“We’ve never seen that much water in Pha Peung.”
When Paul Dummer and Martin Ellis asked us to go ahead of the team to rig the infamous “Fitch Pitch,” Thailand’s largest single underground free hanging pitch at 93 meters, we jumped at the chance. What better way was there to Fuel Progression?
Our task was to rebolt and rig the pitch before British Cave Rescue Divers Jon Volanthen and Chris Jewell arrived in Nan so they could get to the bottom quickly and determine what was needed to dive the terminal sumps at a depth of 468 meters in Tham Pha Peung, Thailand’s deepest cave.
We had already worked with Paul, Martin and other British cavers in February of 2020. During that expedition, we joined up with the British team to finally survey and report on all the caves in the area, many of which we had been exploring since 2007. Over 14 days, our group explored, pushed and surveyed 14 caves 6 of which were in the top 13 deepest caves in Thailand. Tham Pha Daeng was confirmed as the 2nd deepest cave in Thailand at 299 meters.
After a long hiatus due to Covid, the Progression Caving team went back to Angkhang over two trips in May and June of 2022 and pushed a newer find, Impossible Ladder Cave to a depth of 314 meters making it the 2nd deepest in Thailand and bumping Pha Daeng to the 3rd deepest. Yet even with the excitement of pushing and surveying the 2nd and 3rd deepest caves in Thailand, we knew Tham Pha Peung was still more than 150 meters deeper and it had always been on our list. We were up for the challenge. The opportunity to reunite with the 2020 British Angkhang Expedition Team and special guests Jon Volanthen and Chris Jewell was a bonus. We hadn’t seen Jon or Chris since we worked with them during the Tham Luang Cave Rescue in July of 2018.
On January 23rd, Mario Wild, Nut Ingavanija (EQ), Suwit Thaya (Bom) and I loaded up in two vehicles and headed to Ban Manipruek in Nan. Martin had sent us some fairly detailed rigging topos including images of the top of the pitch so we had a decent sense of what we were going to face. I also chatted with Paul so he could share what he had done on his first two trips. On the first trip, he said they placed 8mm caving spits by hand and on a later trip they added a re-belay drilled with a battery drill to deal with a potential rub point. It all seemed pretty straightforward and we brought a lot of kit. We had plenty of bolts, removable bolts, lots of drill batteries and whatever else one would need to get the job done.
We weren’t too worried about an early start as we had three days to get to the bottom before everyone else arrived. When we finally left camp at 1pm, we had a few short Sterling 9mm HTP Static lines of between 20-40 meters each, one Sterling 10mm x 100 meter HTP Static and one Sterling 10mm x 200 meter HTP static, 50 bolts, some removable bolts and a pile of carabiners and quicklinks. We like the HTP static because of its low stretch which is helpful on big pitches. We planned to use the 200 meter rope due to the fact there was an expected 90-100 meter free hang on The Fitch Pitch. The 100 meter would be used for the fossil passage which had an undescended 68 meter pitch.
When we arrived at the entrance we were all in awe. I don’t think any of us realized just how big Tham Pha Peung is. The entrance is striking and enormous in scale. We made our way down the boulder slope which was no easy feat on its own and found the first 7 meter pitch. We quickly drilled new anchors at the pitch head and rigged one of the 9mm lines. When we hit the bottom of the pitch, we were a bit confused. It was quite wet and there was a waterfall that forced an easy but slippery downclimb or a quick duck around the back of the waterfall to get a little bit wet. Either way, we didn’ see any mention of a waterfall in the original notes and we began to wonder if we have missed something.
When we got to The Fitch Pitch, we quickly found some of the original bolts and the original natural anchor which we could reference from the original pictures. Still, I thought there was quite a bit of water at the pitch head and wondered why there wasn’t any mention of this in the original trip reports. Mario and EQ drilled a safety line and we rigged using the original natural anchor with a large piece of webbing. Still there was a lot more water than we expected and we couldn’t quite find the old bolts yet. We called it a day and came back out for some tasty food cooked by our hosts back at camp.
The next day, we aimed to get The Fitch Pitch fully rigged. We had stashed our bolts, the drill and ropes down at the top of the pitch and made quick work to get back to the top. I kitted up and started down the pitch. The pitch is somewhat small at first and then it very quickly bells out into an enormous space. The sound of the water makes it hard to hear anything. The pitch itself has its own weather system with a chilly wind blowing up from below. I was starting to second guess myself about whether or not we should push. Was this too much water? Maybe we should wait?
I found the first original rebelay about 7 meters down and placed a two bolt anchor just to the left to keep the line out of the waterfall. I continued down another 8 meters to look for the next rebelay. I was getting pelted by the falls and doing my best to keep the drill out of the water course. After looking around for 5 minutes, I found the original rebelay right in the middle of the water course which made me realize there was a lot more water this year. To keep the rope out of the water course, I drilled another rebelay further to the left which protected the rope from any rubbing. I did my best to keep the drill dry, but was not so successful for myself ultimately getting soaked.
