CTS 83.1765: Cambridge Underground 1983 pp 5-10


Phil Townsend

CUCC first went to Austria in 1976. The Loser Plateau on the southwest edge of the Totes Gebirge was immediately attractive having considerable, though not spectacular, depth potential (about 1100m) and easy access. The presence of a toll road from the lakeside village of Altaussee up to the plateau area means that the expedition can be based within staggering distance of bars and restaurants. The 77-79 expeditions worked on the Loser Plateau and bottomed 82 (-215m), 97 (-265m) and 106 (-506m). The 1980 expedition, seeking less walking and absolutely no camping away from civilisation, worked in the area to the south of the Loser Plateau, near the Stogerweg (see map). 113 (Sonnenstrahlhöhle) went to -329m, 41 (Stellerweghöhle) was still going at -350m and 115 (Schnellzughöhle) was discovered [Cambridge Underground 1981]. In 1981 a large expedition successfully connected 41 and 115 at circa -400m and pushed on down a tight streamway to a first sump. This was easily bypassed, the streamway getting larger and the pitches increasing in size. At about -680m time ran out with a 10m pitch undescended and at least a further 200m potential [Cambridge Underground 1982].

Expedition area location map - 7k gif

A wet beginning

So; yet again CUCC found itself crammed into ageing vehicles with a crate of sardines, 50lb of muesli, and over 1000m of rope, bound for Altaussee. This years expedition was smaller in numbers but longer in time than 1981. The UBSS contingent failed to materialise but did send along a valuable mountain of tackle for which we are very grateful. Having less people meant a greater devotion to caving and better organised festering than in '81. There was also more beer per capita from Fritz's free crate on arrival.

So who was there ?

Dave Brindle     Ian Brindle      Andy Dolby       Doug Florence
Paddy Gaunt      Judith Greaves   Pete Lancaster   Janet Morgan
Tim Parker       Philip Sargent   Beryl Strike     Mike Thomsa
Phil Townsend    Andy Waddington  Becky Ward       Chas Butcher

-though only a stalwart few - students, UB 40's and Wadders - were able to devote a full four weeks of their life to the cause. There was a good mixture of old and new faces, over half the group had caved in Austria before and most of those on the previous year's expedition.

As a special consideration for those who had just flown in from the deserts of the Middle East, it rained for the first ten days, and frequently after that too. When it rains in Austria it surely rains, the campsite rapidly became a quagmire despite intensive bailing operations. Acres of damp clothes were displayed in every dry spell. Fortunately, this year we had a mess (sic) tent - a battle scarred ridge tent that had seen service on many Craven Winch meets. Further added luxuries were electric light and music ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Grateful Dead. Many a happy day was spent festering beneath the canvas with a good book, Gösser beer. Old Holborn, and loud music drowning out the thunder and rain.

location map for caves - 19k gif

But why are we here ?

Because it's there. The Yorkshire conditions above ground finally drove us underground if only out of a fatal curiosity to find out what the 115 streamway looked like with so much water about.

To the 1981 limit

Rigging into last years termination went quite smoothly. Inevitably the first trips involved much tackle-bag dropping, hammer-crushed thumbs and failing lights; most forms of incompetance underground were exhausted before the caving got serious. We rerigged the ramp to stay out of the deep central rift; whilst this was a less exposed alternative to last year it was very greasy and no less strenuous. The Rift Pitches didn't seem so bad at first so apart from putting in a few more back-up bolts the route was unchanged at the top. The lower half of the rift (Inlet Pitches) was rigged as dry as possible, which meant strenuous changeovers at rebelays surpassed only by the nervous and physical energy that must have been expended rigging them.

So farewell then to an easy natured cave, to productive ten hour trips, to regular eating, sleeping and drinking - into Purgatory we descend. The n hundred metres (no one ever had the stamina or sufficient masochistic streak to survey them) of the lovingly named Pete's Purgatory go on and on. Consider the tighter parts of the entrance streamway in Stream Passage or the watery bits of Pippikin and stretch them out for nearly two hours - you have Purgatory. Furthermore unlike Stream Passage and Pippikin, one has to return the same way.

