Cambridge University Caving Club Expedition to the Totes Gebirge massif, Austria 1977

It had begun to seem that we would be unable to get any transport to Austria when Dave Harrison came along and offered us a lift. Plans were quickly made and equipment bought, then Dave disappeared... a return of his nervous complaint so he would obviously be unable to drive to the continent. Given the impetus to go we hurriedly made our own arrangements to go out by train to Salzburg. We finally got the tickets on Saturday August 6th, to travel on Moday August 8th.

Simon and I arranged for food and some gear to be sent out with various other members. We met Nick at Victoria station and then set off by train to Dover, there to catch the ferry to Ostend. From Ostend we got a train through Brussels, Aachen, Cologne, Bonn, up the Rhine valley, Bavaria and Munich and then, as we approached the border with Austria, mountains appeared. These were viewed and piccied enthusiastically before we crossed the border. Five more minutes and we were in Salzburg.

Nick was enthusiastically pushed forward to speak German at the locals and we soon found ourselves on a bus to Bad Ischl. From here a train took us round the edge of Halstatter See and some very spectacular views of the Trippenstein and Dachstein were eagerly snapped up by my camera. The train carried on up the valley of the Traun and into Bad Aussee. One last bus took us up to Altaussee where a friendly Austrian directed us to the campsite without being asked for info. We arrived and it was immediately obvious we were in the right place because of the large squalid camp, with 6 canoes and an English car. We were greeted by Dave Fox and Vic Brown who informed us that everyone else had gone up to the plateau to camp.

We unloaded, unpacked and settled in. The camp was next to the lake, on the far side of which towered the massive Trisselwand, an enormous clean limestone face 600m high. Nick and Simon went off to speak to the man in charge while I rerigged my tent which had been mis-erected by team Leach.

Almost immediately after we had put up the 'Joke tent' and cooked a meal, it started to rain, a serious change from the glorious sunshine on our arrival. This soon developed into the most spectacular and noisy thunderstorm I have ever seen, and continued for some considerable time. We retired to our pits to catch up on sleep lost on the train. After a while a vehicle arrived, and Reckert's voice drifted across the campsite. His tent wasn't waterproof and was last seen with an inch of water on its tray groundsheet!

After some time the rain eased off and we all headed for Fischers bar, the normal sequence of events for all subsequent evenings. Next day the weather was still poor and more of the expedition returned leaving only Mike and Julia on the plateau. Getting more and more bored, I eventually decided to borrow a canoe and ended up by canoeing 7 miles on the lake.

Next day was better and we set off up to the plateau. We discovered that the way up the mountain was by toll road, and that the toll would be about £3 a time for the average vehicle we were taking up. Luckily we had had a free passage negotiated on our behalf by Karl, our Austrian contact. On about the seventh hairpin, we noticed that the alitude was 1348m, putting us higher than Britain.

From the car park at the top we walked for about 20 minutes, mainly fairly level, until we arrived at the campsite where Mike and Julia were. From here, we walked for another 20 minutes or so to a col from where the plateau was visible. An enormous area of sparsely vegetated karren stretching for about three miles into the distance greeted us. A small area just in front of us had been looked at last year, while Nick, Steve and Julian were working over to the left and Team Leach with Mike and Vic and Dave were working to the right. We struck off into the centre.

Very shortly we found an east west rift with water sinking nearby. The shaft seemed to be about 20m deep so we decided to start exploring. The prospecting technique we had been advised to use was one person exploring, one supporting, and the other prospecting for more holes. Simon had elected to be surface Martyr, so I prepared to descend while Nick rigged the pitch.

The ladder went down for about 15m to a sloping boulder floor where I untied. I descended the boulders and climbed down a hole. A small sharp crawl led off. I followed the crawl for about 3m and then met water. This came down as a heavy drip from the roof and disappeared into a narrow slot in the floor. There was no way on. I retreated to the pitch and reascended, noting where a window from the hole next door to the west came in. The total depth was about 20m, and we decided it was worth numbering. We started our sequence with number 100. I photographed the entrance, and wrote down the details of the hole.

