Expedition Report: CUCC Totes Gebirge 2003

This is the text that was submitted for publication in the January 2004 issue of Speleology magazine. It has been slightly edited for the web (some links have been added) but is otherwise verbatim.

The 2003 Cambridge University Caving Club expedition to the Loser Plateau in Austria's Totes Gebirgewas a resounding success, with two major new horizontal levels discovered in Steinbrückenhöhle and nearly 2km of new passage discovered in total.

The story so far

This summer was CUCC's 27th annual expedition to the Loser plateau. All that effort has not exhausted the potential of an area less than 5km square, which now contains over 75km of surveyed passage.

The majority of the passage found in the 1970's and 80's was towards the southern end of the plateau. The major caves are Schwarzmooskogel Eishöhle, which boasts the largest chamber in the area - Schneevulkanhalle, 115m across and stunningly decorated with ice formations - and Stellerweghöhle, the deepest cave in the area, descending to a sump at -898m. These were connected together by a French group (Groupe Spéléologique de Clerval - Baume les Dames) in 1987, forming a composite system exceeding 20km.

In 1988, a new entrance further to the north, Kaninchenhöhle, was discovered. This rapidly became the main focus of CUCC exploration, with 4km of passage discovered in the first two years alone; by 1999 it stood at 24km long and 534m deep. This included the huge passage of Chile, heading southwards towards Eishöhle; much effort was spent in the next few years seeking a connection, with the gap eventually narrowed to around 30m, but there was no breakthrough; a fault in the rock appeared to have stopped all development.

Meanwhile, further to the south a German group, Arbeitsgemeinschaft Höhle und Karst Grabenstetten e.V. (ARGE), were exploring in the Stellerweg area; finally, in summer 2002 a group of muddy but elated Germans arrived at our camp with the news that their cave (still known by the name originally given to it by CUCC, Tony's Second Höhle) had dropped into an aven near the southern end of Chile, tying together Kaninchenhöhle and the southern caves to form the 54km long Schwarzmooskogelhöhlensystem.

Since 1999 most of CUCC's exploration effort has focussed on the area around the Hinterer Schwarzmooskogel, the peak which lies above the northernmost reaches of Kaninchenhöhle; this was begun as an attempt to find an easier entrance to the remote northern reaches of Kaninchenhöhle, but gained a momentum of its own with the discovery of Steinbrückenhöhle.

Exploration this year primarily focussed on Steinbrückenhöhle, 1623/204 in the Austrian 'Hoehlenkataster' (cave index), a cave towards the northern end of the plateau discovered by CUCC in 1999. Four years of exploration had already revealed 5.3km of passage, with a vertical range of 454m.

This year's most major discoveries were in the horizontal levels of the system, in the 'Swings and Roundabouts' area. On one of the first caving trips of the expedition, Julian Haines spotted a passage leading off from the far side of 'Gaffer Tape' pitch (an imposing 80m deep and 20m wide shaft), and Julian and Earl Merson set out the next day to bolt across the yawning gulf. After some very airy traversing, they reached the entrance to this side passage only to find that although it drafted inwards strongly, it was choked with precarious boulders. Attempts to dislodge these proved rather hair-raising, as there was nowhere at all to stand, and were abandoned; the bolt traverse was removed, to allow another party to rig down the pitch into the Gaffered to the Walls series without being deluged with falling rocks.

At this point, Earl and Julian headed off to investigate 'Dutch Beauty', a tight crawl leading off from the main Swings and Roundabouts passage slightly further north. Earl squeezed through, returning slightly later with tales of a spacious passage ('Rhino Rift') connecting to the far side of Julian's Gaffered boulder choke! The next day, Julian and Becka Lawson surveyed this, discovering in the process a short pitch ('Deviated Pitch') which led to yet more horizontal passage, stretching off several hundred metres to the north-west and carrying a substantial draught, with more leads branching off in all directions. Within five days 900m of passage had been surveyed in the new series, and there are still many leads awaiting exploration.

The location of the new series is particularly interesting, as the area of plateau to the west of Steinbrückenhöhle has not been thoroughly explored, and beyond it lies the vast 78km system of Raucherkarhöhle. The ultimate dream of CUCC's work in the plateau is to connect Raucherkarhöhle to the Schwarzmooskogel system, which would result in a composite system in excess of 130km long. This is a remote prospect as yet, but the westward trend of the new series is encouraging. Although the present end is in a boulder choke close to the surface, there are several undescended pitches which might lead to deeper levels of westward-trending passage, possibly intersecting caves in the unexplored region further west.

