Into the bowels of the earth

Published 2014

The idea for this adventure was born many months ago when we heard about a big sinkhole out in the karst mountains beyond Getu. Getu has become our favorite place in China, it is remote, quiet, and very laid back. You stand more chance of being run over by a duck or a buffalo on the only road through the village than by a motorcar. It is also home to some of the world’s most interesting and exciting climbing.

Now that I have been out there so many times, I am more open to exploring the area than only being consumed by the need to climb everything in the area. One of the main features for Getu is a large river disappearing into an enormous arched cave in the side of a mountain. The cave is about 100m high, it’s pretty big. In the past, Nadine and I swam into this cave and went in for about 45 minutes before getting a little nervous, swimming down this river through an enormous cavern in the pitch dark, so we swam back out. But the seed was sown. The river had to come out somewhere…?

I started asking around and started exploring the hills beyond Getu. I’d heard that there was a section of this underground river that had collapsed, forming an enormous sinkhole. But to find it proved quite difficult. Try to understand how remote some of these places are. To access the villages you follow single track paths through the hills, no roads, no electricity, most of the people don’t even speak Chinese. Living off the land as they have for hundreds of generations. The locals in these types of places also get nervous speaking to foreigners, albeit in a broken version of local dialects and Mandarin. Everyone denied any knowledge of such a big sinkhole. Eventually, while exploring a big cave somewhere in the hills, we met an old man who said he had grown up in this particular cave, until the reformists had burnt his house down and taken him away (at the age of 9) to live somewhere more civilized. That was about 65 years ago. He showed us where he used to sleep, where his mother would cook. He still maintained the small alter in the back of this cave to make offerings to his ancestors. He also mentioned something about a sky hole!

After many sweaty hours of trudging small paths, renting motorbikes off farmers to race around the hills and questioning locals we were onto to something. The old guy pointed out a path nearby, which we followed. Cresting a steep hill a lovely green valley opened up in front of us with a big cliff at the end of it, the cliff turned out to be the back wall of a very large hole in the ground. Maybe 150m across and about 120m deep. You could hear a river crashing below. We had finally found it. We were also out of time and in need of some proper gear to get down there. Another trip was already being planned.

It’s only appropriate that my partner in crime, Ryan, was visiting from Australia when I wanted to get out to the sky hole for round two. So we set about arranging gear, static line ropes, jumars (ascenders), drills, bolts, prussiks, maillons, hammers…. I am rather experienced in going up cliff faces this size, not down, but we would learn fast. We even arranged a car for our time in Getu, hoping we could drive in to the sky hole area using some back roads we’d scouted previously. This turned out to be a disaster, early on into us driving these roads, a day before the planned event, our car ended up in a ditch, the roads were bad. Our car well and truly stuck, no amount of jacking and digging, cursing or whisky was getting it out. Eventually we had amassed about 15 village men and we all picked the car up out of the ditch and placed it back on the road. Driving in was not going to happen.

D-day was approaching, the bags were packed, and weighed a ton, the idea of walking out there was a bit much and the drive plan had been aborted, so we resorted to plan B, arrange for some farmers to drive us as far as they could on their motorbikes and then we would walk the rest of the way. All was set for the next day. However, what would an adventure be without a good hangover. In celebration of some good climbing we had done Ryan and I finished off a bottle of single malt, Ryan taking the lions share, for which he paid the price the next day. Hungover, sweaty, but excited we set off. The journey out there went something like this: by foot-by boat-by foot-by motorbike-by foot. The hangovers started to dissipate as we walked down the green valley towards the sky hole. We got a blast of nice cool air as we approached the forest that lined the rim of the hole, cooling us as we scrambled down the first few meters to find a suitable rocky outcrop to bolt some rappel anchors. We had 130m of rope with us, and 20 bolts, hoping this would get us to the ground and not leave us dangling.

We scrambled about the steep rim of the pit looking for reliable rock to bolt some anchors to get things started, eventually I sunk a few bolts, set up the gear and tossed the rope down the bushy cliff face. I opted to go first, thinking it the polite thing to do as I was the one who had placed the bolts, all that stood between us and the rushing river 120m below. It started off fine but soon problems began to show. The rappel device was getting hot, as my sweat soaked the rope near my waist you could here it sizzling on the device, then I had to maneuver back and forth finding the right line, this meant that the rope above rubbed over loose scree, and rocks started to rain down on me, it was all feeling a little wrong. I stopped my descent at about 40m and bolted another set of anchors, allowing my rappel device to cool off, relieving the tension from the rope and setting new attachment points to stop the rain of rock from above. Long story short, two more anchors were bolted, many more rocks fell, a lot of sweating and swearing took place but we got to the bottom.

It was really amazing down below, so big was the hole that there was a forest in there, huge cliffs all around. My imagination started, I was going to be opening climbs on these huge cliffs, I was already half down the river exploring the inside of this mountain by raft, my hammock was up between the trees, food stashed, we were going to be staying a while….big plans for this hidden playground.

Unfortunately reality kicked in, after exploring a bit we had to move. We had 120m of ascending to get through, with the same issue of rocks crashing down us. As I was getting ready to start the “jumaring” process to take me to the top something made me look down. I’m pleased I did, there was a pit viper (ironically named) silently watching my ankle! Weaving back and forth. These are scary snakes, aggressive and very venomous. I naturally avoided the creature but it reminded of just how isolated we were. Not just in the bottom of this pit, but in terms of nearest access to medical help. We would’ve been properly stuck if that snake had struck. On the bright side, it would’ve meant not having to go through the process of jumaring 120m! A truly taxing exercise, considering the gear we were using to ascend the line was found in the mountains around Cape Town about 9 years ago and was looking a little corroded to say the least.

After more sweating, dodging rocks (some very exciting microwave oven sized rocks came crashing overhead), stopping, starting, sweating some more and crying inside we made it to the top. Now to prepare for our return, we need a 100m slackline to span the top of the sinkhole, this will be an epic highline, we need a light weight inflatable raft to see just where this river leads through the mountain, and we need a big bag of bolts so we can get the climbs developed and set some crazy looking lines above this river flowing through the bowels of the earth. Exciting times.
– Peter Mortimer


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