The
Bristol
Exploration Club, The Belfry,

Wells
Road
, Priddy, Wells,

Somerset
.
Editor: Ted Humphreys

1990 – 1991 Committee

Hon. Sec.                Martin Grass
Treasurer                 Chris Smart
Caving Sec.             Jeff Price
Hut Warden             Chris Harvey
Tackle Master          Mike Wilson
B.B. Editor               Ted Humphreys
Hut Engineer            Nigel Taylor
Membership Sec.     John Watson
Floating Members     Richard Blake
                               Ian

Caldwell

                               Graham
Johnson
                               Vince
Simmonds

Editorial

The main difference between ordinary people and B.E.C.
members seems to me That B.E.C. members are ‘go for it’ people.  This has occasionally led (fortunately –
rarely!) to injury or even death, but hasn’t it better to get out and do things
rather than just be a spectator?

The other thing about ‘go for it’ people is that they tend
to have strong characters and express their views forcefully.  This sometimes leads to clashes of
personalities, unfortunate but almost inevitable, of which we have had several
recently.  I don’t think that there is a
solution, but suggest it would be helpful if all parties tried harder to see
the merits of opposing viewpoints and to remain ‘cool’.

That’s enough pontificating!

The next BB is due out before the end of August so that
postal deliveries can be made in time for responses to be received before the
AGM (Saturday the 3rd of October).

We’re back to the old format for this BB as Phil couldn’t
spare the time to modify my files.

 

Club News

Membership Changes

We Welcome one new member this time, who is:-

Martin Riddell, Clevedon, Avon

Any time the membership list is published we get a number of
address changes!  The changes I’ve got
are listed below but some addresses are still wrong (comment in the Hunters –
He doesn’t live there anymore but I don’t know his new address, etc.).  Please let John or myself know if you found
any errors in the addresses and know what the changes are.

731  Bob Bidmead, West Harptree, Bristol
727  Bill Cooper, Totterdown, Bristol
936  Dave Nicholls, Camborne, Cornwall
1046  Dave Shand, Rhiwbina, Cardiff
1066 Alan Turner, Chippenham,Wilts
887 Greg Villis, Weston-s-Mare

Roy Bennett Plaque

This was unveiled on Sunday the 28th of June.  22 people attended in Cerberus Hall.  Wig did it and made a short speech and Kangy
added a few words.  Photos were taken and
the BEC song was sung.  I didn’t know Roy
very well but the occasion was moving. Joan was very generous and provided a barrel and sandwiches in the
garden at the Hunters afterwards which everyone enjoyed.  Zot figured that the average age of the
cavers in Cerberus Hall was 45!

Club Dinner and AGM

These are on Saturday the 3rd of October.  The dinner will be at the Webbington.

This year we will be having a proper election for the
committee as for the past few years it has only been done by a show of hands at
the AGM.  Nominees for the committee
should send their names to the secretary as soon as possible.  Voting slips will be included in the next
BB.  Most of the current committee will
be prepared to serve again but the whole club should have the opportunity to
select those that they wish to see doing it. The first nine ‘past the post’
will be elected!

St Cuthbert’s

The leaders list published in the last BB was in error!

Apologies-to Joc Large who should have been included.  Also we have two new leaders who are:-

Dudley Herbert
Dave Yeandle

The following bits are from Jeff Price

On two recent occasions visiting clubs have not shown up on
the date arranged for their caving trip. As a result of this, in future, clubs who have booked trips through me
will be asked to telephone their leader a week in advance to confirm the
trip.  This will take effect as soon as
possible.

Jeff has given me a roll of tape to be used by BEC St.
Cuthbert’s leaders to tape or re-tape formations in the cave with instructions
to hang it up at a convenient location.  I
shall leave it next to Kanchenjunga.

OFD

Mike Palmer has come off the BEC OFD1 leaders list.  The committee would like to thank him for his
support over the years.

Tim Large has now been accepted by SWCC as an OFD1 leader
for the BEC.

Also the SWCC would like to remind us that OFD is not to be
used for commercial caving trips and that any BEC trips must have at least
2/3rds paid up BEC members on it.

 

48 Years Ago

Contributed by J’Rat

Taken from British Caver Vol.12. 1944: –

BRISTOL EXPLORATION CLUB – (letter to Editor from Hon. Sec.
J.H. Stanbury)

“The B.E.C. is to engage in the activities of Speleological
Exploration, Archaeology, Crag-Climbing, the exploration of Natural and
Man-made Cavities, and such things as will from time to time meet with the
approval of the Committee”.  Extract
from rules.

“Of necessity, due to war conditions the activities of
the Club have been seriously curtailed. During the last 12 months we have organized 18 large scale caving trips,
plus a number of surface trips to various parts of Mendip.  Our active membership now, unfortunately,
less than in pre-war days, being now about the forty mark.

We are excavating a cave site on Mendip, and making good
headway.  In addition, a smuggler’s cave
in Cornwall in being excavated, also with good results”.

Knowle. Bristol 4.     27/4/1944

Ed’s note – It would be interesting to know the final
results of the two digs mentioned and their locations.  Perhaps Harry could tell us??

 

Caving In Central Kentucky. U.S.A.

by James Wells

Dad (Oliver Wells – ed.) suggested that I write a note about
caving over here, so here goes.