Simon had been looking for the sound of water nearby and had been frightened by a snake, so had moved to a more open area with various holes. He had already found one deep hole with a long stone-rattle, but this had a number, B11. We later found that this descended 55m to a choke. Somewhat further on, we found a colossal hole with a huge snow plug, and a possible hole going down at the far end. We knew we were in an area which had been looked at, so we decided to ask about it before investigating any further. Shortly later, we found a large hole with a snow plug and a passage leading off. This came to a pitch head, and we were looking for belays when we eventually spotted the number - B9 in an obvious place, but almost invisible after a year. On later occasions we found that the number can only be seen on dry rock and vanishes under the mottling of lichen when it is wet. Further on still we passed B8, so we decided to head directly away from the col until we found something new.

After some time, we climbed down a small fault scarp onto a dipping area of rock and I found a small rifty entrance a few feet long with an obvious climb down inside. I descended this and found two ways on. To the left was a short pitch, while to the right was a short crawl leading to another entrance in the face of a small scarp. Nick kitted up and while he did so, I traversed over the pitch to a smaller climb down with a tiny tube leading back to the base of the pitch. I retreated and put a ladder on the pitch. Descending this led over a gravel floor and over an awkward rock into a tube. This led on for some way to the top of a climb down into what promised to be a larger passage but turned out to be a similar tube with a floor slot. This slot closed down and I was forced to crawl at roof level in the tube. This continued with occasional steep sections, descending for some way until finally, the floor slot became aparent again and turned left sharply. At this point there was a window on my right which led out via a 2m climb down onto boulders at the base of a large aven. There were holes in the boulder floor and a descent at the far side would have been perhaps 5m onto what appeared to be more boulders. I retreated and Nick went down for a look. I don't think he went as far as I did, but we both agreed that if we did find anything down there, carrying tackle would be a severe problem, so we decided to leave it. We labelled the original entrnce 101, and the second entrance 101A. About 50m away, Simon had found another shaft which descended for some way, by the sound of stones, so we laddered it and I set off once again to explore. This time it was a smallish joint-orientated shaft which descended almost exactly 20m to a solid choke with a small amount of snow. We labelled it 102.

Prospecting was now going more slowly and we all joined forces to investigate various nearby holes until Nick and Simon decided on a rifty semi-horizontal entrance not far from 102. We had, however, run out of time, so we dumped most of the gear and headed back for the col. On the way we passed various holes which we thought held considerable promise and we congratulated ourselves on finding a promising area.

Next day we attempted to walk directly to our area, but were soon frustrated by a large area of spruce. Nick and Simon attempted to bypass it on the left while I went off to the right. It was some considerable time before we remet, and we were still separated by a large patch of dense bush. Between us lay a large horizontal cave entrance which Nick and Simon investigated as a horizontal tube which bifurcated and then choked.

By taking bearings on the local mountains, we deduced that we were a long way from where we should be, and in precisely the opposite direction from what we expected. We set off, still separated by a band of bush, until we were nearer the place where we ought to be. We then split up again to try to find the OAV pole which had seemed an obvious landmark when we were at our entrances. Eventually I spotted it and was soon at the entrance to 101. It took Nick and Simon about half an hour to arrive despite their being only about 100m away. We had lunch.

Nick and Simon rigged their hole - 103 - and both descended in what proved to be a narrow rift with ledges. Simon had to go half way down to line Nick to the bottom. It choked.

We were fast coming to the conclusion that this area was not too good so we set off to the right (as seen from the col) to look at some of the holes we had seen the day before. We failed to find any. The scar we were walking along seemed to be a fault and obviously quite a bit of water sank there, but everything looked very choked. Eventually we emerged at the top of a slope down to an area which looked very heavily jointed and which had numerous large holes in it. As we might have expected, everything seemed choked.

Since the area was fairly clear of bush, we decided to dump our gear here and prospect the surrounding area which looked as though it could hold something and was also likely to be fairly easy to find since some large erratics formed an unusual landmark... we had learnt that landmarks needed to be visible from afar !

We split up and started wandering across the karren finding various open holes which obviously choked and several horizontal entrances which had to be looked at more closely. Nick and Simon found most of these but they all choked.

