THE GATE OF SON DOONG CAVE
Story and Photographs by Kelly Ryerson
I’ve known fashion photographer Kelly Ryerson since the beginning of this millennium, and first worked with her at Women’s Sports & Fitness magazine, where we journeyed on many an outdoor adventure. One of our most memorable was to photograph some bathing beauties in Goldbug Hot Springs, a hidden gem of a natural hot tub, bubbling along the banks of the Salmon River in the mountains of Idaho.
Hiking has always been a source of joy and solace for Kelly. As kid growing up in Austin, Texas, trekking through the woods and trails was simply the way to get to whatever watering hole she and her friends decided to cool off in that day. When faced recently with the emotional wallop and pain of a divorce, it was to hiking that Kelly returned, finding comfort in both its physicality and serenity.
Last March, Kelly embarked on an epic 5-day journey to Sơn Đoòng Cave in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, Vietnam – only just recently discovered – photographing it in these majestic images shown here. This is the story of her cavernous adventure…
LAKE OF SON DOONG
I had been going through a divorce for several years when I first saw images of Sơn Đoòng Cave in Vietnam and started to read more about it. I don’t really call myself a hiker, but I found myself desperately craving the outdoors. You can be that divorced lady going to brunch and getting drunk with other divorced ladies, or you can hit the trails. I needed to get out and see the trees. I needed to return to that place of comfort and solace.
My husband had moved out suddenly in 2013. I was completely blindsided. Though I was still in shock, we would have family dinners together on the weekend for the benefit of our son. It was your basic normal separated family life. It was when lawyers got involved three years later that things started to get ugly.
Faced with my first holiday without my son, I booked a spot on a photo/hiking tour in Utah during Thanksgiving of 2015. I was in need of the desert — to do some scream therapy, walk it off, and take in some jaw-dropping awe. I went to Antelope Canyon, which is still run by the Navajo Nation. It seemed appropriate for Thanksgiving.
TRA ANG BRIDGE OVERLOOK ON HO CHI MINH HIGHWAY
Next came Iceland that following Christmas, and then local day hikes became my regular weekend escape. I had discovered “Meetup” – an app for all sorts of weird shit and whatever kind of group you want to find. The “Hudson Valley Hikers” became mine, where I met two fantastic ladies who would become my hiking buddies.
I first read about Sơn Đoòng cave in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park in Vietnam in the fall of 2015. This massive cave had been discovered in 2009 and opened to the public in 2013 for tours. I knew this was what I needed — get into a cave, climb a mountain, and cross a shit ton of rivers.
Oxalis Adventure Tours is the exclusive tour operator and only 1500 people have ever been through this cave. It was a lottery, first come first served, with spots selling out minutes after becoming available. I had signed up but was waitlisted. In September, I found out I’d gotten a spot on the March 2017 trip.
HEADING INTO THE JUNGLE
This was the third hiking/photography tour that I’d done in the past two years. I’ve been a fashion photographer for over 20 years and there is something to be said about getting out of your bubble and getting down with some techies. After shooting for so long, it had become repetitive and kinda hands-off. I had shot film for most of my career when everything turned to digital. I felt like I had been taken out of the equation as a photographer. Techs and crews were now sitting around a screen editing my photography and my hands were not really in it anymore. It had evolved without me. I needed my camera back in my hands.
Sơn Đoòng Cave is the biggest, baddest thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t have trained for this. I thought I did, but what did I know about the journey that lay ahead? Nothing prepared me for the constant action this would require. I was half there for the hike and half for the shot. This was a well produced tour, landing us in the right spot with the right light at every turn. But these were long days, filled with arduous climbs and descents, stops for lighting set-ups to shoot, and at the end of the day trying to care for yourself and equipment while deep underground. There are so many shots of the cave out there but the experience is impossible to capture on film.
Day 1: Phong Nha – Ban Doong Village – Hang En Cave
The day began at the Tra Ang bridge on Ho Chi Minh Highway overlooking the Tra Ang National Park. It was all downhill from there — literally. The funny part was descending down the trail that first day I was giddy. “I get to hike for 5 days!” Then I realized we’d been going downhill for a long time and uphill was the only way back out.
ONE OF MANY RIVER CROSSINGS
But there was no time for thinking about details. That became my favorite part. When you are hiking like this, you start to go into a trance. It’s 5 days of constant motion and no time for bullshit. I had been so wrapped up in my own life and every time my mind wandered off the trail, I would almost have an accident. I was forced to stay focused on what I was doing physically, and quickly learned what it truly means to be present. I think back now to my mere 4 hours of training a day and laugh at myself. The most important thing I learned was to handle each moment as it happened.
With a stop in Ban Doong village for lunch, this would be a full day of jungle and rivers. Who knows how many? You think to yourself, “Oh, another river”, and then stop counting when it just doesn’t seem to end. You are in so deep at this point you just keep going. Making sure your feet are clean and safe is the biggest priority when there is no turning back. The tour organizers had given us fair warning this would be a “wet day”, but despite the preparation, I still lost two toenails. We were also warned anyone unable to keep up “comfortably” that first day would be turned back to Phong Nha. That would be it and with no refund too. You would not hear me complain that day.
HANG EN CAMPSITE, top; LEAVING HANG EN
Later that day, after climbing up another little mountain we stopped to catch our breath and looked over the cliff at our campsite, Hang En, below. It was alongside the most beautiful blue water with tents that glowed like little lanterns. We could see the porters already down below preparing dinner. There would be just enough time to get clean, eat, and care for those feet, before one more photo set-up after dinner. Then it was off to my tent to pop Ibuprofen like Tic Tacs — and to charge my equipment. Nothing like the hum of a generator in a cave to lull you to sleep. I passed out like the rock that engulfed me.
