Andrew Ketley at Penguin Falls, Puerile Humour Series
In July of this year, Cambridge University Caving Club (CUCC) embarked upon its 10th annual expedition to the Kaninchenhöhle cave system in the Totes Gebirge mountains of Austria. The club has been exploring previously undiscovered caves in this area since accepting an invitation by an Austrian club, (then the Sektion Ausseerland of LVfHO, now VfHO), in 1976. During the intervening years several of these caves have grown to be of international significance, this includes Kaninchenhöhle, the subject of our current and ongoing expeditions.
By the end of the 1996 expedition, the explored and surveyed length of Kaninchenhöhle was 19.7 km with a total depth of just under 500m from the highest entrance. There were many unexplored leads (almost 200) with the known southern extremity of the cave reasonably close to the very large Schwarzmooskögeleishöhle- Stellerweghöhle system. Many very promising leads had also been left at the northern end of the cave. Due, not only, to the length of trip required in order to investigate them, but also the huge number of exciting finds much nearer to the new entrance, discovered at the end of the 1995 expedition.
Around 20 cavers took part in this year's trip, most with previous experience of caving abroad, but also a number for whom this was their first taste of expedition caving. Early discoveries were made in the far east of the cave, below the area of huge passage discovered two years ago, known as Triassic Park. The large, mostly horizontal development, was named 'The Lost World', and is interesting, in that it is lower than the previously known layers of horizontal development in the cave. 'The Lost World' offers potential for another entrance to be discovered due to its close proximity with the edge of the mountain and its relation to surface features will provide further insight as to the geological development of the area.
Following a few years of neglect, some members of the expedition found new enthusiasm for long trips to the North Western extremity of the cave, aptly named Siberia. Many extremely promising leads remained in this area and one such shaft, Somebody Else's Problem, was explored to a depth of 434m below the top entrance level, including a virtually free-hanging pitch of 70m!
The main developments in the southern end of the cave took the shape of a re-exploration of Steinschlagschacht, originally explored by CUCC in 1983/4. In 1996, discovery of the Forbidden Land, a very large development to the south of an awkward and unsafe boulder-choke, had revealed its close proximity to Steinschlagschacht. Improvements in equipment and technique since the original exploration, in addition to determination in the knowledge of a likely connection, eventually led to the two caves being joined. Providing a safe route through to the Forbidden Land area and easing access for the push towards the large Schwarzmooskögel-Eishöhle-Stellerweghöhle system only a couple of hundred metres away to the South.
By the end of the expedition, a further 2.4 km of cave had been surveyed and the overall depth increased to just over 500m, owing to the slightly higher entrance of Steinschlagschacht. There are still many promising leads, with the exciting prospect of linking two, already world class, cave systems. This gives us every reason to return again next year.
The first CUCC expedition to the Totes Gebirge area of Austria took place in the summer of 1976 and, with the exception of 1986, the club has returned every year since. In the early years the expedition was based in the village of Altaussee, however since 1984 the expedition has stayed at the Gasthof Staud'nwirt near Bad Aussee. There we are annually made welcome by Karin Wilpernig and her family.
Over the course of twenty-one years, CUCC has been responsible for the discovery, exploration and survey of around 150 caves. Whilst many of these are quite small, others have proved to be very significant and of these the Stellerweghöhle system is perhaps of most note. It was initially explored to a depth of 200m by a German group and was subsequently explored by CUCC from 1980 to 1982. CUCC found several new entrances to the system, and a sump at 970m depth making it the deepest CUCC find to date. Since that time other nearby caves (Larchenschacht, Schwabenschacht and Eishöhle) have been linked into the system, by various groups. Another German club has continued exploration of Stellerweghöhle and the combined system length is now believed to be over 25km.
Kaninchenhöhle was found by CUCC in 1988, and has been the main focus of our expeditions ever since. By 1990 three entrances had been discovered, the total surveyed length was 6.5km and the deepest route to date had been discovered, with a sump at -498m. Discoveries continued at a high rate and the top of the cave quickly became a maze of parallel shafts and interconnecting passages. By the early 90's, trips to the furthest reaches of the cave were becoming increasingly long, with underground camps necessary on occasion, in order to achieve efficient exploration. Although several deep shaft series have subsequently been discovered, none have proved deeper than the earliest found.
