Cambridge Underground 1999 pp 82-88

Expo '97

Julian Haines

Kaninchenhöhle - 10 years on


In July 1997, Cambridge University Caving Club (CUCC) embarked upon its 10th annual expedition to the Kaninchenhöhle cave system in the Totes Gebirge (Dead Mountains), Austria. The first CUCC expedition to the Totes Gebirge area of Austria took place in the summer of 1976 and, with the exception of 1986, the club has returned every year since. Since it's discovery by CUCC in 1988, these expeditions have concentrated almost exclusively on the Kaninchenhöhle system.

By the end of the 1996 expedition, the explored and surveyed length of Kaninchenhöhle was 19.7km with a total depth of just under 500m from the highest entrance. There were many unexplored leads (almost 200) with the known southern extremity of the cave reasonably close to the very large Schwarzmooskogel-Eishöhle-Stellerweghöhle system. Many very promising leads had also been left at the northern end of the cave, due not only to the length of trip required in order to investigate them, but also the huge number of exciting finds much nearer to the new entrance, discovered at the end of the 1995 expedition.

Around 20 cavers took part in this year's trip, most with previous experience of caving abroad but, also a number for whom this was their first taste of expedition caving. As luck would have it, the beginning of the expedition coincided with serious flooding across Eastern Europe and although Bad Aussee was on the edge of the bad weather, there was enough rain to be a serious hindrance and for a bridge to be washed away.

Steinschlagschacht and the quest for Eishöhle

At the southernmost extremity of Kaninchenhöhle is a nasty, loose, sharp area of cave known as the Forbidden Land. This might not have been given a second look, but for the fact that it was the only known south-westerly going lead in the vicinity and a connection to the nearby 25km Schwarzmooskogel-Eishöhle system was tantalisingly close. Whilst some of the most interesting exploration was promised by the Forbidden Land, the extremely unpleasant boulder choke entrance to this area made the prospect of a significant number of trips here unappealing to the majority, if not all, of this year's expedition cavers. For this reason a great deal of interest was shown in Steinschlagschacht (1623/136), originally explored by CUCC in 1983/4, which we knew from the survey to be extremely close to connection with the Forbidden Land. The possibility of a new, safer route into this area was considered sufficiently likely to warrant a re-exploration of this cave. Old log book accounts talked of 'phreatic ramps' at around -150m, although the exact nature of these was unclear, as was the exact depth of them. The original exploration had not produced a drawn-up survey and it was by no means certain that such data as existed was connected correctly to the Kaninchenhöhle survey.

So with considerable anticipation tempered by a little wariness of the cave's name (Stonefall Shaft), a party of two began the re-exploration. The origin of the name quickly became apparent as the entrance consists of a steep (45$^o$), loose boulder slope opening directly onto the first pitch! Extensive use was made of the drill in re-rigging the pitch in a fashion that avoided the worst of the stonefall. The entrance pitch is a fine 35m shaft, at the foot of which was found a small connection to a large boulder strewn chamber. The original route was ignored at this point, despite being apparent from the presence of an old spit, since a more convincing shaft was also present. However, after a little more rigging further spits were found, indicating that we'd merely taken the direct descent whereas originally a more circuitous route was followed. Owing to the presence of the old spits, rigging was swift with only a small number of additional anchors being required, until a divergence was reached at around -150m.

Interest grew among others on the expedition, as it soon became apparent that there was plenty to explore in Steinschlagschacht and that it was actually much safer than the name suggested. Further trips followed. The original route had continued straight down from the divergence discovered earlier, however that looked a bit wet and uninviting so the tangential Eyehole Route was pushed instead. It is unclear as to why this was not explored previously; it is possible that the eyehole had not been noticed previously or simply that depth was the main goal. Either way, after another couple of trips and a lot more rigging with a further 200m of rope, an enormous chamber was discovered. This was later named The Theatre due to the spectacular views afforded from near the ceiling on later trips. The Theatre is roughly 10m by 20m at the floor, with near vertical walls rising up to the ceiling at an estimated height of around 60m!

