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Breakthrough in Mulu

Pegasus

Administrator
Staff member
53480651281_ed2c516c34_b.jpg

(Cobweb Cave - Photo Mark Burkey)

Heard (very briefly) from Tim today who's out at Camp 5, Mulu, Borneo.

For those that know the caves of Benerat - A team have found the downstream river in Cobweb. The part they have got to is open both up and downstream, 700m surveyed and still going.

That's all I know, however sounds promising 😁
 
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mulucaver

Member
Heard (very briefly) from Tim today who's out at Camp 5, Mulu, Borneo.

For those that know the caves of Benerat - A team have found the downstream river in Cobweb. The part they have got to is open both up and downstream, 700m surveyed and still going.

That's all I know, however sounds promising 😁
When are they leaving Mulu.
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
Hi all, fans of Mulu.

The Benarat 2024 expedition have now returned home, just today. It has been an eventful trip in more ways than one. Quite attritional on our small team. A fantastic group of experienced individuals who really pulled together when needed - and we had a major incident with one of our comrades to deal with. The significant find of the trip was a new section of downstream river passage, the longest section in Benarat. Exhausting eighteen hour trips to explore, survey and photograph the extensions, building on from the work of our pre-pandemic 2020 trip. Together with other finds a couple of Kms in the book.

Two days track cutting, four days clinging onto the Benarat Cliffs, 185m of rope run out climbing to the legendary Corner Cave feature and..... as the T shirt said - an alcove!!

I'll pull a few stories together as soon as I've caught up on sleep I promise, and Mark Burkey has some great shots to post...

Cheers
Tim
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
I mentioned the attrition on our small team, here is the story of the first man down.

It happened on the first proper trip of the expedition, although many of the team had done the nursery trip of Cave of the Winds to Clearwater back at National Park HQ. The aim of our trip today was familiarisation with Cobweb Cave, to learn the complex entrance route, to check if the 2020 Monolith climbs were still roped and to take a few photographs in the beautiful tunnels of Bypass Bypass, Bogeydom and Huskey Hall. For my own satisfaction I wanted to do a loop I’d not done before, it involved a section of the Cobweb River and would also be fun for a few photographs. I had previously done most of the loop passages but not a short section which looked like it made the easiest traverse.

There were two other teams out that day with different missions and so we were six for the Cobweb loop, Pete, Stu, Lisa, Chris, Mark and me. All started well. Navigation of the entrance series went without a hitch. This is a huge passage, 40m wide in places, with a great roof but a hell of a jumble of boulders for a floor. The boulders are huge, house sized in places, and there is only one zigzaggy route across them. This involves traversing the arêtes of these monoliths with large drops on either sides to climb downs that allow progress to be made to the next section. In other places there are drops, traverses around holes, but also some easy bits. The nature of the passage becomes more significant later.

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Away from the entrance series much easier going.

It is hot, unimaginably hot if you aren’t acclimatised or experiencing the tropical conditions for the first time. We are 4 degrees north of the equator and less than a few hundred metres in altitude. We come to the Air Conditioner, where the strong cool draught blasts along a notch in the wall. It is great for a rest spot and to try to stop sweating for a moment at least. There is a sandy crawl, a luxury as crawls go and it bypasses a steep up and down boulder slope by cutting a corner. Beyond the passage rises and rises, up and up a long hill, to Top of the Morning. ‘The’ Monolith passage goes off here, which has an up pitch. We check the rope is still there as this will be our return loop. It is. We take the remaining route from Top of the Morning, down a very steep hill for several hundred metres. At the bottom a small rift in the wall is the only way into the Bypass Bypass where it expands again to normal Mulu dimensions. Over the next hour or so, this is where we take a number of photographs as we head down towards the Cobweb River. See the Photography Showcase thread for a sample of these - https://ukcaving.com/board/index.ph...se-3-per-week-limit.23410/page-43#post-386676


Just before the river we stop for a lunch of chocolate, nuts, dried fruit etc., at a water source where we fill up our water bottles. Suitably refreshed and cooled, we follow the inlet water for a bit, climb up through a slippery hole into the Rubic Tubes. It is easy flat walking. I’m in front, Pete behind me. There is a mud slope of a few metres to a muddy puddle, a short climb up to a muddy ridge and I am looking down at the Cobweb River. I’m thinking it will make a great photo, that we are half way round the loop, will the way be obvious, etc.