Let me start by inviting BEC members to come over here and
go caving.  There are plenty of good
caves to go to in the area from Elizabethtown to Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Tennessee to the south has more caves and
they are generally nicer, but the cave area around Mammoth Cave National Park,
Kentucky has a couple of overriding attractions for me, first and foremost, the
incredible connectivity.  Mammoth will
someday be 500-600 miles long, and there is no area in the U.S. that has
similar potential.  Second, the area is
only 80 miles from my front door, over a hundred miles closer than the good
stuff in Tennessee.  Third and least
explainable, the Mammoth area has a charm that keeps people coming back.  The landscape isn’t overwhelming, but it’s
worth seeing, and I like ridge walking even on the days when we don’t find an
entrance.   The caves have plenty of
personality, and certainly make you work before you can have the next
breakthrough.

The main attraction is Mammoth Cave.  Total length is now something like 320 miles,
of which about 250 is within Mammoth Cave National Park.  Mapping in this part of the cave is conducted
by the Cave Research Foundation (CRF). They are mostly re-mapping now, huge quantities of passage whose
previous survey has been deemed to be not up to scratch.  Until they achieve their re-mapping goals,
most new exploration is that which is found during the re-mapping.

The rest of Mammoth Cave is that part which was known as
Roppel Cave until its connection with Mammoth in 1983.  Roppel is explored by the Central Kentucky
Karst Coalition (CKKC).  I’ve been a CKKC
member since 1981, and am currently president. Roppel is about 65 miles long, and contains some very fine passage.  This year we are working on a new entrance
which will revitalize exploration by putting good leads within 1-2 hours
travel.  One of the more exciting leads
is the upstream Logsdon River Sump. The first sump is 700 feet long and very
shallow.  The second sump was pushed
until running out of line a couple of hundred feet in.  In between the sumps, a large walking passage
goes two ways, unexplored.

The area has a bunch of other major caves ;-

Fisher Ridge Cave
System
.  This cave, explored by
Detroit Urban Grotto of the NSS, has just passed 50 miles in length.  The cave comes within a few hundred feet of
connecting with Roppel, but many of the Fisher Ridge cavers are opposed to a
connection, and have gone as far as vandalizing activities around the nearest
Roppel entrance.  The cave also extends
under parts of Eudora and Northtown ridges.

Crump Spring Cave.  This cave was mapped for over 10 miles in the
1970’s.  I don’t think anyone ever goes
there anymore.  The way into the main
part of the cave is called the Whimper Route, because you whimper when you go
through it.  In my experience, people
give up prematurely on hard caves in this area, so there may yet be good leads
in Crumps.

Vinegar Ridge Cave
System
.  This cave is 7.3 miles
long and has 123 leads by my count. Exploration has been slowed by a 700′ crawl which is known to sump, and
when sumped, stays that way for years. The main part of the cave was found in 1984.  Currently the crawl is half full of water
passable but not convenient with dry walking passage beyond to overheat any
person wearing a wetsuit.  I really want
to get back in here but have not had the time. Last trip we stayed on the near side of the water crawl, and dug into a
canyon that went 300′ to a 10′ waterfall, which has not yet been descended.

Hicks Cave.  This cave was inherited by CKKC from a
previous group and is about 21 miles long. Original exploration was through very wet passage near the Green
River.  Progressing miles upstream,
explorers broke out into 2 good complexes of dry upper levels.  Exploration died due to killer trip duration
and flood risk.  In 1986 a back entrance
was completed, but a propane explosion in the cave in 1988 shut everything down
for a couple of years.  The source of the
LPG leak has been found and stopped. CKKC has started trips here in the last half year, and has mapped 3000
feet of new cave, with plenty of leads remaining.  In my last Hicks trip, a friend and I pushed
one lead and finished the day with 1250 feet mapped and 9 unexplored leads.  This cave is a long way from Mammoth, but may
someday connect.

Whigpistle Cave.  This cave is over 20 miles long, and is not
far from Mammoth Cave on the southwest edge of the park.  The initial way into Whigpistle involves
thousands of feet of bathtub passage, but there are large trunk passages on the
other side.  One lead was pushed through
low airspace to find a portion of the Logsdon/Hawkins River, the same river
explored for over 6 continuous miles in Mammoth.  On a return trip, the lead was found to be
sumped with soupy mud (maybe this is a job for OCW!).  Nobody has ever been back to this part of the
river.  Interest in Whigpistle is reduced
by the observed occurrence of sudden water level changes in the entrance pool,
thought to be linked with collapse in Turnhole, which is the resurgence for the
cave.

Grady’s Cave.  Is a neat river cave, which has been mapped
for 12.5 miles by Joe Saunders.  I went
there once, and spent most of the day walking and boating in huge river
passage.  The lead we mapped was
miserably small and wet, though.  The
cave is in the sinkhole plain to the east of Mammoth, and most non-stream
passages are choked with silt from agricultural run off.

Horse Cave.  Was a show cave in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but
was closed to all entry in 1943 due to pollution.  For decades the entrance emitted fumes
stinking of waste from a nearby creamery. In the past few years, waste management practices in the area have
improved dramatically, and the cave became enterable this year.

Mike Yocum, Alan Canon and I began the survey on August
31st.  We mapped the entrance sinkhole
(several acres) and mapped in 50 x 50ft stream passage for 500 feet, then
walked ahead to what might be the largest cave room in Kentucky.  In areas, the rotting remnants of the tourist
trail poked through the mud.

In two further trips the mapped length of the cave has
reached about 4500 feet.  The large
passage sumps downstream just beyond the large room, and breaks into components
upstream.  The best remaining lead is a
stoopway with a good breeze.  None of the
passage we have seen so far is virgin, but the cave has reasonable prospects
for a real breakthrough.

