This write-up was first published in the "Cavers' Digest" (an internet mailing list) #id4871, submitted 20th July 1994, just after the Expo. Thanks to Bob Bloodworth for permission to use it here and to reprint it in Cambridge Underground 1996.
I recently got onto Cavers-Digest looking for people to cave with on the European continent. One of the familiar sigs on the digest, Wookey, from the Cambridge University Caving Club (CUCC) invited me to join them for part of their yearly 5 week expedition to explore Kaninchenhöhle near Bad Aussee, Austria. KH is a very vertical cave in the mountains near Dachstein. The current survey goes about 500m deep with 10 km of passages, but there is much more to be explored. Although I was a novice to vertical caves, and (as Wookey graciously pointed out) about 10 years older than most of the participants, I accepted Wookey's friendly invitation to join the "Expo" for a few days of caving. I spent the next couple of weeks collecting gear and practicing SRT in the trees of the Rheinpark near my apartment. As Wookey wasn't able to make the trip to KH this year, I sent him the following letter detailing my experiences. He suggested that I post it to the Digest with a few notes to help the uninitiated. The names of the various parts of the cave probably won't mean much to those who havn't been there, but surveys are available to those who are really interested in this deep large system.
As there were no innocents on this expedition, none of the names have been changed to protect anyone.
It started out so well on Tuesday evening after work, the sky a blazing red over Cologne as I headed to the train station with happy thoughts of cool caves, the sun roof open and the windows down. Well, at least it was good until I tried to put the passenger side window (electric) back up and it jammed. An hour later I had taken apart the door in the parking lot and repaired the window, but had missed my train.
I ended up arriving about 2h late in Bad Aussee on Wednesday morning, and found Karin's Gasthaus on the edge of town easily. She looked a little shocked as I asked her "Haben Sie eine Gruppe englischer Höhlenforscher zur Gast?" Apparently she hadn't expected anyone with the group to be able to speak German and was preparing herself for some type of complaint, but as I made it clear I only wanted to join the group she dutifully directed me to a virtually deserted base camp. Everyone had already headed for top camp (a 45 min drive and a good hours hike up the mountain). Luckily, Shawn was doggedly festering and offered to take me up to top camp. In retrospect, I think he was happy for an excuse go to top camp without actually having to go caving!
(Note: Festering, for our american readers, has nothing to do with open wounds. It is rather a Cambridge term for wasting time doing anything other than what you are supposed to be doing; be that working, studying, or in this case, caving)
The day was shot, as it started raining heavily upon my arrival at top camp, a collection of tents on a flowering alpine meadow. We spent the day going back down into town, purchasing large quantities of beer, and hauling it up on our backs. Andy was virtually jogging up the path to top camp with his rucksack full of beer and I really had to work to keep up. At this point, I was beginning to wonder if maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. Until that is, that I found out later that Andy is just one of those hard-core, terribly fit mountain types who pushes everything to the limit!
Several beers later, out of either gratitude, pity, inebriation, or a combination of the three, Mike and Andy suggested that we go on a short (7-8h) trip down the main shaft to Vestabule to introduce me to SRT and to check out some question marks before the expo dinner the next day. The cave entrance was pretty impressive (as was the murderous walk up to it), going down, down, down those pitches, and learning by doing SRT. After negotiating a pretty tight squeeze which I am told you (Wookey) were responsible for finding (thanks) we eventually got to Vestabule, Andy set up some rigging for the next pitch down. His rad deviation required a 90 deg full body length chimney move and herculean strength to cross, but it was tightly rigged and therefore O.K. Mike found a short climb at the bottom, and a passage that got us back to Gnome II. Thank God for that, as we were in a hurry to get back in time for dinner and in no mood to do the Squeeze again. Mike went back to get the rigging that had been set up for the trip down into Vestabule and got a taste of adventure as the bolt popped out as he was prusiking up. The combination of Andy's tight rigging and some rotten rock combined to give him quite a scare. Thank goodness for that natural backup anchor!
