by Nick Thorne
It is many years since Britain could offer open potholes for pioneers to explore, and now even Europe is fast running out of areas of genuinely virgin limestone. One area where almost no work has been done however is the Totes Gebirge in Austria. Cambridge University Caving Club had a short expedition to that area in 1976 and I went with them when they paid their second visit in the summer of 1977. Since, in their past, the B.E.C. have shown an active interest in Austria, I thought that members might like to know how things went.
C.U.C.C. set up camp by a lake in Alt Aussee, a sleepy little village some 80Km (50 miles) east of Salzburg. The scenery is spectacular in the extreme. On the opposite side of the lake to our camp stood the Trisselwand, a sheer rock wall six times taller than the Avon gorge. Our interest was focussed on the nearby Loser Plateau, a sharply undulating plain nearly 2000m (6,600ft) above sea level. Until recently the plateau was inaccessible to anyone with anything short of a helicopter. However, a few years ago, a road up there was built for the skiers and the plateau is now a brisk three quarters of an hours' walk along dubious tracks from where the road ends. The road itself is no trifling effort but a great autobahn affair zigzagging its way up the hillside. Near the top, it has a heart-stopping hang gliders' take-off ramp. The road is a toll road, and a car plus four people would cost about £5.50 per trip. Before we parted with cash, however, a curious aspect of local attitudes was utilised. Cavers in Austria, and I believe in other parts of the continent too, are regarded as real heroes. The words "Hohlen Forscher" were all that we needed to gain us free tolls, reduced camping fees and even free beer!
Once on the plateau, we began prospecting. The tens of miles of lapiaz have rather daunted Carl, the only local caver. He welcomed our extra manpower, pointed us in the right direction and essentially said "Explore whatever takes your fancy!" I found that after the British caving scene, some adjustment of scale was necessary, both above and below ground. Looking across the plateau the Schonberg looked to be within spitting distance, but in fact it would have been a long days' very tough walking. Crossing the lapiaz was a real headache. Unlike Yorkshire, this stuff is faulted, folded, overfolded and has patches of tough, hardy vegetation growing all over it. The plateau can be a very unfriendly place with its abundance of snakes and its very changeable weather. In two minutes, prospectors can have their surtbthing (Oh! what a giveaway!) interrupted by some very spectacular thunder and lightning and be pummelled by hailstones as big as marbles. The run-off from these thunderstorms is so fast as to be almost comforting. I am sure that if one were caught underground in a floodable passage (of which there are thankfully very few!) and not be drwoned instantly, one could almost hold ones breath until the flood subsided!
When it comes to the caves themselves, finding the deep ones requires a little thought and a lot of luck. At first we looked at big open shafts, and found many fine and undescended examples. Some were up to 4Om (150ft) deep, but they were invariably choked or plugged with snow. A much better type of entrance to look for is the horizontal type. A short section of horizontal development is all that is needed to protect subsequent shafts from the debris that chokes the open pots. An additional clue for a good site we learned was the presence of a draught. So healthy an indication of good things is a draught that we even hammered out the entrance to one cave - a Yorkshire trick that leaves the continentals absolutely staggered! The subsequent hole led to a fine series of shafts before becoming too tight at about 25Om (820ft) depth. Although deep, this is nothing to what Loser could produce with its maximum depth potential being in the order of 900m (2,950ft)
As an example of the type of caves that we were finding, I include a survey of one of the caves with which I was personally involved. We are provisionally calling our find the Eisluft Hohle. The official Austrian number designated to a cave initially is only worth superceding by a name when the cave reaches some 150m (490ft) depth. The cave draughts outwards. This we find very puzzling as the cave temperature is considerably lower than that outside. The draught varies with the temperature of the atmosphere - implying a convection draught as opposed to a stream driven one - and there are no higher entrances that draught in. Indeed, no entrances on the plateau seem to take an inblowing draught. We are still thinking this one out and would welcome any suggestions.
The cave has three entrances that each share the draught. These soon unite above a snow slope. A handline descent of this leads to the top of Plugged Shaft which is over two hundred feet deep and broken by numerous but very small ledges. The icy draught is at its strongest at the top of the shaft and on a good day difficulty was found in keeping carbide lamps alight. Sound natural belays are scarce as all good looking flakes and threads just come off in your hand, so bolting was the order of the day. This was very slow as the limestone is very hard and rock anchors soon blunted. Half an hour's hammering in the cooling breeze and the snow at the top of Plugged Shaft was nothing if not soul-destroying.
The shaft descends through snow plugs to a very dubious platform of dirty snow. It was while standing on this that we began to wonder about the degree by which the caver's presence alters the cave environment. ("I don't want to worr you chaps - but it's melting!") Further down, the shaft enlarges and a small rock bridge is met. Behind the bridge is some horizontal passage to a shaft. Time was short, we left this undescended and followed the draught down the main shaft. The shaft ends at a chamber and some short horizontal passage that thankfully marks the end of the snow. Saved Shaft was descended to a chamber and a fearful looking boulder choke. The draught filtered enticingly through the ruckle and, prudence lost, we crawled through to a rift beyond. We reached a pitch and descended 32m (105ft) and pushed on to the head of another shaft, when we realised that we had lost the draught. We therefore left this next shaft undescended anc returned and traversed over the pitch head to another up which the faithful old draught was blowing. We then descended 30m (98ft) down this one, past a ledge to a rift passage. This enlarged to a reasonable sized chamber with a choice of routes onwards. We had just about run out of tackle and, with the expedition nearing its end, time was short too. We started the awesome task of de-rigging. (Yes, we were on ladders!)
We've left the cave with enough promise and question marks that I am sure will draw us back to it next year. If you think that I've been a little rash in telling you of this unfinished find, then I might warn the would-be pirate that the plateau is very, very big and the Eisluft Hohle, like many of Loser's caves, cannot be seen from more than five yards away! And, whilst on his wanderings across the unexplored lapiaz, the pirate might just find something better than the Eisluft Hohle. How about it ? "Noch ein Bier, bitte!"