By 1995, enthusiasm among club members for further exploration was much diminished, mostly due to the long trips and lack of any prospect of "completing" the project. However, toward the end of the '95 expedition, the surprise discovery of a major new horizontal development, Triassic Park, with over fifty new leads and a new entrance in the final week changed all that. The 1996 expedition, coincidentally the 20th anniversary expedition of CUCC in Austria, was by far the most successful expedition yet with over forty people making their way to Austria at one time or another. Five kilometres of cave was discovered and surveyed in one expedition, taking the total length of the system to over 19km, although the depth remained still at 498m.
The success of the 1996 expedition had supplied many answers to the structure and formation of the complex 3 dimensional maze of Kaninchenhöhle, although as is now considered usual, it also provided as many questions.
A great many potential leads exist in Kaninchenhöhle and expedition members are free to pursue any that are of interest to them. Often there is common interest in a particular area, leading to the natural formation of teams, which are vital to the efficiency and safety of a trip underground. This approach allows individual freedom, whilst the unique feeling of discovering previously unseen 'caverns measureless to man' ensures that effort is not usually duplicated.
At the Southern extremity, work in the Forbidden Land, so named because of its unpleasant entrance through an unstable boulder choke, had revealed significant horizontal developments. The close proximity of Eishöhle and large number of leads made this area an extremely promising and exciting place for further exploration this year.
The North-eastern end of the cave had seen great progress during the 1996 expedition, in the shape of the Puerile Humour series, with approximately 2½-km of new cave and two new entrances being found. This discovery had several key areas of interest including Where the Wind Blows and Iceland, both of which were leading North into areas which, as yet, have no known cave development. The first is a long relatively straight passage, heading parallel to and above The Far End, formerly only reachable by very long trips from the main (original) entrance. The prospect of connection in this area would significantly improve access and undoubtedly renew interest in this inaccessible bit of cave.
Other leads for which there was particular interest in revisiting this year, were in the areas of Wheelchair Access, discovered in 1996 descending from the major trunk route of Triassic Park, and also in Siberia, discovered in 1995 at the North-Western corner of Kaninchenhöhle.
Whilst some of the most interesting exploration was promised by the Forbidden Land, the extremely unpleasant boulder choke entrance to this area made the prospect of a significant number of trips here unappealing to the majority, if not all, of this year's expedition cavers. For this reason a great deal of interest was shown in Steinschlagschacht (1623/136), originally explored by CUCC in 1983/4, which we knew from the survey to be extremely close to connection with the Forbidden Land. Thus, the possibility of a new, safer route into this area was considered sufficiently likely to warrant a re-exploration of this cave. Old log book accounts talked of "phreatic ramps" at around -150m, although the exact nature of these was unclear, as was the exact depth of them. The original exploration had not produced a drawn-up survey and it was by no means certain that such data as existed was connected correctly to the Kaninchenhöhle survey.
So with considerable anticipation tempered by a little wariness of the cave's name, (which translates to Stonefall Shaft) a party of two began the re-exploration. The origin of the name quickly became apparent as the entrance consists of a steep (45-degree), loose boulder slope opening directly onto the first pitch! Extensive use was made of the battery-operated drill in re-rigging the pitch in a fashion that avoided the worst of the stonefall. The entrance pitch is a fine 35m shaft, at the foot of which, was found a small connection to a large boulder strewn chamber. The original route was ignored at this point, despite being apparent from the presence of an old spit (rock anchor), since a more convincing shaft was also present. However, after a little more rigging further spits were found, indicating that we'd merely taken the direct descent whereas originally a more circuitous route was followed. Owing to the presence of the old spits, rigging was swift with only a small number of additional anchors being required, until a divergence was reached at around -150m.
Andrew Atkinson approaching the
Interest grew among others on the expedition, as it soon became apparent that there was plenty to explore in Steinschlagschacht and that it was actually much safer than the name suggested. Further trips followed. The original route had continued straight down from the divergence discovered earlier, however that looked a bit wet and uninviting so the tangential Eyehole Route was pushed instead. It was unclear as to why this was not explored previously; it's possible that the eyehole had not been noticed previously (lights were typically poorer in 1983) or simply that depth was the main goal. Either way, after another couple of trips and a lot more rigging with a further 200m of rope, an enormous chamber was discovered. This was later named the Theatre due to the spectacular views afforded from near the ceiling on later trips. The Theatre is roughly 10m by 20m at the floor, with near vertical walls rising up to the ceiling at an estimated height of around 60m!
