Cedjie Aquino, The Sole Filipino Rock Climber Volunteer At The Tham Luang Cave Rescue, Recounts What He Felt Was Like A "Suicide Mission"
As told to Maris Mortel-Hiruntrakul by Christoffer John “Cedjie” Aquino, the sole Filipino rock climber volunteer who was part of the Tham Luang cave rescue of young Thai soccer team and their coach
Late June 2018. A drama was unfolding that had the entire world captivated and holding their breath.
News had gotten out that 12 Thai boys, aged 11 to 16, from “Moo Pa” (Wild Boar) Academy Football Club and their coach went missing inside Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai, the northernmost province in Thailand. In June 23, they had gone into the cave after an ordinary day of practice and got trapped inside due to flooding of the entrance caused by strong monsoon rains.
By June 24, park officials and the Thai Royal Police had begun a major search. They found handprints and footprints and believed that the boys retreated into the tunnels as they became trapped by rising waters. Relatives kept vigil outside the entrance for any sign of the boys. The Thai Navy Seals also arrived on site and had begun to conduct a search and rescue operation.
Equipment needed for the climbs
Joining the mission
By the 13th day, the kids were still trapped as teams could not enter to explore the cave from the main entrance because water levels continued to rise. Aside from pumping water out of the caves, teams were trying alternative ways to reach the boys, such as drilling through the rock surface. Knowing my background and familiarity with the outdoors, some people asked me through my social media if I knew anyone who could help. After hearing the news, I got in touch with my friend, Earl Bontuyan, a cave enthusiast and rescuer based in my hometown in Davao. He put out a nationwide shout out to experienced cave divers and cave rescuers in the Philippines, and about 20 immediately converged in Cebu, prepped up, all ready to go help out.
I spent a day trying to get in touch with officials heading the search and rescue operations to inform them that there was a rescue team specializing in deep cave rescue led by Jake Miranda in the Philippines. They were on stand-by, awaiting to be flown in to Thailand. Because it was considered an ongoing military operation, the team could not make a move without proper documentation and approval. I reached out on Facebook to spread the word that the Filipino team was ready to provide their assistance, and it was picked up by a Thai TV news channel.
The next day, I was contacted by the Chiang Rai Governor’s office. They were asking for volunteers who were skilled in rock climbing, with complete gear, and ready to climb 600 to 800 meters in order to help look for entry points into the Tham Luang cave complex. It had been 100 hours since the kids were reported missing. I decided to pack up my gear, with only my clothes on my back. I packed ropes, cams, nuts, other climbing essentials, and a drill; all in all, weighing a total of about 45 kilograms. I made the 9 hour-long drive from Bangkok to Chiang Rai with fellow climbers Sorn Yodkhamman and Challermchai Phoungphai to the site.
Discussing rock fractures with the team
Sharing intel with the US forces
Trekking into the dense jungle
Life at camp
We arrived at the site in Amphoe Mae Sai where the cave entrance was located. However, the place was packed with other volunteers, media, and soldiers. We then sought for the country’s top scientists and geographers. That camp was later dubbed Camp Geo. We were posted at the southern end of the cave complex, which was located on the higher portion. It had been raining almost non-stop with just a few hours a day of no rain.
Our team was composed of mountaineer and lead geographer Anukoon Sorn-ek as our camp leader, geologist Sornsawan “Eye” Utthakrue as our walking talking intel, Songwit Kaewmahanin as head of logistics, and mountaineering group Hyperventure. We were later joined by other volunteers namely Jordan Kennedy, Manga Mbolo Jean Christian, Dmitry Makhanko, and Chystov Oleh—we called ourselves Team Freedom. We we’re tasked to look for holes up on the mountain, which could be explored for possible entry and exit points to the main chamber toward the center of the cave complex called Pattaya Beach, where it was believed the kids were stranded.
For the next few days, our daily routine began at 5 or 6 in the morning. We had breakfast and prepared to leave. From sun up to sun down, we trekked through thick jungle, holding machetes to hack through thick foliage as there were no existing trails. The ground was muddy, and the rain kept pouring but we’d continue to look for possible openings. We’d arrive back in camp as late as 2AM, we’d have an hour and half briefing session where we reviewed what new information we’ve gathered and planned our next move, and then some of us fell asleep immediately. Some, like me, were too tired to sleep—and cleaned gear instead—before going to sleep out in the open. With at most three hours of sleep, we’d get up and do it all over again.
