Kaninchenhöhle, Steinbrückenhöhle and Tunnockschacht: a brief history
Kaninchenhöhle was CUCC's primary project throughout the 1990s, following its discovery in 1988, eventually reaching 22km length and 500m depth. In 1999 Steinbrückenhöhle was discovered a km or so to the North, and (not least because it had a really nice bivi site), because the main focus. Over the next decade, nearly 17km of passages were explored there with a vertical range of over 600m. The cave has several levels, lined up with the dip of the limestone plateau, separated from one another by pitch series, and has potential to connect to both Kaninchenhöhle ('KH') and Tunnockschacht, as it lies between them, and by the end of 2010 quite close to both, although the KH nearest approach point had been checked carefully and found hopeless from both sides.
Tunnocks was first found in 2005 And over the next few years, provided over 7km of surveyed passage with a vertical range of 256m.
During the previous expedition, CUCC had descended an impressive 80m pitch ‘String Theory’, and had discovered a number of leads at the bottom, one of which being a tantalising 20m away from Steinbrückenhöhle.
Hopes for a connection between and Tunnocks were high, but we've thought connections were 'likely' before and been wrong...
2011 saw a relatively large and strong team so the decision to work in all three major caves was taken, with most of the Steinbrücken work being done from an underground camp at -400m. The 1980s tradition of having UBSS members along was revived this year, which worked well as they had some actual students who were able to come, and supplied the first ever expo-leader-not-based-in-Cambridge in the form of Chris Smith.
The character of the 3 caves is quite different, which keeps things interesting for expo-goers. Tunnocks has mostly steep bedding-controlled passages, interupted by occaisional large shafts, with a large partly snow-filled entrance shaft. Steinbrücken has a tediously tiny entrance and a lot of annoying stoopy passage leading to the 300m shaft series of Gaffered to The Walls, with extensive horizontal soil-filled development at the bottom. KH is largely walking passage, some of it enormous, with as much up as down on this year's route.
This year, members of CUCC decided to return to one of the horizontal levels, Subsoil. The team had two main goals: to continue pushing new passages into blank space, and to search for the potential connection with Tunnockschacht, whose closest point was only a few dozen tantalising metres away from Steinbrückenhöhle.
To cut down on the amount of time spent 'commuting', Edvin Deadman, Niall Peters, Djuke Veldhuis, Jess Stirrups and Kathryn Hopkins set up an underground camp at about -400m. A few years previously, a large sandy-floored chamber with a nearby water supply had been found. This made a perfect campsite. After a couple of rigging and carrying trips at the beginning of the expedition, the Butlins Holiday Camp was born! With only three sleeping bags (and a tent inner, to keep off the draughts) they would be caving in shifts and 'hot bedding', in two long trips of three or four days at a time. The camping was organised with (very unusual) military precision, including laminated time-charts of when each shift was caving or in bed, and none of the cavers involved had camped underground before. Overall it was deemed a great success in enabling a lot of work in the deeper reaches, but the hot-bedding proved somewhat miserable for the night shift.
Much of the camper’s time was spent in a race against the Tunnockschacht team to find the elusive connection between the two caves. They were convinced that a strongly draughting pitch series that they found, called 'Bird on a Wire', would lead them to glory. However, after running out of both time and rope, with the pitches still going, it was decided to turn their attention to other more horizontal leads.
The other main find was very close to the campsite, where a sketchy climb up the side of a chamber led to several hundred metres of large phreatic development: 'A Grand Day Out', which is heading into blank space.
After two successful camping trips, about 1km of new cave was found in Steinbrückenhöhle, and it is now 17.7km long. A fair amount of time was spent checking out leads in the probable 'connection zone', but they were all ticked off without finding a way into Tunnocks. There is no shortage of other leads to keep us occupied for many more expeditions; many heading off into blank space on the survey. However, the connection had still not been found, and the campsite was derigged, so it was down to the Tunnocks team to keep pushing.