Eventually we ended up a long way from where we had started and Nick and Simon called me over to them as Simon had found a long narrow rift entrance with no loose scree near it which looked promising. Nick and Simon fetched tackle (some of it) and Nick and I started to rig it while Simon meanwhile found more holes.

Though awkward to rig, Nick was soon descending only to find it getting too tight with a way down visible. Since the depth was only about 10m, we did not number the hole. Time was running out so further investigation was delayed for a while...

Back on the karren again the next day, we had less trouble in finding our holes, though at some stage in the proceedings I got thoroughly lost retrieving gear from the heavily jointed area where it had been left. We turned our attention now to Hohle 104 which Simon had found. There was nothing resembling a belay for this, but a very large erratic perched about 10' from the lip provided a secure point to which we attached a bolt. While this was being done, I was prospecting for the tackle left a long way away. I got very lost again and almost ended up back at 101 before realising. When I got back with the gear, I found that Nick had found another hole down which stones rumbled for a long time; things were looking up !

Simon was fed down 104 and descended for some time, freeing ladder on his way. He was instructed to count the rungs on the way up and by this means we found that the hole was 32m deep, our deepest so far, but as usual it choked.

We began to suspect that 105 would choke the same way, so while it was being rigged by Simon and Nick, I started prospecting again. The only thing I found was a small horizontal entrance in a scar, but on entering this I was amazed to find I was in a large black space. Walking in carefully I seemed to be in a large flat-roofed chamber about 2-3m high and 10m wide. At the far side was a very exciting black space leading on. To my left, daylight came in through a small hole in the roof. After a few seconds, my eyes started to adjust to the light and I saw to my great disappointment that the far end of the chamber ended in a solid wall. The floor was solid boulders and scree with no obvious place to look for a way on. I climbed out of the hole in the roof and returned to the others to find that they too had visited it.

105 was being rigged from a ledge about 6m down where Simon had climbed on a handline. A lot of ladder was being put down, but time seemed to be running out again. It was fully rigged but not descended before we returned to the cafe.

My diary for the next day read 'Fed/Festered/Farted', and this sums up our rest day except to mention that I canoed round the lake, then across the lake, and then part way across the lake, about seven or eight miles altogether.

Monday the 15th saw us back on the plateau to investigate a small draughting hole which I had found on our way back last time, but first there was the small matter of 200' of ladder down 105...

From the first ledge, the place looked very loose, but after a final bit of gardening, I started to descend in what proved to be a fine shaft in clean white limestone. The ladder was caught on a couple of ledges on the way down, and the shaft sidestepped onto a parallel joint about halfway down. The whole place was very roomy and clean, but landed on a damp, level and very finally choked floor at a depth of 41m. The view up the shaft to the daylight at the top was superb. I coiled the remaining ladder and set off back up, tieing back onto the lifeline (which was too short) about 5m up from the floor. Since the rock was rather knobbly and there were several ledges, I pulled the ladder up at each one and coiled it. This meant that derigging was pretty efficient and we quickly moved over to the draughting hole.

The entrance which was next to a patch of Bunde was vertical for about 6m to what sounded like a snow ledge. It was pretty narrow with some snow in it, so I descended on a handline. This proved rather sporting since the snow was only a centimetre or so deep over hard ice, so I slid down rather rapidly.

At the bottom of this first section was the expected snow ledge, and leading off were two passages. The way on, though, was neither of these, but a steep ice slope in a narrow rift from which came the enticing draught. I again descended rather less than elegantly, but a good deal more carefully, to find a small chamber with a window at the far end from which roared a powerful gale. I looked out of this and to my delight saw a pitch of about 6m onto another snow platform. I returned with some difficulty to the first snow ledge and then investigated one of the side passages which carried some of the draught and emerged at the base of a nearby doline. This was to become the normal entrance to the cave.

Elated by the find, we had lunch and set off to rig the cave safely, by putting a ladder on the ice slope above the pitch. There were few belays to be found, but once rigged it was a good deal safer. There were even fewer belays for the pitch, and eventually we rigged it from the handline and a dubious flake. We put 20m of ladder down and I descended.

