The following were present :
Vic Brown, Dave Fox, Hilary Bryden-Brown, Dave Harrison, Jack & Muff Upsall, Jont, Carole & Rod Leach.
The area visited was in the area of Bad Aussee, with camps at Altaussee and Goßl.
Why Austria ? - basically for a change after several successive years in the Pyrenees, but we had been told that Austrian Limestone is relatively unexplored - something of an understatement as it turned out. We contacted Walter Klappacher (area organiser for caving in the Salzburg region) and he put us in touch with Karl Gaisberger who lives in Altaussee. Karl was invaluable; he knew the area, told us what was worth doing, got us up toll roads free, fixed up a trip in Mammuthöhle, caved with us and drank with us. Jont was essential as Karl had no English and the rest of us no German unless it was Vic talking canoeing. The area is excellent - beer, caving, climbing, walking, canoeing, sailing, hang-gliding if you have a lunatic urge, so a caving expedition can have plenty of sidelines.
The area with which we were chiefly concerned was the Totes Gebirge, though we did some tourist caving on the Dachstein massif. The Totes Gebirge has less depth potential than the Dachstein by about 300m, but is less well explored. The massif area at our disposal is the preserve of THREE Austrian cavers, which perhaps helps in explaining Karl's enthusiasm for additional manpower. No big finds this year, but some small ones and more than enough to ensure that we go back next year. Below is some general information, followed by a description of what we did and accompanying surveys.
The Loser Plateau is at about 1650m, relatively unvegetated - just scrub spruce and an assortment of alpine flowers. For much of the year the plateau is iced over, and the chief problem is snow plugging of the numerous unexplored shafts. Access to the plateau is easy - cars up a toll road to 1500m and then a gentle walk up a dry valley for about an hour. This leads on to several square miles of unexplored lapiaz of which we looked at some hundred square yards. It is possible to camp up here, but halfway up the valley would be more pleasant.
This is above Goßl, as opposed to Altaussee. Access is harder - cars up a forestry track and then a long climb of 900m to the Pühringer hut. Here one can stay at Alpine Club rates or camp. We were concerned with tourist trips here, but feel a few days exploration will be of great value next year.
This is excellent for tourist caving, but access is either very laborious or very expensive if one is going to camp on the plateau. Many of the big phreatic caves are entered halfway up cliffs by loonies only.
All the caves that we visited are cold by English standards, though usually dry. Austrian cavers avoid water it seems, so there is scope for the wetsuit enthusiast to push back the frontiers of knowledge, but in other caves, furry wonder suits are advisable. Austrian rescue facilities are supposed to be good, but the remoteness of the caves and the temperature put safety at an even greater premium than normal. If anyone else should be interested in the area, some of this might be useful:
2. A german speaker is almost essential, as from our experience people who can be helpful are only too willing to help, but don't speak English.
3. Official looking Club membership cards are useful since they allow you to stay at half price at Alpine Club Huts, and also get you up cable cars at half price in many cases. The more official looking letters you can have, the better - along the lines of the major research project you are carrying out ! They get you past Austrian Bureaucracy on toll roads and forestry roads.
4. Addresses and further information is readily available by contacting Jack Upsall, Sphagnum Nook, Winshaw Cottage, Chapel-le-Dale, Yorks.
This is at the foot of the massive Hirlatzwand, south of the Hallstattersee. 'At the foot' does not mean 'by the road' - the walk is less than a mile but ascends well over 300m. The entrance used to be blocked by ice, but some Austrian genius had the idea of putting the odd hundredweight of salt on the ice in the autumn. Over the next few months, the inward draught drew the salt-laden water in and soon the ice melted. Draught doors now prevent it icing up again. The whole system is over 8km long and is largely made up of big phreatic passage, but active streamway still exists. A top entrance to the system is yet to be found.