I’ve never been to James
Cave
.  I know it’s over 10 miles
long, and is famous for vertical exploration. Apparently the whole cave is the world’s largest dome complex.  The cave is near Park City, to the southwest
of the main Mammoth area.

Those are the main caves in the area.  Of course there are zillions of smaller ones
(50 feet to 5 miles).  The search for new
caves is hampered by the lack of any central directory of cave locations.  Most locations are rediscovered from time to
time.  There is no way to tell what has
been done in a cave that you find, unless you happen to talk to the right
person.  My survey of Carpenter Cave in
Allen County (about 60 miles southeast of Mammoth) turned out to be at least
the third survey of that cave.

Update:  On October 20th 1991, Alan Canon and I found
an entrance while ridge walking.  A
stream resurged, flowed 15′ above ground, then went back underground in a grim
looking belly crawl in water.  Alan got
down in it and went a hundred feet to a decent hands and knees crawl with a
strong breeze.

The next Saturday we were back under ominous skies to give
it a push with wetsuits on.  The crawl
became a narrow canyon, which went on and on and on!  After perhaps 1500 feet we debouched into a
dome with a large keyhole-shaped cross passage. From here we scooted in every direction, covering a total of between
3000 and 4000 feet for the day, leaving nine continuing passages including two
pits over 50 feet deep.

On November 3rd we started mapping the water crawl, which
has been named Bob.  A howling cold gale
made us pack up the survey after 150 feet and scurry farther into the
cave.  We placed some hanging survey in
nicer passage, then looked around, finding two more large pits and a nice upper
level walking passage which we left after 500′ of pushing.

As of February 1st 1992, about 4000 feet has been mapped in
the cave.  Copious leads and seven virgin
pits remain.  Mammoth Cave is 200 feet
away at the closest point.

 

The British 1991 Dachstein Expedition

by Chris Lloyd (from
Canada)
Surveys drawn by Snablet

All the accounts of caving in Austria I’d heard described
tight ‘orrible sharp passages and endless exposed rifts punctuated by awkward
drops all flowing with, or about to be flowing with, water from the continual
thunder storms which pass over the high desolate mountains.  The approach walks were long and wet and the
camps just wet.  The dangers of lightning
strikes were never dwelt on too long.

But people kept going back so surely it couldn’t be all
bad.  One of these returning regulars was
Paul Ibberson and when he described this years plans to stay in a mountain hut
equipped with a bar and return to push a cave discovered in a new valley which
is located above the largest cave system in Austria, I decided to see for
myself what Austria was like.  The chance
to find the world’s deepest through trip was too tempting to miss.

I arrived at the Wiesberghaus on Aug 19, a day after Paul,
Dave and Richard, and was greeted with a shot of schnapps from the friendly
hostess Alfi and her husband Wolfgang. When I had returned with my second load the others had returned from
humping loads up the hill and were settled into the bar wondering where our
fifth member was.  Snablet turned up at
11pm having driven straight from a month’s caving in Spain.

Tuesday saw us packing 100’s of metres of rope and other
gear for the slog up to the cave entrance, located 1 hours walk from the hut
over the most heavily dissected limestone terrain I’d seen.  Building cairns as we went, we eventually
relocated the cave Richard and Snablet had found at the end of last years
expedition.  They’d penetrated about 100m
to the top of a large pitch so now Richard and Paul headed down with 200m of
rope to see where it went.  The rest of
us spread out over the open valley to check for other entrances, of which there
was no shortage.  Rills, runnels,
sinkholes and shafts were everywhere in the bare limestone and over each new
rise, another dark hole beckoned.  But it
quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked,
everything was choked with rubble or snow plugs.  A few hours later we regrouped back at G1
(the abbreviated name given to our first cave) and heard the same news from
Paul and Richard.  They had dropped a 40m
pitch into a big chamber with no way on. Our first dud!

The next day we returned to survey G1 accompanied by Peter
Schieller, a local Hallstatt caver who was up for a couple of days recce.  More likely checking up on what the rival
British are doing above his pride and joy, Hirlatz Hahle, a 68km system with a
vertical range of 1000m, most of which is above its single entrance.  The map plots indicate that its upper reaches
are beneath the area we are exploring and an upper entrance could possibly be
the world’s deepest through trip.

We surveyed G1 to -100m and 164m in length while Richard and
Dave were further up the hill checking out G2. Snablet had discovered the horizontal entrance the previous day, leaving
it at the top of a pitch.  Richard
dropped that and spent an hour negotiating a squeeze to get to the next
drop.  They left it at that vowing to
name it Quaking if it went (in memory of Britain’s most infamous tight
cave).  Fortunately it didn’t!

Thursday saw Snablet and Paul start in on G3 while Richard
and Dave dispatched G2.  I had good views
in mind as I set off up the mountain to check an entrance near the top of a
large cliff.  So far the weather had been
un-Austrianly brilliant and I wanted to get as high up as my sore knees would
allow.  A very exposed scramble got me
down to my targeted hole, which was a horizontal tube headed straight into the
hill.  Getting excited I abseiled back
down with my pack and crawled in to check it out.  After 20m, the narrow passage opened into a
chamber with two parallel rifts continuing on into the mountain.  I checked these, finding a pit along one
while the other branch went in and looped back around to the other side of the
pit.  Exploring about 100m, I knew I’d
have to return with the others and some rope. Further up the mountain the views were spectacular across all of the
Dachstein and over to the surrounding mountain ranges.

