July 1996 saw the twentieth Cambridge University Caving Club expedition to the Austrian Totes Gebirge. Since 1988 these expeditions have concentrated on the increasingly complicated Kaninchenhöhle system, whose length stood at 14.3km at the start of the expedition. The latter half of the 1995 expedition had seen many important breakthroughs. There was the surprise discovery of major horizontal development ("Triassic Park") with over fifty leads and a new, lower entrance, found from the inside. The other important leads were at the southern end of the cave where all south going passages appeared to be stopped by a fault, which was irritating since the 970m deep Stellerweghöhle system was thought to be less than 1km away to the south. This southern boundary had been passed in 1995 via a dire boulder choke ("Stairway to Hell") to find large passage beyond ("Forbidden Land") but the dangerous nature of the choke meant that all concerned were determined never to go there again. Finding a bypass for the choke was a priority for the 1996 expedition.
With these exciting prospects, enthusiasm was running higher than for several years and forty people made their way to Austria at one time or another making 1996 the largest ever CUCC expedition. When the first arrivals presented themselves at the Gasthof Staud'nwirt near Bad Aussee on 28th June, their first objective was to find a good route to the new 161d entrance ("Scarface") which had the advantage of offering easy access to most of the leads but the disadvantage of being situated in the middle of a cliff. This was surprisingly easily achieved, and with the aid of a couple of handlines, an acceptable route was soon established and the caving got under way.
The other main branch ended in a short pitch - "Minoan Surprise" - which was found to be very close to Knossos, the largest chamber in Kaninchenhöhle. This connection was eventually confirmed, and would potentially provide a much easier route to the many leads in the northern extremities of the cave which have not been visited since 1993. However, with all the easy leads in Triassic Park, the connection was not used in this way in 1996.
The Puerile Humour series appears to be a complex network of smaller phreatics (typically 3m round) which fed the main trunk route of Triassic Park. The main route divides into two, 500m from Triassic Park. The western branch - "Where The Wind Blows" - ends in a draughting choke after 170m. Significantly, this end of the passage is only about 100m east and 40m north of what was previously the north eastern extremity of the cave. There are not many high quality leads in Where The Wind Blows but all those that there are will be worth thorough investigation in 1997 since this would potentially provide an even easier route to the northern end of the cave than the new route into Knossos.
The eastern branch quickly became very complicated. A chamber with five ways out, given the inspired title of "Five Ways Chamber" is the key. The northern route leads to "Bounce Rift", a 6m deep rift running perpendicular to the main passage, whilst east from Five Ways leads to "Completely Loopy", a rabbit warren of interconnecting passages. There are significant draughts in many places around here. On one day, a party went to explore beyond Bounce Rift whilst a second party went to explore and survey in Completely Loopy. The first party found a 3m round draughting phreatic which frustratingly ended at a strongly draughting choke after 80m. This was thought to be promising enough to warrant a quick dig, and after 45 minutes of toil they emerged onto the hillside. 161e became the "Yorkshire Pudding" entrance since the author of this piece didn't fit through until some more rocks had been removed. Ten minutes later, the second party emerged from the second new entrance of the day (161f) 100m around the hill, having followed a similarly strong draught from Completely Loopy. 161e and 161f are about 25m higher than 161d and 500m to the north. Neither will be particularly useful for access to anywhere other than leads in their immediate vicinity as they suffer from the same surface accessibility problems as 161d.
To the north of 161e is "Iceland" which is similarly draughty and contains a number of ice formations, the first that have been found in Kaninchenhöhle, and most welcome in a cave which generally lacks aesthetic beauty. There are around 40 unexplored leads in the Puerile Humour series and Iceland, many of which are very promising.
At the foot of the fourth pitch is a choice of routes: Continuing down the impressive 55m fifth pitch, "Application for Life", or heading south down a rift passage which opens out onto a large pitch with an aven above. Whilst bolting this pitch, a caver was spotted at the top of the aven, and it turns out that this was the foot of an undescended pitch in Minoan Surprise. Traversing round the pitch leads to a second connected pitch, "Spatial Awareness" which was descended. This pitch lands in the same chamber as another pitch from Minoan Surprise which had been descended earlier in the expedition, the lovingly named "Bottomless Pit of Eternal Chaos" (79m).
