The summer saw three NPC members out in Austria on the Cambridge University expedition: Nick Thorne, Andy Waddington and Simon Farrow. We were located at Altaussee, a quiet Spa town full of the Austrian equivalent of old-age pensioners. It is about 50 miles ESE of Salzburg in the Dachstein Alps. We were mainly interested in an area of the Totes Gebirge known as the Loser Plateau, which has recently had a new toll road built up to it. This meant that our area of interest was only an hour's walk away on level ground (hostile cattle permitting).
The CUCC had been out the previous year and had only scratched the surface by the time they had to depart.
The three of us travelled out by train; a fairly arduous 30-hour journey without any real sleep. Eventually we met up with the other members of the expedition and I was able to swop my two-day old copy of the 'Times' for a good English cup of tea; it's remarkable how British one becomes when on the continent!
Our first night under canvas was greeted by a classic alpine storm with thunderbolts and lightning (pyrotechnics worthy of even Hryndyj). Later we made acquaintance with the Austrian lager, not a patch on Tetleys but very potent.
Next day we began prospecting and spent the following few days inspecting small shafts (100'). These all choked so we concluded that we were looking for the wrong sort of entrance. What was needed was an entrance with horizontal passage so that any glacial debris could not enter and block the pitch below.
We eventually came across a small hole which was draughting violently. Andy descended and found a snow slope on which he rigged a ladder as a handline; on the way out he discovered two alternative exits. Continuing down the hole he found another snow slope which led to the head of a pitch with a large gale, sufficient to put out a carbide lamp, blowing up it. Returning the following day, with a bolting kit, since there were no natural belays, we rigged the pitch and descended to discover a vertical snow plug. Deeper still a pitch belled out to Bar Pot dimensions.
We later had grave doubts about the stability of this snow bridge which was definitely melting and only seemed to stay suspended above the void by will-power. Pressing on down the shaft we had great problems rigging it; in fact we spent a good two days bolting/rigging and rerigging before the thing was satisfactory. The total depth of the pitch was 70 metres.
At the base of the shaft we passed into a hole with fluted walls soaring up into the distance further than our lights could penetrate; it was intensely satisfying to think that we had found this superb piece of subterranean architecture. The floor was covered with large rocks giving us a natural belay (our first) for the next pitch of 13 metres. When the pitch was rigged and I descended we had finally escaped from the snow and, by inference, any debris from the surface. I turned the corner and to my horror came to a boulder choke! This was a surprise; we had not considered this possibility because of the large draught. First appearances suggested a total choke. However, a man-size hole was found at the base of the choke and the boulders seemed safely stuck. We pushed Andy through the hole and he found a pitch, so we retreated until the next day.
The shaft was descended for 30 metres to another pitch but the draught had disappeared, so we named it 'Keg Series'. We traversed over this pitch into an open vadose passage; homely, dry, and reminiscent of Yorkshire. This was taking the draught so we were back on the trail again. We found two more pitches; the first was a good hang of 16 metres, the second (down the side of a large vadose passage) was 11 metres. Then came the first bit of horizontal development we had encountered - it led to a large chamber and a hefty inlet making the place a maelstrom of spray.
Unfortunately at this point we ran out of both ladder and time so we had to derig with the sight of more pitches ahead (a sort of Ghar Parau in miniature). The pot is definitely still going and we shall be back next year to continue on into the unknown....
I think we were all impressed by the area, which is virtually virgin territory. The Loser Plateau must be one of the least explored areas of Europe; it has 800 metres potential and large areas of cavernous limestone which are totally unexplored.
August 1978 saw a return of University cavers to the Totes Gebirge of Austria. Since five members of the expedition were also Pennine members, this report is included to show that we don't spend all year digging on Fountains Fell.
Following a successful trip in 1977, a much more organised group set off in July with a ton of gear (mainly food and rope) for the two-and-a-half day drive out, arriving after only one van breakdown (in the U.K.). We set up camp at Altaussee (about 80 km east of Salzburg) and started to rig into Eislufthöhle, our all-NPC, 150-metre hole from last year, while a second group continued prospecting on the surface. Shortly inside the entrance is a broken 80 metre shaft blocked with various snow plugs. The snow had increased since 1977 so Simon, Doug and Andy spent three days of icy digging and bolting to rig 'Plugged Shaft'. At the bottom was a 15-metre free drop overhung by a large ice boulder in the process of melting - indeed, below this point, we were the target for any ice falling in the shaft. The pitch lands in a large round chamber, on a pile of shattered ice blocks.
