CTS 90.1317: BCRA Caves & Caving 49 (Autumn 1990) pp 5-7 [ISSN 0142-1832]

Cambridge University Caving Club
Underground in Austria

Daniel Mace & Penny Reeves

Cambridge University Caving Club returned to the Loser Plateau in the Totes Gebirge, Austria this summer to continue the exploration of 161 Kaninchenhöhle. This cave was discovered in 1988 and three routes were explored, each down to about -250m. The weather then had been absolutely appalling with four weeks of torrential rain. In spite of this about 25 keen cavers (including several who had vowed never to return) spent up to five weeks in Austria last summer.

The two main taregets for exploration were the Left Hand Route and (very imaginative these Cambridge students) the Right Hand Route. These were reached by descending two exceedingly loose pitches; 'Checkout' and 'Loose Bowels'. Rocks dropped from the top of Checkout would tumble all the way down to the bottom of Loose Bowels where an awkward squeeze lay immediately above an 8m pitch. More of this later. Much of the first week was spent attempting to find a bypass to this section of the cave.

The most promising potential bypass was found by the club president Jeremy Rodgers and the Club barman Mark Fearon. An obvious shaft that descended close to the top of Checkout was explored down several pitches. It spiralled down tantalisingly close to the Left and Right hand Routes, but unfortunately no direct connection was found. This route was named after its original explorers: 'Drunk and Stupid'.

By the end of the week, Drunk and Stupid had been explored to below 150m and the other two routes were rigged down to the limits of exploration. In 1988 the Left Hand Route was explored to an undescended and apparently bottomless pitch: 'Niflheim' - "A realm of freezing mist and darkness under one root of Yggdrasall (the world tree) which hell lies within". Exploration in the Right Hand Route had ended at two enormous chambers: 'Knossus' and 'Tower Blocks'.

Niflheim was descended and found to be 75m deep and far from bottomless. Beyond it was a large fossilised phreas: 'Ragnorok'. From this there were several smaller passages and tubes, most of which remain wide open but one of which was followed to 'Thumper the Talking Sump' at -310m.

Down the Right Hand Route, numerous routes were found leading off the large chambers. The most promising of these were the Flapjack Pitches. These descended close to a large inlet: 'YAPATE inlet'. They were explored to Bat Corner where a bat skeleton was found at a depth of 370m.

Morale had been very high during the first few weeks of the expedition and a phenomenal amount of work was done including a complete survey of the cave. Then disaster struck. Becka Lawson lost control whilst descending through the squeeze on a C-rigged Stop and free fell 8m breaking her femur. Fortunately there were several people with her and some were dispatched to call out the rescue whilst others splinted her leg and began to evacuate her from the cave. At this time we had no idea what help to expect from the Austrian Cave Rescue or the time they would take to reach her. They were in fact incredibly efficient, arriving at the cave entrance within two hours complete with medic, mechanical winch, stretcher and helicopter. They met Becka on the third pitch where she was transferred to the coffin-like stretcher and hauled out of the cave. She was then air-lifted to the local hospital where her leg provided valuable out-of-season practice for surgeons more used to treating skiing injuries.

Morale was low after this accident and very little caving was done for a few days. A team of divers (John Cordingley, Mike Thomas, Phil Murphy and Andy 'Alien' Goddard) arrived from Britain and kept the expedition amused with tales of their exploits. They also took some of the team to a local lake for an introduction to diving. Unfortunately the expedition leader managed to burst an eardrum whilst underwater leaving us with a second hospital case on our hands.

The resurgence the divers were looking for in Altausseer See proved to consist of thousands of tiny springs flowing up through mud and was hence totally impenetrable. The divers did however find a rather interesting bone which after close examination proved to be a human humerus. The local authorities were informed and they asked the divers to return to the site and see if any more of the body could be found. A boot was retrieved with the rather nasty remains of a foot inside. At this point the visibility deteriorated dramatically, and so no more gory remains were brought to the surface. The body proved to be that of a villager from Altaussee who had drowned thirty years ago.

On the serious side of diving, numerous resurgences were explored in a reconnaissance of the area. Alien gained the respect of the Austrian divers by descending to -65m in Goldloch. Hopefully underwater exploration will continue in 1990.

The exploration continued in Kaninchenhöhle. Drunk and Stupid was pushed to -240m through a particularly interesting section of hading rift, the 'Bacon Slicer'. Down the Right Hand Route, the Flapjack series of pitches descended to a sump. After a truly honest piece of surveying this was found to lie 499m below the surface, maddeningly close to the half kilometre. Several more passages were explored from Tower Blocks and whilst a lot of horizontal development was discovered, no new depth was added to the system. It is hoped that one of these routes will provide a major extension to the cave during the summer of 1990.

Just before the end of the expedition, a pushing team down Drunk and Stupid found a rope ascending a shaft they had broken into. There was much debate and confusion underground. It was decided that the bolts were far too good to have been placed by anyone from CUCC (apologies to David Howes!) and the rope was far too clean to have been anywhere near the entrance series of Kaninchenhöhle. The team concluded that the rope came from a cave that was being explored by a group of French cavers in the area. A note was left and they departed for Base Camp in a state of great excitement to draw up this latest piece of survey in an attempt to find where the French cave entered.

However, the note was found a few hours later by a group down Niflheim. The 'French' rope was in fact the tail end of the Niflheim rope, and the mysterious note caused this group even greater confusion. Eventually everyone realised that one of the major objectives of the expedition had been achieved: the squeeze had been bypassed. Unfortunately, bypassing the squeeze via the 'French Connection' involved descending to -250m and then reascending to -150m, an undertaking unattractive to even the larger un-squeeze-shaped members of the expedition.

The time came to detackle and with it a serious deterioration in the weather. Top Camp was wiped out by a snow fall, only the ten year old Force 10 and Juliette Kelly's £2 bargain basement tent remained in one piece. Detackling was hampered by a second accident. Becka's boyfriend Chris Densham managed to get his rack caught on the rock in the squeeze. In his struggle to release himself he fell through the squeeze in a carbon copy of Becka's fall. Fortunately he was less seriously injured and the decision to self-rescue was made. He was hauled to the surface after seven hours of hauling to find mist, sleet and almost zero visibility. For seven hours he was carried down the mountain on a makeshift stretcher. It was almost impossible to see anything and it was very cold. Eventually he arrived at the car park and the most dangerous part of the rescue began: would the brakes on Chris's car hold out for the drive down to the hospital ?

He arrived in hospital three minutes before Becka was discharged. He disappeared into the X-ray room and she was left to sort out how to get a car and two injured drivers back to Cambridge. It was later discoverd that Chris had fractured his pelvis. A full account of the accident, written by the victims themselves, is in the February/March 1990 issue of Descent.

After this accident there was no time for recuperation. In a mammoth effort all the rope was dragged out of the cave and brought off the mountain leaving a day and a half for rope washing and reflection. Although two sumps were found in Kaninchenhöhle in 1989 there are still several unexplored leads (29 at the last count). The system is certainly worth returning to and exploration will continue in 1990.