Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fullfilling my lifelong dream

It all started back when I was young. I seem to remember it as being when I was in 7th grade or so, but an internet search shows it as March 1991. National Geographic ran an article about the discovery and subsequent exploration of the Lechuguilla Cave. I remember being glued to the images and actually reading the text of the article (as opposed to doing what most of us do which is to only look at the pictures). This was something that I wanted to do when I grew up! Find a new cave, keep it a secret, and spend some serious time exploring, mapping and and discovering a new world right here on this planet. Who wouldn't want to do that?
As readers of this blog might already know, a lot of my time in Thailand has been spent searching out limestone areas and obsessing over scoping out new caves.
The good news: there are tons of caves in thailand.
The bad news: most locals know about all of them.
The good news part 2: In general thai people are afraid to go inside caves because they are full of ghosts.
The bad news 2: There are plenty of people who aren't afraid to go in them.
The good news 3: While on a motorcycle ride (see article: Tour de Rain) in an area where hardly any cave hardy tourists go, I scoped what I thought to be the future of caving in Northern Thailand.
The bad news 3: I ran out of time in Thailand to get the opportunity to go back and see what lay underground.

Well... here I am back in thailand for a 6 week vacation and I was able to talk my buddy Josh into going up to this area to see what we could find. He speaks fluent Thai which was helpful when talking to the farmers. Almost everyone we talked to knew of a cave in his orchard or of a cave on that hill over there. We spent two days following creeks into the hillside. We found lead after lead of potentially new stuff, the most promising of which was an enormous entrance with a creek gushing into it and a big drop 1/4 mile into the cave. When picking apples from a heavily laden tree, you might as well pluck the low hanging fruit first, eh? We can leave the other river flowing into cracks for later.

We put together a team of 4, grabbed every static rope we could find and headed back up last week for a 3 day event. Like me, Josh was giddy. The possibilities that lay in this cave were massive. During our scoping adventure, we had stood at the edge of a drop with water pouring down and a steady breeze at our back (for cavers, a breeze indicates ongoing passage- the air has to be going somewhere, right?). What was down that drop. Where did the water go? Would we be able to find the basement level of this system with some massive underground stream flowing into Burma? How big was thing going to be? Were we the first to ever go in here?

I won't give a blow by blow, but we found what is for sure the deepest recorded cave in thailand and might just be the longest (we were lazy and didn't map it). Three days of exploration resulted in rappel after rappel, the longest of which is a 65 meter free hanging tube plunging straight down into earth. It took a rock 3-4 seconds to hit the ground after we threw it off. That's long enough to not be able to see the bottom from the top using our headlamps. The system holds untold complexity.
We found fossil passage that hasn't been altered in what I think to be really long time (100,000 years). We found large bat populations and animals that live off the bats and bat poop (giant translucent cave leeches, blind cave crickets with 10 cm long antennae, wacky cave centipedes with extra long legs). We found enormous mud cracks positioned on mud with large stalagmites growing on top, a utah style slot canyon that goes on for 2 km or so, giant columns, cave pearls, 100 meter high rooms 500 meters below the surface of the earth. We left untold booming passages unexplored (for now).
It was 3 days of what I would consider to be absolute underground bliss. Often, we would have to stop for a second to look at each other and remind ourselves of the coolness of what we were doing. This was it, for three days I couldn't think of anything else in the world I'd rather be doing. I had been dreaming of this moment for most of my life. We found the holy grail for cavers. Massive unexplored passage. We figured we were the first humans on the planet to see these rooms and it wasn't just a puny cave. It is huge!
In 56 hours, we were underground for 29. Many of our friends asked if we got an itch to see the sun after being underground for 8 hours. The answer is a resolute "no." I could have easily camped in this thing and stayed under for days on end. The only thing that made us turn around at the end of an 11 hour day, was that we told a guy on the surface that we would check in with him at 10pm. We were focused and our hearts were gleeful.
Eventually, we were expected back in Chiang Mai. We cleaned up our ropes and rolled back in, stopping occasionally to buy a can of beer. We sat in the car, talking excitedly a moment and then silent and thoughtful the next. We were pondering what we had just done, and the fact that so much more adventure lay ahead.
I head back to America on Saturday, and for me, this cave will have to wait for the future. But my list of things I must do before I die is now a bit shorter. I still need to open that goat farm. Maybe I can do it at the mouth of this cave.

[Saluting a great flow feature. Actually, we were holding down the "ultra-bright" buttons on our lamps to get more light for the photo]

[Squeezing through a narrow section- the inner canyon is only about 5 meters deep, but the cave is around 40 meters tall here (at least we think- we couldn't really make out the ceiling)]

[Packing up gear to go into the cave. Next time, we will definitely sleep in the cave but this time we stayed at the killer place called the Happy House. 50 dollars a night rented us this enormous house with private patio and fire place]

[A big bat on the ground. He was alive, but couldn't seem to fly. We felt a bit guilty because it was probably us who caused him to fall to the ground. After all, they aren't too used to seing anything in this cave.]

Click on this photo for a slideshow of lots of images from the trip- captioned even