20240102_133602.jpg

Pete on the right having just filled his water bottle. The rest of us lunch.

My thoughts are broken by a shout, a snap and a scream. Pete is in the muddy puddle groaning. I’m not really sure what has happened other than he has clearly slipped down the slope. I wait to see what happens, perhaps he’ll get up and laugh it off, you can never tell in those first few seconds. But no, it is starting to sound serious. We all try to help, persuading Pete out of the mud, up the slope to the dry flat area above. Things are clearly not right – what was the snap? A broken leg, dislocated knee? It seems he has slipped on the slope, his one leg has shot forward and he has come down on his other, leg bent double beneath him. Luckily Pete has trousers on with zips up the legs so it is easy to examine the knee. It looks ugly. A detached tendon is our amateur diagnosis at this time. It doesn’t really matter, Pete is in trouble and is going to need considerable help to get out. In our minds, I’m sure we’re all thinking of the entrance series – how the hell will we get him through that lot?

More to come as soon as I can.
 

Heatlump

New member
..oof sounds nasty! I seem to recall the jungle-scramble up to the Cobweb entrance being no joke either!
 

colinboothroyd

New member
I mentioned the attrition on our small team, here is the story of the first man down.

It happened on the first proper trip of the expedition, although many of the team had done the nursery trip of Cave of the Winds to Clearwater back at National Park HQ. The aim of our trip today was familiarisation with Cobweb Cave, to learn the complex entrance route, to check if the 2020 Monolith climbs were still roped and to take a few photographs in the beautiful tunnels of Bypass Bypass, Bogeydom and Huskey Hall. For my own satisfaction I wanted to do a loop I’d not done before, it involved a section of the Cobweb River and would also be fun for a few photographs. I had previously done most of the loop passages but not a short section which looked like it made the easiest traverse.

There were two other teams out that day with different missions and so we were six for the Cobweb loop, Pete, Stu, Lisa, Chris, Mark and me. All started well. Navigation of the entrance series went without a hitch. This is a huge passage, 40m wide in places, with a great roof but a hell of a jumble of boulders for a floor. The boulders are huge, house sized in places, and there is only one zigzaggy route across them. This involves traversing the arêtes of these monoliths with large drops on either sides to climb downs that allow progress to be made to the next section. In other places there are drops, traverses around holes, but also some easy bits. The nature of the passage becomes more significant later.

View attachment 18204
Away from the entrance series much easier going.

It is hot, unimaginably hot if you aren’t acclimatised or experiencing the tropical conditions for the first time. We are 4 degrees north of the equator and less than a few hundred metres in altitude. We come to the Air Conditioner, where the strong cool draught blasts along a notch in the wall. It is great for a rest spot and to try to stop sweating for a moment at least. There is a sandy crawl, a luxury as crawls go and it bypasses a steep up and down boulder slope by cutting a corner. Beyond the passage rises and rises, up and up a long hill, to Top of the Morning. ‘The’ Monolith passage goes off here, which has an up pitch. We check the rope is still there as this will be our return loop. It is. We take the remaining route from Top of the Morning, down a very steep hill for several hundred metres. At the bottom a small rift in the wall is the only way into the Bypass Bypass where it expands again to normal Mulu dimensions. Over the next hour or so, this is where we take a number of photographs as we head down towards the Cobweb River. See the Photography Showcase thread for a sample of these - https://ukcaving.com/board/index.ph...se-3-per-week-limit.23410/page-43#post-386676


Just before the river we stop for a lunch of chocolate, nuts, dried fruit etc., at a water source where we fill up our water bottles. Suitably refreshed and cooled, we follow the inlet water for a bit, climb up through a slippery hole into the Rubic Tubes. It is easy flat walking. I’m in front, Pete behind me. There is a mud slope of a few metres to a muddy puddle, a short climb up to a muddy ridge and I am looking down at the Cobweb River. I’m thinking it will make a great photo, that we are half way round the loop, will the way be obvious, etc.

