After several years in the Pyrenees, 1976 saw a break and a holiday cum reconnaissance to the Loser Plateau in the Totes Gebirge of Austria. What was seen was enough to convince those present that here was a new area with good potential and easy access, so a larger expedition set out in 1977 and met with considerable success; three groups explored pots of 220m (Braüninghöhle), 265m (Schneewindschacht) and 150m (Eislufthöhle), the latter still going with a powerful draught. Enthusiasm to return ran high and in 1978, a well-organised undergraduate expedition emerged with the dual aims of continuing down Eislufthöhle and of finding new holes on the plateau. The 'Old Lags' came too, of course, and proved invaluable later on in the expedition.
Loser expeditions tend to be well-stratified, though this year some people visited other groups' pots, and Team Geriatric probably visited more cave in a shorter time than any other group.
Team Youth -
John Bowers, Nicky Davies, Ben van Millingen, Mike Shearme
Team Ropes -
First Wave : Doug Florence, Simon Farrow, Andy Waddington
Second Wave : Julian Griffiths, Nick Thorne
Team Geriatric -
Vic Brown, Rod, Jont & Carole Leach, Dave Fox, Keith who ?
The most noticeable changes from last year were adequate transport (just), huge piles of new rope and food, a large transparent mess tent for watching thunderstorms from, and much more snow on the plateau. The beer, the hospitality (definitely no double meaning intended !), and the potential were all the same - the former reducing our exploitation of the latter.
We must again thank Karl Gaisberger (our contact), Fritz Madlmeier (campsite owner and purveyor of cheap beer and free spirits), the officials at the Loser panoramastraße (for free passage to the plateau), and the Austrian Health Service (for bodywork repairs). We would also like to thank the numerous individuals and organisations in the UK who generously provided support, financial and in kind, for the expedition (see acknowledgements).
21st New engine in van (!)
27th At 4am, the alternator packs up, finally replaced just as our 9.30 hovercraft departed. Arrive Calais 2pm.
28th Teams Youth and Ropes (First wave) arrive in Altaussee
29th Rigging into Eislufthöhle and prospecting commences in blistering sunshine.
3rd 107 found. Digging commences
4th New ground made in Eislufthöhle
13th -350m made in Eislufthöhle. Bottoming trip wiped out, so exploration ceased. Geriatrics arrive - just in time.
16th 107 (Gemshöhle) reaches 280m and a conclusive choke.
19th Final derigging completed
22nd expedition arrives back in UK, just in time for Sid's Pippikin film on TV !
Nick and Julian arrived about a week after the rest of us due respectively to long-vac term and the pressures of being an accountant.
It was obvious on the first walk up to the plateau that there had been more snow than during the previous year. Many of the holes that we had explored last year were full to the brim, so fears were running high that 106 would be blocked. Having disturbed several adders on the little used path on the way up, it was apparent that no-one had been up to the col since our last visit.
The hole was indeed badly blocked, and Andy spent several very cold sessions digging through snow plugs to find the way on. Stances at pitch heads tended to be about five feet further up the wall, and we were effectively dealing with the exploration of a new hole.
The 13m pitch from Yesterday's Terminus was found to be blocked with several ice boulders, most of which we were able to dislodge. However, we were left with one monster that was jammed very firmly, and no amount of wellie work would move it. Still, it did provide a good stance for putting a bolt in ! After several days of consternation (the thing was visibly melting) a team was despatched with a crowbar. Much to our surprise, the berg had descended the pitch and lay on the floor smashed into tiny fragments.
Progress was slowly made to our last year's end point, the Tap Room. Here Doug and Andy rushed down a 6m climb on which we later placed a handline, and continued over a gargantuan boulder into the lower section of the Tap Room. The chamber was at least as large as our hazy memories had recorded it! The way on was found in a narrow traverse reached by a 2m climb up. The traverse led to the head of a short drop into a 2x3x4m chamber.
The following day Doug and Simon descended and placed a bolt at the head of the drop, a handline was slung down and Simon descended, ascending several milliseconds later when it was noticed that the roof of the chamber was not in fact a roof, but merely the underside of a huge boulder which appeared to be precariously balanced. After several minutes wittering about 'angles of friction' and 'metastable equilibrium', the explorers redescended and took stock of the situation. The huge draught they were following came roaring out of a hole in the floor. A way on could be discerned following the rift at the same level, but this was ignored in favour of the hole when stones dropped echoed down for a long time. It finally looked as though we were on the verge of some decent vertical stuff.