From the rebelay I knew I had to find a massive traverse ledge that Martin and Paul had told me about. I abseiled to a huge ledge that allowed me to step around the waterfall to the right. I searched and searched for the traversing ledge of bolts and could not find them. I also couldn’t find the rebelay bolts from the original expedition. I looked around for what seemed like ages and when I finally found them I realized that I had passed them. They were about 5 meters above me and the ledge Martin and Paul had referred to was much higher. It made sense as they would have been able to get there easily when there was less water. There was no way to get there with the current waterfall. It turns out the ledge I found was much better and found that I could place an anchor on on overhanging wall with a great hang about 15 meters below the previous belay. The only problem was that I was soaking wet and freezing and was beginning to shiver quite uncontrollably. I couldn’t hold the drill steady and started to get nervous I may not be able to get back up. I marked the rock where I thought the rebelay should go and started back up the rope so I could warm up.
When I got to the top, Paul, Becca and others from the British crew arrived. I was visibly cold and took off my wet layers. Paul took a quick look at the pitch and said,
“we’ve not seen this much water here before.”
That made me feel a bit more comfortable with my second guessing. The group consensus was to continue and see how much water was in the lower streamway. Mario took the drill and continued down to the rebelay I had marked. He drilled a two bolt anchor at the pitch head and came back up. A bit warmer, I went back down and continued down15 meters below Mario’s rebelay. As the wall began to bell out even more, I was able to get a decent hook in and drill one more two bolt rebelay which would be the final free hanging pitch which was ultimately 93 meters. The cave was so big and expansive even on full power I couldn’t really see and the wind coming up from below was chilly. I was wet again so I came back up and we called it a day.
We regrouped with everyone back at camp with a plan to go back down the following day and rig either the fossil series or the stream series or both.
We were starting to feel a bit tired and sore but excited to get back to the pitch. After a tasty breakfast, we headed back to the cave. We brought radios with us so we could communicate with the top when we got to the bottom. Mario went first. He slowly disappeared passing the rebelays his light becoming more and more faint. Eventually he radioed up that he was down. I followed. The pitch was incredible and it felt like an eternity. As I lowered I slowly spun around and could see just how big the pitch was. The rigging worked well and we descended just next to the falls minimizing the spray from the water, though it still wasn’t possible to go down without getting wet. When I arrived at the bottom, I reconnected with Mario and radioed to EQ and Bom to start coming down.
We identified where the fossil series and after about 20 minutes of caving through beautiful features we found Paul’s original bolts in the bypass series. I poked around above that to find the top of the undescended pitch and found a perfect slot that seemed like it would go down to a ledge where the divers could potentially stage their gear.
Bom drilled the first set of anchors and Mario continued down to place another rebelay at the pitch head above a beautifully straight pitch. He descended and placed an additional rebelay which got him to the ledge that Paul had seen but couldn’t access 10 years earlier. He added one bolt above the water that would eventually allow Chris to abseil into the water and stage on a small ledge below the waterline. The 100 meter rope just made it to the bottom.
While Bom and Mario were finishing up , EQ started up The Fitch Pitch and I worked my way down the streamway to see how much water was there. It was a bit unnerving to use the old gear that had been in place for 10+years, but I had recently lost 10kgs so I told myself it was ok. I dropped 3 or 4 small pitches and down climbed a few until I reached a point where the rope was cut and couldn’t go any further. When I came back up, Bom had started up The Fitch Pitch and Mario and I hung out for a bit enjoying the moment at the bottom of the pitch. It was a productive day and we couldn’t wait to share it with the team on the surface.
When we returned to the surface, we relayed the good news. Chris and Jon had arrived as well and we shared photos of lower streamway so they new what they were getting into. Our team mate Sudeep Subrahmanya had also arrived from India. We hadn’t seen him in a few months and were psyched to reunite. Chris and Jon planned to go down and rig the lower streamway the next day to have a look at the sump and see if it was diveable.
We prepared for a much needed rest day.
Preparing For The Dive
Chris and Jon returned from their trip. They had used all of the rope and bolts that we left at the bottom of The Fitch Pitch and referring to whether or not they could dive the terminal sump. Jon said,
“It’s nasty, but it has to be done doesn’t it.”
We began to plan for the dive. It would take place over two days. On day one Jon would dive the terminal sump in the lower streamway. Chris, Becca, Sudeep, Mario and I would help carry kit to the bottom of the streamway to support the dive. Once finished we would head back up to the bottom of The Fitch Pitch and stage any unused tanks and necessary gear there to be used the following day when Chris would dive the terminal sump in the fossil series. We would then head out to the surface to rest and return the following morning.