Meanwhile Snablet and Paul had dropped 3 pitches down
the  tight meanders in G3, and we all
converged in time to have Richard go down to find the fourth one choked.  This quickly led to a consensus to keep
Richard off future pushing trips.

With 3 duds and nothing good in sight Paul and Snablet
attempted to locate a cave closer to the hut another of their group had pushed
to -250m last year.  That was
unsuccessful as were our attempts to push my G4 up on the cliff.

Spirits were dropping fast and another day was lost looking
for last year’s cave, while Richard and Snablet started in on the extremely
small G5.  Its small draughting opening
had been spotted earlier but left as a last resort.  Richard managed to rig and drop the 20cm wide
entrance slot after much verbal abuse. Snablet and I checked other entrances waiting for Richard to
return.  Eventually the cursing returned
and Richard emerged with the bad news that it was going, though he had had to
break through an ice blockage to find the way on.  Snablet was sent in to rig the second drop
with easily the most awkward rigging so far encountered.  While Richard returned with more rope, I
worked on enlarging the entrance as it was starting to look like we might all
be using it a fair bit.  On their return
they were grateful for a hot brew as they had been crawling along ice flows and
had turned back at the top of a big pitch where everything was coated in
ice.  Maybe this will be the one.

Everyone was back up the hill the next day with high hopes;
though with threatening weather we didn’t want everyone in the same cave.  Richard headed in with more rope while Paul
and Snablet surveyed in behind.  Dave and
I headed over to the next valley to check some more entrances the wide ranging
Snablet had located.  After Dave had
scouted it out in shorts I kitted up and took our 20m push rope to get down the
first 7m free hang.  Using the tail got
me down another 10m over an ice lip into an icy chamber.  A cold draught was blowing up an ice coated
ramp and I couldn’t see round the next corner. Another hopeful to check.

Back at way G5 we waited for Richard to emerge with the news
that Paul was headed down a 50m pitch on a 30m rope.  Fortunately he had another rope and managed
to bottom the large chamber, but there was no apparent way on.

The next day we were even later than normal getting up and an
official rest day was proclaimed.  We
lounged in the continuing beautiful sunshine thankful that the usual expedition
rains were absent this year.  Later we
strolled to Oberfeld, a cafe at the top of one of cable cars which is run by,
and subsidized by, the Austrian army including the biere prices.  This was the start of what ended up being a
long evening as we were later invited to join Heidi’s birthday celebrations
back at the Weisberghaus.  One of many
local inebriations we were invited to join.

The repercussions were somewhat predictable though, back at
the entrance to G5 the next day.  Nobody
was up to the hard work required and two were only capable of the walk
back.  I went to push G6 supported by
Dave snoozing in the entrance.  Snablet,
as usual, was finding more entrances, which was good as my effort brought me to
a small draughting hole too small to pass. Some chiselling or a little bang would get one through to the larger
space beyond though.

Wednesday was to be our last full day on the hill, so G5 had
to be finished.  Snablet and I went in
first to continue the survey with Richard passing us to check the bottom and
Paul and Dave pulled up the rear photographing. Now I got to experience for myself just how ‘orrible it really was.  And it was!  Below the ridiculous entrance slot a series of
nasty, tight, twisty meanders had to be negotiated flat out on ice ledges,
earning the cave its full name of Ice Gymnastics Cave or Eisturen Hohle.  The vicious hairpin corner at the top of the
second pitch almost turned me back, but my legs did manage to bend that way
enabling me to back out of the 50cm diameter hole dangling on my cow’s tail,
feet still caught in the hole.  Once
sorted out I could head down the 15m pitch into a chamber dominated by the 20m
high free-standing ice pillar on the other side.  Almost 2m in diameter, it had an ominous bend
in the bottom – the whole thing must be creeping down!

Another series of tight icy meanders and a short pitch put
us into the spacious ice coated alcove at the top of the 50.  It was 5m in diameter for 30m, before belling
out into the large chamber below.  By the
time we surveyed to the back Richard was nowhere to be seen; only a small slot
in the corner suggesting there may be more passage.  We speculated for a good while if it would go
or not until we heard grunts and Richard’s customary cursing coming out of that
same small hole.  Relieved that we
wouldn’t have to go chasing him, he confirmed our fears that indeed it did go.

I led the way out meeting Paul at the top of the 50 where I
gave him the bad news.  If that wasn’t
bad enough a huge crash shattered the silence and the walls shook as if they
were going to fall down.  We wanted to
dive for cover but were both tethered to the rigging.  At the bottom, Dave and Richard dove for
opposite walls while Snablet had to cower on the rope trying to make himself as
small as possible.  But nothing came down
and once the silence was complete again it was broken by three people simultaneously
exclaiming, “What the fuck was that!”.  Nobody could say for sure but the consensus
was that it was the ice pillar above collapsing.

I offered to let Paul go ahead since he had been waiting
around getting cold, but he said it was quite alright, I could go on up.  Everything was fine until I got to the short
rope below the ice pillar chamber, where the tattered rope bag was below the
rig point and a huge boulder jammed in the passage.  These weren’t there on the way in!  The panic level started to rise until Snablet
arrived and told me the bag had been moved on the way in and that the way out
was beneath the boulder not over it. Eventually I worked out the sequence to get my head around the corner to
confront the real damage.  A huge ice
block was blocking the entrance into the chamber that definitely wasn’t there
on the way in!