Whilst the pitches are mostly spacious and dry, the same cannot be said of the sections of horizontal cave which connect them, which are mostly about 50cm wide and covered in mud, which makes a trip to the bottom of Interview Blues a strenuous affair. However, the caving improves towards the bottom of the main route, and the splendid 40m tenth pitch lands in a sizeable chamber with half a dozen possible leads. Although many of these were quite wet and miserable on the one occasion this area was visited (during a period of unsettled weather), there is the prospect of adding more depth to Interview Blues, and this exciting prospect means that this area is likely to be revisited in 1997.
In 1995 the passage beyond the choke had been described as having one solid wall and one shattered wall, but this turned out to be a big pile of boulders in the middle of a huge hading rift chamber, 90m by 30m, named "Hall of the Mounting Choss". A phreatic tube - "Pump House" - heads south from here, which is of similar dimensions and orientation to the phreatics found in France in 1994 but considerably higher up, and is thus thought to have been offset by our hypothetical fault. The large passage bears southwest into "Elin Algor", ending in a large undescended pitch with aven above, and "Tirolia Werke", a westerly trending passage containing a number of phreatic ramps. (Incidentally, the grand names of these passages result from a total lack of inspiration on the part of the surveyors: Elin Algor is the name of the fridge in our base camp hut, and Tirolia Werke is the name of the oven.)
The usefulness of having a computer and a copy of Survex present in Austria was once again demonstrated, as when the survey for this part of the cave was included, it was found to be very close to a known CUCC cave, Steinschlagschacht, explored in 1983 and 84. Although the details are sketchy, it seems that this cave is essentially a 250m deep pitch series in which the existence of a number of phreatic ramps has been recorded, similar to those found in Tirolia Werke. It also appears to be very loose in places and contains an active streamway, so although plans were made to descend Steinschlagschacht in the final week of the expedition, it didn't take very much rain for those plans to be abandoned. Making the connection will be a priority at the beginning of the 1997 expedition.
Going the other way from Shortage of Walls, leads to the large "Teapot" chamber, visible from Salt Lake City. Two pitches in the far corner of this chamber landed in "Rich Tea", a 1994 find in France, thus providing another connection from Triassic Park to the older parts of the cave.
The steady improvement in the standard of CUCC's underground surveying was maintained this year. Even the novices produced high quality work with the result that the full survey was completed several months earlier than usual. Julian Haines continuing battle to build a reliable radio system for communication between our two campsites was more successful than previous attempts. We obtained two weeks of reliable communication, and they served an important purpose in reassuring base camp that the Stairway to Hell team had emerged safely. The photo trip was less successful with five cavers spending a very cold five hours standing around while flashguns failed to work. Our photographic record of the 1996 finds is thus somewhat sparse, and this will need to be rectified in 1997.
There is still a large backlog of entrance finding and surface surveying work to be done, but there is a new spirit of trying to take a more systematic approach to prospecting and surveying, which has been achieved without compromising the relaxed atmosphere of the expedition. This new found efficiency was not much in evidence however when the aforementioned GPS was left on top of the mountain at the end of the expedition. Disaster was averted when one of our members returned from Slovenia via Austria two weeks later and retrieved it.
Most exciting of all however are the possibilities at the southern end of Forbidden Land. The northern end of the Schwarzmooskogel Eishöhle is believed to be between 200 and 500m away from the new southern extremity of Kaninchenhöhle. The Eishöhle is already connected to the Stellerweg system, and the major horizontal development in all the systems in the area are known to be at similar altitudes, so a connection looks more likely than ever. The combined length of the systems would be over 40km, the majority of which has been found by CUCC, and the overall depth would exceed 1000m. However, such a connection may take a number of years to find given the dangerous nature of access to the Forbidden Land, which means it is not the sort of the place to send lots of people, especially not people new to expedition caving. With over 100 leads remaining in the nicer parts of Kaninchenhöhle, this doesn't seem likely to be a problem.