View attachment 18203
Pete on the right having just filled his water bottle. The rest of us lunch.

My thoughts are broken by a shout, a snap and a scream. Pete is in the muddy puddle groaning. I’m not really sure what has happened other than he has clearly slipped down the slope. I wait to see what happens, perhaps he’ll get up and laugh it off, you can never tell in those first few seconds. But no, it is starting to sound serious. We all try to help, persuading Pete out of the mud, up the slope to the dry flat area above. Things are clearly not right – what was the snap? A broken leg, dislocated knee? It seems he has slipped on the slope, his one leg has shot forward and he has come down on his other, leg bent double beneath him. Luckily Pete has trousers on with zips up the legs so it is easy to examine the knee. It looks ugly. A detached tendon is our amateur diagnosis at this time. It doesn’t really matter, Pete is in trouble and is going to need considerable help to get out. In our minds, I’m sure we’re all thinking of the entrance series – how the hell will we get him through that lot?

More to come as soon as I can.
Really great to read the journey in and around Cobweb. The passage desciptions and the passage names are all trickling back into my fuzzy memory - many thanks. Pete certainly didn't select the best part of planet to tear a tendon. I can only imagine the pain and torture he endured getting out.

So looking forward to reading more - and particularly the discovery of the river passage.
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
We are measured and unrushed in making our plan. As I know the cave best I will go out to alert the rest of the team. Chris is going well and elects to come with me. We have a mental list of what we need to bring back with us and set off at a steady pace. That leaves three to look after Pete. I already know Pete will not sit still for long, he’s proven that before. I expect that once the initial pain and adrenalin rush has subsided he’ll want to make a start on getting out. Shuffling on his bum all the way if necessary. That reminds me to rummage through his stuff at camp and see if he has a spare pair of shorts.

We’re at the entrance in something over an hour and a half. I’ve pondered the route on the way. I’m sure Pete is not a stretcher case and helping himself is going to be the best way. It is a steep, rugged, jungle track down to the plain – that won’t be easy either, then it is just the 4.5km back to our base at Camp 5.

It is still daylight. I spend the trudge back thinking of what to say to the rest of the team when we arrive. I don’t want to be dramatic but do what to convey the seriousness of the task and the fact that we are likely to be up all night!

We arrive in the usual sweat. Thankfully the others are back from their missions. Everyone gathers round for the briefing. Essentially the plan is to control pain, immobilise the knee and help Pete out as much as he needs. Our local crew will attend the entrance at first light with the stretcher in case we need that for getting Pete back to camp. Everyone gets a job and prepares for the task. Becka and Frank sustenance, Chris and Loz extra first aid, Mark and Will ropework, etc. Our camp manager rushes out some food so we can eat a good meal before setting off.

It’s been raining. It is a rain forest after all. By the time we get back to the bridge to cross the Melinau River it is in full, impressive spate. We set of at dusk but very soon it is dark in the forest. We are in good spirit but it is a trudge, my body for one was not expecting 20km of walking and two caving trips in a day, well not this early on in the expedition.

I lead the way again through the chaotic breakdown of the entrance series as other than Chris’s trip earlier that day no one has been in this cave before. About half way back to where we left Pete we glimpse light. Surely this cannot be them, but it is. Mark is out ahead looking for the way, Lisa and Stu some way back with Pete guiding and supporting him down a slope of boulders. There is a suitable area for rest and to gather just at the bottom of the slope. We dump the gear and set up the stove whilst Pete is assisted down to join us. He is in remarkably good spirits.

It is six and a half hours since me and Chris left Pete. It seems that we were right to assume he would want to make a start out. Stu and Lisa had fabricated a splint out of a transporter sack and strapping. That had worked well. We learned that at first Pete shuffled on his bum with Stu taking the weight of his ankle in a tape sling. Soon though, he was upright, being supported, partially hopping and having his leg guided for him. They had all done extremely well to get so far. Although in that six hours they had covered the ground which took us about half an hour or so, it is still a long way to go.

