Notes from Sui Tang Caving Expedition

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April in Thailand: Hot. Dry. Not Songkran until the 13th.  Sound boring?  It sure would be, except that it’s also caving season.

As per annual tradition, CMRCA seized the moment and spent the dog days of April way up north, near the border with Burma, searching for the deepest cave in Thailand.  Rolling through army checkpoints and into remote villages with our truckload of gear, we began collecting local legends.  “Excuse us, are there caves around here?”  Just about everyone had a story to tell.

In a region that appears completely peaceful and idyllic — think peach orchards ripening in a perfect mountain breeze — we soon learned that there was a lot going on beneath the surface.  Some locals told stories of hiding in caves as children when fragments of the Kuomintang army arrived in the early 1950s, retreating from the Chinese Civil War.  Others knew of banana tree hollows where water disappeared into the rocks, or black holes in the earth that couldn’t be descended without professional gear.  We heard tales of bad air, of caves that were 50km long, of children who disappeared into a high mountain cavern and turned up a day later down on the plains.  Even so, after three days of searching, scrambling and crawling, we had yet to find a cave that got us deeper than 30 meters below ground.

Once we did find it, two removable bolts and a giant boulder provided the anchor for a free-hanging 45 meter rappel into the darkness.  At the bottom of that first pitch was the bedrock we had been searching for, as well as another absurdly cool discovery: A gigantic mud-stained elephant tusk.

On the last day of the expedition, Josh, EQ, Caleb, Add, and Steve pushed an estimated 230 meters down into Sui Tang Cave.  They turned around at the top of the sixth vertical pitch, standing waist-deep in water, out of equipment and out of time.  After a final morning of thanking the locals who had supported the expedition, the team headed back to Chiang Mai just in time to celebrate Songkran.  Great timing, since three days of intense water wars are just about the only thing that can clean off clothes that have gone caving.

CMRCA will return next year to see if we can reach the bottom of Sui Tang Cave, which may yet be the deepest cave in Thailand.  However, the real success of the trip was the chance to consider why we invest in these adventures, and remember what CMRCA is all about.  The value is not just in caving, but in the whole experience: Following local legends and tall tales into the mouths of never-surveyed caverns; discovering fallen elephant tusks and splintered ancient coffins; appreciating the farmer’s gift of fresh-picked peaches; working to conserve the dramatic natural beauty of the region.

The first goal of caving is to get out of the cave safely.  So, we ask ourselves, why go into the cave at all?  Why travel, why stand up and speak, why pursue a challenging life?  The answer is for all of the things that we count as CMRCA core values: among them passion, growth, discovery, and adventure.  This is what enables us to be great guides, great facilitators, and great travelers.  For me, and for CMRCA, this is what it’s all about.

Cave on!

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