Fortunately I was able to wriggle out over the block and
sure enough the pillar was missing. Hanging on the opposite wall was the rope for the next pitch, now with
its bottom embedded in the ice rubble which totally covered the floor.  Luckily it didn’t get wiped out like the ice
flow next to it.  Obviously the pillar
had fallen right across the chamber hitting the far wall.  Too close, far too close!

It was a great relief to get out of that chamber and negotiating
the meanders above wasn’t nearly as hard as on the way in, even dragging tackle
bags.  The rest of the de-rigging want
well and with everything off the hill the rain finally arrived, raining all the
next day.

Friday was departure day for Paul, Dave and Richard with
Snablet driving them to the train station in Salzburg.  But only after a huge lunchtime feast and
schnapps from Alfi and Wolfgang to send them on their way.  I spent the afternoon checking small holes on
the nearby cliff face, to no avail.

Snablet returned the next day and we headed back up the hill
to survey G7, his last find.  It went in
about 50m at a steep angle and then followed a tight meandering bypass another
30m, to a spot choked with boulders. These were removed and Snablet squeezed into the hole, not returning for
a good while.  Said he’d gone in to where
there was a large black space.

We returned the next day with a couple of ropes and rigging
kit.  Getting in to the choke was much
quicker this time, now familiar with the route, even the Exhailer (a 20cm wide
body long squeeze) was not so bad. Surveying through the next section was another story.  Its name of 101 Damnations about sums it
up.  But the black space beyond was
spacious and an 8m drop led to continuing passage.  The survey was put on hold to push on ahead.

The way on split and Snablet was volunteered to check the
lower narrow slot while I went on above, in what turned out to be the same
route.  This was confirmed by me dropping
a rock on his head while trying to get the tackle bag down to him so he could
start on the large echoing drop below. By the time I wormed my way down through the Razor Blade Alley he was at
the end of his 20m ready to head out for more.

Returning with more rope we continued surveying to the big
drop and pushed it 40m to the bottom with a couple of rebelays.  A 10m horizontal jog took us to yet another
shaft 6 x 8m in diameter and deeper than the 20m of rope we dangled in it.  Foiled again, but with the bolts set we would
be ready to go tomorrow.  Not getting
back ’til after midnight, tomorrow was declared a rest day.

Well rested we were actually caving before noon on Wednesday
taking in yet more rope to see what we had. Snablet headed down the last pitch on a 50m rope and hit a boulder pile
at 30m, with no obvious way through.  A
bypass was noted and I pendulumed over into it, finding a 2m diameter tube
leading down into darkness.  As I was
placing the bolt for this route the boulder pile beneath Snablet shifted,
settling a few centimetres, and bouncing stones could be heard echoing far
below both him and me.  He moved quickly
to tie back into the rope while I hurriedly finished setting the bolt.  I had to place another rebelay 5m down and
only got half-way through when my light died, leaving Snablet to lead down
again.  He descended hesitantly as the
odd stone was still popping out of the sinking boulder choke behind me and
crashing somewhere below him.  A 25m free
hang put him into a 6 x 8m high passage which sloped down towards another dark
pitch sounding deeper than any we’d done yet – 60 maybe 100m?  But lacking rope and time we surveyed out
de-rigging as we went, thankful to be clear of the ‘Beware of the Sound of
Thunder’ pitch and above ‘Capitan Steigel’s Amazing Sinking Boulder
Choke’.  Another sporting cave to return
to next year.

Back at the Weisberghaus we calculated our new depth to be
-166m., over a few Steigel ‘s (the local biere) and a wonderful farewell dinner
from Alfi.  And of course we didn’t get
away the next day without a couple of farewell shots of schnapps.  Prost! Prost!

 

 

 

 

Caving On The Ho Chi Minh Trail

by Tony Jarratt

Thursday 16th April. 1992

I am sitting in a butterfly filled rock shelter just across
the river from the atrocious track that forms part of the wide system of roads,
trails and jungle paths which was used by the Viet Cong to transport food and
munitions during the American War.  My
sole companion is a local policeman, Du (pronounced “zoo”).  On the border with Laos, this is potential
bandit country so he is armed with a machete and a bayonet.  I have my Swiss Army knife.  Our three colleagues are walking the 15km
back to base but I have a duff foot and can’t walk far.  If we are lucky an ancient 6 wheel drive
Chinese truck carrying Bob and Dany will collect us in the next 24 hours.  If not – so what?  We’re in Vietnam, these things happen and
it’s all part of a great trip.

The last two years had been spent by Howard and Debbie
Limbert and friends from Yorkshire together with our geologist contacts at
Hanoi University in preparing for this year’s expedition.  The B.E.C. were represented by Bob Cork, Dany
Bradshaw, myself and a few Bertie stickers. On the 1990 recce trip, the district of Bo Trach in Quang Binh province
(some 30km. north of the 17th parallel) was chosen as a potential major caving
area.  A completely separate Yorkshire
team, including ex-B.E.C. man Jim Abbott flew over with us to investigate an
area near the Chinese border.

We flew from Heathrow to Hanoi via Bangkok with me hiding
under a flat cap and headscarf to avoid being spotted (!) as a Chickenpox
carrier!  Needless to say the rest of the
team kept well clear and I got three seats to myself for most of the way – dead
cunning!