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Pete readfy for the journey out

We rested for a while preparing for the next phase. The food we brought in was consumed although not much was eaten by Pete. The tackle bag was replaced by four SAM splints bound up with gaffer tape. More medication was offered but Pete and all of us were keen to crack on and get it over with. Remarkably his pain level is low.

It was perfect timing that the point they had reached was really the start of the awkward entrance series. Just where we met them was a climb down fretted boulders above a deep pit and then a traverse on ledges around it. Just about manageable for an able bodied caver without a rope but it was going to need rigging for Pete. Will and Mark kitted up, the drill came out and bolting began. I was surprised how well Pete moved. He could just about weight bear for long enough to shuffle his foot position with assistance. Of course he was roped up too, lowered or lifelined as appropriate.



And so it went on across all the obstacles of the entrance series. Mark and Will attended to all the rope work. Stu and Lisa were in close attendance to Pete helped by others as necessary, whoever was free carried gear and I mostly went out front to point out the best route. To describe just one example of the terrain, starting down a long steep boulder slope. At the bottom it turns vertical for five or six metres over massive blocks. Up against the wall, on just the one side, is a near vertical climb down smaller muddy blocks. Across a rocky floor is a climb up a steep slab with some calcited holds. At the top a rocky arête must be traversed first on sloping ledges to the left and then over the arête to ledges on the right. Down a small jump and then across a bold step to land on old fretted boulders and onto more of the same. Repeat.

Around midnight we arrive at the final muddy slope up to the entrance exhausted and ready for a sit down and chocolate. Pete seems in no mood to slow down sensing, I think, the end of the ordeal. The last big task for all of us was getting him down through the forest and the jagged limestone mountainside to the flat plain of the Head Hunters trail below. Here we split up, with those not needed to help Pete on the stagger, heading back to Camp 5 base in dribs and drabs. I know I was fairly knackered. Pete took three and a half hours to hobble the 4.5km arriving in the early hours. The stretcher crew was not required.

That ended Pete’s expedition of course. His experience, motivation and humour would be sorely missed. He rested up at camp for a couple of days before heading down river. Strapped up, he still had to hobble 8km to the boat with a porter to carry his sack but he didn’t want any of us to accompany him. He wrote us all a touching note of thanks in the expedition logbook. Cheers.

20240105_093804.jpg

Pete setting off for HQ a few days after the 'incident'.

That wasn’t the end of it for Pete, of course, but I’ll leave my personal account of the experience there.

I’ve a few more stories to tell. Watch this space.
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
The attrition on the expedition continued with one more member going home, this time on compassionate grounds. There was a string of the usual injuries, mostly as a result of the harsh terrain, which seemed to affect at least one person at any one time. Cuts, grazes, twists, sprains, Mulu foot, etc., all featured with someone at some point during the trip. It is no surprise as one of the early explorers described the Mulu limestone as “the most inhospitable terrain known to man”. Not many who have experienced it would disagree I reckon.

So, onto the main discovery of the expedition, Serendipity, the downstream river of Cobweb Cave, the principle drainage route under Benarat mountain. Except readers, it wasn’t my discovery, so I can’t relate that particular story. That belongs to Chris, Lisa, Stu and Becka. I’m hoping Chris might write up his account of the exploration for Descent. However, I did visit the new river passage on a photographic trip with Mark Burkey, Will and Chris so I can describe that epic and also put the discovery in the context of the exploration history.

One of our main objectives for this expedition was to look at leads off the high level passages of Cobweb Cave. These had been seldom visited since their discovery on the 2000 expedition, but a significant breakthrough in 2020 had left a large trunk passage wide open….

Cobweb Cave, itself, is mostly a complex, low lying maze of abandoned phreatic loops and passages with several points of access to short sections of the main river which drains the 1600m high limestone mountain. Above all these passages, is a much older level which is now connected to other caves further to the east. Some of the entrances to these caves are located in the famous 500m high, sheer South Benarat cliffs.

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The South Benarat Cliffs.