A 7m ladder (more or less fixed) gains the entrance in the cliff side and a short crawl brings one into a series of galleries where route finding is easy - follow the fixed ladders unless they have no passage at the top. Eventually a choice of routes is reached - a 10m fixed ladder or a crawl below. Take the crawl to emerge in the Labyrinth. This complex section is negotiated relatively easily by keeping right until large passage is reached. Easy going down several fixed ladders, one of which no longer exists since it fell to pieces as soon as Jont stepped on to the top of it (an easy free climb anyway) leads to a double fixed ladder pitch into a large canyon. Here one turns left and tramps through passages of increasing size until a waterfall can be seen cascading down into a passage 6m down a boulder slope. The way on is not down the slope but along an obvious traverse line to emerge on top of a massive boulder collapse. Just beyond here a Yorkshire type streamway can be followed for several hundred metres but the way on is up to the left where Camp One is quickly reached. The trip nearly ended here as Dave Fox refused to come out of the rather battered tent he had found. The reason - pornography - an excellent supply of dirty magazines kept for the weary caver to ogle, had to be confiscated before he could be persuaded to proceed.
From here big passages, all looking alike, make route finding awkward until a long climb up a boulder slope is reached. At the top of this is a very wet fixed ladder pitch going we know not where, and, on the left, a big dry sandy route - presumably the way on. We stopped here as it was the first trip of the expedition and we were only about two thirds of the way in. After a smooth return, we exited in about six hours.
The existing survey of the system is of limited value as it seems to assume that the the whole cave is on the same level - just not true. Some 70m below the entrance to the Hirlatzhöhle is the Brandgrabenhöhle, which, according to the Austrians, is desperately wet. However, we saw lots of slides of the place and the Austrian dinghy seemed larger than a lot of the pools. Given wetsuits, and what Karl sees as the lunatic English passion for getting wet, a trip in here could answer the riddles about the stream passages in Hirlatzhöhle, over whose exploration the Austrians seem unenthusiastic.
Discovered by Karl Gaisberger the previous October, there had been time for only one trip before the winter snows came. The entrance is in a fair-sized shakehole in the spruce-covered lapiaz before the col, and involves a 45 minute walk from the car park at the top of the Loser Road. The prospect was virgin cave from a 10m pitch onwards, where Karl had been stopped by a lack of tackle. To avoid overcrowding, Dave Fox, Muff, Karl and Jont explored while Vic, Rod and Jont surveyed in.
The initial hands and knees crawl of 20m or so is just what is needed in this area to avoid the entrance choking with ice and/or boulders, and it soon enlarges. Past a couple of oxbows, one leading to within sight of daylight up an aven, the main route reaches twin climbs of 8m, the easier route being through a hole on the right. Soon afterwards is the first pitch, a sloping 8m. From here the pleasant passage with occasional bat-droppings (hence the rather unimaginative name) leads to short, muddy crawl, an earth bank and sizeable chamber. The new pitch is reached after more easy passage, and although Jont climbed/jumped down via a side rift, the pitch is best laddered for the return.
The easy going continues past a right turn to a complex junction at several levels. The water can be followed down a rift to a drop into an impenetrable fissure. Back at the junction, a traverse and a thrutch through lead to a small tube, which crosses a cross-rift and ends at a filthy sump. Left at the cross-rift, however, a low crawl gives onto a greasy chimney climb of 4m with very little in the way of holds. At the foot of this the water reenters, presumably just below the point at which it can no longer be followed down. To our surprise, Karl was bored and disappointed by the stream passage which follows. Quite reasonably, given the area, he had been hoping for huge phreatic tunnels, and it seems that the active passages never lead very far.
Still, we were enjoying it and the clean streamway soon developed acute verticality. Dave was attached to a piece of string and fed over the edge, followed, shortly, by Jont. The first 15 ft are technical, and best lined, but after that, the spiralling descent is quite easy in, for the most part, solid rock. About 30m down, things start to get more shattered and muddy, and the climb drops into water, leading, after only a few feet, to a sump.
On the way out we tried to clean up odds and ends. Only two points worth mentioning. The right turn mentioned earlier is an inlet leading past a slot through to the Main Passage, over a traverse and a false floor, to, eventually, an aven, climbed to about 25m and still continuing, but it is unlikely to go anywhere worthwhile. Second, from the chamber, a traverse can be entered at the top of the rock slope. The level closes off after about 15m, but below a climb down, a pitch was excavated dropping into a larger passage which choked comprehensively.
The following notes are rough owing to:-
a) the fact that all sketches were to grade 1
b) the fact that only two of the holes are really significant and only one of these offers promise.
