Cambridge Underground 1990 pp 5-9

Expedition Diary

by Daniel Mace.

Cambridge University Caving Club (C.U.C.C.) have been exploring caves in the Totes Gebirge, Austria for fourteen years. The 1988 expedition was the largest of any C.U.C.C. expedition. The major achievement of the 1988 expedition was the discovery of 161 Kaninchenhöhle. Three major routes were discovered. One, Adrian's Route, choked at -200m. The other two routes separated after an awkward squeeze that lay directly above a 10m pitch. The left hand route ended at an undescended pitch estimated to be 100m deep. The right hand route followed large passages to two enormous chambers at -300m. There were several unexplored routes from the chambers to return to in 1989.

The 1989 expedition aimed to continue the exploration of 161 and resurvey the whole cave. One of the primary aims was to find a by-pass to the Squeeze Pitch to enable faster descent of the system.

The expedition began officially on 5th August, 1989. Most of the expedition members arrived by car, bringing with them food and tackle. The remainder came by train or flew to Austria. Base camp was established at the camp-site at Bad Aussee outside the Gasthof Staudenwirt. A top camp was wet up on the Plateau itself close to the Bräuning Nase where a spring provided an almost continuous supply of water.

The first week was spent rigging the cave down to the limits of exploration and attempting to find a by-pass to the squeeze in the maze of small tunnels at the top of the third and fourth pitches. Several of these choked in impenetrably tight holes but one, found by Jeremy and Mark Fearon seemed promising. A 20m pitch descended to a loose boulder floor. A ladder rigged from a precarious looking boulder led to a tube from which another 20m pitch descended. From here a small hole led to a clean and rubble free ledge, completely out of character with the rest of the cave. A longer and larger pitch, 30m, left the ledge. At this point the route was below the level of the squeeze and yet was only a small distance horizontally from it. There was a strong chance that this route would by-pass the squeeze. The route was not named after its discoverers; Drunk and Stupid.

Also in the first week, much of the upper parts of the cave and a good deal of the Left Hand Route were surveyed. The survey was to B.C.R.A. grade 5c standard. That is, all distances were measured to the nearest ten centimetres and all angles were measured to the nearest degree. Tape, compass and clinometer readings were taken of a centre line down the cave. Cross sections drawn at each places where there was a change in the passage shape. Approximate passage height and widths were measured or estimated where appropriate. All data was recorded on permatrace paper that was kept in aluminium binders.

The beginning of the second week saw the bottoming of Niflheim; the long pitch on the Left Hand Route. The pitch was spray lashed and cold and the rigging trips down here were the most uncomfortable in the cave. A brief reconnaissance at the bottom of the pitch showed there to be a way on through a two foot diameter hole (small for Kaninchenhöhle). However further exploration on this trip was not possible due to a shortage of carbide underground.

The pushing and surveying continued down Drunk and Stupid although a link with either of the routes below the squeeze still proved elusive. Below the thirty metre pitch the route continued down in a series of short pitches separated by small ledges. There was one small section of horizontal development in a vadose trench before another series of pitches that dropped into a small chamber; Wet Nappy Chamber. Here a large joint between two types of limestone was met which formed a long thin Hading Rift. The rift was approximately 30m long and 20m deep although the easiest way through took three pushing trips to find.

Several long surveying trips were required to survey the large chambers at the bottom of the Right Hand Route, Knossus and Tower Blocks. Several routes led from these chambers and the most promising was pushed down a 50m series of short pitches; the Flapjack series. The last of these landed in a small streamway where the water sank into small boulders into a canyon that was reached further down the passage. A traverse along the canyon led over an enormous drop estimated to be seventy to eighty metres.

