In July of last year, Cambridge University Caving Club (CUCC) embarked upon its 11th annual expedition to the Kaninchenhöhle system, (the 22nd expedition to the area).
The 1998 trip was smaller than usual, with a total of thirteen cavers over a period of five weeks. This, combined with the relative inexperience of some of the members (both expedition leader and treasurer had never been to Austria before), meant that finds have been somewhat less spectacular than on some recent expeditions.
There were over 230 unfinished ways on documented in KH. Many were quite remote when first found, but had been made more accessible since the discovery of the lower-level Scarface entrance in 1995. The main area of interest was in Siberia, which had been revisited in 1997 for the first time since 1994. The presence of a strong draught far from any entrance led to thoughts of major horizontal passage, and Duncan Collis, who did most of the exploration last year was keen to see how the passages developed.
To the south of KH lies the major Schwarzmooskogelhöhlensystem (isn't German great!) consisting of Eishöhle, Stellerweghöhle, Schnellzughöhle, Lärchenschacht and Schwabenschacht as well as a few other caves/entrances. Parts of this were explored as long ago as 1938, but the major central part of the cave, Stellerweghöhle, was explored by CUCC in 1980-85, to a depth of 973m and a length of some 7km. Other parts of the cave have been explored by both French and German groups, and the total length of this cave is around 20km. After 1997, the gap between these two systems was about 130m, in passages at much the same level. Linking the two systems would involve not only exciting new exploration, but also a great deal of tie-up surveying to establish definitive figures for the length and depth of the combined system. Current survey information suggests that the complete system would be over 42km long and over 1050m deep.
Away from KH, an ever-present aim is continued surface prospecting to find new caves, and also to relocate caves found on the earliest expeditions to the area when standards of recording and surveying were not so high as nowadays, particularly in respect of the less significant caves.
In 1997 a lot of time was spent in the north-west of KH following passage at the base of Somebody Else's Problem, a 70m free hanging pitch reached in 1994 and ignored - hence the name. Duncan was keen to either see the very vertical passage stop, or break into some horizontal development. He and Steve Bellhouse, in a series of trips over 14 hours long, pushed this until it ended at -534 metres, the new deepest point in KH.
The limit of last year's exploration was reached on the second rigging trip, at a small pitch. Duncan descended first and began lobbing rocks down the next pitch, which sounded big. Timing with a watch suggested that the pitch was about 60m deep. The time was midnight, so the pitch was named Midnight in Moscow. This shaft, descended on the next trip, bells out in the middle into a chamber with 20m diameter, then continues through the floor of the chamber to land on a boulder choke floor. Two small pitches led to a dried sump pool, or so it was thought. Initial joy at finding the end turned out to be premature, as two ways on were found, one leading to an aven, the other proceeding to a series of climbs down dried up cascades, where progress was halted by lack of rope. On the way out, an impromptu rock shower demonstrated the nature of much of the rock in Austria as Steve ascended Midnight in Moscow.
A couple of days later, enthusiasm was regained for what was to be the longest trip, at 18½ hours, to survey what had been found and to continue down the cascades. Midnight in Moscow turned out to be 52m deep, and the chamber was explored. Evidence of quite large horizontal development was found, but all the ways on turned out to be full of mud. Duncan and Steve were delighted to find that the passage finally stopped after the cascades. Or almost stopped. It wasn't a sump, but a mud choke and there was a tiny draught. Duncan dug a little, but considered it too big a job to make progress. Serious digging at -500m was decided to be a bit too keen, and so this part of KH was declared done. The last pitch was named Rasputin due to its failure to completely die, and the party began the slow ascent to the surface, emerging just after 5am to a clear and beautiful sunrise, which ``almost made everything alright''.
1997 saw KH being connected to Steinschlagschacht (136), which brought the combined system nearer to the Eishöhle-Stellerweghöhle system. The two main places to start looking for the connection were either from Steinschlagschacht or from the huge ice-decorated chamber of Schneevulkanhalle (SVH), part of Eishöle, the closest point of approach of the Schwarzmooskogel system to KH. It was decided to go through SVH, because rigging 136 requires 400m of rope, a large quantity of hangers and more time than Julian Haines and Wookey had, to reach an aven that had to be climbed using bolts. No one from CUCC had been to SVH, but it was known that there were some question marks in the right sort of area.