The cloud cover over Vietnam was thick and low.  Breaking through it at about 300ft, we
emerged over miles of flat paddy fields – riddled with numerous circular ponds
on each side on the runway.  These were
American bomb craters!  Good morning
Vietnam.

The customs men in the dilapidated airport building visibly
blanched at our mountain of kit and quickly ushered us through to our waiting
friends and an old Russian 32 seater coach. An hours drive to the city provided a glimpse of the local
lifestyle.  The sides of the dusty road
were lined with small wooden shops selling a great assortment of items – beer,
tyres, bicycle parts, food, etc.  Beyond
them the rice fields stretched into the distance.  The road itself was a melee of trucks,
bullock carts, jeeps, cattle, an occasional car and thousands of bicycles.  With horn blaring our driver bulldozed his
way through the lot into Hanoi and to our hotel where we stayed for the next
three days.  Being a leper I got a
“luxury” separate room (with a gorgeous young maid called Bang –
honest!).

During these three days we shopped and ate in the city.   Imagine rush hour in London or Mexico
City.  Exchange 90% of the vehicles for
five cycles each.  Deduct the noise,
pollution and aggro.  Transform
belligerent taxi drivers into smiling, piss-taking lads on tricycle-propelled
rickshaws and you have Hanoi.

Not a beautiful city but fascinating.  Capitalist communism is the norm.  The bustle of the traders in the old town and
market places is contrasted by the austere public buildings and Ho Chi Minh’s
Lenin-like tomb.

After exchanging our fistfuls of U.S. dollars for literally
rucksacks full of the local currency – Dong – we were ready for the journey
south.

On 18th March our bus left Hanoi for the two day trip to the
village of Phong Nha (or Son Trach). Impressions of the country were of limitless paddy fields, broad rivers
bearing an assortment of wooden boats from coracles to motorised barges, women
in conical straw hats, tower karst, millions of bikes and bomb craters.  These line the sides of the only main road
and rail route from Hanoi to Saigon.  The
odd ruined bridge testified to laser-guided direct hits.  The more we saw of Vietnam and its people,
the less respect we had for the U.S.A. and its politics.  The friendliness and hospitality of the
locals was overwhelming, from the poorest peasant to General Vo Nguyen Giap –
retired hero of the French and American wars and in his day second only to Uncle
Ho.  He visited us later in the trip and
wants to write a preface for the expedition report.  (Unfortunately he is at present under house
arrest – for mixing with cavers?)

To visit this country as a tourist is at present expensive
and plagued with red tape.  Our path was
smoothed by our working relationship with the great bunch of geologists at
Hanoi University – Prof. My, Drs. Thuong and Ngha and graduate student
Minh.  They all joined in the trip for
various periods of time.  Prof. My
(pronounced Me) is a non English speaking Party man.  He doesn’t smoke or drink but has an eye for
the ladies.  He is the only fat man in
Vietnam, and short with it.  For the
first week he was out of his depth and well dressed.  He left here yesterday to help a sick colleague
back to base – two stone lighter, wearing wet boots, shorts, a filthy T-shirt
and a three-day growth.  He is now one of
the lads!

At last we reached Phong Nha village.  It is in a fairly remote location on the
banks of the Son River and bisected by the main Ho Chi Minh Trail.  It has a row of tiny wooden pubs selling
local and Chinese beer – the latter very acceptable and equally powerful.  A thriving market selling rice, vegetables,
fruit, the odd snake, doughnuts and fly covered meat catered for our
needs.  A sea of curious and smiling
faces.  Hordes of small kids fascinated
by hairy, pointed nosed and 2 metre tall white men followed us everywhere.  Paradise; surrounded by incredible forest
covered limestone towers and flat, green rice paddies.

After settling into the People’s Committee meeting room and
getting permissions sorted out we were at last ready to go caving.  Our first project was to continue with
exploration and surveying of Hang Phong Nha, partly in order to aid the locals
in their plans to establish it as a major tourist attraction – which it most
certainly will be.  It is reached by a
2km river journey in either a hand propelled boat (Doc Moc) or motor boat.  A wide inlet on the east bank of the river is
followed to the large entrance which has been pulverised by American bombs and
rockets.  Hang Phong Nha means Cave of
Wind and Teeth.  The draught is still
there but the stalactites adorning the entrance are now at the bottom of the
river.  This is not your average
cave!  No need to disembark the boats
take you right in and up the river passage for some 1.6kms, to land at the base
of a massive boulder slope which is climbed to a huge, well decorated chamber
and 200m of tunnel to the upstream river cave. After a couple of weeks of pushing trips this system had been explored
to a total length of 58m, ending in boulder choked passages close to the
surface – as evidenced by the resident snake! Most of this distance involves swimming across enormous lakes in a
passage generally 15 – 20m square.

An unfortunate result of the publicity given on T.V. and in
the local press to our exploration was the death of two Vietnamese tourists and
serious injury of two others when a huge stalagmite on which they were climbing
collapsed.  Because of this we drew up a
set of suggested rules for the boatmen/guides which will hopefully help
conserve both the lives of visitors and the natural beauties of this world
class cave.

A little further up-river is the Dark Cave Hang Toi.  This is a 5km+ system of huge and generally
dry passages with spectacular formations and a top entrance in a jungle filled
doline.  A young wood-cutter, blissfully
sleeping here in the safe knowledge that Vietnam was now a nation free of
foreign devils, wished he had been wearing his cycle clips when two passing
multicoloured monsters trekked up the river bed shouting “Ere young ‘un,
seen any ‘angs?”  Incidentally the
very wet inlet cave that Bob and Dany found upstream now bears the nickname
“Full Neoprene Jacket”.