Diving The Streamway
We left camp around 9am. Each of us with a different bit of kit including air tanks, wetsuit, rebreather, etc. The Fitch Pitch helped to spread us out and we all regrouped at the sump where Jon started to prep for the dive. The cave was warm and comfortable while moving but once we stopped, it was easy to get chilly. Luckily Becca brought a bothy that helped people stay warm while we waited for Jon to dive.
While I have an interest in cave diving it would be hard to say that the sump looked inviting in any way. The water was muddy with zero visibility and only a few feet deep. It was also filled with debris including plastic bottles, shoes and other random items. Jon tied off the diveline, laid down on his stomach and slowly disappeared into the sump. Chris mentioned that a good sign of whether or not it was a good lead would be if Jon returned head first or feet first. Over the next 40 minutes Jon attempted a few different dives each time his feet appeared first as he backed out of the sump and updated us about what he found, basically a sandy bottom that got smaller and smaller with no way on. The result was another 10 meters of length and 2 meters of depth added to the cave.
While it was not the good news we were hoping for, it was good to be able to put an end to the question of whether or not the cave could be pushed further. We helped Jon derig and began the long 468 meter vertical slog back to the surface, staging some gear for the fossil series and bringing out the used tank to refill on the surface.
Diving The Fossil Series
The objective of our final day was for Chris to dive the fossil series. Mario, Becca, Jon and I would help carry gear down for the dive and derig the fossil series pitch. Cal, Rob and Louis would check out the lower stream series and derig the stream series as well as assist with derigging The Fitch Pitch.
We made quick work to get down to the fossil series. This dive looked much more inviting than the streamway. A large sump about 6 meters in diameter of greenish water awaited. The visibility seemed better. We regrouped at the bottom of the pitch and helped Chris kit up.
Chris abseiled into the sump and then we lowered the rest of his kit to him. Chris set off on the dive. We could see his light moving around the edge of the sump until the light faded. Hoping this meant he found something we waited. He resurfaced a few times and then went back down until eventually the dive was over. Similar to Jon, Chris added about 4 meters of depth but basically found only a silty bottom that was too tight to continue with visibility worsening by the minute.
This confirmed the final depths of Tham Pha Peung and completed the exploration and survey of the cave.
Derigging The Cave
With the dive work complete, we headed for the surface. Each person taking some kit with them. I waited and derigged the Fossil Series pitch and packed the 100 meter rope back in the bag and headed back to The Fitch Pitch. Chris, Jon, Becca and Mario were all very quick up the rope, each carrying gear with them. Ascending The Fitch Pitch with a 100 meter rope and personal gear was a bit of a task but there was no other efficient way to get gear up. When I got to the top I waited for Rob, Louis and Cal so I could help them with the derigging.
While Rob derigged the scary bits in the streamway, Cal had the enormous task of derigging The Fitch Pitch. This meant he had to hang in the watercourse and remove hangers as he came up while also packing the rope in the rope bag and bringing it up so it did not get stuck on the lip of the ledge. It was an incredible effort. As we waited for Cal to arrive, Louis took two enormous bags of rope and headed for the surface making it much easier for the rest of us. When Cal arrived, Rob valiantly took the 200 meter rope and headed for the surface. We left the 7 meter pitch as Rob and others were still exploring a waterfall upstream and would return a few days later.
When we arrived at the cars Jon, Chris, Mario and the crew were waiting with tasty creams in hand. We headed back to camp to celebrate a successful trip.
Caving is a unique activity. It can be scary and uncertain, much like many parts of life. Yet it has an incredible ability to focus us in the present moment. When we are under thousands of meters of rock deep underground second guessing ourselves and asking how we ended up where we are, there is little we can do than accept the situation. Once we accept that situation we get clarity and we can make decisions about what to do next and take intentional action toward our next goal. It’s what I love about caving. It’s a great teacher that reminds me of what is possible and that overcoming difficult obstacles requires hard work. That hard work is fulfilling even when we don’t achieve the objective.
To have had the opportunity to support two of the most respected cave divers in the world in their effort to push the cave was an incredible honor. To work alongside my team and see them in their element exhibiting great skill and effort was inspiring and made me proud. The trip gave our team a chance to test our skills, collaborate with others and continue to build strong friendships. It confirmed that in order to fuel progression we must consistently put ourselves in situations that challenge us and ultimately give us the opportunity to overcome our fears. With each successful challenge, a new challenge is revealed. This is what allows us to steadily move to a more advanced state and Fuel Our Progression
When we got back to camp, I joked with Paul,
“I understand now why you asked us to rig for you,”
hinting that he may have known something about the amount of water and the effort it would take to get to the bottom. I said it in jest as he and his original team did the entire thing with a hand drill which would have been a monumental task. We laughed together, both thankful that no more work was needed. We had answered the question of whether or not the cave continued. It was now time to look for the next objective.