The window led onto a pleasant pitch of 6m free onto the centre of a large snow plug down the sides of which were two holes. I fed the ladder down the larger and descended. This proved rather awkward, against crystalline snow and round a spiral which made communications difficult. I dropped down onto a further snow platform just before the end of the ladder. Off the edge of the snow, the pitch continued round a corner to the left. I looked down this and could discern more snow about 20m down with more black space beyond. I retreated rapidly.

The excitement at this stage was intense, but we could obviously not proceed further without better belays, so a temporary exit was made. Nick went down and put in a bolt at the top of the ice slope, and for the next attempt, the bottom of the first ladder was used as a belay. We still needed more bolts however, so further progress was postponed.

On the surface, Nick and Julian wandered by, having given their area up as being generally loose and choked. We next saw them in the campsite where they said that they had found a draughting hole about 100m beyond ours, but it was too small to enter. In typical Northern Branch dedicated fashion, they proposed to apply mechanical persuasion with a lumphammer to the entrance. Team fat geriatric jeered at the idea, but the results certainly justified the means.

Next day we were back at 106 and a bolt was put in at the head of the pitch, and Nick descended, with 60m of ladder on the pitch. Lifelining at the pitch head proved to be the most desperate part of the exercise, with a very powerful wind (enough to blow a carbide out) coming up the pitch at freezing temperature.

About 12m below the snow platform below which the pitch continued as a steep snow slope into which steps could be kicked. This went down for 9m to a rock lip below which it was somewhat awkward to climb as it had got caught below. A further twelve metres down, the ladder went down a 'rift' with one wall of snow and one of rock. This choked off about four metres down and Nick had to climb back out. The rift proved to be a sort of mini-bergschrund, and he was able to climb over a snow pile and descend the far side for 8m to a large ledge below which the ladder had been catching while he was climbing the last section. Below the ledge the pitch still continued, turning left again. Dropping rocks, Nick estimated the depth to be about 20m onto yet more snow, but throwing rocks further out indicated a floor of considerable extent. We had no more tackle to continue, and it was becoming obvious that we needed to get more people further down. This would entail the placing of several bolts and rigging for abseil/self-line.

Next day we showed our entrance to Nick and Julian again, and they showed us theirs, so we could act as mutual call-outs. I descended to put a second bolt at the head of the pitch, Simon put a bolt at the -18m snow platform, but this went wrong. I then placed a bolt on the rock bridge. For most of this time, Nick was at the bottom where he had taken an extra 20m of ladder. Simon exitted and I descended to the bottom (Yesterdays's Terminus) where Nick and I put another bolt in, not realising that it was now very late. When we eventually exitted, the ladder proved very knackering to climb as it kept getting caught. We emerged into an incredible hailstorm (at least, Nick did - five minutes later or less, when I arrived, it had all finished) and rushed down to the car park as quickly as possible, noting the 6" banks of hailstones on the way. After this epic we decided to have a gonk-day.

Nick, Julian and Steve had by now extended their hole (97) to about -75m, including one very tight bit called the Nun's C**t on account of its needing banging.

Our gonk-day unfortunately turned into two gonk-days on account of some nasty low cloud and rain. We were fairly pissed off with the shaft (Plugged Shaft) which was proving so awkward to rig, but by next day we were keen to get to the next pitch down (Saved Shaft).

We found that the abseil/self-line technique was proving very effective as we all descended to Yesterday's Terminus in about ten minutes at most. Nick abseiled down the next pitch which proved to be about 14m onto a snow slope descending a few metres further into a big circular chamber whose roof soared out of sight even to Nick's electric. The floor was composed of large angular limestone blocks and one of these provided us with a belay for the next pitch which was a rift to one side of the chamber which appeared to be about 15m to a rock floor. Nick and Simon rigged the pitch while I took piccies, and then they both descended. From the top of the pitch they didn't sound happy: they had descended 16m into a small chamber, the far side of which was composed of huge limestone blocks, from beneath which the draught emerged. There was no way to climb over and boulder chokes are not the nicest things to meet when in such an isolated spot.