From the chamber a further 13-metre pitch (Saved Shaft), drops over the last of the ice into 'Boulder Chamber'. A small hole in the wall of huge blocks ending the chamber leads to a traverse above the 32 metre pitch of the 'Keg Series', which was looked at last year but ignored this year because it has no draught. The icy wind blows from the continuing rift where a climb down leads to the head of 'Follow-through shaft', a 30-metre pitch broken by a large ledge half-way down. An abandoned stream passage leads out into a high rift chamber - 'The Taproom' - last year's terminus. On our first trip, the heavy drip in the chamber was absent, but later it returned with a vengeance.
A climb down leads to the continuing rift - too narrow at stream level - but a traverse to sections of false floor leads to an alternative way down. Boulders dropped here told us of a deep pitch ahead but much bolting was needed to rig it - one for a handline down the first short but exposed climb down and two for the pitch itself; none of which was helped by the rather loose take off. Indeed, we almost psyched out on our first realisation that one wall was just a big boulder. The pitch was finally descended on a long overnight trip by Nick Thorne with Julian Griffiths. It drops in stages of 20 metres and 35 metres to a large ledge lashed by spray in wet weather (run-off is very rapid, reaching here in a couple of hours after rain starts). The final 15-metre section can be quite damp - and our 80-metre rope was a metre or so short! Another traverse leads above the quickly descending stream to a rocking boulder where the black spaces start to appear. Upwards, above jammed boulders, a large black hole suggests a chamber going up a vast distance, but downwards is more directly interesting and accessible. The explorers rigged a short drop to a narrow slit which rapidly opened into a magnificent 55-metre free drop from which it was seen that the upward black space is the top of an 80-metre high chamber - the Hall of the Greene King.
Doug and Andy reached the chaotic boulder floor of the chamber after descending a short 'Balcony' pitch. The Hall is about 20 metres in diameter and at first seemed to be a colossal choke at 280 metres. A way on leads, however, over the boulders and under some highly unnerving boulder bridges. Descending a less than stable slope, the explorers found a nasty overhang and had to put in a bolt to rig a short pitch to another chamber which felt a little safer. Two small streams merged and flowed off in a rift passage which we ignored in favour of a dry OFD-type cave. This soon intersected a deep muddy rift at right angles. An enticing step across the rift led to the continuation, but neither caver would try it, instead starting to rig a pitch down to the rift. A large boulder which Doug was standing on fell over and split in half, causing the floor below Andy to drop 6 inches! Shortly after, a series of mysterious sump-like gurgling noises from below suggested that surface rain was coming through - the explorers retreated from the increasingly intimidating hole - twelve hours plus, this time, having been spent underground.
The third and final overnight visit was the last pushing trip. Nick, Simon and Julian descended the rift to find a muddy stream passage - again too narrow at stream level - so a long, muddy traverse was necessary. An inlet in the left made little difference and the traversing continued to a muddy climb down. More traversing led to an oxbow containing an incredible volume of sticky mud. A 13-metre pitch descends down a filthy wall - prussiking here was a losing battle except with Gibbs. We called the pitch the 'Fiesta Run' for reasons soon to be apparent. More traversing leads to an unbottomed black space where the stream could be heard below.
We got 5 metres down what seemed to be a 50-ish metre pitch. From a depth of about 330 metres the party slogged out to the surface after 12 hours underground and set off to drive back. The mountain road was descended safely but a couple of miles out of the village a 10-metre pitch was descended in a spectacular leap (double somersault with twist). Nick, Simon and Julian woke up to find themselves in the river - eliminating two of our group of five on the spot. There were three more trips involving members of the other groups. Two derigging and one surveying trip cleared the pot and took the survey to -140 metres.
Meanwhile, the other group had found a powerfully draughting entrance which took three days of Yorkshire digging to enter. This soon proved to be a going concern and was threatening to overtake Eislufthöhle at one stage. Pitches of 20, 25 and 20 metres led to a complex horizontal area and a large black rift. This was studiously ignored by the team (exploring on ladders) who descended instead a smaller rift by pitches of 5, 40 and 30 metres (by-passing a parallel 75-metre free drop) to more rift streamway and further pitches. ExCS descended the big rift in a 95-metre pitch to reach the same point and eventually reached a very nasty choke at -280 metres, thus making 'Gemsehöhle' the second deepest on the plateau.
At least two NPC will be out again in 1979 to push Eislufthöhle, and to look at other leads in Gemsehöhle - finding deep pots is amazingly easy out there, pushing them just a little more trouble.