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Into the unknown
Publication Date : 06-09-2012
They are dark and deep. So, what attracts caving enthusiasts to risk their lives and explore these caverns?
Yang Zhi loves the unknown. That's why he is hooked on cave exploration, as a trip into a cave as deep as several hundred metres is filled with uncertainties.
As the captain of a cave exploration team in China's Chongqing municipality, the 37-year-old and his team have led people to more than 400 caves in Chongqing and its neighbouring Sichuan and Guizhou provinces.
"The best part about a cave expedition is going into places no one has ever been before," says Yang. "You know neither your exact destination nor what you are going to see."
The vast distribution of karst topography characterised by caves in Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, has provided a rich source for cave explorers.
"Many mountains may appear huge on the outside, but are hollow inside. As cave explorers, our first job is to find the entrance of caves," he says.
Yang first heard about caving in the late 1990s when he moved to Chongqing, where he opened a computer trading company. He was initiated by an American, who led caving activities in Chongqing.
"I was so nervous that I drank my water supply and everybody else's. But I became addicted to this sport immediately," says Yang, who was the only Chinese in the group.
As recent as two decades ago, most of the explorers of China's deepest caves were foreigners because of the country's lack of professional equipment and knowledge. Now, according to Yang, almost every province has its own Chinese caving team.
It is an activity that requires skills and proper gear such as harnesses, bags and packs, torch lights, suits and undersuits, as well as other accessories such as belts and ropes. Also known as spelunking in the United States and Canada and potholing in the United Kingdom, it is a physically exhausting and risky sport.
Caves that are formed in karst landscapes can be as deep as several hundred metres.
In 2009, Yang explored the second deepest cave in China, in Fuling district, in Chongqing, which is more than 840 metres.
"The most dangerous part is falling rocks," Yang says. "For safety reasons, we only allow one team member to descend or ascend each time, using a rope. But, falling rocks are unavoidable."
Yang recalls a cave exploration in 2005, when one of his teammates was severely injured by a falling rock and broke several of his ribs. It took them more than eight hours to rescue and carry him out of the cave. The deeper the cave, the chances of survival get slimmer because rescue efforts are more challenging.
Cave explorers face other risks including falls, hypothermia and floods.
"Human beings have an inherent fear of darkness. You can become very nervous when you don't know your next step or whether danger is at hand. Because of that, your stamina depletes fast and you feel exhausted easily," he says.
The fact that every team member generally carries baggage of more than 50 kilograms also makes the expedition difficult and exhausting.
Inside the baggage is equipment, and food for oneself and food for the team. Yang says most people also carry "emergency food". In his case, he carries candies and chocolate.
"We share our food most of the time. But, we've this rule not to share our 'emergency food' that is reserved for yourself," he says.
Apart from food, the other most important thing when they are in a cave is light.
"It is pitch dark in the cave. If you do not have light sources, you will never get out," he warns.
Yang also stresses teamwork, saying that it is the key to conquering problems and ensuring each other's safety.
"Everyone's life is attached to that same rope and we must be responsible for each other," he says.
"There is no democracy inside the cave. If the captain asks you to do something, just do it. You need to trust the captain and place the interest of the team above self."
What attracts these cave explorers?
For Yang, it is the beauty of stalagmites inside the caverns.
"There were times when I simply couldn't take my eyes off the beauty inside the caves. You don't see such awesome sights outside the caves."
The ecology inside the cave is so fragile that environmental protection is crucial.
"If you touch a stone that is just coming into shape, you might stunt its growth. The same goes for other landscapes inside. It is our rule never to touch anything," he says.
"We try not to leave anything behind except our footsteps. We even collect our waste in bottles to ensure no breeding of microorganisms," he adds.
Yang's caving team has more than a dozen regular members. "Some have almost turned into full timers as they dive deeper into the sport and become more involved," Yang says.
Liu Jia, a company clerk who is also an enthusiast in mountaineering and rafting, says caving is different from other sports because there is no precedent.
Liu got lost in her first caving activity in 2004 but that did not stop her. "The excitement about caving is you don't know what lies ahead," she says.
For Yang, caving is more of a personal curiosity and he has been using it primarily as a pastime, but he says he gains much more from it.
The experience he has gained through years of caving earns him a sense of achievement when he shares his experience with firefighters and university students through training, and when it comes to helping people in dry areas to search for water and authorities to map the roads.