The next day, the same team descended and a bolt was placed. Simon descended 20m in a shaft that was huge and getting bigger, but fears of rubs necessitated a rerig and lack of time prevented a further descent.
It was at this point that Nick and Julian arrived and after a day of prospecting (see below) and a day of festering in a Salzburg bar, they went on the first overnight trip. They descended pitches of 10m to a rebelay, then 35m to a ledge followed by a rather giddy step across the abyss carrying the roaring stream below. Next came an 8m pitch, then a traverse along a rift for about 20m to a rocking chockstone which brought them to a large black space. This was the head of a 60m pitch similar to the final one in Juniper Gulf - and just as free. It landed on a balcony which gave the explorers a grandstand view of the base of a huge aven.
The stream was seen to disappear back down the rift in a narrow winding passage. This was soon abandoned in favour of the aven - here they called it a day and began the ascent. Julian, the first man up, accidentally moved the rope which returned through the boulders and Nick found himself trying to prusik through a 4" gap between the boulders. After much shouting, Julian was forced to abseil down to reposition the rope correctly.
The following night, Doug and Andy went on their first overnight trip, rigging the short 6m pitch down the balcony on a rather surreal set of belays. The pair landed on the massive boulder floor of the Hall of the Greene King. Estimates of the height varied, but 90-100m seemed reasonable. The diameter was approximately 20m.
After some scrambling around amongst the huge boulders, a large gallery was found leading off from the base of the aven. This was, to use Andy's words, "an exhibition hall of all the varieties of unstable boulder bridges". Several involuntary descents were made as the boulder floor rearranged itself. After many metres of unstable going, a short climb down was found which rapidly turned into an overhanging pitch of 5m. It was only on descending this pitch that the explorers realised quite how little they had been standing on at the take-off.
Continuing on down the gallery, a small stream was seen to debouche from the right hand wall, flowing across the passage and into a small passage in the left hand wall. This was followed on down to the head of a small free-hanging pitch, but the intrepid pair (following the draught) decided to cross the passage and ascend a small climb reaching the head of a pitch. Here, exploration halted for the day. A passage could be seen opposite the head of the pitch - Julian later entered this, but it merely regained the main passage further downstream.
Julian, Nick and Simon returned a couple of days later, and descended the pitch of 23m, split 12m down by a boulder jam and a complex of vadose inlets. The pitch landed on the floor of a deep wide vadose canyon, carrying the main stream. The explorers rushed on, reaching a thrutchy 6m climb down a boulder jam; the rift now became narrow, and after approximately 150m of traversing they reached a pitch down a mud slope. A bolt was placed, while Julian and Nick returned for more rope - the Fiesta Run was 12m of the muddiest pitch going. Ascenders and other gear became transformed into lumps of mud after a short time. Pausing only to rig yet another pitch, the explorers made for the surface. Considerable problems with slipping ascenders were experienced by those not using Jumars, and much use was made of Nick's toothbrush.
It was while driving down from the last of these overnight trips that the three travellers woke up to find themselves in the river, having crashed through a barrier and somersaulted 10m down a near vertical bank. With one highly concussed chauffeur and a passenger with a severe head gash, Nick ran for help....
Sunday evening saw Julian in Bad Aussee hospital with a fractured sternum, ripped thumb muscles, and stitches in his nose, while Simon had been rushed to Salzburg with a suspected fracture of the cervical vertebra and stitches in the scalp. Nick escaped with a small bruise on his shoulder ! All this rather spoilt the prospects of completing exploration in Eislufthöhle, and people began to consider the feasibility of a derig with such a small team. Mike, Andy and Doug did a survey trip the following day, and later in the week Andy and Doug got down to the previously undescended pitch. Andy went down about 10m to the end of the rope and was able to hurl rocks an estimated 50-60m further.
A strenuous derig as far as Hall of the Greene King followed, Doug and Andy carrying large amounts of tackle out to the surface. Three days later, Doug, Nick, Dave Fox, Jont, Vic and Rod descended to remove the remaining tackle and grease the bolts with only 24 hours left before departure time.
Summing up, the hole is now 350m deep, and 400m should be a formality next year.
Use was made of Maillons Rapides and thimbles to economise on karabiners. The pot as far as Saved Shaft was rigged on one 100m length of Bluewater, rebelayed in many places. We were rather proud of this, as we needed only one protector on the whole 100m length. Saved Shaft would have been nearly impossible to rig safely for SRT and was equipped with a ladder and self-line. The rest of the pot was rigged on 11mm Interalp Speleo-rope, and short stretches of Marlow 16 plait terylene.
