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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".