In 2000 the western side of the high levels was first entered from climbing pitches and ramps above the tangled web of Cobweb. The first of these passages was named Just a Mile, as 1.6km of passage was surveyed on the breakthrough trip. These were then pushed further to end in chokes with one captivating lead high in the wall at Outrageous Junction. Further to the east, during the 1980’s exploration, another cave, Benarat Caverns, had been explored, threatening to singularly punch its way straight through the mountain. It wasn’t until the mid-noughties that another great discovery, Moon Cave, was made, situated right between the two. This was soon connected to both caves and so formed the 50km long Benarat Caverns System. Hopefully you are still following.

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The Benarat Caverns survey from 2007. The high level passages are in yellow.

In 2020 climbs were made from lower parts of Cobweb and surprisingly these emerged out of the floor of Just a Mile giving another route into these passages. However, all access routes to this part of the cave entailed a hell of a lot of caving. What was intriguing was an entrance near the beginning of Just a Mile that broke out onto the hillside. In fact, to get into the continuation of the cave you had to practically walk out into the forest and back into another entrance to continue. This entrance was key to better access but several attempts to find it from below had failed and one attempt to cut a trail down from it had floundered in the inhospitable terrain.

I hope that paints the picture of the general layout of the cave. The key lead for the 2020 trip was the passage high in the wall at Outrageous Junction. Mark Sims, with Simon Cornhill’s support led a most treacherous and daring climb to gain access to it. Having seen it now for myself it really was a remarkable piece of raw exploration. I’ll see if I can persuade Mark to publish his account of the climb on this thread as it really is an exhilarating read.

Anyway, on the day of that climb they surveyed large open passage for a kilometre before building a cairn and setting off back on the five hour trip back to their camp in lower Cobweb. There was no opportunity for a further visit on that expedition so this is how the lead was left… and four years passed by.

I cannot tell the story of the exploration beyond that point this year because I wasn’t on those pushing trips. I can recount, however, my experience of the photographic trip we made to record the new finds beyond the cairn. That’s coming up next.
 

MarkS

Moderator
I’ll see if I can persuade Mark to publish his account of the climb on this thread
Badlad's twisted my arm. Here my write-up of the climb from the 2020 expedition:


The word was that at Outrageous Junction there was an obvious continuation of the passage 20 m up the wall. We were pretty dispirited to find when we got there to scout it in the evening that it did in fact appear to be going straight back in the direction we’d come ! We did discuss giving up on it entirely on our return to the camp in Monolith passage because it didn’t look like a totally straightforward climb, but since we’d carted all the kit to near the end, we figured we may as well go for it the next day. Somewhat remarkably, the description was at least correct that it did look to be a big passage and it was about 20 m up the wall!

The next day, having dragged all the climbing kit through the aptly named Arm Stabber Choke, Si and I found ourselves beneath the passage entrance above pondering our options. The only real option to start the climb was 10 m or so left of the passage entrance, some 15 m lower. The floor was higher at this point than directly beneath the passage, but the horizontal distance would be a challenge. A longer but vertical climb was out of the question due to the absence of any usable rock. It really didn’t look good, but it was probably the least bad of our options.

After kitting up I reached a hand up to first ‘ledge’, which heralded an immediate cascade of loose rocks over my head. Not the best start. I waited for the dwindling flow of scree to peter out, allowing me to look up and reassess. It was the only option, so I reached up to clear more, again unavoidably cascading over my head on its way down. Sadly, this was a sign of things to come.

It felt pretty stressful just getting off the ground, which wasn’t too promising, and things didn’t exactly improve as I had to immediately traverse horizontally, playing a tune on the wall with the hammer before finding somewhere to place a vaguely acceptable anchor.

The ascent to the next ‘ledge’ was similar, and it was at this point that I realised that I was really just moving from one huge flake to the next. Nevertheless, another poor anchor made me feel a bit better before I came to the conclusion that further progress directly upwards was absolutely a no-go. Horizontal progress was the only way from here, initiating some hefty zig-zags in the belay rope. It was really beginning to feel like a fool’s errand.