On some of our new Interalp, the sheath tended to bunch up on the core after several days at the base of a pitch - this was despite pre-washing to encourage sheath shrinkage. The Marlow had an unfortunate tendency to creak. Personally, I found this somewhat disconcerting.
In general, despite its relative stretchiness (which does at least suggest that it is not going to snap under a small dynamic load) the Interalp was liked for its superb handling qualities and compactness (more than 100m in a tackle bag), and of course the Bluewater inspired great confidence in a part of the pot that we had been dreading to rig for SRT.
For all of Team Ladders, it was their first season of European Pot-bashing. The first four days on the Loser Plateau were spent prospecting, sherping tackle up to the pots and trying to find some shelter either from the sun, or from thunderstorms. Several entrances were looked at, and we quickly learnt which holes were likely to be promising - almost without exception the vertical shafts were choked. Only one, 98, was numbered in the first few days.
This is situated further into the plateau than 97 and 106, on a large sloping face of rock. The entrance is in a gryke dropping down 29 metres. The shaft enlarges at the bottom, and the landing is in a small chamber. On one side a rift descends for nine metres until it becomes too tight. On the other, a slot led to the top of another pitch. This was 17m deep, and ended in a solid floor with no way on. The total depth of the cave is 47 metres.
After this, we decided to look at a different area of the plateau, on the east side near 82 - Team Geriatric's 1977 find. The result was 107. The entrance lay in a dry valley under collapsed boulders, and an encouragingly strong draught blew out of it. A short drop under the boulders landed in a small chamber, in the bottom corner of which was a hole blocked by boulders. This is the head of the first pitch, and the draught still blew out from it. It took two days of excavating to clear out and belay the boulders until the pitch was fit to descend.
Beyond the small hole at the head of the pitch, the dimensions were magnificent. The shaft is six metres in diameter and 18 metres deep, and the landing is in a large passage which was decorated by ice stalactites. This passage was of a very different character from the rest of the cave, being large and horizontal, with a visible roof. The rest of the cave is formed along faults, and it was rare to see the roof again. The passage choked in both directions, and the way on was down a rift off to the side of the passage, out of which the draught was blowing.
Two pitches followed in quick succession - one of 23 metres and one of 19 metres. Halfway down the first, a small inlet entered, which made both pitches unpleasant in wet weather. At the bottom of the 19 metre pitch, two possible ways led on - either continuing down with the water or traversing round the drop, which led to another passage.
Initially, the second way was chosen and followed for about 100 metres to the top of another shaft. In this passage the draught was reversed, blowing in rather than out, suggesting that the passage was an alternative to another one. A boulder floor could be seen at a depth of about 10 metres below the top of the shaft, Boulder Shaft, and a ladder was put down. Again, two ways led on, one through the boulders, the other across the shaft and down a narrow rift. However, the stability of the boulders seemed doubtful, and we went back to look at the way on from the bottom of the 19 metre pitch.
Until this time, all trips had taken place during hours of daylight, but this meant that we had a maximum of twelve hours to get up to the plateau, get underground, cave, and then get off the plateau by nightfall. It would have been dangerous to walk on the limestone in the dark - the possibilities of losing the way, falling down an open shaft or just twisting an ankle would be very high. This 'twelve hours' was usually severely reduced by the overhead time CUCC takes in getting up in the morning and eating 'breakfast'. The drive up and walk across the plateau take a further one and a half hours each way. For these reasons, an overnight trip seemed an attractive proposition, allowing a longer time underground with a walk home in certain daylight. The only disadvantage seemed to be missing out on the bar in the evening, although a further shortfall (!) was discovered later by Team Ropes.
The next trip down 107, Gemshöhle, was an overnight trip. We followed on down below the third pitch. A short passage above a rift carrying the small stream was followed to a sharp corner and a small drop landing at the top of another larger rift. While we were bolting the small pitch, stones were dropped down a hole in the corner of the passage. These took several seconds to land, and the length of the pitch was estimated to be about 60 metres, which induced panic in the two team members underground. Luckily the rift at the bottom of the small pitch was found to lead into the large shaft, and it was a much easier ladder climb.
It seemed to take ages to bolt that pitch, and cold and fatigue soon set in. It must have been raining on the surface because a small inlet had formed right above our ladder. Both of us could swear we heard people singing a song that was played on the juke box every night in Bar Fischer. It was pretty eerie and finally we both decided to jack, leaving the cave eventually with fading illumination. Not much was achieved on this trip, and no other overnight trips took place in 107, although in a deeper pot, the idea is probably worth considering.