Actually getting to Eishöhle proved a bit difficult. The standard route from the car park via the Stogerweg and Bunter's Bulge was documented, but it's not very helpful if you are already at top camp. Phil Underwood, Julian Haines and TimVB tried an approach from the 'VD1' col via 162. From the logbook:
Started ~50m below 136 and traversed round. 300m away and lots too high according to GPS. Went back a bit, and along again. Still too high. Grumbled. Went back to route to 161d and tried again. Found we were 150m away from interesting Eishöhle entrance. Unfortunately, there was lots of cliffs etc. in the way, so eventually did not make it to Eishöhle, and came home grumbling. It was bloody hot & bloody crap.
The next day, a disgruntled Julian and Phil insisted that Wookey and Wadders come along and experience the effects of their bright ideas for themselves. This time they had two GPS's (as if that was likely to help - GPS units are great for knowing where you are, and where you need to be, but they don't tell you how to cross the very tough terrain to get there!). A tedious, hot slog with enormous sacks eventually got them to a very welcome shady rest at the main Eishöhle entrance, and thus to the SVH entrance. A mere 4 hours!
Further work over the next few days found a reasonable route and cairned it, getting travel time down to about an hour, but it's nearly as steep as the 161d route and more obscure. You'd have real trouble in the mist unless you were properly familiarised.
Having finally reached the objective there was time for a quick trip so they donned their caving gear and ice climbing gear and set off underground. A short handlined ice climb and a 30m snow-slope pitch led into SVH. This huge chamber has its floor mostly covered with ice, with towering ice stals and frozen waterfalls. An amazing place. A number of possible leads were noted, all involving ice gear. On the second trip, they first found a draughting dig at the foot of an ice slope, but as we try to avoid digging, moved on. Down a second ice slope we found a short (5m) pitch and a strong draught. This was bolted and Julian tried the small rift/tube at the bottom but declared it too small. The wind was strong so Wookey gave it a try. After removing gear he declared it "Fairly crap" but not too bad. It was clear from marks on the rock that only one person had ever been here before, and it looked like the pitch beyond the squeeze was undescended - very promising!
After bolting and descending the pitch, and swinging over a rock bridge, the Wook ran up the passage till it debauched into some large 'Triassic Park' style passage. This persuaded Julian and Phil to negotiate the "Evil-bastard, oversuit-ripping, plastic-boot-catching squeeze" (Plastic Hell) and the passage (Cardboard Heaven) was explored up and downstream until deemed unsafe without rope, with several question marks in sight. The party then returned to Top Camp, slightly late for their call out, but seeing that no-one at Top Camp knew where the cave was, the potential rescuers saw no point in worrying, and no ranting occurred.
Drawing up this exciting new find showed that in fact it went the wrong way (east instead of north), and the next two trips (also the last two) descended a couple of pitches to where it got too tight, and also too low to connect to Kaninchenhöhle. Several QMs remain but there was no time left, and the good ones require climbing or ice-climbing gear. Any suitably-heroic experts would be most welcome next year!
While no connection was found, this year's work was essential as familiarisation with this cave which CUCC have not worked in previously, and more substantive progress may be hoped for next year. Also, 136 could be descended and explored further. Unfortunately, it seems as if there is an enormous choss bowl between 136 and Eishöle, which may indicate another major collapse zone to get through underground, similar to the one between KH and Steinschlagschacht.
Also in Siberia, this was the other main focus of exploration in KH, and a depth of -424m was reached. After several false leads were looked at, Kate Janossy and Danielle Gemenis descended two pitches, about 10m and 50m using naturals. A third pitch was seen, but there was no rope to carry on. The first two pitches were quite wet, and would have been very difficult to pass if the stream came up in flood, so on the next trip they were re-rigged. The pitch series ends abruptly at just over 400m depth, and the cave then goes horizontal. There's somewhere in the region of 200-250m of passage at the bottom of the pitches, mainly fairly small, but with a few small chambers. There are two main branches; Clear as Mud is a dried-up streamway, which is followed uphill for about 70m to a mud-choke. In the opposite direction is Psycho Street, which is a small hading passage ending in a chamber with a mud-choke at the end (although a climb up into a crawl here leads quickly to an aven). A branch leading off a little way along Psycho Street is Bearbum Passage, which divides into a tight ascending tube and a tight rift. There remains a good question-mark at the top of the pitches, however, where a hole in the floor, which was originally assumed to link back into the same pitch series, is shown by the survey to almost certainly be a separate bit of cave. Some other leads in the area still need looking at; time and drill batteries conspiring against their exploration. It is hoped that this area could reach the trunk passage found in Midnight in Moscow at a point where the somewhat larger amount of water in this series could have removed more of the infill.