After dropping the 80m ‘String Theory’ pitch and exploring leads last year, Neil Pacey and Andy Chapman had eventually been stopped by a small pitch leading upwards into black space and only approximately 20 metres away from Steinbrückenhöhle. Plans were made, equipment purchased, and Neil, Andy and some newly recruited team members were ready for a rematch.
However, just getting to the current limit proved difficult going. An excessively hot summer had caused much of the snow-ramps in the entrance series to melt, meaning even the tallest expedition members struggled to reach the hanger placements. A period of re-rigging ensued, with extra hangers placed within reach of the height challenged and also to avoid some newly formed, precarious crevices.
A team consisting of Andy, Noel Snape and Rob Adams continued rigging, narrowly avoiding Noel meeting an untimely end after a boulder fell onto a traverse line over a large pot, leaving him spreadeagled on a very tight rope over a large drop. The now decidedly shaky team carried on to the head of String Theory but felt it wise to pass on rigging for that day.
Eventually, the rigging was completed and the final survey station reached in the newly christened Leaky chamber. Andy began aid climbing the small pitch, eventually reaching the top. Neil followed and continued to the next obstacle, another pitch leading upwards. Neil quickly free climbed this and another small pitch afterwards, finishing at a ledge with a small, muddy tube going leftwards and a 10m pitch continuing up.
As all the static rope had been used rigging the previous pitches, Neil and Andy thought they’d better survey the small tube and head back home. However, the tube increased from hands and knees crawling to walking until a large window was reached. Dangling out, over the pitch head, we could see down into a big chamber with a massive pitch heading down past this which was promptly christened ‘The Beast‘. Two excited cavers headed out, looking forward to the next pushing trip.
<Somewhere in here we should mention the occaision where Becka dropped a small pitch, found a survey station and though the connection was made, but turned out to be wrong. Adds a bit of tension to the real connection>
A larger team were back the next day. Noel rigged down to the chamber and Neil, Rob and Andy followed down to check out Above and Beyond chamber. Numerous leads led off from the chamber but Noel seemed to think the climb up the tottering pile of shale, in the left hand side of the chamber offered most potential. Whilst Noel and Neil surveyed the chamber, Andy climbed the precarious climb whilst Rob helped haul gear up and offered much needed words of support.
After rigging the climb, Andy continued exploration, finding the onwards passage led to the enormous pitch seen from the window above. A team consisting of Neil, Noel, Emma Wilson and Gareth Phillips surveyed this and Noel happened to notice a phreatic tube above the pitch head. Access was gained via a bolt and hair-raising climb and the heavily draughting tube was gained. This was pushed to a 20 metre pitch (Eh bah Gum) which led into the bottom of a rift with numerous leads going off.
Holly, Noel, Wookey and Becka Lawson headed back for a rematch the following day. Noel and Wookey decided to go for glory and headed into the unknownm rigging a traverse that didn't go, then a pitch found at the bottom of Eh Bah Gum whilst Holly and Becka completed the job of surveying down Eh Bah Gum. Having done the surveying the team found Noel and Wookey still faffing with rigging so they went back to the unexiting job of surveying a small rift at the bottom of the pitch.
The team started down the rift and soon discovered it popped out onto the ‘Beast’ pitch but a wide ledge could be climbed onto. Continuing surveying a tube in the wall, Becka noticed footprints on a mud bank.
“Holly, have you climbed on this?”
“No. I think I might recognise this though...”
“Where is it?”
“I think it’s the Wares in Steinbrücken!”
Two happy cavers connected to a survey station located on the opposite wall and hurried back to tell the good news to the rigging party.
Having connected Tunnocks to Steinbrücken producing a combined cave length of 27km and completing one of the expedition objectives, other leads in Tunnocks were also pushed. An upper level passage leading off from Starfish junction provided over ……m of passage, ending extremely close to the surface.