There were also many discoveries elsewhere. The 'Gaffered to the Walls' pitch series, of which Gaffer Tape is the first pitch, had been explored last year to a depth of 207m. Only 26m further on, a new series of horizontal passages (known as the Underworld) was found, which is the deepest known phreatic development in Steinbrückenhöhle. According to Martin Green,

"A complex series of horizontal passages were discovered intermingled with large shafts, with clean washed walls and floors, where pools of crystal clear water could be found. A number of the chambers were covered in a thin black layer of mud, which was broken though upon being trodden on into richer light brown sediment. Within some of the sediment were piles of bat bones, presumably washed down from higher levels, where bats are occasionally seen. To our great surprise we encountered several fine grottos of stalagmites, which are uncommon in our area. A grotto named the Sirens has bright white foot long stalagmites which were actively dripping water, suggesting that stalagmite formation is still active. Horizontal development is still going in the area and there are a number of shafts to explore, as well as avens to bolt up."

There was also exploration at the deepest point of Steinbrückenhöhle., the streamway of 'Razordance', which is entered at around -350m and proceeds downwards at an average gradient of about 1:2, interrupted by occasional small pitches. Anthony Day, Mark Shinwell and myself explored a further 150m to reach a new deep point to the system 487m below the main entrace, putting the total vertical range at 510m. Much of the new passage is similar to the existing sections, an awkward, narrow, high rift; but this is interrupted by a sizeable boulder-filled chamber, 'God Loves a Drunk', formed by breakdown at a point where a small inlet streamway enters. This offers the first viable site for an underground camp, which may well be used in the planned further exploration of Razordance next year.

Razordance has clearly carried an active stream for an extremely long time, which is unusual in the area (most of the known caves consist of fossil phreatic passages). This has given rise to hopes that it may lead to a significant deep system: over CUCC's 26 years of exploration in the Loser plateau, all but one of the deep pitch series that have been found terminate at a common level approximately 550m below the surface. The exception is Stellerweghöhle (1623/41), where a similar rift streamway apparently breaks through this layer and plunges down to -1030m. It is hoped that Razordance may do the same; since its entrance is significantly higher up than that of Stellerweghöhle, this would be a major discovery, and motivates plans to continue the exploration of Razordance next year (hopefully with a larger team).

There were also discoveries outside Steinbrückenhöhle. Ten new entrances were explored; the majority of these lie on the eastern slopes of the Schwarzmooskogel ridge, where the plateau drops away sharply into a glaciated valley; it was hoped that this downcutting would have opened up entrances where it intersected levels of horizontal development. A number of such entrances have already been found further south, particularly the Eishöhle 'portal row' which is a cluster of over a dozen entrances within a 100m radius.

Our hopes of finding a new entrance to Kaninchenhöhle were fulfilled by 2003-06, which rapidly led into the Iceland area; but this will not make too much difference to the ease of exploration of Kaninchenhöhle, as it is close to the existing 161e and f entrances. 2003-05, being further west, offered a chance to connect to the much deeper and more remote northwestern reaches of Kaninchenhöhle, but proved to be choked at only -50m.

Further north lies 2003-02, where an awkward entrance rift gives access to a shaft. Rocks dropped down the shaft fall for two seconds, bounce off a ledge, then fall for a further four seconds, suggesting a pitch of impressive dimensions; this will be investigated next summer.

Further west near the 204d entrance is 2003-09 (Weizeneishöhle); although quite short, this is well decorated with ice formations and has a strong inward draught. This draught can be followed to an unstable descending boulder slope, which was not followed downwards for safety reasons, but the original explorers have vowed to return next year with a crowbar! As this point is only 30m from the terminal choke of 'On a Mission', the northwestern extremity of the new Rhino Rift series in Steinbrückenhöhle; this choke draughts strongly outwards, so it is natural to suspect that they connect.

All in all it was a most successful expedition, with the final tally at 1.9km of passage surveyed; and a great time was had by all the expedition's 14 participants (including two expedition newbies). Planning has already begun in earnest for next summer's return visit; we can only hope for similar luck next year! Further information is available on CUCC's website at http://cucc.survex.com/, including a complete archive of expedition findings from 1976 to the present.

Expedition members

Julia Bradshaw, Anthony Day, Martin Green, Julian Haines, Becka Lawson, David Loeffler (leader), Brian Outram, Olly Madge, Earl Merson, Tony Rooke, Mark Shinwell, Julian Todd, Frank Tully, Lucia Vittorini.


We would like to thank the following for their sponsorship of the expedition:

We would also like to thank the management of the Loser Panoramastrasse toll road; the local caving authority, the Verein für Höhlenkunde in Obersteier; and, last but not least, Hilde, Karin and everyone else at the Gasthof Staud'nwirt in Bad Aussee (location of our base camp) for their hospitality.

David Loeffler (dl267 - at - cam.ac.uk)
Expedition Leader 2003
Trinity College, Cambridge, CB2 1TQ, UK
11th January 2004