B9 is worth a return visit (later in the summer, after maximum melting time) but in fact, we think we stopped looking where we should have started. B9 and B11 are close to the northern limit of exploration so far. Beyond are several square kilometres of totally unlooked at lapiaz.
A long way to walk for a pleasant but unimpressive pot - an even longer way to carry tackle which we thought we didn't need for Elmhöhlensystem. Still, we were expecting a horrifically wet system, which, after miles of huge phreatic stuff would have been quite refreshing. However, despite a fortnight of almost uninterrupted rain, there was barely enough water to keep our six stinkies going !
A 20m entrance pitch, loose at the top but otherwise OK, leads on to a series of 6m and 10m pitches, interrupted with easy rifty passage and some pools. In due course the final 25m pitch was reached, dropping a few feet above a crystal-clear sump - a very promising dive if you feel like lugging a bottle up the 1000m to the entrance. Vic discovered a network of tubes and chimney climbs which brought her out to the astonishment of all, about 15m above the top of the pitch, whence a hairy-looking traverse led her to the floor of the main passage, some way upstream. We exited swiftly to continue along the track to the Pühringer Hütte. Hot soup, Goulasch, beer and a very hot dormitory awaited us, plus the company of the Hut Warden, whose son-in-law is English and who, therefore, is very impressed by us English, especially if one is a höhlenforscher as well.
Another very long system, situated by the side of the track about twenty minutes before the Pühringer Hütte, where we had spent the night after doing the Elmgrubenschacht. The two entrances, das Kleine and das Große Windloch, have entered into local folklore. It seems that one of the favourite regional pastimes consists of dropping Tyrolean Hats down the hole, and then catching them as they are lashed back into your face by the howling gale. This phenomenon appeares to be dependent on weather conditions, and the day we were there, it would have been struggling with a helium balloon.
Still, to begin at what should logically have been the end but was, in
fact, the beginning... We enter the Kleines Windloch via an interesting and
unbalanced climb of 3m into a large, boulder strewn passage, at which point
we abandon the crampons, under the erroneous impression that the ice section
is in the other direction. So, we rush down the passage to... a choke. An
arrow is located pointing down a short crawl to the head of an 8m pitch, for
which, of course, we have no tackle. The rift beyond looks promising however,
and we find a bypass to the pitch via a descending traverse back under the
crawl. Still intending to return, we leave a sling on the traverse and
continue along the rift, past a couple of holes to a sharp left-hand bend.
The passage continues fairly easily apart from a few climbs of dubious
reversibility, and we soon emerge in what is traditionally described as an
earthquake in suspended animation, and which, from time to time actually
looked like the large chamber it was meant to be. At this point the company
becomes confused and starts to scurry about here and there below what we had
taken for the floor. At one place Muff and Jont reach a point at about -30m
only to be halted at the lip of nothingness, and by acute neurosis. The
cottage sized boulders there haven't a clue about the elementary principles
of stability. Meanwhile Vic has found a rope hanging down another very loose
hole, and down she goes, possessed by her customary lack of imagination. More
specifically she ignores what to us seem to be two crucial facts:-
a) The rope comes to an end
b) The climb becomes distinctly more difficult than it was where there was a rope.
Followed by Jont, she lands on a steep boulder slope in a largish passage. Descending with vast amounts of debris, Vic reaches a draughting hole at the bottom, whereas Jont finds a stable boulder and, limpet-like, stays there, so they return to the climb. Using the tried and tested potrtable hold technique, developed in Betzula a few years ago, they reach the foot of the rope where Dave, would you believe, has found a large tunnel leading off.
So off we go in a very easy passage, up and over various collapses, and it is getting noticeably colder, and soon bits of ice are detected in the roof. From here onwards, the formations get more and more impressive until the floor, roof and walls are covered. Curtains, complete columns, cascades and other alliterative phenomena which I won't list for fear of getting poetic and lyrical. Even a wall covered in at least 3m of ice laid down in clearly defined strata. Apart from the splendour of the scene, the lack of crampons caused mild hilarity, while Lord and Lady Snowden flip their lids and run a very real risk of melting it all with their flashbulbs.