I descended to see the choke, and soon discovered that climbing over was a poor idea since the large blocks all supported piles of loose grubble which fell off when used as handholds. I then turned my attention to the small hole through which most of the draught appeared to come. This was directly under a very large block, and had a floor of more loose grubble. I pushed lots of grubble through the hole to make it larger and more stable, and then crawled into it on a lifeline. I discovered that the choke ended immediately and led out into a rifty passage with a choked floor of jammed rocks and muck. Kicking various amounts of grubble out of the way I was able to descend onto this floor, remaining jammed in the rift in case it wasn't stable. I started to clear some of the muck from the choke to make it easier, and dropped a rock down a hole in the floor. To my surprise there was silence. I was reaching for another lump when there was a loud crash with lots of echo. More rocks followed with the same effect. I traversed forward to a place where the floor seemed to end and dropped rocks down here. We estimated a pitch of at least 30m in a very roomy shaft, and from the lack of bouncing it seemed to be free-hanging. The floor obviously needed gardening a lot before we went down the pitch, and anyway the top looked rather tight. Nick had a look and then we made our way out.

The next day - Sunday 21st - we rapidly reached the head of the new pitch, and I went as far forward as possible, again on a line, and started to remove the floor of the rift. This proved fairly easy as it was not very thick and after about half an hour or so, I had shifted most of it. A bolt was put in at the far end of the pitch and a traverse line rigged to it, the ladder belayed and Simon tied on to lifeline me. The pitch head needed a bit more gardening as I descended, and proved very awkward being so narrow, but the shaft below widened immediately, and was not free-hanging at all. In fact I was climbing a very easy pitch against the wall, which started at this side of the pitch, explaining why it had sounded free hanging from the other end of the traveerse. The shaft was oval in shape and quite large. I descended 32m passing only one small ledge, and then the lifeline became tangled at the top. This was very frustrating since I was only about 1m above a large ledge and had just come under a heavy drip. Once I got a bit of slack, I crossed the ledge and the pitch continued round to the left, though it sounded very broken. We had no tackle to investigate this with, so reluctantly I reascended, finding Simon with the lifeline in a huge tangle hanging down the pitch in my way. When it was eventually sorted out Simon left and I derigged. When only about 15m of ladder remained in the hole, a large chunk of the pitch-head decided to go in for free-fall caving. A sudden jerk on the ladder at the same time as the crash from below indicated that we had smashed a ladder and indeed it proved that one of the exCS ladders had a wire smashed three-quarters through. It was retired from service.

Considering the size of the hole and the power of the draught we were following, it seemed a little odd that I could not detect it so I looked round a bit. The rift continued beyond me, but since the pitch below didn't, something odd was obviously going on. Simon came back across the traverse to help with the tackle so I got him to line me while I investigated the rift. There were a few loose rocks, so I climbed up and found a hole over a chockstone which led out onto a traverse about ten feet up in the rift. I found a place to descend and this quickly led to an enlargement and then a pitch head. The draught came through the hole, so the way on was open again. This meant that we would not be derigging, so we ferried the tackle forward and Nick came through. We were now running out of carbide, and as my light was about to go out, it seemed reasonable not to refill it until necessary. Accordingly, I waited in the Boulder Chamber with no light while Nick descended the pitch. It was 18m to a large ledge and Nick estimated another 20m to the bottom, so we had to retreat to get another lifeline.

We were now getting left behind as the Team Enthusiast hole 'Schneewindschacht' had reached over 200m and was still going, while our deepest point was about 145m. We realised that we would not be able to get much further unless we found some gently descending passage with lots of short climbs, but next day saw us with another lifeline obtained from Höhle 82 - Team Geriatric's 220m find.

We were intrigued, particularly on this trip, to note that the draught was becoming very variable and even reversed for a couple of minutes at one stage. Back at the new pitch, Nick descended to the large ledge and then continued down what proved to be only 14m to a passage leading gently downwards !

