Cambridge University Caving Club have been exploring in the Totes Gebirge since 1976. An article in the "Speleo Austria 2001" publication gave a history of these explorations up until the turn of the millenium. Here we continue the story with some of the highlights of the explorations between 2001 and 2011.
The area explored by CUCC lies around the Schwarzmooskogel ridge, a succession of rounded peaks lying to the north-east of the Altaussee, and reached by walking from the car park at the top of the Loser Panoramastrasse toll road. Explorations both by CUCC (from 1976 onwards) and others have revealed several large cave systems in the area including Stellerweghoehle, Kaninchenhoehle and the long-known Schwarzmooskogeleishoehle famous for its towering ice formations. Further to the north-east lie the systems of Steinbrueckenhoehle and the more recently-discovered Tunnockschacht, both of which have been the major focus of CUCC expeditions in recent years. Out to the north-west of the Schwarzmooskogel ridge is a large "plateau"---only flat when seen on a large scale, and pock-marked with grikes and jagged limestone---holding the entrances to caves such as Eislufthoehle, one of CUCC's earliest discoveries.
The deepest known point out of all these systems lies at the bottom of the Stellerweghoehle streamway, a remote location which has not now been visited for many years, in turn lying above the level of the various resurgences in and around Altaussee such as the Liagerhoehle. The ramifications of Stellerweghoehle extend north-eastwards under the Schwarzmooskogel, passing entrances such as Schnellzughoehle, until they eventually join to the large ice-bearing chambers of the Schwarzmooskogeleishoehle. As of 2001 the passages of the Eishoehle came close to the lower level of a cave explored by CUCC some years earlier, Steinschlagschacht, whose entrance lies high on the flanks of the Vorderer Schwarzmooskogel. This cave in turn was connected some years previously through a loose, faulted zone to the large system of Kaninchenhoehle. KH, as the cave is known informally, was one of CUCC's major discoveries and now extends from near the Eishoehle right under the Hinterer Schwarzmooskogel to the north-east. However as of 2001 it did not actually join to the Eishoehle, despite survey data showing it being possibly as close as only twenty metres away, and a real focus of exploration at that time was finding a connection between the two systems. The combined system would be over 50km long and 1000m deep.
In this article we tell the story of how this connection was forged and describe the work in caves further to the north which has led CUCC to seek another as yet undiscovered connection between Kaninchenhoehle and Steinbrueckenhoehle. Owing to the discovery of Tunnockschacht, a cave even further to the north which was found in 2006 and connected to Steinbrueckenhoehle in 2011, there is now the potential of a system which stretches from the lowest sump in Stellerweghoehle right up almost to the Nieder Augst-Eck. The potential for further discoveries is vast.
The explorations of CUCC have always been subject to permission from the Austrian Landesregierung, for whose past and continued support the club is very grateful, and have been greatly assisted by the VFHO. The German group ARGE has and continues to be active in the area and CUCC are pleased to be engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship. Finally enormous thanks must go to the Wilpernig family and their staff at Gasthof Staud'n wirt, which stands on the road from Bad Aussee to Grundlsee, where since 1983 the expedition has had its base camp. The facilities and hospitality they provide each year are invaluable.
The entrance to Steinbrueckenhoehle, the cave which has seen the most exploration by CUCC over the past ten years, was discovered in 1999 near the col between the Hinterer Schwarzmooskogel and the Niederer Augst Eck. The cave takes its name from the prominent natural stone bridge that was spotted 30 seconds before the twin entrances to the cave itself, 1623/204a and b. On entering the cave, it rapidly became obvious that we had stumbled upon a major find. Descending two pitches leads to an extensive network of phreatic passages on two levels separated by about 15m vertically. These passages are generally of modest proportions, at least relative to the major trunk routes in Kaninchenhoehle and elsewhere, but carry a substantial draught into the cave during the Summer months. Almost immediately thoughts turned to a possible connection to Kaninchenhoehle, though based on past experience we understood that this would be a long-term project. The caves were separated by a few hundred metres and, given the broken nature of the limestone in this part of Austria, we anticipated that many obstacles to cave development would be encountered in the intervening distance.