Setting up rope anchors
Sorn leading the first pitch
Into the dark
After we had found a potential hole and had decided to explore it, crawling in about 26 to 27 meters in before finding it was a dead end, we found one more potential hole around 300 meters up from the ground. The mountain surface was made of limestone, which becomes slippery when wet. We decided to carry the lightest essentials only. It was a steep incline—a challenging one under normal conditions, but all the more so when it is raining. The dangers of climbing using the gear we had, cams, which tend to “walk” or move lose grip when wet, were clear in our minds. Frankly, it could be called a suicidal mission. But I knew that the more we hesitated, the more time was lost for the kids in the cave. Several days without food and drinking water, and the risk for hypoxia and hypothermia—these were what the kids were facing the longer they were inside the cave.
The entrance to the hole was about 36 cm wide—barely enough for a grown man to squeeze through. We received a briefing from our resident geologist for what to look for inside the cave. There was two of us who decided to enter the cave complex. Unsure of what we’d find, we crawled into the narrow space, attached to a rope, and with only our headlights to guide us. We couldn’t bring anything else. The space was so small that crawling was the only position we could do, our body stretched out and only enough to move our hands and knees forward. Without our lights, it was pitch black inside the tunnel.
26-meter tight squeeze
We crawled for more than hours, unsure of where it would lead us and if we would even be able to get back. I would have lost track of time, if it weren’t for someone shouting from the entrance how many hours we’d been underground. Thirty meters or so deep, there was a time we were considering that it would be a one-way trip. In my mind, I already started thinking if that was what it was like to die a slow death. I had started thinking of questions to ask when I met God.
When we were at the point of exhaustion, we would stop and turn off our lights. Then I would close my eyes and fall asleep. When I’d wake up, I would feel an instant of panic, unable to move and unable to see anything, before realizing where I was, and the situation I was in. Then I’d tell myself to chill, just relax. We were prepared to keep crawling as far as we could until we ran out of rope.
When asked what kept me going? My thoughts always went back to the reason why we went inside in the first place—we had to find the kids and help get them out, so we could all go home. The entire time I was down there, of course, I was praying. I even got to a point where I was welcoming Death.
Almost two days down the hole, and we received word that the kids had been found, alive and safe, by British divers, who had also volunteered to help. They were found on a ledge surrounded by water about 400 meters farther along the elevated area of Pattaya Beach, more than two miles from the main entrance. It was happy news, but we all knew it was still too early to celebrate. We had to find a way to get the kids out of the cave. The entrance on the northern end was still flooded due to continuous downpour of rain. The hole we found had the highest potential to be a point of exit—if the kids were strong enough to make the trek, and if no other portion of the cave was flooded.
We had to go out of the hole the same way we went in, in reverse, since there was not enough space to even turn around. Once we were back out of the hole, we were informed that the authorities decided that the best way was for divers to extract the kids through the northern entrance. Our job in the southern end was basically done. Five days through the wet and cold in order to help determine the best possible way to rescue the kids. Our team may not have found the kids, but we were able to do our part to the best of our abilities.
Emerging into the open after being underground for hours
Smithy trying to squeeze through a tight fissure
A potential cave exit
Spirit of volunteerism
I was flown back to Bangkok and continued to watch the progress of the rescue mission of the still-trapped from there. On July 10, 18 days since they went missing, we received news that all 12 kids and their coach were out of the cave. The whole world rejoiced. It was a great example of people from all walks of life, from different backgrounds, trying their best to help others in need. It was a prime example of humanity. Through determination, hard work, and teamwork, what seemed an unsurmountable challenge became a possible one. One even sacrificed his life—remembering former Thai Navy Seal Khun Saman Gunan, who perished during an overnight trip into the cave, having run out of oxygen for himself while carrying out his mission of delivering oxygen to the divers.
Since that time, things have gone back to normal. I have learned a lot through the entire ordeal. I have met people with big hearts and minds who tirelessly worked without expecting anything in return. I have made some great friends from all over the world. Most of us who volunteered, we were just normal people trying to be human beings. I knew that I could somehow make a difference with my skills. I tell people, if I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it, or I didn’t believe in my abilities, then I wouldn’t have presented myself. I was a part of something bigger than myself, and I, as a climber, tried to make what difference I could.
I end with my Facebook post about the spirit of volunteerism that, throughout this whole ordeal, I’ve seen is alive and well: “To all my fellow Filipinos following or reading my posts, thank you po for all the prayers and well wishes. To some, my actions may seem heroic, but trust me po, I am no hero. I was just at the right place, at the right time, in a very effed up situation.
If you happen to find my actions inspiring, then PAY IT FORWARD na lang po. If you know that your skill sets or abilities would make a difference, then do your best to help without reward or recognition. We are all in the same boat. Tayo-tayo lang din po ang magtutulungan (At the end of the day, we have to help each other). Set aside our differences and always hope for the best!”
In the course of the mission, thousands of people, including over 100 divers from Thailand and the international community, as well as the military, rescue workers, civilian volunteers, and government agency representatives, were active in the successful search and rescue.
Photos courtesy of Cedjie Aquino