A couple more poor anchors later left me at what seemed like a dead end in terms of possible routes, frustratingly with a ‘solid’ calcite face tantalisingly out of reach. Maybe the skyhook I had borrowed would be worth a go. I just managed to move up far enough to reach the calcite face, hooking the skyhook over the flake I was now on. This felt pretty uncomfortable, not really trusting the protection below, so two anchors were rapidly placed, followed by a minute thread.

Breathe.

I carried on, onwards and upwards, constantly on the verge of bailing. There was barely any choice of anchor placement at any point, just going from the least bad to least bad until, shortly before the largest looking ledge, the zig zagging belay rope finally had too much friction to overcome. Being ‘relatively’ happy where I was, Simon endured a loose clamber up below me to unclip the first few anchors, easing the friction enough for me to make progress.

I finally made it up to the (steeply outwardly sloping) ledge above, of course only after clearing loads of debris. I got a couple of anchors in and breathed a sigh of relief. Just eager to be back on the floor, I abseiled off without really looking around, de-rigging the dubious anchors beneath as I went.

I made it fairly clear to Simon once I was back on the floor that I really didn’t fancy the next bit. I didn’t know what it would involve, but I wasn’t keen! Simon went up to look, and unfortunately came to the same conclusion.

The ledge we had reached was not far off the level of the passage we were aiming for, but a huge loose buttress separated us from it. What looked like a relatively straightforward traverse from below turned out to be a total nightmare of hollow-sounding hammer blows and concealed cracks.

I naively volunteered to give it a go, deciding that it was just too unsafe to progress at or above our current level. The only way I was prepared to traverse the buttress was to gradually descend as I went, minimising the fall distance if anything gave way. This part of the “climb” was a bit unnerving, but an improvement on the initial ascent. More like conventional rigging than climbing, albeit on totally awful rock.

Sooner than I’d have liked, I reached the inevitable point where upwards progress was required. I had dropped a few metres from where Simon was now belaying from the ledge, but at least I was round the worst of the buttress. A direct diagonal ascent to the passage entrance was unfortunately not on the cards, with the band of completely useless rock that had initially prevented a vertical climb now in my way. The only option from here looked to be a vertical ascent from my current position up to a sloping bedding above me – the same that the passage was formed in, albeit higher at the point above me than at the passage entrance.

This ascent started off reasonably, relative to what had preceded it, but inevitably deteriorated as I went. The deterioration culminated in what looked to be the final crux move: the bedding above me looked tantalisingly like I could almost walk along it if I could get there, but there was nothing I could see that I could sensibly place an anchor in. After a bit of procrastination and desperately scrabbling around with my hands over the lip above me, I grabbed hold of a solid calcite overhang. Relief. From my position below the lip of the ledge, I couldn’t see what was there, but I could see the calcite above and was relieved to see it appeared crack-free and pretty solid. Feeling around there were various nooks and crannies in the calcite. There was bound to be something I could get a sling round if I made the next move. Left with no other options I grabbed the calcite and asked for some slack from Simon. I heaved upwards, getting most of my weight on the ledge, and was immediately dismayed to find there was absolutely nothing to get a sling on! Precariously balanced and taking far more weight than I wanted on the hand gripping the calcite I managed to get an anchor in with my other hand. Finally, some real relief.

On a real high at this point I gratefully placed another anchor, providing enough protection for the exposed but gentle descent of the bedding, finally seeing me reach the passage entrance. To my relief, the passage continued as far as I could see, so I agreed with the others that I would go and have a quick check to see if it was worth them following.

The next couple of minutes gave me the real “Mulu experience”. I made the first footprints along a beautifully decorated 10 m wide, 5 m high phreatic tube passing a few inlets before it started descending into a larger space. This was certainly worth surveying. I rushed back and somehow Simon managed to derig my bizarre descending – ascending – descending route from his belay station and we could rig a straightforward pitch from the mouth of the passage to the floor. At least no one will need to climb it again!


1706523232104.png

Sketch of me and Simon nearing the end of the climb, drawn on a phone by Di whilst patiently waiting. Later this artistic activity would prove to have used a big chunk of the battery needed for surveying!
 
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