Early delight at having discovered such a magnificent chamber was quickly followed by disappointment at the lack of ways on from the bottom. The floor was a huge pile of boulders with a low connection through to a much smaller chamber in one corner. Here there were a number of small wet avens (shafts entering from the ceiling), clear pools of water and some mud, much like elsewhere in Kaninchenhöhle. Back in the main chamber was a nasty and unrewarding climb down through the boulders in the floor and an obvious black space some distance up the walls at either end, but no obvious continuation. Much surveying was done and a retreat beaten to base camp to ponder on what to do next.

Andy Atkinson descending towards The Theatre, Steinschlagschacht. (Julian Haines)

After entering the data into the computer, Survex showed that although we'd not connected we were within 25m horizontally and 30m or so below a potential connection with the Forbidden Land. The implication of this was that the connection, if there was one, lay about half-way up the The Theatre on the opposite wall to that where we'd entered the chamber -- not at all an easy place to reach! However, the temptation to attempt a connection was too great to resist, so a party of two left base camp early on the morning following the expedition dinner with the intention of doing just that. A considerable amount of effort was needed since a near horizontal traverse had to be rigged around the wall, a little below the ceiling of the Theatre, 40m above the nearest floor. The drill again proved invaluable and it is doubtful as to whether such a traverse would have been rigged without it. Eventually a suitable place was found to descend first to an eyehole and then to a ledge way above the floor of The Theatre. Here was the much hoped for connection to the Forbidden Land, although in a different place to that anticipated at the beginning of the expedition and certainly by different means!

The survey was examined once again and a plan concocted. It was apparent that Elin Algor, a long straight passage in the Forbidden Land, was roughly co-linear with the main wall of The Theatre and apparently all one development in the formation of the cave. Since there had been a horizontal connection at one end of The Theatre, it was surmised that there ought to be another at a similar height but at the opposite end of the chamber, continuing in the direction of Eishöhle. Some required more than a little persuasion that this was a realistic possibility, but eventually a number of trips were made with a view to finding said passage. More hair-raising rigging followed in order to traverse in the opposite direction around the wall of The Theatre and eventually a hole in the wall was found at about the expected elevation. Unfortunately this rapidly turned into a parallel shaft series, eventually connecting at the floor of The Theatre and with no further obvious leads!

So for the time being the connection to Eishöhle remains elusive, although prospects in this area for next year still look very good.

Triassic Park -- the sequel

The massive trunk passage of Triassic Park was discovered towards the end of the 1995 expedition as a continuation of the France area of Kaninchenhöhle, and soon led to the discovery of the Scarface (161d) entrance. The new entrance provided much improved access to this important section of cave and in 1996 it received considerable attention. The main passage turns from trending north-east to north-west at one point and it was around this area that a lead in the floor was pushed a little last year.

Named Wheelchair Access (in recognition of a steep ramp that has to be negotiated and the relative age of the explorers) this was an immediate target for the beginning of the expedition in 1997, due to the ease of access and limited need for resources to push the cave further. Initial exploration concentrated on two parallel rifts partially explored at the end of the 1996 expedition. Investigation of the series to the left was not promising, with difficult traversing leading to blind pits, and success in the other right hand rift series soon diverted attention. Initially an awkward, constricted, steeply descending rift passage with mud concealing sharp calcite formations, the passage quickly earned a bit of a reputation amongst the explorers, and continuing the Wheelchair theme was named Kein Zimmer rift (No Room Rift)! Perseverance paid off however, as just past a tight vertical section, the ramp broke out into a larger free hanging drop, at the bottom of which, some small horizontal tubes led off. Excitement mounted as a last short drop of 5m landed the explorers in a large trunk passage, 4m in diameter, with a small stream in the floor heading roughly North / South. It was inevitable this would become known as the Lost World and was obviously a major and important piece of cave.