Early delight at having discovered such a magnificent chamber was quickly followed by disappointment at the lack of ways on from the bottom. The floor was a huge pile of boulders with a low connection through to a much smaller chamber in one corner. Here there were a number of small wet avens (shafts entering from the ceiling), clear pools of water and some mud, much like elsewhere in Kaninchenhöhle. Back in the main chamber was a nasty and unrewarding climb down through the boulders in the floor and an obvious black space some distance up the walls at either end, but no obvious continuation. Much surveying was done and a retreat beaten to base camp to ponder on what to do next.
After entering the data into the computer, the survey software showed that although we'd not connected we were within 25m horizontally and 30m or so below a potential connection with the Forbidden Land. The implication of this was that the connection, if there was one, lay about halfway up The Theatre on the opposite wall from which we'd originally entered the chamber - not at all an easy place to reach! However, the temptation to attempt a connection was too great to resist, so a party of two left base camp early on the morning following the expedition dinner with the intention of doing just that. A considerable amount of effort was needed since a near horizontal traverse had to be rigged around the wall, a little below the ceiling of the Theatre, 40m above the nearest floor. The drill again proved invaluable and it is doubtful as to whether such a traverse would have been rigged without it. Eventually a suitable place was found to descend first to an eyehole and then to a ledge way above the floor of The Theatre. Here was the much hoped for connection to the Forbidden Land, although in a different place to that anticipated at the beginning of the expedition and certainly by different means!
So, what of Eishöhle? The main rationale for the re-exploration of Steinschlagschacht was to provide an easy and safe route to the Forbidden Land, believed to be the nearest point to Eishöhle. The new route is certainly much safer although since it involves 230m of ascent to exit it is not so much easier as had been hoped. It had been assumed that the Forbidden Land, due to the large number of unexplored leads reported previously, would be the obvious route to Eishöhle. All of these leads were re-evaluated this year but with the exception of the Gravel Pit, which ended in a boulder choke, none was pushed seriously due both to lack of time and dubious prospect. By this time The Theatre was now the closest point to Eishöhle, perhaps 40m closer than the known extremity at the start of the expedition.
The survey was examined once again and a plan concocted. It was apparent that Elin Algor, a long straight passage in the Forbidden Land, was roughly co-linear with the main wall of The Theatre and apparently all one development in the formation of the cave. Since there had been a horizontal connection at one end of The Theatre, it was surmised that there ought to be another at a similar height but at the opposite end of the chamber, continuing in the direction of Eishöhle. Some required more than a little persuasion that this was a realistic possibility, but eventually a number of trips were made with a view to finding said passage. More, hair-raising rigging followed in order to traverse in the opposite direction around the wall of The Theatre and eventually a hole in the wall was found at about the expected elevation. Unfortunately, this rapidly turned into a parallel shaft series, eventually connecting at the floor of The Theatre and with no further obvious leads.
So, for the time being the connection to Eishöhle remains elusive. At the end of this year's expedition it was very unclear as to how to approach the problem next year. However new information has recently come to light. Our Austrian contacts have since carried out a partial re-survey of the Eishöhle system which suggests that we are now within 130m of a connection and that the main chamber in Eishöhle is around 20m above floor level in The Theatre. Prospects in this area for next year now look extremely good, and the best chance of a connection may be to re-explore and push northward trending leads in Eishöhle, in the hope of a passage dropping in to The Theatre from above.
The massive trunk passage of Triassic Park was discovered towards the end of the 1995 expedition as a continuation of the 'France' area of Kaninchenhöhle, and soon led to the discovery of the Scarface (161d) entrance. The new entrance provided much improved access to this important section of cave and in 1996 it received considerable attention. The main passage turns from trending North-East to North-West at one point and it was around this area that a lead in the floor was pushed a little last year.
Named "Wheelchair Access" (in recognition of a steep ramp that has to be negotiated and the relative age of the explorers) this was an immediate target for the beginning of the expedition in 1997, due to the ease of access and limited need for resources to push the cave further. Initial exploration concentrated on two parallel rifts partially explored at the end of the 1996 expedition. Investigation of the series to the left was not promising, with difficult traversing leading to blind pits, and success in the other right hand rift series soon diverted attention. Initially an awkward, constricted, steeply descending rift passage with mud concealing sharp calcite formations, the passage quickly earned a bit of a reputation amongst the explorers, and continuing the Wheelchair theme was named "Kein Zimmer rift" (No Room Rift !) Perseverance paid off however, as just past a tight vertical section, the ramp broke out into a larger free hanging drop, at the bottom of which, some small horizontal tubes led off. Excitement mounted as a last short drop of 5m landed the explorers in a large trunk passage, 4m in diameter, with a small stream in the floor heading roughly North / South. It was inevitable this would become known as the Lost World and was obviously a major and important piece of cave. It is the discovery of such passage that drives cavers to endure the hardships of an expedition such as ours in the remote mountain areas of the world.
