CTS 89.1793: BCRA Caves & Caving 45 (Autumn 1989) pp 8-11 [ISSN 0142-1832]


Mark Dougherty

This year's expedition to the old faithful Austria turned out to be the largest on record. At the final count, 24 members took part, staying between two and three weeks. About half of these were new to the delights and horrors of Austria, having been swayed by stories of topless bathers, delicious ice-creams and glorious sunshine while in an alcoholic haze at the annual club dinner.

At this point we feel that we should apologise for the lack of reports over the last few years and hope that this will bring you up to date with our activities in the area. 1987 proved a very poor year as far as new caves are concerned, with 158, Donner und Blitzen Höhle being the only significant find. This was explored to a depth of -130m where a tight rift stopped progress, the passage could be seen to continue and widen beyond this constriction. This was reinvestigated at the start of this year's expedition, with hopes of passing the constriction, but resisted our hammering, a shame as this had the potential for a higher entrance to the Stellerweg system, therefore reclaiming the system from the Germans. Apart from much prospecting, and pushing some odd leads in 113, a large amount of time was spent surface surveying in collaboration with the Austrians to locate known caves to fixed points set by the Austrians using Laser Range Finders.

This year's Expedition started off with the usual race across Austria by various forms of transport, ranging from the Land Rover, 'Rover', the work horse of the party, carrying all the tackle plus 4 drivers which were squeezed into the remaining holes, with the more affluent members travelling by car, inter-rail or jet, resulting in everyone arriving at Hilde's at various unearthly hours, but being unable to beat last year's record of 12 hours from Austria to Calais.

The first day saw everyone soaking up the sun and swimming in the nearby lake whilst consuming vast amounts of beer. Once everyone had recovered from the travelling and the effects of alcohol, a posse was mounted, with instructions to search for virgin holes in the inhospitable wastes of the Totes Gebirge (that's after the new recruits had been shown what to look for). This resulted in two promising leads, both emitting a strong draught. A site was also proposed for a camp, being relatively sheltered from the wind and having running water, a rare commodity on the plateau. This later formed camp 1.

A new day dawned with everyone keen to descend their new finds, even though the weather had turned for the worst. So vazst amounts of food, camping gear, tackle and rope were carried up onto the plateau, resulting in the setting up of camp 1. At the end of the day both caves were still going strong, both with undescended pitches.

The following day saw the discovery of 161, later to be named Kaninchenhöhle (after the snow rabbit's skeleton found along Adrian's route). This proved to be the cave we had all been hoping for, with a 37m entrance pitch situated on a prominent ridge between the Hinter and Vord. Schwarzmoos Kgl, giving a depth potential of over 1km before hitting the known water table. This entrance pitch landed in a boulder chamber with two ways on. The most obvious being a clean washed shaft, whihc was subsequently descended but unfortunately narrowed to a too tight stream canyon. A way off is known just before the canyon, which would involve crawling under a very large boulder supported on loose rubble. At the time no one seemed prepared to risk this, but it is thought to continue. After this disappointing start, attention was diverted to the other known way on 'Adrian's route' (after the rope). This entered a small phreatic tube, which opened out into a small chamber. This is where the rabbit skeletons were found showing how close we were to the surface even after descending the 40m entrance pitch. The most obvious route leads to a short pitch with a drip (very rare in this cave) followed by a 45m free hanging pitch in a large rift.

This news was brought to us by the day's pushing party whilst exchanging details with the German/French group also working in this area. Last year this group broke into the Stellerweg system originally explored by CUCC to a depth of -971m. This has since been linked to the Eishöhle. The extent of the full system is as yet not known to us as the Germans [actually French, Webeditor] are very secretive about their finds. They were shouting out 'copyright', 'copyright' as Mike produced a piece of tracing paper and proceded to trace their survey.

The 40m pitch landed on a very loose boulder ramp leading to yet another 47.5m pitch in an inclined rift. This proved most difficult to rig as the rock was very shattered and there were few good naturals. This was eventually rigged, landing in a passage covered with large boulders. This continued until it petered out into a sand filled crawl with no way on, giving another disappointing end.