Once past the confluence with the 41 streamway the going is easier, the perched sump bypassed neatly and the classic Yorkshire style streamway begins. Two fourteen hour trips reached the previous limit of exploration and established a dump of disgusting packet soup at the 115 Final Chamber. In fact the body heat supplied by these dieticians nightmares just about replenished that lost by sitting around waiting for the damn stuff to heat up. These two trips were the first two to exit very sleepily into the early morning hours - sleeping under the stars on the Stogerweg whilst returning to Altaussee became quite fashionable. These first five days of efficient alpine starts and rapid caving should have set us up well for the pushing phase - but instead fatigue, a streak of good weather, and some serious drinking with local cavers slowed down the pace of exploration.

Slow Progress

The first four days of August saw a burst of activity. Long pushing trips made tortoise-like progress adding one or two pitches at a time. The slow progress was due to the cold, the effort required to get through Purgatory, and ever increasing hydrophobia. Wilst most pitches were only spray lashed, some were viewed with suspicion should there be a storm on the surface. Similarly, the streamway, while generally very spacious, had a couple of low sections which were enough to make one think twice. The long trip out was by now familiar and rutine except for the inevitable niggles like a sit harness with a painful propensity for pushing parts into a pre-pubescent position. The last trip to traverse Pete's Purgatory both ways was one which spurred the expedition on. After the easy 7m Coming Soon pitch was a pleasant gently flowing canal terminating in a deep, open pool. The end ?

Foolishly harkening back to his youth, ex-President Planc goes for plunge in the terminal pool. Lo, tucked away in a corner a four inch swimming duck and the canal continues quietly. Maybe its just a final twist, but it is with apprehension that the pair continue, surely the cave is finished ? The a roar and round a corner the floor disappears into a very broad spray lashed chamber. An 11m and a 10m pitch are rigged onto broad ledges, traversing around to get out of the spray. With no rope left the bottom is invisible. They exited slowly to tell tales of "chambers fathomless to man". On the surface, a fit of pitch naming hailed the rift Orgasm Chasm.

Purgatory Bypass

The need for a bypass to the Purgatory was now even more apparent. One trip had been made into the large abandoned phreatic passages beyond the connection from 115 Final Chamber to 41 Final Chamber. The Dartford Tunnel, some 10m square in section and strewn with boulders had been partially explored in 1981. To quote Dave in the 1982 log book "suddenly an inscription 'cucc/UBSS 81' in the mud and ahead an untrodden sloping traverse. This was quickly overcome and ahead a stomping passage leads on. A small climb, across a deep stream-bearing rift, and ahead the phreatic tube continues. We're almost running now, pointing out features, not listening, the tension is incredible, how long will it last ? Suddenly a junction with a dry "Purgatory" in the floor and a dead bat. Hardly pausing we push up Rampant Passage, slower now, panting with exertion and excitement, this tube rises a hundred feet in two hundred. At the top we emerge into Cologne Cathedral, a silent but huge chamber. A dangerous climb leads to 30m Echo Aven. We return and push down the rift. Ahead the roar of water and suddenly we're hanging out over an enormous streamway, water cascades down and out of sight. We can't go on; so survey out." In fact, as Pete and Phil discovered, this was the main streamway just below the confluence at the far end of Purgatory. The Bypass was finally made, some aids put in to ease the passage, and Purgatory thankfully abandoned.

Orgasm Chasm

On the same day that the bypass was conclusively established, Chas'n'Dave rigged a 42m pitch from a splendid eyrie half way round Orgasm Chasm reached by penduling and traversing from the waterfall. This pitch landed on a broad ledge from which a pitch in a parallel shaft was rigged to stay out of the spray lashed base of Orgasm Chasm. In fact they ran out of rope before reaching the bottom. This one really big freehang close to the wall of the chasm was one place where the expedition's Interalp rope was not appreciated: the bounce made controlled prussiking difficult and very tiring, not to mention the all too frequent twangs as one swung into the wall. The pitch really needed one or more rebelays but these would have been feats of engineering beyond our abilities (or inclinations, to be truthful) at this very cold, damp, deep part of the cave. This trip spent seventeen hours underground without a proper meal or any rest, and came out completely exhausted. The last few trips had been similar, the seven or eight members of the expedition - holiday was fast becoming a redundant term - who were keen and able enough to get to the bottom were all washed out and a long weekend of sleeping, walking, eating and driking was taken. The discovery of the dry sandy passages of the Bypass prompted the idea of establishing an underground camp. Whilst this camp was well above the bottom of the cave it did mean cavers could rest before the final dominantly vertical exit and the walk back across the plateau. Perhaps most of all it was a great psychological comfort when one was down the streamway to think there was good food and a warm pit only three hours away at the most.

