The Return to Thailand (Pt.3)
Thailand’s Deepest Cave
After four and a half years, Chris Jewell and John Volanthan revisit Thailand to retrace their steps from the 2018 Thai Cave Rescue
Exclusive insight from Chris Jewell
After a good night’s rest and a good breakfast our weary bodies were sufficiently repaired for us to head off to the Doi Phu Kha national park. A seven hour cross country drive took us up into the mountains of the park near a village called Ban Mani Phruk. Here the rest of the expedition were camped at the park headquarters.
The large group of twenty four cavers included the Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures team led by Josh and fellow cave divers Mike and Robert Thomas. Organising and co-ordinating the whole affair was British expat Martin Ellis (another of our team from Tham Luang in 2018) who’s wife Yuphin was in charge of catering.
Whilst John and I had been in Chiang Rai, Josh and his team had successfully installed ropes through the entrance series of Tham Pha Phueng and then completed the rigging of the huge 93m free hanging ‘fitch pitch’. The pitch is usually dry but due to recent rain fall a significant stream entered the cave. This soaked them and chilled them to the bone as they swung around on thin ropes in the darkness attempting to secure the ropes.
Despite the difficult conditions they did an excellent job and when John and I arrived the cave was ready for the final section called “the lower stream way” to be tackled, and for Thailand’s deepest sump to be inspected first hand. When we reached the end of the cave at a depth of 468m to say we were underwhelmed is something of an understatement
A mucky brown pool full of rocks presented itself to us. John got in to feel around with his feet and managed to find some body sized passage, but it wasn’t going to be easy progress. We agreed however, that it had to be dived and so, planned a return with minimalist streamlined kit and a team to help us.
After a suitable rest day we were back in the cave, this time heavily laden with diving kit. Our plan was for John to dive the terminal sump and if it didn’t go anywhere then the equipment would be carried to our second objective in the ‘Fossil series’ for me to look at another un-dived sump the following day. This way we’d get two objectives ticked off and still have time for further dives if either progressed well
With the Chiang Rai team hauling bags with us we made good progress to the sump where John took the plunge. With no fins and small cylinders he was able to wriggle into the small hole and push some of the rocks aside. He made several valiant attempts but ultimately the sump was too constricted to be passed and we called it a day. On the way back out of the cave we made a detour to the ‘Fossil series’ to deposit some of the diving kit for the following day.
After a excellent meal (all the food in Thailand was fantastic), was washed with lots of Thai beer, we crashed out, only to be ready to do it all again the next day. However this time it was my turn to dive the sump at the bottom of the Fossil series.
On first impressions I’d definitely chosen wisely, my sump was a large (almost) clear lake. The one difficulty was that the lake could only be access by abseiling. So whilst I stood waist deep in the water all of my equipment had to be lowered to me and donned carefully for fear of dropping it in the deep and (now) murky pool.
As I descended below the surface following the sloping walls downwards, anything I touched crumbled and the fine particles quickly destroyed the visibility.
At a depth of 6m the floor was encountered and this was followed to a small hole with crumbling walls. I tried to insert myself but it was in vain. The cave was too small and the conditions underwater made me doubtful that a significant extension lay beyond the obstacle. So after a thorough search by touch of the underwater chamber I turned for the surface.
Unlike yesterday, now the kit would need to come all the way out, up the 93m rope on Fitch Pitch which no one was looking forward to. Diving cylinders are always easy to take down a cave and always hard to haul out! And so began the long way out!
Images by: Josh Morris & Siripon Bugnngem
Chris Jewell is an exploratory caver and cave diver who explores new cave passages in the UK and abroad. As a member of the British Cave Rescue Council he was one of the British cave divers who played a leading role in the 2018 Tham Luang Thailand cave rescue.