By the end of the 1999 expedition, Steinbrueckenhöhle had been explored to a length of 1365m with a number of promising unexplored leads. This ensured that exploration of Steinbrueckenhoehle would be one of the primary objectives of CUCC expeditions from 2000 onwards. Near the end of the 2000 expedition it appeared that the major horizontal development had all been discovered and only smaller passages remained to be explored. However, some new expedition members were undeterred and proceeded to systematically explore all the crawling sized leads they could find. This dogged persistence was rewarded late in the expedition with the discovery of a major trunk passage, Treeumphant Passage, of considerably larger proportions than those near the entrance. Over the course of subsequent years this horizontal development was explored and found to extend in all directions. The local bedding dips gently to the south, so exploration of north-trending passages tended to involve going uphill such that the northernmost extremity of the system is at a higher altitude than the initial entrance.
The intense exploration in Steinbreuckenhoehle stimulated interest in the surrounding area of the mountain, which had previously been thought remote, and it soon became apparent that the area was rich in cave entrances. A number of minor caves were explored in this period and it was inevitable that some of these entrances would lead to the Steinbrueckenhoehle system. On one occasion, a party arrived at a previously-discovered aven to find a rope hanging out of it and a caver standing at the bottom. This caver had correctly identified the corresponding hole on the surface using a GPS location, and so the 1623/204c entrance was found. 1623/204d was discovered by a group following a large horizontal passage who suddenly found themselves at the bottom of a bouldery climb with daylight streaming down. One of the many horizontal surface holes was found to quickly lead to a pitch directly into the main horizontal level. This entrance, 1623/204e, has proved to be the most convenient route into most parts of the system, since it avoids the crawling passages via which the main trunk passages were initially found. Finally, in 2005 a significant extension to the northwest was discovered leading to three new entrances. This made nine entrances in total, with many other places where it is clear that the surface is not far away.
Whilst all these finds were exciting of themselves and extended the area of known cave development into virgin areas, we were still no nearer finding a connection to Kaninchenhoehle and the major systems to the south. There appeared to be some geological barrier to cave development at the southern extremity of the known system at this time. None of the horizontal trunk passages went past this apparent barrier and it was unclear which route the significant draught in the upper level passages followed.
The only possible leads in the vicinity of the geological barrier, given the absence of horizontal passages, appeared to be various shafts. Some of these were of significant proportions but many lead to no significant finds. A notable exception was the earliest to be explored, starting in 1999, was named the Ariston Series. This went on and on down five pitches reaching a small phreatic level at about 200m depth. All continuations of the phreatic passage were found to be choked with sand but another pitch series continuing from this level, Kiwi Suit, was descended in 2000 to a depth of 330m. At this point a modest streamway was encountered flowing into a tall, narrow rift passage, named Razor Dance. Following this streamway became something of a war of attrition over the course of the next few years. The draughty rift is generally quite awkward necessitating frequent changes of level to find the most convenient traverse level, and is interspersed with numerous small pitches, so the relatively small exploration teams made only modest progress. However, the passage was heading in an interesting direction, having passed beyond the apparent barrier to horizontal development, albeit much deeper than any of the known horizontal levels in Kaninchenhoehle. Although the rift is locally quite sinuous, over almost its entire length it generally follows a bearing of 235 degrees. When superimposed on the surface topography, Razor Dance follows the line of a prominent surface gully suggesting that it exploits the same geological feature hundreds of metres below. Eventually, in 2007 a strong team was assembled to try to complete the exploration and a sump was found at an altitude of 1220m, some 600m below the 1623/204a entrance. Razor Dance is one of the longest active stream passages discovered by CUCC in Austria -- perhaps second only to the Stellerweghoehle streamway.
However, the discovery of the sump did not mark the end of the exploration in this area. A bolt traverse was installed over the sump pool to gain access to another inlet stream oriented at right angles to Razor Dance, which was followed upstream for about 100m. When the trend of this passage is extrapolated up-dip it intersects the bottom of Rasputin, the northwestern extremity of Kaninchenhoehle and the deepest point in the main part of this system.
