In the summer of 2000, Cambridge University Caving Club ("CUCC") held its 24th annual expedition to the Loser Plateau in the Totes Gebirge region of Austria.
There were twenty-three expedition members; as has been the norm for the past years the expedition lasted for five weeks. The base camp was at Gasthof Staud'n Wirt, Bad Aussee, where the Club is annually made very welcome by Hilde and Karin Wilpernig and family.
Under the Schwarzmooskogel ridge, which is situated to the south-east of the Loser plateau, lie the large cave systems of Kaninchenhöhle and Stellerweghöhle, each 24km in length. The Stellerweghöhlensystem, which includes entrances such as Lärchenschacht and Schnellzughöhle, has been explored by Austrian, German and CUCC groups since the 1970s. CUCC has not explored here for many years; instead the Club's exploration has been concentrated in Kaninchenhöhle, which was first entered on the 1988 CUCC expedition.
Connected to the Stellerweghöhlensystem is the Schwarzmooskogel Eishöhle, discovered in 1929. This is a large ice cave including the vast chamber of Schneevulkanhalle, the largest ice-bearing chamber in western Europe. This chamber is significant as the distance between passages leading off from Schneevulkanhalle and passages in Kaninchenhöhle is very short.
This tantalising prospect of connecting two large systems---which, if joined, would be high in the list of caves in the world with a great length and depth---has excited explorers from CUCC for the past few years. At the start of this year's expedition the distance between the systems was approximately 75m. Major discoveries on the Kaninchenhöhle side had been made in 1999 via the deep shaft entrance of Steinschlagschacht, but no way through had been found. Thus searching for a passage to forge the link was a major objective of this year's expedition.
Further out around the Schwarzmooskogel ridge, downslope from the summit of the Hinterer Schwarzmooskogel, lies the system of Steinbrückenhöhle. This cave was discovered by CUCC in 1999 and stood at 224m deep---with a wide open lead at the bottom---at the end of the 1999 expedition. The second major aim of this year's expedition was to continue exploration here. Steinbrückenhöhle lies in a potentially important position, 500m north of Kaninchenhöhle. It was postulated that the cave might lead to an easier way into the Far North areas of Kaninchenhöhle, where deep shafts lie unexplored.
A significant amount of time on CUCC expeditions is spent on documenting known and new caves, surveying (both underground and on the surface), experimenting with the use of techniques such as GPS (Global Positioning System) and related activities. The Expo web site provides comprehensive information about the caves of the Loser Plateau and it is highly important that this is kept up-to-date with the latest knowledge.
The aims of the 2000 Expo are summarised below.
With the tackle having been prepared and packed, five cavers set off from England on the weekend of the 15th July. Others who had set off previously joined this contingent in Austria and Base Camp was established over the next couple of days.
The caving area is situated on the Loser plateau at an altitude of 1600m, some 800m higher than Base Camp. A toll road ascends the mountainside to a restaurant and car park at the top. From here it is approximately a 45-minute walk to Top Camp on the plateau, more if one has hundreds of metres of rope and other caving gear on one's back!
Initially this year the weather was poor but Top Camp was finally set up after a few days and the rope and tackle ferried there.
The next few sections of this report detail the work which was undertaken in each of the major target areas of work for the expedition.
Initially much work was undertaken to document the Eishöhle entrances and other holes in the region. The main entrances to the Schneevulkanhalle side of the Eishöhle lie in a "portal row" together with other, unconnected entrances to small caves. Two of the latter were investigated and some naming ambiguities resulting from the decades of Eishöhle exploration (the cave was first discovered in 1929) were resolved.
There had been rumours before the expedition that the "40h" entrance, which provides a quick way into Schneevulkanhalle, was open (rather than being blocked by snow as is usual). CUCC had not explored from this entrance before and there was some confusion as to exactly which entrance it was.
Cavers from CUCC found a Spit (a self-drilling anchor placed in the rock to use as a belay point for descent) in a large entrance partly plugged with snow. A small ice-floored tube blowing a formidable and very cold draught led off from the bottom. This was descended and Schneevulkanhalle entered after less than five minutes from the start of the descent.