Exploration continued over several more trips: - Upstream, a couple of big phreatic passages met in a large chamber in which were found several bat skeletons - this would suggest another route in from the surface, though whether this is accessible to cavers is another matter! Beyond the chamber several routes unite at a 3m climb up, then down, into a magnificent tall canyon passage over 7m wide. This had a dark pristine flat mud floor and led to a large, old sump pool, now devoid of water, again with a beautiful, cracked mud floor and the old water level clearly defined by the dark mud on the white limestone walls. With reluctance, we headed carefully (to minimize the damage to the delicate mud formations) over the mud lake, and a 2m drop down a mud bank led to a downstream continuation passage. This had obviously been completely under water at some stage in its history and probably lies just below the level of the current valley beneath the cliff in which the Scarface entrance is situated. The passage continues down, with the current small stream weaving its way through bizarre mud formations and ending at a small chamber with choked outlets and no easily accessible way on.
Mud lake in the Lost World
Downstream from the initial pitch in, the exploration was aided partially by some German cavers from Stuttgart who were also on expedition in the area continuing the exploration of the old CUCC find, Stellerweghöhle. We are on good terms with other cavers in the area and exchange trips improve relations and increase the knowledge base about caves in the area.
The downstream end was less complex with a single passage leading to a pitch opening out over a large chamber with a boulder-strewn floor. A route down through the boulders gained the true floor of the chamber where the water disappeared into an impenetrable passage. Leading up from this is a larger passage ending at a mud and cobble choke. This may be associated with similar choked passages in the upstream end of the Lost World.
The passages were surveyed and photographed and all of the obvious leads pushed to a conclusion, so for the time being the Lost World may be left whilst more fruitful projects are pursued. However due to its location it is almost certain that other sections of cave will connect through and perhaps provide ways around the current limits of exploration at either end of what is obviously only a small part of the original passage.
Siberia is situated at roughly the most northerly point of Kaninchenhöhle. It was discovered in 1994 and was known to have many potentially good leads. Unfortunately by the original route it was an extremely long and arduous trip just to get to the pushing front, including around 250m of descent, 500m of generally horizontal passage and a tyrolean traverse. Since the discovery of the Scarface entrance (161d) in 1995 and due mostly to the large number of going leads near to the new entrance, Siberia has received little attention up to now. However, this year new enthusiasm was found by a small group of expedition members, of whom none had ever been to this area of the cave before. This highlights the importance of painstakingly surveying and documenting the cave, as often an area may be left several years until a good reason is found to revisit it, more often than not, by a completely different group of people. Much effort could be wasted if previously visited cave has to be re-explored & re-surveyed.
The Scarface entrance and connection of Triassic Park with Knossos in 1996 reduced the journey time to Siberia by probably a couple of hours for moderately experienced cavers. However, owing to some reluctance to re-rig the tyrolean traverse (Strange Acrossfall), which would have been a long trip in its own right, all of this year's trips took the more awkward and slower route through the Burble Crawl instead. For a number of reasons it took three trips before the pushing front, the top of a very large shaft called Somebody Else's Problem, was reached. Since all members of the party were new to the area, route finding (still difficult despite the existing surveys) was certainly an issue and dragging tackle through the 100m Burble Crawl, hard work. En route, Vom Pitch had not been rigged for several years and complications due to the loose rock in this area caused a certain amount of re-rigging to be necessary (a flake previously used as a rebelay had fallen off in 1995). Unfortunately having eventually reached the shaft and placed a number of bolts, it quickly became apparent that the shaft was much deeper than had been anticipated and the rope was too short!
The fourth trip was more successful. Enough rope was carried that it was relatively straightforward, although slow, to rig the pitch. A 75m, almost free-hanging pitch, was found in a large shaft with a strong breeze blowing up it, this suggests an as yet unknown cave system driving such an airflow. At the foot of the pitch were a couple of climbs, one leading to a crawl and another to a 15m pitch with strong upwards breeze. This 15m pitch was later descended and found to connect to a phreatic passage with an undescended climb at the end of it, accompanied by the now ever present gale. In the interests of maintaining reliable documentation, no further exploration was carried out in this area, since there was already plenty of surveying required! This was duly completed, including numerous side passages in Siberia, which had only received cursory attention previously.