At this location a small stream had been discovered draining into a mud choke in 1998. The separation between the two systems at this point is only 150m. Even more exciting, a series of climbs up dry cascades were conquered to emerge in a large chamber some 120m above the level of the sump. From here a number of phreatic passages lead off, some of considerable dimensions. Evidence of substantial phreatic development at a similar altitude had been observed in Kaninchenhoehle in 1998, though it was thought to be completely choked with mud.
These finds at the end of Razor Dance provided the first firm evidence of a possible connection between Steinbrueckenhoehle and Kaninchenhoehle. However, it was also clear that any connection in this area was likely to entail significant excavation---hardly a practical proposition for a five week summer expedition. Moreover the location of the points of closest proximity lie at the extremities of the two systems meaning that significant equipment and manpower would be required to explore these areas efficiently. Nevertheless, a connection had never seemed more likely and these discoveries served to rekindle interest in exploration of Kaninchenhoehle.
The other major shaft series descending from the upper levels of Steinbrueckenhoehle, along with Razor Dance, was Gaffered to the Walls. This fine 70m shaft was first explored in 2002 and leads, via a series of further pitches and a band containing 70cm long bivalve shells, to an extensive phreatic level named The Underworld. Appreciation of the pitch series and its fine principal shaft is somewhat tempered by the tendency of mud from the horizontal level below to make its way onto the ropes, despite efforts to keep personal caving gear clean, which makes for an often tedious ascent.
The Underworld is relatively well decorated, with stalactites and walls of strange upward protrusions. These white walls contrast to the floor sediment, with its thin crust of oxidized mud, which gives way to light brown sand beneath. This discovery, some 160m deeper than the phreatic development previously discovered in the system, was clearly significant. However, exploration of a pitch heading down from here revealed the presence of a deeper level of development that proved to be even more extensive. As with the more shallow phreatic development, these levels are not strictly horizontal but follow the dip of the local bedding such that the northern end tends to lie at a higher altitude than the south. The northern part of this deeper level, known collectively as The Wares, extends considerably further north than any of the other phreatic levels so far discovered. In 2011 this area was explored from an underground camp, the first such camp conducted by CUCC for many years. Thanks mainly to the choice of a suitable campsite, this proved to be an efficient approach to exploration of the northern large chambers, pitches and avens.
The southern end of this level, which contains fine examples of mud stalagmites and dried up mud pools, leads to a pitch series called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This pitch series leads down a wide clean washed rift to yet another level of phreatic development, Subway, at a depth of around 420m below the entrance. Taking into account the dip of the beds, Subway represents the deepest level of phreatic development in stratigraphic terms hitherto discovered in Steinbrueckenhoehle.
Meanwhile, exploration continued apace in the shallower parts of Steinbrueckenhoehle. A particular area of interest was a horizontal passage near the top of the Ariston Series (the route down to Razor Dance), which seemed to offer the best hope of finding a passage heading towards Kaninchenhoehle at a more convenient altitude. The significant inward draught was observed to head down a passage that was initially considered to be too tight, but in 2001 someone with more imagination proved this assessment wrong and passed through to emerge in a large chamber. The area was then largely left alone until 2008 when two further pitches were descended to a steeply descending rift (Pussy Prance), leading to a significant phreatic passage that encouraged a return with a larger team in 2009.
The 2009 expedition firmly established that there was a considerable amount of cave passage waiting to be found in this area. Most significantly, the new finds were firmly located to the south of the apparent barrier to horizontal cave development at this altitude, a barrier that had not been breached in the previous ten years of exploration. Although no clear single trunk route was found, a number of pitches were descended or traversed over to find horizontal passages going in all directions. On descending one particular pitch, the explorers discovered a hanger at the bottom and worked out that they had landed at the bottom a 100m shaft last descended in 2000. This connection will provide an alternative access route for further exploration of this area that will bypass some of the tighter sections. There are a number of unexplored leads in this area, most of them vertical, and given their important strategic position a return is certain.