The first aim in Schneevulkanhalle was to bolt up alongside a frozen waterfall, which had been identified previously by geologists as being in an important location. This is because of the proximity to Kaninchenhöhle and the fact that the passage seen at the top of the climb is believed to be on the Kaninchenhöhle side of the large fault plane which bounds Schneevulkanhalle on its northern side. No other passages of any significance are known which cross this plane.
The climb was bolted quickly and led at the top to a climb round an ice buttress and a 24m pitch, the start of Mission Impossible. It is believed that this point may have been reached many years earlier by a French group (using an alternative route up when the ice was in a different state from at present). However, at the bottom of the pitch an icy duck led to a further 3 second drop. This was certainly in undiscovered cave and the new shaft was quickly rigged.
Forty-five metres lower, large chambers and passages were encountered. These led precisely towards Kaninchenhöhle! However, despite much searching, no ways on were found at the end, save for some large avens rising above. This year there was insufficient manpower to bolt upwards; the series hence stopped 20m below Kaninchenhöhle and virtually underneath (plus or minus survey error).
Wookey and Atkinson bolted across the top of the 45m pitch to enter a parallel shaft, which unfortunately, although of impressive proportions, did not lead to a closer point to Kaninchenhöhle. Additionally, the area in the region above Mission Impossible in Kaninchenhöhle was thoroughly searched but no ways down were found.
Although Mission Impossible did not lead in itself to a connection, it has proved that significant development exists in the gap between Eishöhle and Kaninchenhöhle.
Whilst the bolting up to Mission Impossible was in progress, a very low wet crawl under a side wall of Schneevulkanhalle led to further passages, believed to have been partially explored previously. This led to approximately 200m of passage including a connection through to a point half-way up the Radio 3 pitch in the Persistence of Vision series (discovered in 1999). Despite filling in a significant gap on the survey this series did not unfortunately lead to any passages closer to Kaninchenhöhle.
In 1999 the Persistence of Vision series was discovered---to
quote the words of the original explorers:
... An interesting series off Schneevulkanhalle, with some tortuous small passage of a highly "Mendip" nature, including tight bends, squeezes, ridiculous climbs, insane bolt traverses, and bizarre hading rift. This connects a selection of rifts and pitches which are largely blocked at the bottom. The passages trend steeply up between the pitches. There is an awful lot of "varied caving" in the 400m of passage found so far...
In 2000 further exploration was conducted at the very end of the series, where a tight slot led to a further pitch down and unfortunately became too tight. Some of the series was derigged, but there is still an interesting lead part way along which could trend towards Kaninchenhöhle.
On the last day of exploration in the Eishöhle the blocked squeeze through into Kalter Gang (surveyed by VfHM in 1984) was excavated and the passage beyond re-explored. This area is approximately 200m ENE of Mission Impossible. A lack of rope prevented descent to the bottom of the continuing rift; this will almost certainly be looked at again in 2001 to check that no passage was left unexplored by the original explorers.
As mentioned previously Steinbrückenhöhle stood at 224m deep at the end of the 1999 expedition. Unfortunately work early in this year's expedition was hindered by the discovery of a large amount of snow at the bottom of the entrance pitch. This necessitated work to find an alternative route down; at one stage it was feared that the whole cave might be inaccessible but thankfully a new shaft was found, bypassing the old second and third pitches and the snow plug too.
Exploration then continued apace and after some effort the cave was been rigged down to -224m. In parallel with this rigging other exploration was conducted. This alone led to two large pitch series of approximately 100m depth each, with shafts of large diameters. Unfortunately both stopped: one in a too-tight rift and another in a boulder choke.
The shaft visited in 1999 was pushed from -224m; unfortunately no horizontal level (as postulated in 1999) was found; instead, the series of shafts continued until an eventual end at -368m, where a tight stream passage led off. It is possible that further passage could be found here, but it does not appear especially promising. In addition, the lead requires a large amount of tackle to reach, which could possibly be better used in other areas.