Mike Richardson at Lake Bourneville, Upstream Lost World, Kaninchenhöhle. (Dave Horsley)

Upstream, a couple of big phreatic passages met in a large chamber in which were found several bat skeletons - this would suggest another route in from the surface, though whether this is accessible to cavers is another matter! Beyond the chamber several routes unite at a 3m climb up, then down, into a magnificent tall canyon passage over 7m wide. This had a dark pristine flat mud floor and led to a large, old sump pool, now devoid of water, again with a beautiful, cracked mud floor and the old water level clearly defined by the dark mud on the white limestone walls. With reluctance, we headed carefully (to minimise the damage to the delicate mud formations) over the mud lake, and a 2m drop down a mud bank led to a downstream continuation passage. This had obviously been completely under water at some stage in its history and probably lies just below the level of the current valley beneath the cliff in which the Scarface entrance is situated. The passage continues down, with the current small stream weaving its way through bizarre mud formations and ending at a small chamber with choked outlets and no easily accessible way on.

The downstream end was less complex with a single passage leading to a pitch opening out over a large chamber with a boulder-strewn floor. A route down through the boulders gained the true floor of the chamber where the water disappeared into an impenetrable passage and leading up from this, a larger passage ending at a mud and cobble choke. This may be associated with similar choked passages in the upstream end of the Lost World.

The passages were surveyed and photographed and all of the obvious leads pushed to a conclusion, so for the time being the Lost World may be left whilst more fruitful projects are pursued. However due to its location it is almost certain that other sections of cave will connect through and perhaps provide ways around the current limits of exploration at either end of what is obviously only a small part of the original passage.


Siberia is roughly the most northerly point of Kaninchenhöhle. It was discovered in 1994 and was known to have many potentially good leads. Unfortunately by the original route it was a somewhat long and arduous trip just to get to the pushing front. Since the discovery of the Scarface entrance (161d) in 1995 and due mostly to the large number of going leads near to the new entrance, Siberia has received little attention up to now.

However, this year new enthusiasm was found by a small group of expedition members, none of whom had ever been to this area of the cave before. This highlights the importance of painstakingly surveying and documenting the cave, as often an area may be left several years until a good reason is found to revisit it, more often than not, by a completely different group of people. Much effort could be wasted if previously visited cave has to be re-explored and re-surveyed.

The Scarface entrance and connection of Triassic Park with Knossos in 1996 has reduced the journey time to Siberia by probably a couple of hours for moderately experienced cavers. However, owing to some reluctance to re-rig the tyrolean traverse (Strange Acrossfall), which would have been a long trip in it's own right, all of this years trips took the more awkward and slower route through the Burble Crawl instead. For a number of reasons it took three trips before the pushing front, the top of a very large shaft called Somebody Else's Problem, was reached. Since all members of the party were new to the area, route finding (still difficult despite the existing surveys) was certainly an issue and dragging tackle through the 100m Burble Crawl is hard work. En route, Vom Pitch had not been rigged for several years and complications due to the loose rock in this area caused a certain amount of re-rigging to be necessary (A flake previously used as a rebelay had fallen off in 1995). Unfortunately having eventually reached the shaft and placed a number of bolts, it quickly became apparent that the shaft was much deeper than had been anticipated and the rope was too short!

The fourth trip was more successful. Enough rope was carried that it was relatively straightforward, although slow, to rig the pitch. A 75m almost free-hanging pitch was found in a large shaft with a strong breeze blowing up it. At the foot of the pitch were a couple of climbs, one leading to a crawl and another to a ~15m pitch with strong upwards breeze. This 15m pitch was later descended and found to connect to a phreatic passage with an undescended climb at the end of it, accompanied by the now ever present gale. In the interests of maintaining reliable documentation, no further exploration was carried out in this area, since there was already plenty of surveying required! This was duly completed, including numerous side passages in Siberia, which had only received cursory attention previously.

