A joint Cambridge University / University of Bristol expedition continued exploration of the Stellerweghöhle system to -680m, with a through trip at -400m. The system is still wide open for pushing.
For the sixth year running, Cambridge University Caving Club visited the Totes Gebirge, Austria. This year there were an equal number of cavers from the University of Bristol Spelæological Society, making up a strong team of 20. We spent the first three weeks of August 1981 camping at Altaussee, a small village below the Loser Plateau, and 55km SE of Salzburg. As in 1980, we were looking at the Stoger Weg area, which is reached by a drive up a toll road and an hour's walk-in.
The 1980 expedition (1,2) left two pots unfinished. Schnellzughöhle (AKA Gemsescheissenhöhle) - 1623/115 in the Austrian Catalogue - had a railway tunnel-like entrance leading via the 20m Bell Pitch to a narrow rift which broke out into a large phreatic tube; the descent which followed led to an undescended pitch down the 'Ramp'. Stellerweghöhle (1423/41) had originally been entered by some Germans, but their way petered out at -160m. The 1980 route led via phreatic passages developed along inclined bedding planes to a superb 100m pitch, followed by a series of smaller wet pitches (at first tight) then breaking out into a large rift. Exploration had ceased at -350m due to lack of time.
The 1981 expedition soon rigged Schnellzughöhle and carried on down The Ramp, a series of pitches following the bedding down at 45°, making for awkward prussiking. From here, there follows a sequence of more vertical pitches in a large rift - these normally only carry a small stream, but this rises rapidly in flood. The last pitch drops into a spacious chamber and a stream heads down a narrow vadose canyon - Pete's Purgatory. This resembles a slim version of the Crabwalk in Giants and is hard work with much tackle. After about 850m, the passage widens at an inlet and a short pitch brings one to a sump. Our hopes of the cave coming to an end were dashed by a short climb to the left which led to an easy bypass - this shows that the sump cannot be more than 10m long. Downstream, the passage enlarges and drops in a series of cascades and short, wet pitches. The final limit of exploration is an undescended 10m pitch.
Meanwhile, Stellerweghöhle took about a week to rig to the previous year's limit because of the arduous nature of the cave. It was on the next pushing trip that the connection to 115 was made. This came as a complete surprise - not least to the party down 115 at the time. The final pitch drops 15m into Junction Chamber. Following the stream becomes too narrow and traversing above leads to a series of large phreatic tubes. One of these may be followed until traversing over a narrow vadose canyon below becomes a mite tricky. The route to 115 lies through a phreatic maze where route finding consists of following the draught (and now the footprints). From Connection Cairn, the way lies uphill until the passage pops out at roof level in Pete's Purgatory, about 50m downstream from the last pitch in 115.
The linking up of the two caves has produced a magificent through trip of 400m depth and a system with a total depth of 680m (±40m) which is still wide open. The quoted depth is not very accurate because the lack of time (and volunteers) to survey through Purgatory, and it is here that much easy depth is gained.
It is generally assumed that the water resurges in the Altausseer See, giving a potential depth of 900m from the 41 entrance. Some draughting entrances were noted above, giving the possibility of adding another 50m to the depth. As shown on the survey, 32 is a hole on the Stoger Weg with a powerful draught which presumably connects, but which is too tight and is probably not worth pushing.
Other caves in this area are basically vertical shaft systems which close down before they reach active streamway of any size; the Stellerweghöhle System is quite unlike this. Exploration of the streamway beyond the sump demands rather more thought as it is difficult to predict when the next thunderstorm will unleash itself. The phreatic levels at -400m are seen at similar altitudes in the other caves of the area, and may be connected with a late Tertiary S-N drainage system - a close look at these will be high on our list of priorities for next year. It is hoped to find a bypass to Purgatory, giving easier caving and a more accurate survey. The 1982 expedition should see Stellerweg take its place as one of the most important systems in the area.
. . . . to local cavers Karl Gaisberger and Gunter Graf, campsite owner Fritz Madlmaier and also to the University of Bristol and the Tratman Fund.
1. Thorne, N. Descent No. 49 p 46
2. Cambridge Underground 1981
The volumes of Cambridge Underground from 1977 onward provide details of all our explorations on the Loser.