After checking out some question marks and making plans for next trip, we hauled ass back for the Expo dinner, where we had a great time eating, drinking, and singing cave songs. This was fun, but the high point of the evening had to be when Kate accepted a bet to eat 10 chocolate cake desserts without losing it.., and she did! I and everyone else at the table was completely dazed and amazed by this accomplishment, even after some 5 min later, as she held her mouth and ran for the ladys room, looking a bit green.
I was thinking, "These CUCC cavers are good people".
The only casualty of the Expo I know of happened after dinner, as Alister stubbed his toe crossing the road from the Gasthaus back to base camp. Karin, our patient hostess, drove us to the local hospital, where the night doctor asked quaintly, "Haf he somesing soo trinking?". Apparently it wasn't bad enough for stitches.
Friday we got an early start and made it up to the cave entrance by 2pm. :-)
Julian, Steve, Kate and I went down to Algeria (a tall chamber dominating an entrance shaft named France) and after abseiling halfway down an adjacent large chamber onto a ledge, we found just masses of new cave. A big, approx. 7m wide sloping passage that looks like a dried up river bed (tentatively named Mississippi, after the river of my hometown) and several side passages heading in the general direction of Stellerweg (another deep cave nearby), each ending in a different tall chamber. The passage Julian and I looked at was so filled with deep soft chocolatey mud, that Kate (appropriately enough) suggested that it be named Mississippi Mud Pie. Kate found a lovely crawl of her own that I'm sure you'd like as well <g>.
Well, after surveying all the new stuff and adding numerous question marks to the survey map, we headed up for breakfeast. Unfortunately, my batteries gave out just after I had clipped into the hanging rebelay in Algeria about 30-40m above the chamber floor. I ended up prussiking up to a ledge with a mini mag torch in my mouth where I could finally change batteries. After about two hours of SRT ascending torture and a lovely walk back in the morning twilight, we had a great breakfast of Vesta's dehydrated chicken and rice and caught a few hours of much needed sleep. We woke up at noon Saturday realising that a moutain tent also doubles as a broiling oven in the midday heat. Andy and Mike were arriving at top camp, psyched to check out and survey a few question marks from the previous trip on Thursday. "A great opportunity to get in another long trip and still catch my train Sunday afternoon", I thought, and quickly packed my gear for the trudge up to the entrance.
We dropped down and used the new detour to Vestabule, climbing back up and derigging Driller Killer in the process. That tight traverse along the very deep ridge connecting the two pitches is a bitch with a big bag of rope, and we were happy to be doing it for the last time. Anyway, we pushed and found loads of new ?'s, finally deciding to survey our way out about 1 am. My dead batteries the night before had me convinced of the joys of carbide and I was using Anthony s lamp and generator. I was so happy to find that I could also use it like a hot water bottle under my oversuit to help me keep warm while waiting around to prussik! Another morning climb back down to top camp and another breakfast of delicous Vestas completed my caving experience at the '94 CUCC Expo. I was as tired as I've probably been in a long time. My body was sore and bruised, my hands scraped, and my fingertips numbed. I felt like I had been run over by a semi and was happy as hell about it.
Mike and I drank a few brews at base camp to unwind as Olly (author of SURVEX) typed the new survey data into the computer. Andy, the wild man, stayed up top and was going for his 4th caving trip of the week.
As it was, I ended up spending a grand total of about 33hrs on three trips underground in about 3 days. Helped survey about 500m of new cave with about 65 survey stations. I also learned a hell of a lot about european caving techniques (and english organizational skills, or the pleasant absence thereof <g>). I was pretty beat as Olly dropped me off at the Bahnhof for the ride home, but I was smiling because I knew I'd be back again next year. Thanks for making it possible Wookey.
I want to publicly thank everyone from the CUCC at the Expo. Everyone was just great, never making me feel like an idiot for being a novice. I liked the folks from CUCC; besides being good cavers, they are a lot of fun to party with! I can't thank them enough for letting me tag along for a few days of caving. As Wookey so aptly put it:
"The Internet is good gear!"