This article was commissioned by Krzysztof Kleszynski as part of a series of articles about Austrian caving as context for Polish write-ups about their own explorations. It has previously only appeared in Polish translation, in Speleo Krakow 1/2 Dec 1980 (CTS 81.1412) so the original English version is published here for the first time.
In 1976, members of the Cambridge University Caving Club, seeking a change after five years at the Pierre St. Martin, obtained permission to visit Austria. After considering various alternative areas, we decided upon the Loser Augst-Eck plateau in the western Totes Gebirge, which seemed suited to the size and scope of CUCC expeditions. The plateau lies south of the Schönberg (2094m) at an altitude of 1600-1800m, and easy access is provided by a toll road (completed 1972) from Altaussee, our base, about 80km east of Salzburg.
The first expedition did no serious exploration, but gained a feel for the area as a whole and did some preliminary prospecting on the plateau, quickly reaching the conclusion that the potential was good.
A large group went out in 1977, and explored several systems 20-100m deep, as well as three significant discoveries:
Bräuninghöhle was found first, an obvious horizontal cave on a fault led to several pitches and a small stream. This led to a large rift descending in pitches of 25, 50, 25 and 30m to a sump at -220m.
Schneewindschacht was a tight draughting hole in the bottom of a doline which had to be hammered out to allow access to a climb and a very tight passage to the head of a deep rift. This dropped down pitches of 15,20,20,15,30,15 & 15m in quick succession to some horizontal passage and three more short pitches. More horizontal passage led to a large shaft. A continuation could be seen beyond but could not be reached. The shaft was 25m and there was no longer a draught at the bottom. Three short pitches led to a final 20m drop and the way on became too narrow at -265m.
Eislufthöhle was a group of three powerfully draughting entrances with snow, which quickly linked underground and led to a very snow-choked 70m shaft Plugged Shaft. A further snow-free pitch of 13m led to Boulder Chamber where some digging led to a narrow drop which opened into a 30m pitch which continued beyond a large ledge at -144m. However, tackle had run out and we had lost the draught so we retreated. In a small rift above the pitch we found the draught and this led to 19m and 14m pitches to a dry streamway which led to a chamber with a heavy drip - The Taproom, where we ended exploration for 1977 at -150m.
in 1978 another large group went out to continue with Eislufthöhle and to look for other new pots.
Digging in a draughting boulder-pile in a fault-valley near Bräuninghöhle led to another fault-dominated system, Gemsehöhle. Pitches of 18m, 23m and 19m led to a complex horizontal area where a 10m pitch, Boulder Shaft, led to a large black space, and the explorers decided to look elsewhere first, as they were working on ladders. Instead, they descended pitches of 5m, 30m and 37m in a narrow rift and then pitches of 5m, 9m and 8m in a high canyon. A team using ropes now descended Boulder Shaft, exploring a 95m pitch to rejoin the other route. Continuing down the canyon, a 5m climb and pitches of 5 and 14m led to another large rift at right angles to the main line so far. A 44m pitch reached the floor where the stream vanished in a small tube and the main rift hit a large boulder collapse at -280m.
In Eislufthöhle, meanwhile, we descended a short drop in the Taproom and entered a rift leading to an enlargement where we rigged pitches of 12,30 and 11m back to the stream. Traversing forward, we reached the lip of a spacious 48m pitch in a notch in the side of the huge aven chamber of Hall of the Greene King. Pitches of 3m & 7m brought us to the floor at -262m and we next climbed over a large boulder pile to a short 7m drop into a smaller chamber. From here, two ways on were possible, and we chose the apparently easier way to an awkward, muddy 20m pitch. A thrutchy stream canyon now led on for a considerable distance, mainly traversing until solid ground was reached above a sloping and extremely muddy 28m pitch, The Fiesta Run. Below this, a short muddy climb led to the head of a muddy drop with the stream audible below: stones dropped suggested a pitch of 30-50m below the point reached at -330m. Unfortunately, a serious accident on the surface curtailed exploration at this point and we were forced to derig.
In 1979, only a small group was able to return, so Eislufthöhle was our main objective. The 70m Plugged Shaft had again totally changed its snow configuration and rebolting was needed, but after this, the pot was quickly rigged to -260m. From the second chamber here, the other outlet was explored and led to pitches of 17m and 9m and thence back to the original route part way down the stream canyon. The new route was marginally easier, so the original 20m pitch was not rigged. From our lowest point at -330m, we tried to avoid the stream by traversing forward, and soon reached a dry 15m pitch into a sizeable chamber where a climb down 5m led to an awkward, steeply descending meander and a 25m pitch in very sharp rock. Below this, the way on was a very narrow rift which was becoming extremely tight when it broke out into the side of a pitch. This seemed to be about 15m to the floor (which would therefore be at c-400m) but was not descended.
Straight down from the 1978 terminus, a 28m dropped onto an extremely large cross rift and regained the stream as expected. A further 33m wet pitch continued in the rift, and from the bottom, a short climb up and traverse gained the head of a 42m pitch. Here the rope ran out, but a 6m freeclimb reached a ledge and the head of a further pitch, still essentially in the same rift with the water audible nearby. This was 25m, meeting the water again a short way down and hence was very wet and cold. Immediately following was a pitch of c20m which could not be descended on the first attempt as the rope was too short, but a large passage could be seen leading on and the potential seemd very good. It was extremely frustrating therefore, that there was rain for four days, and our only attempt to descend the cave was beaten back by high water conditions. This meant that our next trip into the cave would be our last chance to push.
Five of us descended, three to push and two taking photographs and surveying. The undescended pitch was rerigged with a longer rope and the floor attained. The water sank in rubble and the 'large passage' led to a boulder climb and a short pitch where dark soft mud had an obvious message. A further climb down boulders led to the large cold sump at -506m.
Photgraphs were taken and then the task of derigging began. It was vital to derig at least above the wet pitches in case we had more rain, and in the event, we got all the gear back to -210m, finally exitting after 16 hours. The remaining derigging was accomplished fairly easily and we left Austria. There are still several unfinished leads in the cave, but the potential remaining is not enormous, so we are unlikely to return to Eislufthöhle.
A.E.R.Waddington, C.U.C.C., September 1979