For the three students who weren't too keen on 12, 14 or 16-hour trips, two of the question-marks closer to the entrance were looked at. The first was a draughting squeeze just after a climb called Moomintroll, off Triassic Park. This had been found in 1997 when the removal of a few rocks showed the floor dropping away to reveal a 10m drop into a large space. A short pitch en-route with horrendous rigging off one bolt and using three rope protectors was passed, immediately followed by a muddy chossy traverse besides an 8ft deep pit, which was a non-too-gentle introduction for Steve Jones, Earl Merson and Tim Vasby-Burnie to the delights of Expedition caving. At the squeeze, Steve 'Mendip Man' decided to pretend he was back home by bashing away at the floor he was standing on in order to be able to fit through the squeeze. A gravity-assisted descent followed by a lifelined climb led to a chamber with a small rift going off which still needs to be pushed if care is taken with the crystals on the walls.
Closer to the entrance and just on one side of Triassic Park is a pitch called The Overflow that had not been descended because of the amount of water dripping down it. Brian Outram tried bolting, but the bolts wouldn't go into the calcite-veined rock at the pitch head, so Dan rigged the `hero route' down its main flow off some naturals. At the bottom of the 10m pitch a going vertical passage was found, so Brian bolted a dry hang. On the next trip the second pitch descended about 20m but became too tight. A window 10m from the top would require a 10m pendulum, but this was not attempted.
As ever, part of the expedition was spent surface prospecting for new caves and also searching for caves found over the last 20 years but which had not been properly documented, tagged or located on a surface survey. The terrain of the plateau makes systematic prospecting very difficult, and many shafts or other potential caves are written up without a useful way of finding them again. This year was very sucessful in finishing off loose ends on the plateau, some of them very old, and greatly increasing the area covered by the surface survey network, and the number of tagged caves, also reducing the list of 'not properly numbered caves' (such as B11), with 80, 82, 148, 100, 107, tagged & GPSed, and 90, 91, 93, 94, 101, 102, 103, 156, 159, 160, 173, 197 (B8), 198 (B11), 199 (Tumbling Boulder Hole), 200 (Lost Rucksack), 201, 203 tagged and surveyed-to.
Andy Waddington spent much of his time wandering around the plateau surveying and using GPS finding at least one cave not seen since since 1976. Finding 'missing' caves is becoming increasingly difficult as the numbers painted many years ago fade, though this cave (102) was found due to a lightening of lichen where the number used to be, this being revealed by a short rain shower! Lost Rucksack Höhle (1623/200) was finally properly explored after its initial discovery by Adam Cooper in 1993 when his rucksack rolled down it. It turned out to be a 45m deep snow-choked rift cave that breathes.
Despite the small numbers of people compared to previous years, the Expedition can be considered a success, with KH being extended in depth, some very interesting areas opened up, some new people introduced to expedition caving, and a good start made in Eishöhle with new ground being found very close to the entrance, despite its popularity. Unfortunately no photo trips took place, and this is something that needs to be rectified this summer.
It is expected that this year will see an increase in the size of the expedition, due in part to increased numbers of students in the club, and also no doubt due to the line of totality for this August's solar eclipse passing within a short drive from Base Camp! Having more people will enable areas of KH ignored this year to be explored, notably the Interview Blues series, the Far North, and Puerile Humour series, all of which have many good leads.
The search for a connection between KH and Eishöhle will continue with, hopefully, enough people to descend Steinschlagschacht and also explore the leads in Schneevulkanhalle. It was also noted during the 'walk to Eishöhle débacle' that 140 was in a very interesting spot high on the vord close to the gap, and apparently not fully explored. It needs surveying anyway and could provide some very interesting leads.
This expedition was funded entirely by its members, and support and sponsorship was a considerable help. Thanks must be given to: