been located (still in Melbourne!) and was not going to make it to Son Trach before our departure. Hence I was doubly nervous – first jungle experience combined with a cobbled together collection of borrowed kit.
Departing around 9 am from Mr Khanh’s, our team of three cavers, guide (Mr Phong), five porters and Hanoi Uni interpreter (Quang) made our way to Paradise Cave, watched the porters sort the gear, hitched a short ride on the electric cave tour buggies then headed into the jungle. Water availability limits what you can do in this neck of the woods so day one was a pretty leisurely affair to the first (semi-reliable) water hole – about three hours walk in.
Day 2 was a pretty solid day with some steep and rough terrain. Weather was still cool and drizzly so no heat exhaustion problems but it made for slippery conditions and a minor leech-fest. Something like ~5 hours saw us at the main Xuong Valley camp. One of the shoes I’d borrowed from the pile of dead and dying shoes in the sweat box at the Thành Đhạt Hotel had imploded and was tied back together with string (a good omen for the rest of the trip). The skies cleared and the full moon was spectacular.
We had been under the impression that Day 3 would be a caving day, but with none of us having any idea where we were going we had to just wait and see. Instead of proceeding along the Xuong Valley proper (where the 2012 trips had gone) we turned ‘right’, over the ‘water supply’ (i.e. shampoo tainted shit hole), and were soon ascending steeply up a loose rocky flood channel. The clear weather meant temperatures climbed and the steep terrain made for sweaty going. We eventually topped out at about 630 m a.s.l. before dropping just as steeply down the other side. We paused briefly at a camp where two random jungle lads were seated, whittling sticks with their machetes. After some discussion we were off again and we moved another 40 minutes or so along the track to a camp beside a large rocky river bed with a few pools. It was only 1 pm so we figured we should go and at least recce the first cave but the information received said it was 2-3 hours away and that we’d go in the morning. So why are we camped here then? We asked ourselves. A couple of hours later the plan was revised and the target cave was now only 1 hour’s walk away, but of course sufficient time had now passed to make going there that afternoon unfeasible. We learnt on the 12 day Xuong trip later in the expedition that this tactic of misinformation and delay is Mr Phong’s modus operandi, allowing for lots of snoozing in the hammocks for the locals.
During our lazy afternoon Quang found a fascinating rock (too heavy to carry out) which Deb later suggested was likely to be a part of a meteorite – quite common in the area apparently. Well, I found it interesting.
We got away at a very sedate 9 am on the morning of day 4 and after only 30 minutes we passed a large stream sink right beside the track. Allegedly we were actually coming to visit a resurgence, so we were a bit baffled, but it looked like a great entrance. It then became clear that this wasn’t the target, but it was nearby, so while a few porters looked for the resurgence we investigated the main sink. Adam climbed down into the nice entrance (about 10 x 5 m with massive sand banks outside) but it terminated only ~20 m in, the stream soaking into the sandy floor. Adjacent to the obvious entrance was a steep sandbank atop which was another potential entrance. Lots of beautifully sculpted limestone immediately below the main track leads to a series of small sandy-bottomed fissures. One of them lead to a steep descending tube with a deep, loose, sandy floor. I slid down, filling every orifice with sand in the process, and it opened out into quite pleasant walking passage – about 4 x 4 m on average. I called out to Dave that it was looking good but he obviously didn’t hear me. I slipped and slid along the now mud-floored horizontal passage until it terminated in a mud choke. I paced it out and it was 150 paces back to the sand hill tube.
By the time we returned to the track the original target resurgence had been located 50 m away. The entrance was a pile of jumbled boulders on a short side branch of the large dry flood channel that lead to the previously explored sink. We were informed that the cave was called Hang Nô, which means ‘Explosion/Explosives Cave’. Dave and I did a quick recce and it proved to be a reasonable-sized horizontal passage about 3 x 6 m on average with a few pools of water in the low bits. Adam was instructed to follow us with the instruments of torture and we commenced the survey. After about 250 m of good passage the dimensions reduced significantly and the cave transitioned into narrow, snaggy vadose passage with plenty of stals and deep pools at the bottom. We generally stayed high to avoid having to swim and were slowly gaining height until 100 m later we hit a nasty obstacle – a long deep near-sump at the base of the rift with a tiny hole at the far end that was issuing a roaring draught (causing 50 mm waves on the pond surface). Frustrated with the dimensions and upstream nature of the cave we didn’t bother taking the plunge to investigate the forward options. A 50 m narrow side passage was investigated back out near the entrance but it went nowhere interesting. We were back at camp by 12:30 and, in hindsight, realised we could have achieved all that the previous afternoon. Ah well.
After some impressive thunderstorm action during the small hours, Day 5 started cool and drizzly. We packed up camp and relocated 30 minutes back down the track to the camp we’d passed on Day 3 (where the machete-wielding lads had been sitting). It turned out that this camp had been our original Day 3 target and the nearby cave the best lead but the earlier arrivals had forced a plan change. Our original plan of two days in, three days caving and two days out had so far yielded three in and one caving, so today was our last chance. Camp was hurriedly erected and Mr Ky led us down an adjacent incised flood channel for a couple of hundred metres to a ~3 wide shaft in the valley floor – Hang Mây (Cloud Cave). It seemed to be at least 30 m deep so Adam commenced rigging while Dave and I surveyed down behind him. The pitch proved to be a narrow but beautiful ~50m pitch to large horizontal passage. We continued along what looked to be the obvious way and after ~50 m it opened out on the left into a large flowstone-encrusted chamber. After a quick check of a small dead end we climbed into the chamber then descended the much longer and steeper far side. All the massive boulders on the floor were covered with mud and gravel deposits, making for slippery conditions and concerns that the whole place obviously backed right up during the wet and would probably be blocked soon.
At the base of the large rock slope a ~25 m pitch fell away in front of us. We didn’t have any rope with us so, being the youngest (and a newbie), I was volunteered to pop back up the entrance pitch to retrieve it. I then rigged this pitch and continued down more boulder-strewn passage about 8 m wide and 6 m high. The passage just kept going with generous dimensions, occasionally opening out into large chambers with 40+ m legs. A u-bend constriction that obviously sumps under any flow conditions was waded. I reported to the others that it was only ‘balls-deep’ which, after crossing it himself and getting a wet torso, prompted Adam to enquire as to where I kept my balls.
A further 150 m on the passage narrowed, a small active stream came from somewhere and a small pitch presented itself. Guess where the rope was. Still being the youngest, I was volunteered to race back up to the previous pitch to cut the tail off the rope and drag it back down.
Adam IRTed the first ~10 m pitch, reported back that it really needed a bolt rebelay to eliminate a bad rub, and started rigging the next short pitch off a large natural bridge of travertine. I placed some bolts to tidy up the first pitch and we surveyed on to join Adam at the bottom of both short pitches. Here the passage suddenly got massive – LRUDs of the 50:1:40:2.5 kind. Dave and I were impressed but Adam kept his usual poker face in place. To the left there seemed to be a continuing passage but we concentrated on the obvious downstream continuation. The water and mud on the floor was vile – smelly and the colour of acid mine drainage. The passage continued at a very low gradient for a couple of hundred metres, getting muddier and muddier, until it terminated in a large mud-filled chamber with a boulder choke at the bottom. The cave was over and it was turnaround time anyway, lest we worry the porters. We had a quick check of two ‘up and over’ options in this final chamber before departing but while neither was pushed to a conclusion they didn’t look awesome.
We raced out, and got back to the surface just as the sun was fading away. Before leading us back to camp, Mr Ky showed us a second, larger entrance 50 m further down the flood channel, which was the entrance he had originally intended sending us down (Hang Say). We considered its close proximity to Hang Mây and suspected the two would connect, probably where the large left hand passage in the really big stuff comes in? It will have to be checked some other time.
My other borrowed shoe shat itself during the day and had to be strung up. Reassuringly the first one to go was still holding together so I was reasonably confident I’d make it out with something more than socks on my feet.
That evening was bloody frigid (wet and windy) and Dave seemed to be only one who slept at all, having a sleeping mat and bag. I had a very thin polypropylene bag I’d borrowed from Sweeny and my sleeping mat was in my bag in an airport somewhere. The locals spent most of the night stoking the fire in an attempt to keep warm.
Day 6 dawned and we packed up in the rain and headed back to the Xuong. The leeches were in full force and kept us entertained when the steep hills and slippery ground didn’t. We were hoping for a big day, getting all the way out to the Day 1 camp, but despite an early start we found ourselves setting up camp thirty minutes the other side of our Day 2 camp in the Xuong. It was 11 am!
To pass the time I asked Mr Ky to guide me to a massive entrance up on the cliff line I’d seen nearby on Day 2. He obliged and it turned out to only be five minutes away. The cave was one of the many Hang Cáo features pushed during the first Xuong Valley forays in 2010. It was a single massive entrance and chamber full of guano (i.e. about 35°C and 100% humidity). It did provide a spectacular view over the Xuong Valley though and was preferable to more hammock-induced atrophy.
Day 7 was a lightening squirt back out to Paradise Cave and home.
Entering the data back at the Thành Đhạt Hotel showed that Hang Nô proved to be 311 m long while Hang Mây was just over 1100 m long and 199 m deep.