By the end of the 1996 expedition it was clear that Where the Wind Blows, one of the Northward trending passages in the Puerile Humour series, could potentially provide a significantly easier route to The Far End due to it's close proximity at the 1996 exploration limit. Thus, this was an obvious question mark to return to at the beginning of this year's expedition. The end of the passage was draughting from three separate places, suggesting significant cave beyond, through which the air was being driven. The nature of the passage suggested that the end was merely a collapse area in an ongoing passage.
Andrew Ketley, Puerile Humour Series
A small hole in the mud floor was found to lead to a large aven above, and an ongoing pitch series below. However progress down was stopped by a too tight constriction. Continuing horizontally, the passage quickly chokes at a boulder collapse, probably associated with the aven / shaft series already mentioned. Some effort was made to dig through the choke but concerns over the stability of the excavated passage soon halted exploration. This remains an interesting area, but further progress may require somebody experienced in the digging and shoring techniques required to pass such a boulder choke safely. A few other leads were tidied up in the area, none of which led to anything significant
In another series of passages leading off from Triassic Park, just beyond an impressive aven, known as Zebedee, is a climb named Moomintroll. It was discovered last year and noted because: - it looked to be not too difficult and a large black space (often indicative of a higher level continuation) was visible at the top. The first party to attempt the climb this year considered, after putting in a few bolts by hand, that it would be a much easier prospect using the drill. As a justification to commandeer this important expedition resource, they claimed that the shaft on the hammer of the hand bolting kit had snapped (albeit by accident?!) and thus they were unable to do anything but return to the surface to collect the drill. The second party had more success, despite being unable to use the drill because the battery appeared flat, and after a bold attempt at climbing, the top was reached. Another 30' shaft was found and the sound of water ahead. Unfortunately it was by now time to derig, so further exploration must once again wait for next year.
Again, this passage is an offshoot from the large Triassic Park trunk route, and being only 10 minutes from the Scarface entrance was an obvious target for further exploration. Work concentrated on a descending shaft series, wet in places, making this a potentially serious proposition since the average air temperature in the cave is only just above freezing. The series descended 100m down, over several pitches, but ended in a tight, committing rift and a further very tight descent which was abandoned due to the lack of a sufficiently thin backup team member!!
As a background activity CUCC are always on the look out for other possible entrances to either Kaninchenhöhle or as-yet undiscovered caves. The limestone plateau is riddled with holes, most of which go to an insignificant depth, but also some quite large holes which are still to be found and investigated. This surface prospecting work is essential not only to further understanding of the cave systems in the area but also in sustaining interest in the area for future generations of CUCC members. Over the past 20 years we have discovered a great many such entrances and shafts, however until recently documentation and labeling of such finds has been sporadic. Over the last few years and indeed on this year's expedition this problem has been addressed by the use of stamped aluminium tags that are fixed to the cave entrances, these bearing numbers assigned by the Austrian clubs who maintain records of all known caves in the area. To complement this work, all, important entrances are being located and mapped with the aid of G.P.S. technology, backed up with more accurate surface surveys. This ensures that re-exploration of caves is minimised and has proved an essential tool in the investigation of possible connections between existing cave systems.
All of the cave exploration carried out by CUCC in Kaninchenhöhle is a step into the unknown, in that we are the first (and possibly the last) people to visit its complex passages. It is therefore important that we document what we find, otherwise the information will slowly be lost through natural turnover of club members. Since day one we have been surveying everything that we find and this year was no exception with over 2.5 km of "new" cave surveyed. Results are processed and plotted up on the spot using "SURVEX" software developed by CUCC members, originally for our own use, but now used by cavers worldwide. The data, along with final, hand drawn, plan and elevation surveys are passed to the Austrian club as well as being published in the caving press in this country and abroad. The value of surveys cannot be overstated. They are important as a map in the event of an emergency or route finding for the uninitiated, in assessing the geology of the area, and indeed, to assist with the discovery of connections between adjacent systems.
In addition to surveying new finds we also aim to photograph as much as is reasonably practicable of the discoveries. Cave photography can be extremely difficult due not only to the extremely hostile environment into which delicate camera equipment must be taken, but also because of the difficulty of lighting subjects adequately. CUCC has a number of members with a keen interest in underground photography and this year over one hundred photographs were taken underground on several photographic trips. It is hoped that some of these will also be published in the national caving press and additionally on our web site, which is maintained as a full library of our expedition history, information and data.
The expedition is funded entirely by its members and support and sponsorship such as has been provided by yourselves is a considerable help. The continued success of the expedition in the training of new members and in pushing back the boundaries of human experience and knowledge is with thanks to you.