Day 2: Hang En Cave – Son Doong Entrance – Hand of Dog
We woke up to the echoing sound of the porters making breakfast and I had my first pack of sugar coffee. This would become my addiction for the next few days. Breakfast, like dinner, was fantastic, and we were encouraged to eat up as a tough day was ahead. It would be another “wet” day, and back on went the wet socks. Then we were off to explore and photograph the massive Son Doong Cave.
Members of the porter team made themselves available as stand-ins to give an idea of scale in our photographs. Passages within the cave were lit to enhance our photographs. Both camps had been set up by dolines, which are openings where the cave fell through, adding an other-worldly radiance to our pictures.
LIGHTING SET-UPS AND PORTER STAND-INS, top; COUPLE PERCHED ON STALAGMITE MOUNTAIN
We hiked until lunch, and then were fit for our harnesses. The crew took great care with each one of us. After a safety briefing, we were prepped for the 80m (262 ft) descent into Son Doong. Again I was reminded this was also the only way back out, but I was way too freaked out in the present moment to worry about that just then. It was more climbs and bouldering with harnesses, safety lines, and thankfully our guides’ assistance, before another mini hike to a little cave of water. With all of us in life vests, the only way to swim was to paddle like dogs in the water, before we reached our camp site for the night.
It was hysterical! And of course, there is no picture of that because it was one of those moments in life that just has to be lived. The water was so cold, but it was exactly what my body needed at that point. Besides, we had been told there would be no washing facilities at camp on this day. All I wanted to do was pass out anyway.
ME, PREPPED AND READY FOR DESCENT, top; NIGHT SHOOTING “HAND OF DOG”
Day 3: Watch out for Dinosaurs – Great Wall of Vietnam
It helped that the campsites were set up near the dolines because I woke up naturally with the light the next morning. My knees were swollen so I did a few yoga stretches, and with another big breakfast and a few sugar coffees, we were off again. First stop was the jungle within the cave at “Watch Out for Dinosaurs”, then a trot down the rocky path to reach the massive “Green Gours” and the incredible backdrop of the first doline. This is one of the most magnificent and famous photography spots on the tour, but most important I had to remember to keep my mouth shut or the flies would get in.
It was a breathtaking day. We had been told of the “sun beams” and were very fortunate to actually catch these “sunny beams”, as our Russian teammate called them. It was then a walk through the cave, past gigantic rock formations and cave pearls, towards the light of the second doline, and the main underground jungle within the cave.
SUN BEAMS AND WATER DRIPPING DOWN ON JUNGLE MOUNTAIN CREATED BY STALAGMITES, top; KAYAK TO GREAT WALL OF VIETNAM
Heading deeper into the cave we reached a large beautiful underground lake with the “Great Wall of Vietnam” behind it. The passage to the wall, known as Passchendaele, was lit up with big powerful lights so we could photograph the high cliffs. I was physically wasted at this point but I had not come this far to not touch that wall. We did a few shots, and then kayaked over. It was painful, mainly because I had to pee. I had to hold it while jumping in the water because that was our bath. It was brutal.
Back at dinner, one end of the table was getting into the rice wine which was pretty harsh, but no one seemed to care. Nothing like rice wine and more straight alcohol to dull any pain. All I needed were some dehydration tabs and more Ibuprofen.
Day 4: Fossil Passage – Nat Geo View Point – Hang En Cave
This was a straight day of hiking back to our first campsite at Hang En. I realized at this point we had stopped for a lot of photo set-ups, and this would be a great day to just focus on the physical hiking. I have no idea how I survived. Taking a different and much steeper route back through the passage above the underground river, we were back in the harnesses and on the safety line.Then finally we headed towards the river valley for a well deserved and much needed wash. It had been a couple of days.
EXPLORING SON DOONG
By time we arrived at Hang En, it started to feel like home. I already felt like I conquered it. One of the porters ran out to get us beers like it was no big deal. Here we were in all our fancy gear and there they were in $2 plastic sandals tackling the jungle. My present mind was celebrating and completely forgot that tomorrow would be all rivers and uphill, but now it was time for a beer with an ibuprofen chaser — my new favorite cocktail!
Day 5: Hang En Cave – Ban Doong Village – Phong Nha
It was breakfast as usual and then those wet socks went back on for another wet day and the 10km trek up and out. This was the toughest so far. I think I zoned out for most of it. Like a child I kept asking, “Are we almost there yet?”, while the porters kept nodding and saying yes. Though we weren’t, I chose to believe them. It reminded me of the lawyers waiting for me back home. As the end was approaching, the real world started creeping back into my thoughts. We hadn’t had our phones this whole time. I had no clue what was going on in the world. I didn’t want to know, but that was not an option for me. The mom in me turned back on.
LAST NIGHT IN HANG EN, top; TRAIL BACK THROUGH GARDEN OF EDAM
When we arrived back at the top, I headed straight to the air-conditioned van and took off my shoes. We arrived at Chay Lap Farmstay, where we were staying that night, to be greeted with champagne. I don’t think it has ever tasted that good. We went to our rooms to clean up and relax before our farewell dinner, where we were finally awarded our medals for the journey we had accomplished. I knew my 7-year-old would think this was a big deal. He would only care about my medal, not the cave.
But for me the medal was huge too. It was all a big deal. This had been one of the most amazing experiences in my life –a physical and emotional journey that helped alleviate a personal trauma that has been so devastating. This medal will always be a reminder of how strong I truly am.