The rest of us suddenly slide into a pile of snow !? "Evidently a surface/cave interphase situation in the vicinity" says Jack. "Or an entrance ?" says Jont. But no entrance is visible, so, ascribing its presence to a bizarre subterranean micro-climate, we continue leaving the ice and entering a rift, the floor of which soon disappears into more and more ludicrous depths. Our nerve runs out before what is presumably the Dianaklamm, and we return to find that Vic and Dave have, in the afterglow from several hundred PF5's, discovered a shaft leading up above the snow.
The first obstacle is the gap between the snow and the ledge leading round to the foot of the shaft, where we could now see a few bits of wire, pegs, etc. Rod and Dave are called upon to do their impersonation of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and we scramble across to leave Dave to prusik up. Muff and Jont continue up to a ledge at about 35m and in sight of daylight, but in better sight of a 4m overhang. Now the difficult part of this climb happens to be about the height of Jont on tiptoes under Muff on tiptoes on Jont, and with admirable insouciance, she scrambles up, finds a belay and allows the rest of us to prusik up on our two cloggers and one leg-loop. Next a climb, a thrutch, a squeeze through and the surface visible the far side of a tantalising 5m climb. Not impressed, Jont traverses across towards the far end of the shaft only to freeze again, thwarted by looseness and sheer unmitigated terror. Fortunately, in situations like these, we have a secret weapon, and, with an ear-splitting cry of "LOONY!" we summon Vic who executes a fine bridging climb to the belay point for the 50m ladder pitch - I knew we had forgotten something. Muff exits followed by Rod, Jont and Dave, still quivering from a narrow victory over several hundredweight of boulder which had been aimed at them in the shaft. Jont still refuses to move, so a rope is lowered to him and he exits via a convenient rock-window.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, there follows a brief, sensible version of the trip. Put 160ft of ladder down the Großes Windloch (where we came out), having previously rigged a 6m ladder in the Kleines Windloch (where we went in), and a further ladder on the pitch just inside the entrance to this hole. Then do what we did, but backwards. This trip is far less interesting, but is less likely to involve the Austrian CRO, or, in view of the location, the Austrian Quicklime and Polybag Company.
A Sleets Gill type entrance leads at the head of a large stream bed NW of Altaussee. The 60 degree slope leads to a short walk round a pool to a short greasy climb. One soon emerges in the huge main passage, floored at the lower end by vast amounts of very unpleasant mud. The sump is reached by a right turn over some fine stratified sand, but our main aim was to investigate some holes in the roof at the top end, hopefully leading to a high-level continuation and, if you are really optimistic, the further reaches of the long and nearby Raucherkarhöhle.
The mud eventually runs out to be replaced by more and more inclined slabs, which were very easy on the way up. The gradient steadily increases until the floor merges into the end wall, and the trickle of water enters from high up. We had already passed a couple of holes in the roof, so we slithered back down to a point below and across from these. Here some entertaining acrobatics were performed, principally by Vic, and, rather less voluntarily, by Jont. Vic reached the limit without bolts, which we had conveniently forgotten, and pendulumed back across the slabs on a dubious nut and not a little faith. Jont, left on the wrong side of the traverse, derigged, set off back, ran out of holds and friction in that order and was grateful for Vic's outstretched arm. We exited, intending (but not very convincingly) to return suitably equipped. The holes may go, but only after a fairly serious and time-consuming bolting operation, and time can be more productively spent elsewhere.
Karl fixed us a trip beyond the show cave so that we would be able to name drop. A very simple trip in the care of two Austrians called Bengesser and "Hardy". We had a quick look at the west entrance, now closed to tourists and then trogged round the upper levels - ie. the Old Series. Most of the passage is huge, with one aven getting to within 30m of the plateau, but still no top entrance. Eventually we reached a huge chamber where the done thing is to blacken pieces of clay with carbide and then scratch your name on them - the only authorised graffitti in speleology - the only other British name was someone from SWCC. Other pastimes here are burning magnesium, flashing PF5's in people's faces, eating sardine sandwiches etc. More large boring passage and then a quick exit, pausing only to let the tourists gaze upon "die echten Höhlenforscher!"
Apart from the size of the passages, there is little to recommend the place, though we gather that in the new stuff, the Krippensteingang is stuck at an inconclusive climb, if you fancy bolting up more than a day away from the entrance.