This vadose passage led to a large chamber and numerous possible leads, but unfortunately had a heavy drip which made exploration by one person on carbide very risky. Nick returned and reported what he had found, and we then had an argument on the safety of two people going down at once. Nick reckoned he could return the lifeline to the ledge but no further, but as there was room on the ledge for two people, we decided it would be safe to go down as a pair. Simon and I descended and made our way forward to the chamber, where the following leads were noted -

  1. Large holes in the floor dropped about 10m to what appeared to be a passage continuing below carrying the stream from the huge aven above.
  2. A large rift on the far side of the chamber appeared to continue the line of the passage by which we had entered.
  3. Nick had found a small lead which came to an abrupt halt at a large circular shaft in the floor, at the far side of which the passage continued.

While not at all certain, it appeared that the draught came out of the holes in the floor and went up the passage we had come down, and also up the passage on the far side. With all these leads, there must be something there, though a somewhat better equipped party with at least some electric light will be essential next year.

A photo was taken for posterity and we retreated, performing a grade three survey on the way out. The final series was not named. We derigged as far as Yesterday's Terminus, where we belayed all the tackle in a huge pile and exitted.

There was a huge amount of rain during the night, but somehow I was persuaded to go on a two-man trip with Nick Reckert down Schneewindschacht to derig the bottom half after it had ended too tight at a CUCC record -265m.

On entering the shake where the entrance lay, it was noticeable that a lot of water was around. Ignoring this, we descended the entrance which is quite thrutchy and leads out onto an easy free-climb and thence to the 'Baptistry'-like tight bit. A lot of water fell down this at the start but was soon lost in the narrow slot below. The head of the first pitch was festooned with SRT gear, and Nick and I descended the first three pitches in rapid succession. The takeoffs were interesting....

The first pitch was an easy takeoff once out of the crawl, the second was rigged from below a small stream gully and involved traversing on a rather small ledge whilst clipped into the bolt, while the third involved chimneying out above the pitch to reach a bolt which looked as if it had been placed by a spider, but which was fairly easy to clip into the pitch itself. Below this came an awkward step over a Puits en Baionette which led to a sizeable ledge which was the first point out of the substantial waterfall (Slit Pot sized) which accompanied the first three pitches of 55m total. Here Nick decided that the pot was rather too wet for a complete descent, especially for a comparative novice in SRT such as myself. Accordingly we retreated, leaving a rather massive task for Nick, Julian and Steve the next day.

Next day was the last day, so all derigging had to be completed, and everyone went up to the plateau to help carry gear back down. Team enthusiast had made a very early start, and I was jacking since all my gear was wet. Accordingly, Rod Leach went down 106 to assist. I remained on the surface with Jont and we investigated another draughting hole nearby, but this came to a pitch with ice very quickly so we left it for next year, pausing only to number it 99. To our surprise, when we went over to look at 97, we found a Perry emerging, after only six hours underground. Shortly later we were pulling 300m of rope out of the hole, all uncoiled to get it through the Nun's C**t. Nick emerged to find that he was trapped in his harness by the well known properties of Clog krabs and we all had a good laugh before Steve managed to free him. Upon wandering back to 106, we found the first of the team emerging from 106a with the first of the gear, and learned that a new extension had been made behind the rock bridge in Plugged Shaft. Dropping onto the snow behind the bridge led to a descent into a passage which soon ran out over another shaft - no draught. This is yet another lead to be investigated next year... five in all.

Eislufthöhle next trip

The assembled multitude now returned to the col via 82, where yet more tackle was picked up and I got given a saturated Marlow rope which weighed more than what I was already carrying. The walk back with all the gear was somewhat epic.

Packing and camp-derigging was next, and then paying for the campsite, which, though at a reduced rate, was still somewhat expensive. Next day - Thursday, we set off with our huge loads of rucksacks plus a large kitbag and caught the bus to Bad Aussee, train to Bad Ischl, bus to Salzburg (the buses are marked 'standing room 37' and this seems to be what was being attempted most of the way - we were never told whose turn it was to breathe.) and then a long wait in Salzburg during which time I took the opportunity to go and wander round the old part of the city and take photgraphs while the others festered eating butties and beer.

The train journey was less comfortable than on the way out, but we still got back home OK. Simon and I got the train to Preston and then got taken home by car, having got back home about twice as quickly as the other members of the expedition and about twice as expensively!