Mike Richardson in the tube of Downstream Lost World, Kaninchenhöhle. (Dave Horsley)

Other Work

Puerile Humour Series

By the end of the 1996 expedition it was clear that Where the Wind Blows, one of the Northward trending passages in the Puerile Humour series, could potentially provide a significantly easier route to The Far End due to it's close proximity at the 1996 exploration limit. This was an obvious question mark to return to at the beginning of this year's expedition. The end of the passage was drafting from three separate places, suggesting significant cave beyond, and the nature of the passage suggested that the end was merely a collapse area in an ongoing passage. A small hole in the mud floor was found to lead to a large aven above and an ongoing pitch series below, however progress down was stopped by a constriction. Continuing horizontally, the passage quickly chokes at a boulder collapse, probably associated with the aven / shaft series already mentioned. Some effort was made to dig through the choke but concerns over the stability of the excavated passage soon halted exploration. This remains an interesting area, but further progress may require somebody experienced in the digging and shoring techniques required to pass such a boulder choke safely.


In another series of passages leading off from Triassic Park, just beyond an impressive aven, known as Zebedee, is a climb named Moomintrol. It was discovered last year and noted because (a) it looked to be not too difficult and (b) a large black space was visible at the top.

The first party to attempt the climb this year considered, after putting in a few bolts by hand, that it would be a much easier prospect using the drill. As a justification to commandeer this important expedition resource, they claimed that the shaft on the hammer of the hand bolting kit had snapped (albeit by accident) and thus they were unable to do anything but return to the surface to collect the drill. The second party had more success, despite being unable to use the drill because the battery appeared flat, and after a bold attempt at climbing, the top was reached. Another 30' shaft was found and the sound of water ahead. Unfortunately it was by now time to derig, so further exploration must once again wait for next year.

Alternative Universe

This passage is an offshoot from the large Triassic Park trunk route, and being only 10 minutes from the Scarface entrance was an obvious target for further exploration. Work concentrated on a descending shaft series, wet in places -- making this a potentially serious proposition since the average air temperature in the cave is only just above freezing. The series descended 100m down, over several pitches, but ended in a tight, committing rift and a further very tight descent which was abandoned due to the lack of a sufficiently thin backup team member!

Surface Activities

As a background activity we are always on the look out for other possible entrances to either Kaninchenhöhle or as yet undiscovered caves. The limestone plateau is riddled with holes, most of which go to an insignificant depth, but also some quite large holes which are still to be found and investigated. This surface prospecting work is essential not only to further understanding of the cave systems in the area but also in sustaining interest in the area for future generations of CUCC members. Over the past 20 years we have discovered a great many such entrances and shafts, however until recently documentation and labelling of such finds has been sporadic. Over the last few years and indeed on this year's expedition this problem has been addressed by the use of stamped aluminium tags that are fixed to the cave entrances, these bearing numbers assigned by the local caving group (VfHO) who maintain records of all known caves in the area. To complement this work all important entrances are located and mapped with the aid of GPS technology, backed up with more accurate surface surveys. This ensures that re-exploration of caves is minimised and has proved an essential tool in the investigation of possible connections between existing cave systems.


Over one hundred underground photographs were taken, many of different subjects, some of which are shown here. Thanks are due to the expedition photographers and in particular to all those 'extras' who stood (or hung) shivering whilst the flashes failed and the lenses fogged! By the end of the expedition a further 2.4km of cave had been surveyed and the overall depth increased to just over 500m, owing to the slightly higher entrance of Steinschlagschacht. There are still many promising leads, with the exciting prospect of linking two, already very large, cave systems. There will no doubt be many more trips to Kaninchenhöhle in the future.


Caving expeditions such as this are anything but cheap, especially when viewed through the eyes of the increasingly impoverished students who make up a significant proportion of the expedition. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those organisations who have provided us with sponsorship in various forms, for which we are very grateful and which has certainly contributed hugely to the success of the expedition. Particular thanks must go to both the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and also to the Sports Council for their generous financial assistance. Thanks are also due to the Ghar Parau Foundation for their assistance with grant application and recommendation.

Other companies provided sponsorship in terms of food and equipment. Barts spices, Campbells, Thomas Tunnock Ltd., Thorntons plc and Wander Ltd. provided spices, sauces, caramel wafers, fudge and Ovaltine all of which added dietary interest and improved morale of the expedition members. Aleph1 Ltd loaned us a computer for survey analysis, Nikwax donated a tub of their famous boot waterproofing wax and Terra Nova provided discounts on tent purchase.