Throughout the expedition two of the members new to Expo spent a considerable amount of time pushing a series of crawls leading off from 110 A Day in the upper levels of Steinbrückenhöhle. These alone led to the discovery of a significant amount of passage, but in the last few days of the expedition a very significant discovery was made here: large horizontal passage trending northwards.
In this direction lies terrain not explored by CUCC; 1500m further west lies the great system of Raucherkarhöhle, 80km in length. The new passage in Steinbrückenhöhle will be pushed in 2001 to investigate the extent of the horizontal development at this level. This will form part of a general shift to a larger amount of exploration around the Steinbrückenhöhle area in general, both above and below ground.
In addition to the major work being carried out in the Eishöhle and Steinbrückenhöhle, a team set off to explore the Regurgitation area of Kaninchenhöhle. This is an interesting area, explored from a large chamber at the bottom of a huge wet aven. A winding stream rift descends steeply from the chamber; this was explored and surveyed for a considerable distance. There is still the possibility of further discoveries at the bottom but the amount of water descending the shafts may begin to pose a problem.
As is usual for modern-day CUCC expeditions, a large amount of surface work was undertaken. This year this included surface surveys to known and new entrances, prospecting for new caves and documenting some earlier finds whose documentation had been lacking in some respect. Other follow-up work on previous surveys was also undertaken.
Caves are tagged with discreet aluminium tags and new minor discoveries (of which there were several this year) are documented, surveyed to and surveyed inside. The most significant of these discoveries this year was Traungoldhöhle, opposite the entrance to Steinbrückenhöhle and with seven entrances. Two entrances lie underneath the rock bridge which gave Steinbrückenhöhle its name, portrayed in Figure 3 above. The new cave was fully explored to 200m in length.
Much work was conducted using GPS receivers to fix cave entrances and other navigational landmarks. New coordinate conversion software enables translations between Austrian grid and latitude/longitude coordinates to be made with reasonable accuracy. A map was prepared of the GPS fixes and surface survey points which helped to resolve some inaccuracies.
In addition some design work on a new version of the surveying software Survex, designed and written by CUCC members, was undertaken. The new release is expected by the end of 2001 and will greatly enhance the software's capabilities, with a modular architecture and a fully graphical user interface. Details of the project, nicknamed Project Spud, are available from the Survex web site.
The usual follow-up work in Cambridge and elsewhere is continuing even as you read this report. Survey data is processed on computer using Survex. Surveys have to be drawn up and passage descriptions written.
The CUCC Expo documentation archive, maintained as a Web site, is currently being updated with the finds from Expo 2000. This comprehensive cross-referenced resource provides an excellent knowledge base of information for future expeditions.
The archive can be viewed on the Web here.
A total of 2.5km of cave was discovered this year; the length and depth of Steinbrückenhöhle were extended to approximately 2.5km and -368m respectively. The prospects for further discoveries leading off from the newly-discovered large horizontal level in Steinbrückenhöhle are good. Significant systems such as Organhöhle lie in the direction in which this passage trends; there are certainly more discoveries to be made here.
The expedition in 2001 will continue the work of previous years, again searching for the elusive Eishöhle---Kaninchenhöhle connection and also prospecting around the area of Steinbrückenhöhle; many large surface shafts lie unexplored here. It is possible that an attack on the connection will be made from Steinschlagschacht and the nearby Hall of the Mounting Choss. Here there are at least two deep unexplored shafts and other descending question marks. Although these could not drop directly into the currently-known parts of the Eishöhle, they may drop into passages nearby. The discovery of Mission Impossible this year has shown that significant cave passage does lie in the gap between the two systems; it seems increasingly likely that any connection which exists will not be in a direct line across the gap.
Planning for the forthcoming 2001 expedition has now begun in earnest. Any enquiries should be directed to the Expedition Leader, Martin Green, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Thanks go to the following for their gracious sponsorship of Expo 2000:
Hilde, Karin and the other folk at Staud'n Wirt must be thanked for their excellent food and hospitality and the use of their campsite and hut. Finally the expedition members are also thanked for their individual contributions to this year's expedition.
Mark Shinwell --
Expedition Leader 2000
Queens' College, Cambridge, England. CB3 9ET
19th November 2000