Another short, cold, wet trip took place, trying to get down the pitch. The first ladder landed on a pile of jammed boulders where the ladder was rebelayed to follow down one wall of the shaft. The depth of this shaft turned out to be 67 metres - pretty close to our estimate. Had we laddered the pitch direct, it would have hung free most of the way, partly in the water. The way on now followed the water down the rift, which must be 60 metres high, although the roof could not be seen.
At about this time, Team Geriatric arrived in Altaussee, and since they would not have time to prospect for and explore a new cave, the decided to join team Ladders in 107. Despite their great age, Team Geriatric are still very agile and, coupled with their experience, this made them invaluable in Gemshöhle. On their first trip they went back to Boulder Shaft and found the way on through the boulders choked, but rigged the rift on the opposite side of the shaft. They abseiled the pitch, rebelaying part way down, and landed in the stream that was later realised to be the same one that Team Ladders were in. The total pitch length was 100 metres.
The next pitch for Team Ladders took them along the Big Rift, following the stream as far as the bottom of the Geriatrics' Pitch, at which point they were almost out of ladders.
In the Geriatrics' last trip into 107, they got to the bottom. The last pitch of 44 metres was quite wet and landed in a much larger rift at right angles to the one they had been following. The water disappeared down a small hole in the floor and the rift choked. This is all according to Vic, who has a reputation for giving the blessing to the bottom of pots. Team Geriatric then derigged their rope, and surveyed the top half of the cave on their way out. Team Ladders derigged several days later due to inclement weather.
The surveying of the cave revealed a depth of 280 metres, making it CUCC's second deepest find. The survey shows it to be remarkably similar to 82, Bräuninghöhle. Both have a large horizontal stretch of passage near the surface, and the rest of the pot is formed in a large rift. The entrance to 107 is 20 metres higher up than that of 82, and the pot is 60 metres deeper. Hence the bottom of 107 lies 40 metres below that of 82, putting the bottom of 82 at a level just before the final large rift in 107. When it was found that 82 ended in a perched sump, it was thought that all caves in the area might do this. 107 disproves this theory. Their similarities are perhaps not too surprising since their entrances are only about 100 metres apart.
For our first attempt at caving abroad, Gemshöhle provided a good introduction with quite an impressive depth.
Ben van Millingen
Nick and Julian (alias Mr Super Cool and Mr Super Smooth), having just arrived in Austria and not wishing to immediately thrust their weak and flabby bodies into the depths of Eislufthöhle, settled for a gentle day's prospecting. That was the idea at any rate, but in the end we walked so far across the plateau that we had to radio back for a helicopter to fly in the iron lungs. Consequently, when we found 110 (see survey), it was so far from any of the previous finds that relocation, should it ever be needed, may prove rather difficult. No bearings were taken from the entrance ('I thought you'd brought the compass'), but it lies at least 2 km beyond Eislufthöhle, roughly in the direction of the Schönberg. The number 110 appears in red paint near to the cave's low, insignificant entrance. Its discovery was the classic situation of an icy wind howling up your shorts !
The draught was followed, with hand torches, along a short crawl to a partial boulder choke. Hmmm... Returning for 70m of brand new SRT 'digging' rope and a couple of tins of spinach, the burly boulder bunglers soon had the main obstruction licked, and Julian ventured along a low passage, again with a hand torch, to the head of a short pitch. Returning, Nick then put his caving gear on, and whilst Julian sat at the entrance as his call out, Super Cool pushed the exploration further. In the course of a couple of hours, Nick bolted, rigged and descended a short pitch, and investigated an easy walking passage (curiously doubling back under the entrance passage) to a collapsed chamber. Several possible routes through the boulders all proved fruitless, and an exit was made.
Feeling thankful that a pot such a long, gruelling walk across the plateau had not 'gone', the two pioneers, now definitely wheezing, started back for base. Unfortunately, as they passed near to 98, two fairly sizeable shafts were found and had to be explored. The first of these, 111, was quickly rigged, and Julian winched down 30m to a narrow choked rift, having passed a ledge at the -20m level. With his helmet still on, Julian then descended the second of the shafts, 112, which lay about 50m from 111. He passed two ledges on his way down to a choke at -50m.
After derigging, the two then ignominiously staggered off the plateau, and down to the campsite to claim their quota of lagerbier in the forlorn hope of restoring some of their hard-lost flab. A profitable day's work, nevertheless.