This left one other possible route, an eyehole spotted whilst descedning the second pitch (on the original route). This proved to be the key to a very complicated system, found after a week of continuous exploration. The eyehole formed a traverse along a ledge on an inclined rift (undescended) leading to an ascending boulder slope in a large chamber. At the top of the slope, a pitch on the right hand side ('Skull Pitch' due to its shape), so far undescended but thought to join up with the main route further down. The boulder slope ends in a 20m pitch landing on a very loose boulder slope 'Hanging Death' leading to a further pitch which spirals round and lands in a small chamber with a canyon type passage leading off. This continues to a hole in the floor which had to be hammered out to gain access (still inaccessible to the larger members of the club). It is hoped to bypass this squeeze and the hanging death pitch by finding an alternative route via the skull pitch or by traversing over the hanging death pitch. The squeeze occurs at the top of an 8.5m pitch dropping into a large phreatic passage with many possible ways on.

A decision was made to explore the two main routes on simultaneously (Left Hand Route, Right Hand Route) so optimising time and manpower.

Right Hand Route

This formed a descending phreatic tube about 5m in height, with a clean floor. This continues along with small drops, requiring ladders or hand lines to aid progress. This eventually leads to a chamber with holes in the floor (as yet unexplored) with the phreatic tube continuing over them. This leads to another chamber with a very bold step over a hole in the floor (Over the Rainbow). The area is characterised by huge rock pinnacles and rock sheets due to extremem weathering, and having a thin coating of moon milk. The passage continues with the roof gaining height all along as you descend down huge boulder ramps, with avens and routes leading off all along. This ends at a 32m pitch into a vast open space, forming the main chamber. TO give some idea of size, during the exploration of this chamber, the party got lost and it took ages for them to refind their rope, also resulting in the discovery of yet anohter chamber via a huge boulder choke known as 'Star Wars' containing huge blocks of rock ('Tower Blocks'). This is as far as the resent survey goes due to lack of time, but the way on is still wide open with another large phreatic level leading off, plus many other leads.

Left Hand Route

The Left Hand Route starts off as an inclined rift, but soon opens out into a stooping sized passage with holes in the floor. This continues to a large chamber (Arrow Chamber) with two possible pitches to descend. It is thought that these two shafts are linked and so the one giving the cleanest hang and having the least loose boulders was descended. Our thoughts were verified as we landed on a boulder pile and climbed through an eye hole to the sight of a huge shaft (first seen in Arrow CHamber) that we had entered three quarters of the way down. This series of shafts continue down via a broken shaft to the top of a huge clean pitch formed by a phreatic uplift, now known as the 'Niflheim' (a realm of darkness and mist where hell lies within). This got its name due to its univiting nature and a vibrating boom as a huge boulder was dropped. This shaft has so far only been descended via a superb free hanging pitch to a rock bridge (Bird's Eye) with a 4 second drop still to be descended.

Apart from all the caving and walking, numerous tourist trips were taken to Hallstatt, and to the summer Bobsleigh run, giving a welcome break. Vast amounts of beer (totalling 0.5 metric ton) were consumed, as well as many kilos of muesli. The obligatory arguments between the vegetarians and carnivores continued again this year, as well as many hours spent drinking and reminiscing in the potato hut kindly lent to us by Hilde.

Next Year

The incentive to return to Austria in 1989 is great, with the four second drop on the Left Hand Route, the large phreatic passage on the Right Hand Route. As well as these leads it is hoped to find an alternate route to that of the Death's Door pitch and the squeeze. Possible routes are that of the Skull pitch, bottom of the second pitch under large boulder, or by traversing over the pitch before Death's Door.

There are no known caves nearby and so the chance of a major new system like Stellerweg is great, and who knows, a possible link, and a depth well over 1km. It is interesting to note that the phreatic levels in 161 and the other known systems in the area all occur at approximately the same level.

As well as the continued exploration of this system it is also hoped to further explore 164 found in the first week, but exploration was hindered by the high rainfall experienced this year.

We wish to thank the Sports Council for their most generous grant, and also to Hilde the landlady for putting up with us for the three weeks. But most of all to the Austrian caving group for their hospitality, which we hope to repay by arranging an exchange visit during 1989.