The trip that established the camp, also pushed on down the cave. Tim and Phil straightened out the rigging of Orgasm Chasm to make best use of the dwindling supply of rope. In fact the job was slackly done. Two ropes were left on the main hang, one attached to the lower rebelay, the other dangling free in space with no knot in it. Fortunately the next pair narrowly avoided a rapid descent. At the floor of the Chasm the water ran down into a metre wide rift then over into a slit shaped void. An abandoned polished passage provided a second exit from the Chasm. A 6m pitch led to a steep slope above the same dark slit that the stream falls into. Cold and tired and suffering an attack of light failures the two put in a bolt and exited disappointedly, this rift had surely to be the end. The return to the camp was a sorry tale of temperamental carbide lamps, wet flints, soggy matches, cigarette lighters that failed to cooperate in the cold, all caused by an ammo can which decided to disgorge its contents at the head of Letch Pitch on the way in. The only god news in this tedious exit was the survival of a very old Timex watch after a sixty foot drop and two hours immersed in water, - not so the Casio digital wonder. Back to the camp for spag. bol., soup, dig bix, tea and cigarettes followed by nine hours solid sleep till midday. On the surface a thunderstorm had kept everyone else above ground lamenting the loss of their companions whilst auctioning off their cassette tapes, camping gear etc. What good friends we are.

The End

From then on camping trips lasted thirty to thirty six hours and the cave suddenly seemed do-able in the two weeks remaining to bottom it, survey, photograph and derig. In fact the next couple of trips failed to make new ground as the lower pitches were impassable after storms. Finally the dynamic duo - Chas'n'Dave (tone deaf version) braved Orgasm Chasm and descended the rift, followed by a short free climb and a sump. No great thrill, just a deep pool in the rift, no way on. They returned to the camp and after sleep, trogged back to Altaussee to break the news to a quietly elated, appreciative "squalor" of speleos.

The only other trip to the bottom, unemcumbered by tackle or apprehension of what was to come next, Pete and Andy reached the sump in six hours, derigged back to the Duck, surveyed back to Subtle Approach pitch, camped and exited to fireworks over the lake. Two more big trips and three or four more arduous tackle hauling trips completed the surveying and derigging with a day to spare. The writer had sensibly fled the country before derigging commenced.


We were overjoyed to bottom the system at last, but a little disappointed that it didn't make 1000m. The search for higher entrances to the system was continued. 131 and 132 are at approximately the same height as 41. 132 is almost certainly connected to 41 via the high level abandoned phreatic system in that cave, it also contains a series of deep rifts as in 41. The ramps in 132 were pushed upwards for approximately 40m but no way to the surface was found. Some time was also spent in re-entering 113, Sonnenstrahlhöhle [Cambridge Underground 1981] to no avail save that of providing a splendid, clean, varied trip as a rest from the rather drab entrance series of 115.

And Now for Something Completely Different?

At present it is uncertain whether CUCC will return to the same area next year. After many years of luxury lakeside camping we will not be able to stay at Fritzes next year. Furthermore, a radical change in local caving politics in Austria led to a minor coup in which Gunther Graf, our main contact of the past, was ousted. A night of much beer drinking and poor German communication brought us recognition by the new regime; though we learned that we no longer have exclusive rights to the Loser plateau and Stogerweg area. Whilst we were there we met a small party of Germans who were slowly exploring a very similar sounding system to 41 higher up and less than a kilometre from 41. An offer of cooperation may provide the manpower and tackle to bottom this, or even connect it to the Stellerweghöhlensystem.

Many thanks to Fritz Madlmeier, Karl Gaisberger and Co., and all the UBSS and CUCC who have had a hand in the deepest CUCC find - so far.