Expo - Derigging begun

Thu 17 Aug 2017
Philip Sargent

The expo is nearly over and derigging had begun when I left on Tuesday (15th August). Lots of interesting stuff found: ice-covered walls deep in Happy Butterfly (or was it Fishface?), an open, very long, traverse lead in Balkon, a new cave with lots of prospects in Good Morning, just near the rather distant Organh?hle bivvy.

But I'll leave all that to a proper wrap up post at the end of expo. What I want to write about is what it is like returning to expo after a gap of 34 years.

I was on the last expo which camped at the lake at Altaussee (1982), and the first which stayed at Hilde's at Staudnwirt (1983).  I was already 28 in 1982, and not nearly hard enough for the desperately long and cold trips to the bottom of  Schnellzugh?hle (1623/115) - whose sump is still the deepest point in the SMK system.

So what is different between now and then? Most impressive and immediate is the size of the operation, and the organisation of getting so many people and gear properly based at the Steinbr?ckenh?hle (204) bivvy site. The bivvy is "only" a couple of hours walk and scramble from the road-head but it supports 12-15 people continuously caving eating and sleeping, including supporting the underground camp in Tunnocksschaft and the further hour-distant surface camp at Organh?hle bivvy. A massive operation.

The second great difference that struck me is in the standard of surveying: the exacting detail of the pencil and waterproof paper records in particular. Yes of course the laser ranging distos and Bluetooth automatic data capture are great, but it was the improvement in the manual processes which impressed me.

I wasn't up to caving much: Becka gave me a 2-hour tourist trip down the first couple of pitches in Steinbr?ckenh?hle past a couple of snow plus to the top of the 3rd pitch, but while I could manage technically it was obvious that I was getting out of breath too quickly to be any use underground. Or maybe I am just much more sensitive to altitude (1800m) than I used to be. (Anyway, my SRT kit was carried up by Becka and down by Fleur, and gave the security people in Salzburg airport some amusement on my return. My 1980s-era furry suit was quite handy for days when top camp was in heavy cloud - even extending into the shelter itself when particularly thick.) Later on in my stay there were open leads near the surface in the new discoveries but I felt that it would be better to give the expo freshers the experience of new discovery.

I was very glad to be able to get onto the plateau at all. When I had last been on expo in 1983 the closest I got was Wolfh?hle and various places on the Vord.- and Hinterer-Schwartzmoosk?gel. I suffered a number of "plateau bites" on knuckles, hands and knees as the rock is really very sharp - especially so when I was wandering off the main routes prospecting and getting lost. It is a magnificent place and everything is much further apart than it appears as the terrain is so unforgiving and complex.


Kristian, Aidan and Radost in top camp. Camp beds are stored over winter and it sleeps 15 comfortably, and 22 in varying degrees of discomfort. {Click to see full-size image.}

Partial view of the PV/car-battery Makita battery pack, phones, AAs and 18650 cell charging system at Steinbr?ckenh?hle bivvy. {Click to see full-size image.}

As the expo resumed after the dinner at Hilde's, I took charge of the drill battery situation. There was a lot of frustration with dying Makita battery packs and confusion as to why it was happening and which packs could be rescued and which not. The Titan packs at the Organh?hle site were fine, but the 16 or so Makita ones at the main bivvy were the problem. I read the relevant bits of the expo handbook on my phone (which means sitting on the "signal rock" a few metres from the bivvy to get adequate 3G reception to the website http://expo.survex.com/handbook/charging.html) and worked through it systematically: 3 packs were completely dead, 5 seemed OK and taking charge, but the rest seemed stuck at 12.2V and accepting only a trickle: a couple of these eventually clicked into a 13V+ state and seemed to be OK (but in fact only did a couple of holes underground before dying again). This seems to mean that nearly all the packs had got drastically unbalanced (the packs contain 4 sets of 3.6V in series, and if one set is dud then the other 3 just expend their energy heating it up). Confusing factors were that the fuses in the 12V "car charger" plugs had blown so that the  (15A) inverter and the old Makita charger (8A) weren't working at all: a bit of aluminium foil fixed the most urgent of these, and a trip to Bad Aussee bought replacements (10A, but nothing had blown up since).

A much more pleasant job was improving the cairning on surface routes. This means pottering about on my own under a blue sky in the empty karst building cairns at 4m intervals in the tricky bits of the new paths up to Organh?hle and the new prospecting area down on the plateau to Fischgesichth?hle and Gl?cklichsmetterlingh?hle. I was really just having fun, but apparently this was really quite appreciated by late-night returners in cloud. [I also did rather a lot of washing up - the squalor level among students is one thing that hasn't changed in 30 years.]

While in Bad Aussee we discovered that new14.4V Makita packs could only be bought in a town half-way to Vienna so multiple phone conversations with Wookey lead to us (or rather him) buying 2 new packs for urgent delivery by Amazon. The idea was that we could use an Amazon Prime account back home to get quick delivery... but this doesn't work. Amazon has the concept of "out of country" deliveries, and new accounts can't get fast delivery at all - until some validation or delay has occurred. So we learned that it would have been a good idea to set up an Austrian or German Amazon account with a main delivery address at Gasthof Staudnwirt some time earlier. This is probably a good idea for any expedition in a vaguely civilised country covered by Amazon services. The result was a number of abbreviated or partially aborted pushing trips. We got the new packs on a Monday afternoon when we could really have done with them on the previous Thursday.

Elliott and Thom revising manual procedures for recording survey data using pencils, protractor and notebook - at the Organh?hle bivvy site. {Click to see full-size image.}

All in all a very enjoyable trip for an old lag, though I am rather suffering still from carrying all my caving and expo kit between train stations and bus stations on my return. Next time I'll plan this sort of thing further in advance and get the heavy stuff taken by van. I added one innovation to the expo Bier Book: a new page for "number of stings at base camp in one day" with my entry of Wx4 (wasps, the buggers).
Blog Author: PhilipSargent

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