By the 16th August good progress had been made down the Right Hand Route and Drunk and Stupid, and passages had been surveyed almost up to the pushing front. However the momentum of the expedition was upset by a serious accident. Rebecca descended the squeeze with her descender C-rigged and lost control as she emerged into the wider section of the pitch. She fell 8m onto a ledge and fractured her femur. Fortunately two teams were descending the cave in quick succession and shortly after the accident there were five people who were able to start evacuating her. Help was summoned from Top Camp and the Austrian Cave Rescue were called. Mark splinted her leg and then she was hauled up through the squeeze. She was then manhandled through the rift section and up the third and fourth pitches with Chris prussicking beside her supporting her leg and protecting it from the walls of the cave. The Austrian rescue arrived by helicopter and had soon ferried several people including a doctor to the cave entrance. They met up with the cavers at the top of the third pitch and rigged an aerial ropeway to take her across the boulder strewn floor between the third and second pitches. She was then winched up the entrance pitch and rushed to hospital by helicopter. It took eight hours to evacuate her from the cave but in spite of this she arrived at the hospital with normal pulse, blood pressure and temperature. This reinforces the view that practicing rescue techniques regularly is essential and reflects very well on the excellent Austrian Cave Rescue.

Not surprisingly the accident somewhat dampened the enthusiasm that had been prevalent at the start of the expedition. Morale was further depressed when the first pushing trip after the rescue found a sump down the Right Hand Route. The cave plummeted down a canyon and the sump was discovered at the bottom of a circular shaft.

A team of four divers arrived in Austria at the time of the accident to investigate resurgences in the area. Their major aim was to discover whether a resurgence in Altausseer See was accessible. After several days of searching in freezing water of up to 42m depth the resurgence was found. Unfortunately it consisted of hundreds of tiny blow-holes covering an area of thirty square metres and so was totally impenetrable. However the search had yielded another interesting find. On the second dive the right humerus of a human skeleton was retrieved from the bottom of the lake. After further searching with the Austrian Authorities the following day a boot and sock were found. The body proved to be that of a villager from Altaussee who had drowned in the lake thirty years previously.

The diving team stayed in Austria for almost two weeks and spent most of their time investigating promising resurgences in the area. They found several leads that are worth pursuing including resurgences in Wolfgangsee and Kessel. One resurgence in Goldloch was pushed to -65m. They hope to return again next year.

Work was continued down the routes in Kaninchenhöhle by the dry cavers. A camping trip down the Right Hand Route saw the completion of the survey to the sump which lies 499m below the surface. Several routes from Tower Blocks were explored including the Olympus series. This consisted of a long series of muddy passages that finally looped around to the other side of the head of the Flapjack pitches. Another route, also leading off Tower Blocks, ascended a large boulder ramp before dropping down 25m into an impenetrably tight slot. A pitch at the end of the inlet near the camp was also rigged but remains undescended. Several other smaller routes from Tower Blocks were also explored and surveyed.

On the 23rd August, a week after Rebecca's accident, Niflheim was finally redescended. Several routes were found from the bottom; the most obvious ending in a small slot at the bottom of a 6m pitch. However a side passage led across a boulder floor to The Black Lagoon, a chamber with what appeared to be a silted sump. From here there were at least two ways on; one leading down into a canyon and the second entering a maze-like area of passages.

Exploration continued down Drunk & Stupid. At the base of the Hading Rift was a small section of horizontal development ending in an 18m pitch with awkward take-off. This led to a series of climbs that became ever more spectacular in the widening rift. These finally dropped into a chamber with a side passage leading off to a short pitch and a waterfall dropping into the far end of the chamber. The chamber had a sandy floor with 1m high sand ledges around the edge.

The surveying continued down Kaninchenhöhle until all the routes except sections of the Left Hand Route had been surveyed. Elevations and projections were drawn at Base Camp. Drunk and Stupid appeared to pass within 10m of the Right Hand Route below the squeeze. Several attempts were made to link the two routes although no connection was forthcoming.

A second camping trip was mounted to push the routes at the bottom of Niflheim. Before this could be done, rope had to be retrieved from the bottom of the Right Hand Route. However after retrieving the rope and whilst en route for Niflheim, the camping team discovered a route down at Over The Rainbow at -200m on the Right Hand Route. This was named the Pot of Gold and was a 'Swiss cheese labyrinth' of phreatic passages that were half clogged with soil. The way on looked very promising and so the exploration at the bottom of Niflheim was abandoned in preference to this. A day of exploration yielded several rift pitches that led to a few small chambers. Finally the rifts became too tight. The area was surveyed and the campers emerged after 48 hours underground.

