We gathered at Hilda's Gasthof in Altaussee over the weekend: first the suave 'team smoothies' consisting of Keith and Ian Millar, Mike Martin and Jenny Moss coasting in the Sierra from Cambridge in 17 hours. Then the more macho 'team momentum' (or team 'wet sponge' - a reflection on Rover's steering rather than its occupants, who were Mike 'The Animal' Richardson, Chris Densham and Jared West). The Landrover shamed itself by urinating antifreeze over every garage forecourt, but brought over a phenomenal amount of tackle. Finally the oddments - an inter-railer (Dave 'Stonker' Johnson), a Eurotrainer (Juliette Nash) plus Becka Lawson and Andy Farrow, a stench-ridden exhausted pair of hitchers who'd spent 10 hours, helpless, in Munich's traffic jungle, before hijacking a gullible Austrialian (complete with didgereedoo - "What's this exhaust pipe doing on your back seat, then ?")
And so enthusiastically up the 17 hairpins to the Loser Plateau of the Totes Gebirge (the descent is more fun - after one long trip, we forgot to keep talking to Animal, and he dropped off at the wheel). We merrily set to cave hunting - the place is littered with entrances, but any obvious holes have been slithered through before, and the rest are lurking in the vicious "bunde" (overgrown, spiky gorse bushes which scratch your arms and legs). The limestone isn't the kindly weathered English variety - it cuts skin and takes lumps from boots. Ten yards from a landmark and you are totally lost, out of earshot and trapped in a hollow or gully by the impenetrable bunde.
On the first day Jenny misplaced her glasses beside an "obvious" entrance - more wo/man hours were put in finding them than some of us spent underground, which varied from 12 to 64 hours.
So on to the proper caving - but before we started there was the 1-2 hours stomping over the Plateau, shoulders mangled by the tacklesack, sweat soaking your furry suit, ogling tourists... though returning in the early hours could be beautiful - cool exhaustion, following the paint daubs over the limestone with the starlight, or in a storm with sheet lightning over the mountains and streaks forking down on you as the moon rose in clouds ringed in colours like a rainbow.
Entrances 113 and 87 were explored simultaneously. 87 was notorious for the bitter gale at the pitch head, and the first trip was all but hypothermic, waiting for the bolts to be driven in. Entrance 113 was rambling and confusing. Andrew free-climbed down one interesting 60ft ramp, returned virtually to the top to say a passage continued on, then avalanched back down again on a fall of loose boulders, badly gashing his hand. So up he crawled once more, splattering his blood (Ian was delighted to find it still fresh and red, days later!). He was very lucky, just having stitches to one hand. Loose rocks seemed the worst danger - there's no water to dislodge them, and with most of the cave unstable, it's impossible to check every step.
Further into 113, we found a helmet encased in ice - complete with stinky and head torch, dropped on an expedition several years ago. This was returned to its original owner, Andy Waddington, at the annual dinner, still entombed in ice. The new section of 113 was surveyed up to bolts left from a previous expedition. Becka spent hours whining about feeling sickly, managing to hold off until she'd stuffed down a Marathon, which she promptly smeared down the pitch, nearly plastering Chris.
Entrance 153 was pushed to and beyond its reasonable limits by Chris ferreting into the very narrow rift. He and Jared were left, supposedly on their way out, the rest returned. The pair didn't come back, so a rescue was organised. Unfortunately, the search party dwindled to four, as poor Rover ran dry when the last dregs of petrol swilled to the bottom of its tank round a hairpin. However, two sheepish cavers were just coming down the path as we reached the car park. Chris, not content with one tight squeeze, had oozed himself through a tighter one. Unfortunately, this bit was helped by gravity, and his SRT gear got jammed in the rock as he tried to get back up. Jared heroically forced himself through the first squeeze, then hauled Chris out of his slot.
On one day too good to go caving, we made the trip to the toboggan runs. After the first go, the brakes were ignored. Those with a sense of balance and some skill survived, the rest collected some impressive friction burns, with bare skin sticking well to the metal sides. Rover went topless, with blinking hands for indicators, and cavers in swimsuits driking beer and cavorting in the back for photos - and sod the caving!
We found Donner und Blitzen Hohle in the last week, the most promising cave of the expedition, but unfortunately it ended in a large boulder choke with only one impossibly tight rift leading out at 130m depth. Marilyn Monroe Höhle contained some beautifully sculpted ice formations, hardly melting even in the late summer. The compass decided not to play while this was being surveyed, so a survey could not be produced. Probably the most important work of this expedition was the surface surveying between previously known entrances, and one day the Austrian cavers invited Mike Martin to survey with them using their hi-tech laser rangefinder. A complete survey of the area has now been produced.
Cavers obviously survive on their stomachs, and food probably caused the most agro over the expedition. Ignoring the incredible excesses of methane production (yet another male failing) we had a feud between blood thirsty carnivores ranged against the soft soggy veggies. Flesh eaters were for once outnumbered and although weakened by the sheer bulk of muesli and curried beans, Ian led a desperate comeback by hunting down plastic sausages in the local supermarket. Despite the piggery, the beer tent stayed unnaturally hygienic - even the mouse which fled from Animal's wetsuit as he unpacked it didn't stay around. This was almost entirely due to Jenny; for her efforts she was warded a signed scrubbing bruch at teh end of expedition dinner, and when she left after the second week a swarm of wasps carried on with the cleaning up!
The last few stalwarts (gregs?) at the end were invited to the local potato club's fortnightly meet in Hilda's woodshed for some serious yodelling and schnapps drinking, a relief after all the hassles of detackling and a change from the mulled wine of previous weeks.
Animal added interest to the return trip at a German border post. Attempting to look more like his passport photo (and unable to regrow that horrible moustache) he took his glasses off, which unfortunately meant that he couldn't see where he was driving. Rover mounted the kerb and lurched toward the nervous guard, who emerged gibbering and waving a pistol at Jared's head, convinced of a terrorist attack. One glance at the mounds of smelly caving gear soon convinced him otherwise, and he eventually allowed Rover to continue to Britain without further ado.