The exploration of these two systems ended the easy part of
the trip.  It was now time to go further
a field and become intimately acquainted with the jungle and its wildlife.

Our aim was to visit the head of the Chay River  – a tributary of the Son.  Rumours of a large resurgence cave lured a
small team of us on a 5km motor boat trip and three hour walk up another branch
of the Trail.  The first two hours was
pleasant and easy going despite the heat. The last hour was purgatory.  It
started when the flip-flop attired guide picked something off his foot with the
warning “Sinh”.  A casual
glance at my new Line 7 boots (advert) revealed two or three caterpillar like
nasties heading anklewards at a great rate of knots.  Fear and loathing descended as one wimpy Brit
now understood Vietnamese for leech! There followed an hour of running through the jungle and stopping every
twenty metres or so to poke them off with a stick.  Those unlucky enough to miss one had to
resort to the traditional fag-end treatment and for once the smokers were not
assailed by cries of “filthy habit”. Dancing rapidly through the worst bits became an almost daily routine
and once one had been “leeched” the fear passed as it was painless
but messy.  Their loathsomeness persisted
though and they were stamped on, cremated or decapitated whenever
possible.  Apart from leeches the jungle
was also home to tigers, bears, wild boar, deer, porcupines, monkeys, poisonous
centipedes and over 300 types of venomous snakes.  Practically none of these were seen, though
in one cave Rupert Skorupka found a flattened 4″ long centipede inside his
pit and in the entrance trod on a snake. It was not his day but the snake didn’t think much of it either.  Luckily it slithered off in disgust.

Back to the Chay River. After our three hour stroll a bivouac was set up in a tiny rock shelter
with a leech free sandy floor.  Our two
local policemen/guides (one ex Viet Cong) immediately built a fire and brewed
up.  Nhuong and Khang knew their stuff
and as well as their jungle knowledge they carried half a gallon of “rice
vodka” and a loaded revolver.  When
we went fearfully off to sleep they got pissed and staggered off into the
jungle to shoot fish or anything else that got in the way.

The following day a short walk and climb over a heap of
boulders revealed the 15m high by 10m wide entrance to Hang Vom (Arch
Cave).  A swim along a 100m long lake led
to a collapse doline with the true Arch beyond. A huge entrance leading to a vast underground lake – probably one of the
world’s largest at c. 100m x 80m.  We
swam, stupefied across this and climbed a cascade to a further lake surrounded
by mighty calcite columns.  A typical 20m
square river passage led on.  We had
another mega system to go at and the leeches could look forward to more meal
deliveries.

Hang Vom was eventually explored for a total length of some
15km.  During two trips Carl Maxon, Paul
Ibberson and I surveyed some 3km of 15m wide, sand floored tunnel with
spectacular formations ending at another entrance in a cliff somewhere in the
jungle.  This would probably be almost
impossible to find from outside.  The
incredible main streamway provided plenty of difficult and sporting caving
across enormous lakes and over boulder piles and gours for a length of about
10km, ending in an open doline with three huge entrances on the far side – one
100m high.  These were not explored.  This is one of the finest caves anywhere and
would suggest is on a par with some of the Mulu systems.

By now this cave had become a regular visiting place and the
jungle bivvy spot (the Betty Ford Clinic) and a couple of underground camps
well patronised.  A further enhancement
to work here was provided by local character “Captain” Khwang our
main boatman and village entrepreneur. Having been heavily involved in our Chinese beer sessions he took to
bringing several bottles in his boat when he collected thirsty exploration
teams.  As he owned a bar this was both
easy and remunerative.  He was astute
enough to learn sufficient English in a week to be able to converse reasonably
well and was able to swig a litre bottle of beer without using his hands.  It also seems that he learnt the rules of
soccer at martial arts school!

Apart from leeches the team were beset by minor ailments and
injuries – our worst case however being Mick Nunwick who almost died from
either typhoid or Weil’s disease, enhanced by a badly injured leg received in
Hang Phong Nha.  He was eventually
admitted to Dong Hoi hospital – once a showpiece of Cuban aid but now worse than
the Belfry!  This rather grim edifice
provided its own amusing moments.  As
Mick lay in his private ward, with fellow cavers dossing in beds at either
side, others of the team would arrive for lengthy visiting periods – sometimes
up to several days.  Beer and fags were
purchased from the hospital bar and the ward became a sort of medical
boozer.  The chief consultant (a mini
Charles Bronson look alike) would pop in for a quick glance at Mick before
settling down to a bottle of ale and a fag, the dog end of which he would toss,
still lit, into the corridor.  Other
patients, visitors and passing kids would stand gaping in for hours.  Group photos of the nurses became the norm
and those specially favoured sported an expedition badge.  One morning Charles Bronson complained of a
headache caused either by the booze of the previous night or falling off his
moped.  He had a fag and some beer,
scrounged some exped. medicine and felt better. Sadly for Mick he was not well enough to stay in Vietnam and was last seen
hobbling onto the Saigon Hanoi “express” train.

Simon Brown had a near miss when he fell off an underground
tree – washed in by floods – and suffered bruising of the chest.