Up until this point, the weather in Austria had been reasonable. There had been a few impressive thunder storms but we had had more than our share of sunshine. At the end of August the weather turned for the worse. Top Camp was miserably cold and base camp became soaked in mud; the entrances to the tents becoming muddy pools. After a night of storms we awoke to find snow on the tops of the mountains. We walked up to the plateau to investigate the damage to Top Camp and found it almost completely destroyed. Of the six tents that were there, only two had survived unscathed and three were unusable. Almost all the caving trips from this point were conducted from Base Camp making for very long days.

A further pushing trip down Drunk and Stupid saw the termination of the route that left the bottom chamber in a tight squeeze. However another way on was found beside the waterfall. This followed a series of small tubes that led upwards and finally emerged at the head of a ten metre pitch with a large phreatic passage doubling back from the pitchhead. This linked up with the pitch that left the chamber. However descent of the pitch led to the discovery of a rope descending from the other side. Unfortunately the next pitch choked and so the bottom of Drunk & Stupid had been found. The unknown rope was very clean washed and was assumed to be that of a group of French Cavers who were exploring a cave close to Kaninchenhöhle. A note was attached to the bottom of the rope explaining that C.U.C.C. had found a connection and the cave surveyed to the bottom.

On drawing up the survey however, it was found that the bottom of Drunk & Stupid was exceedingly close to the bottom of Niflheim. The connection between the two was 'proved' when a group who were pushing down Niflheim found the note only hours after it had been placed there. The pushing team down Niflheim explored the maze-like passages that led off from the Black Lagoon. After rigging down two short pitches a small chamber was found with a gurgling sump, 'Thumper' in the bottom of it. A rift that was too tight led up out of the chamber; no other routes left the chamber. At this stage it was almost time to detackle the cave. A short exploratory trip across the very loose and dangerous section above the third pitch yielded a large section of phreatic passage. This ends in an undescended pitch that might drop into the Right Hand Route, thus by-passing the squeeze.

Detackling eventually arrived with a vengeance on the 3rd September. Three teams of three descended each of the three major routes. Unfortunately disaster struck again at the squeeze. This time it was Chris, (Rebecca's boyfriend) who was the victim. He descended the pitch with four bars rigged on his rack when it caught in the ladder in the squeeze. After struggling to release it the fourth bar came off the rope and he found himself descending the pitch at high speed with three widely spaced and ineffectual bars. He landed on the same ledge and in the same position as Rebecca. However he was much less badly hurt and thought he was just severely bruised. Unfortunately all other expedition members were either much further down the cave or at base camp. Dan and Juliette hauled him up through the squeeze and rifts and then used a counter balance technique to haul him to the top of the third pitch. At this point the other detackling teams caught up and it was decided that there was little point in calling out the rescue. It was midnight and the weather outside was appalling; the rescue would take many hours to arrive and we had enough man power to carry him out of the cave and off the mountain. We reached the surface seven hours after the accident and bundled Chris into an Alpine rope stretcher. Carrying him across the plateau in the dark and sleet was extremely exhausting and very slow progress was made until dawn. As it grew light, spirits rose and our progress speeded up. After a rest at what was left of Top Camp we carried him to the car park. We were met by the others from Base Camp near Top Camp and we carried him down to Top Camp on two poles. Chris arrived in hospital two minutes before Rebecca was discharged. After a romantic reunion Chris was wheeled away to the x-ray room where it was found that he had fractured his pelvis.

After this accident there was no time for recuperation. The cave had to be detackled and so people had to cave the day after the accident. After much effort all the rope was brought out from the cave. A further two days of carrying saw all the gear down at Base Camp. There was just time to wash and dry everything before we had to leave.

Although two sumps were found, there are still several ways on in Kaninchenhöhle. Down the Right Hand Route there is an unexplored lead from Knossus and two leads just above Over The Rainbow. At the bottom of Niflheim there is an unexplored canyon. There is also a pitch to be descended at the end of the phreatic passage that leads off from over the third pitch. There are certainly bound to be many other routes that have not been noticed yet. Kaninchenhöhle is an extremely complicated system and there is much to investigate next year. There are also many possibilities of exploration in other caves on the Loser Plateau.