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benarat2005logoThe discovery of Whiterock in 2003 provided a whole new field for exploration at the north end of G.Api. Clearly this cave was a component of the Clearwater System, Api’s master-cave, and offered the prospect of opening up the northern end of the mountain.

In addition, in Benarat’s southern cliffs overlooking Camp 5, is an obvious large entrance. This had always been an exploration objective, ever since 1984 when Martin Farr and Tim Fogg reached Tiger Cave, below and to the west of this enticing blackness but the likely difficulty of the climb had always relegated the cave to a low priority. By 2005 however, bolting techniques (particularly the use of portable electric drills) had progressed so far that it became not only a possibility but a primary objective for Mark Wright.

The 2005 trip therefore had two primary objectives ­ get to the big hole in the Benarat cliff and push Whiterock as far as possible. As ever, Mulu had other thoughts.

Mark Wright bolting up the Benarat cliffs - photo Robbie Shone

Mark Wright bolting up the Benarat cliffs | photo © Robbie Shone

The climb to the entrance started well with Mark and Robbie Shone working their way upwards on a mix of natural holds, vegetation and bolts. On the way, about 60m off the floor, they passed a small draughting entrance guarded by a snake. Mark bolted onwards while Robbie looked inside and the objectives of the expedition changed in an instant.

Moon Cave, their new discovery almost immediately took precedence over the climb which was never completed. The first proper trip into the cave, by Robbie and Pete O’Neill, established that this was a serious lead ­ a big, single-minded passage heading directly into the mountain and showing every prospect of a route to the Medalam: Mark abandoned his climb.

In a period of 11 days this team, assisted by other members of the expedition, pushed Moon to a total length of 6.6km but the route to the north was, temporarily at least, closed. Midway along the cave an upward lead remained and a possible footprint at this point suggested that birds’ nesters, who we now knew had entered the huge open entrance in the cliff, had descended to this point. If they could do it downwards, then we could do it upwards…

The start of the main passage in Moon Cave - photo Robbie Shone

The start of the main passage in Moon Cave | photo © Robbie Shone

In the course of their exploration, the team descended a 60m pitch to find themselves at the bottom of the Big Mistake ­ a pitch in Benarat Caverns which they had entered from the opposite side of the shaft to the original explorers. This connection established a system with a combined length of 16.4km which had every prospect of connecting to the 30km Cobweb system to the west and the Terikan system to the north. As in G.Api, the connections between the various individual caves were slowly being discovered and the full enormity of Mulu’s systems revealed.

Across the Melinau, exploration in Whiterock was proceeding at speed. Tim Allen made a bold climb up from the 2003 entrance series into what became know as the Ashes Series ­ England were playing Australia at the time and were doing uncharacteristically well. Southward, these huge passages ended after 5km of superb caving in the vastness of Api Chamber, discovered by Mark Brown and Dave ‘Moose’ Nixon. Somewhere here there will be a way on but despite the best endeavours of Moose and Rob Eavis, following the strong draught down for 25m in the boulders, it continues to elude us.

In a small lead off Daydream Believer (one of the main drags in the Ashes) a steep climb down led ultimately to a pitch into Blackrock’s Firecracker passage and a team of Moose, Robbie, Rob Eavis and Andrew Atkinson were able to confirm the status of Whiterock as a component of the mountain’s master cave and, at a stroke, significantly increasing the length of Clearwater. Elsewhere, another connection was made close to Api Chamber when Rob and Mark Brown dropped another pitch onto a large boulder pile at the foot of which they found a survey cairn ­ they were at the Eagle’s Ramp in Blackrock.

heading south in Whiterock Cave - photo Robbie Shone

heading south in Whiterock Cave | photo © Robbie Shone

From the north, the Ashes Series is joined by a number of large feeder passages which were pushed extensively. The proximity to the hillside closed down many of the leads but it was obvious that a way on to the north would be possible in any passages discovered further into the mountain.

Hopes were high, bolstered by the ascent of another ramp to a higher level some 70-80m above. ‘The Apprenticeship’ initially headed north but to the surprise of the explorers, Tim, Rob, Matt and Richard, it swung 180o and headed optimistically south. Unfortunately, on a subsequent trip Tim, Martin Holroyd and Dick Willis went further only to find the passage ending in a total collapse. Off Daydream Believer, Moose also ascended a ramp to gain ‘Api Birthday’, another high level passage with open leads in both directions.

By the end of the 2005 trip, Whiterock was 17.2km longer and linked to Clearwater, creating a system with a total length of 129.4km. Better still, those open leads in the upper levels and the various other question marks on the survey represented an invitation for another expedition.

apichamber

Api Chamber | photo © Robbie Shone

Expedition Members

The 2005 team 

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