This accident occurred in the Minh Hoa area, a day’s jeep
ride from base and a very scenic landscape of high limestone towers.  Though one good through trip river cave was
found, about 3km, other leads in this area amounted to little.  A cave visited by Pete Ward and me being
rather like a muddy version of Stoke Lane Slocker and another one nearby being
notable only for the memorable sight of a small boy with a live bat on a bit of
string – rather like an animated conker or very energetic yo-yo.  Another ingenious use of wildlife by
Vietnamese kids is the adaptation of the beating wings of a large hand held
beetle as a portable fan!  I am told they
also glue these beetles upside-down to bits of cardboard with wheels on and
race them.

Back to caving – for the last few days a few of us have been
living in the entrance of a huge and promising river cave, Hang Cha Ang, in
another patch of leechy jungle.  On
arrival we decided to have a meal and then leisurely survey the first 500m or
so.

At station 13, 300m in, it sumped.  This isn’t normal for Vietnamese caves.  Two separate days of jungle bashing with
small boys as guides eventually saw us at a secluded valley where the same
river entered a large cave.  Not far in
it was blocked by massive boulder falls but by leaving through another entrance
these were by-passed and a further section of cave entered.  The lower levels were sumped but a promising
series of dry, upper level passages were surveyed for some distance until the
presence of a 4ft long black snake curtailed our activities.  It can wait for the next expedition in 1994,
as can the possibly mega resurgence cave found by Howard upstream.  The walk into this area is horrific – jungle
covered lapiaz.  The walk out was worse
as the small boys got lost and we nearly had to spend a night out with no food,
water, mosquito nets or bivvy bags.  As
it got steadily darker we luckily escaped the clutches of the “green
hell” and Hang Cha Ang was one of the most welcome caves we had ever seen!

Darkness is now also drawing in at this rock shelter.  Still no sign of the truck (or any truck) so we
will spend the night here.  Du has just
informed me, using drawings, that in January this year bandits machine-gunned
eight travellers only 11km further up the Trail!  I have opened up my Swiss Army knife.

Friday 17th April, 1992

6am and still alive. So is Du, though having seen the bullet scar on his leg and shrapnel
bump on his head received during three years as a soldier in Kampuchea he
probably has a charmed life.  Breakfast
consists of tea, fried eggs, the remains of yesterday’s chicken supreme and
prawn crackers.  A couple of local bomb
collectors have dropped in to help eat it. They have also provided the second course – noodle and pig fat soup with
rice.

At 10.30 Du and I took all the kit up to the Trail and spent
a few hours drinking rice vodka with the wood cutters.  At 2pm the truck finally arrived and we set
off back, pausing only to turf off some hitch hiking locals and replace them
with a few 500lb bombs and a selection of artillery shells.  Back to the village by 5pm for lots of beer.

The next few days were spent packing and having farewell
parties with the locals.  Pyrotechnics
and ale featured strongly.  Back in Hanoi
the reunited teams gave lectures and attended more feasts and booze ups.  On 25th April we sadly left this superb country
and its wonderful people for a week’s R & R in Thailand.  Notable for the novel use which young ladies
have for ping-pong balls, I found this country not a patch on Vietnam.  A nice touch in Bangkok though was the
reception party of Brian the Hippy and girlfriend complete with huge Bertie
placard.  We certainly do get
Everywhere!  We deny any connection with
the recent riots though.

The full report on the Expedition will be published later
this year.  Anyone wanting a copy please
contact Dany a.s.a.p. so he knows how many to print.  In all we explored and surveyed over 28kms of
cave, most of which was enormous river passage. A very successful trip.


 

Letter to B.B. Editor

“SOUR GRAPES AT THE DINNER?”

Dear Ted,

As the sole organiser of the last two Annual (and, I
believe, highly successful) Dinners perhaps I might have the same prominence in
right of reply to Alan Thomas’s vitriolic letter of criticism regarding the
dinner.

Alan, obviously after many past years on the B.E.C.
committee, has finally realised it is a mistake to go to the same place year
after year.  This is no doubt based on
the multitude of dinners at WOOKEY HOLE and at the CAVE MAN at Cheddar, so I
can only agree, it was time for a change.

Change we did, and the WEBBINGTON, with its higher standards
of decor, service and facilities was well suited to the B.E.C.   Far from deteriorating, the Dinner has
improved and, coupled with a greater variety of dinner speakers and guests,
continues to improve.

It is definitely an untruth to say that anyone is told where
to sit Alan (Why, were you?).  In fact, a
table of eight persons arranged in a circle means you have a greater, NOT
lesser, opportunity to mix than in long tables when you can speak easily only
to adjacent diners and perhaps three persons opposite, if you are lucky!

You appear somewhat out-of-touch Alan, with the general club
view that the B.E.C. be ‘tidy’ at least once a year.  The ladies in their ‘finery’ are justly
matched by members and guests in collar-and-tie.  There never has been, of course, a rule that
it must be a suit.  Yes, by common
agreement, ‘T’ shirts are out; we are NOT the WESSEX!  Perhaps you would feel happier if ‘T’ shirts
were worn, but then why have you always dressed-up,  ‘Cape and all?’  The membership want a tidy dinner.  Is it not their right to have the BEST dinner
for the BEST club on Mendip?

As for numbers, Alan, the last two WEBBINGTON dinners broke
ALL records (excepting the 50th of course) for attendance figures.  Doesn’t that tell you something, Alan?!!

Still, there is no room for complacency.  You may recall that in the B.B. after the
dinner I asked for comments from the club, so I could ensure that the 1992
dinner will be a success.  I have only
had your reply – via the B.B.!

“Mr. N”.

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