In 2009 Andrew Atkinson had spotted a hole 25m up in the ceiling of Repton II Chamber, and reached it via a bolt climb and necky 20m traverse. This was the last trip of expo so he and Wookey were only able to explore 100m of very windy passage before going home. The small 2010 expo did not go back to KH, so this top-class lead ('Irony of Time') remained for team 'vintage' in the form of Wookey and Anthony Day to head for, assisted by Rob Adams on his last trip.
The nearest entrance to the bivi is 161g, which is a technical 1hr walk over and down the back of the main ridge under which the system is developed. As with Tunnocks snow levels were the lowest ever and a large snowfield that gets down several rock steps had completely melted so a new route had to be found and cairned. The entrance immediately has a fine 50m pitch, then miles of traipsing until the massive trunk phreas of 'Triassic Park' is reached, leading to a series of huge collapse chambers, then back up dip to 'Strange Downfall/Upfall/Acrossfall'. This is a big space passed by a p38 then a p25 back up again or a very airy tyrolean.
At the pushing front the surveying was down easy walking passage with a very encouraging wind, and after only 50m it broke out into big phreas going both North and South and still windy. Following the wind northwards round a corner it widened to 15m and huge grins broke out as they realised what a top-class find they had sauntered into. Rob was amazed at his good luck. 300M of trunk passage was explored before a pitch stopped the fun for the day. The find was named 'Country for Old Men' after the very easy going.
The passage was heading directly North towards Steinbrücken but whilst the gap had been dramatically reduced from 420m to 250m that's still not the sort of gap that gets closed in one expo. 3 further trips including some international co-operation with the German Group ARGE who sent two cavers along found another km (check) of passage and narrowed the gap to 170m. The Strange Acrossfall Tyrolean was also rigged, providing much entertainment as cavers unused to tyroleans starting at hanging rebelays got themselves strung up.
As the gap to Steinbrücken shrank an attempt was made to rig Brian's Phat Shaft, in Steinbrücken, the quickest way into the 'Catty Puns' area of the cave which was the closest approach at the right level. This is a 100m shaft, starting 100m deep but not too far from 204e. A large pile of gear and students was despatched, who made a valiant attempt but the weather had been terrible so the shaft was very wet and almost devoid of bolts, so after some hours of scary, damp and miserable dangling, a retreat was called, and vows made not to return. A more experienced caver was persuaded to take a look, which got the pitch re-bolted down to -80m before running out of time and derigging, so no progress from this end, but the way prepared for 2012.
Back in KH, the Country for Old Men trunk passage shrank to a small rifty pitch but with a monstrous gale issuing from it. Despite this it was hard to find willing potholers as the end of expo was approaching so people were going home and there was a party/dinner with the Germans as alternative entertainment. Wookey managed to dragoon 2 UBSS students (Catherine Hulse and Adam Henry) into a trip. Rigging the pitch (christened 'Mordor') was a deeply miserable experience as it was absolutely freezing and confusing as to the way on, with wind everywhere, and after a while it became clear the conditions were about to produce a mutiny, so some '70s rigging' was employed to make rapid progress. It dropped into more huge passage heading off again so another long night of big grins ensued despite the cold, and two more cavers were inducted into 'expedition fever', escaping at 4am to an extraordinary view of mist in the valley below, illuminated by the moonlight.
The next trip (Olly Madge and Emma Wilson) pushed on over the traverse to find another 150m of passage ending at big shaft needing a proper bolt traverse, and leaving the gap to Steinbrücken's 'Fat Cat' series at less than 30m. In theory this connection could have been pushed further but drill logistics, and derigging requirements menat it had to be left for 2012. Two final trips (Julian Todd, Andrew Atkinson, Cat Hulse) looked the other way down one of the many A-leads, found a devious way past a big hole and romped into almost 1km of large and varied passage, following a massive gale, and ending at a pitch which is certain to connect back to the northern end of YAPATE, and should provide a much easier route to the far end, avoiding the comedy tyrolean.
So as is often the case the expedition ended on a high, with a monstrous list of leads for next year, and what looks like an almost certain connection between the 62km Schwartzmooskogelhöhlensystem and the 27km of Steinbrücken + Tunnockshacht.