2009 also saw a return to Kaninchenhoehle after a long absence inspired by the deep discoveries in Steinbrueckenhoehle. The intention was to explore some of the many leads in the Far End region of Kaninchenhoehle that had not been visited since 1994. Indeed, one trip had the pleasure of placing anchors in holes that had been drilled in 1993 since the original explorers had forgotten to bring any anchors.
Our preferred strategy was to focus on the north east of the system since this area boasted the most promising leads, rather than go all-out for a connection at the point of closest approach between the two systems where progress was likely to be slow. This approach yielded a number of interesting finds and promising leads. However, it turned out that the most significant find was made at the end of the 2009 expedition during derigging. A previously unseen hole was spotted in the roof of Repton chamber. Armed with a drill, the explorers climbed up to it and explored about 100m of comfortable sized passage with an enticing draught until running out of time.
This lead was the first target on returning to Kaninchenhoehle in 2011. After another 100m or so, the explorers popped out into a 10m round phreatic tube heading in both directions. It quickly became obvious that this was a major breakthrough, and was named Country for Old Men after its relatively geriatric explorers. The passage continues approximately north directly towards Steinbrueckenhoehle. It appears to be the northward continuation of the large phreatic level (YAPATE and Chicken Flied Nice) that was discovered in the early years of exploration of Kaninchenhoehle. The draught is very considerable, especially considering the passage dimensions, and becomes uncomfortably cold at local narrowings. After 300m a pitch is descended to an even larger phreatic passage heading in both directions. To the south, it appears likely that further exploration will yield an easier route into the rest of the Kaninchenhoehle system. At the northern end, the closest approach to the Pussy Prance area of Steinbrueckenhoehle is now 50m. That the gap was 420m at the start of the 2011 expedition gives some idea of the scale of the new discoveries.
The first day of exploration on the 2006 expedition saw the discovery of a new hole, christened Tunnockschacht after a long-serving sponsor of chocolate wafer bars and dome-shaped marshmallow treats to the expedition, some distance to the north of the known entrances of Steinbrueckenhoehle. In a small rocky bowl an entrance of modest proportions appeared to lead onto a descending slope; an adjacent shaft entrance looked likely to be connected. Often, entrances which are not entirely horizontal are full of rocks, but such were the proportions of the shaft visible inside the entrance that it appeared there was some chance of penetrating into the caverns underneath.
Rigging of the shaft was slow; there were no drills on expedition that year and only a small number of cavers. However progress was gradually made down and across multiple ledges holding large piles of boulders and loose rock; eventually, a large steeply-inclined snow slope appeared out of the gloom. The bottom was eventually reached, and to the delight of the explorers, above the pool of ice which had formed at the bottom of the shaft a small aperture gave onto a rift passage. An orifice to the right led onto a crawl, Bauernkrapfen Passage (named after the dessert of the same name often served up in Gasthof Staud'n wirt), eventually debouching into a much larger passage. This was followed for some distance eventually overlooking a pitch into a chamber, which was the end of exploration that year.
Expeditions subsequent to 2006 have revealed large amounts of cave passage in Tunnockschacht, some including calcite decorations (which are rare in the caves which CUCC explore). An extensive horizontal level extends northwards, with sandy crawls and towering chambers, and provides access to the heads of various deep shafts. One of these, the 80-metre-deep String Theory, has been said to be the most voluminous shaft ever found by CUCC. Its sheer walls lead down to a lower horizontal level, from where an obscure route lead in 2011 to a connection with one of the lower levels of Steinbrueckenhoehle. Quoting one of the explorers on the trip:
"The others were still bolting so we surveyed a QM [question mark grade] B I'd spotted at the base of Eh Bah Gum. This was another small, drafty rift which, again popped out into The Beast but this time we could get out onto a wide ledge so we started surveying along the left wall with various tubes on the left. "Holly did you walk down that mud bank", "No, I thought that looked like footprints". I peered again - it could be due to rock fall, but it did look very like footprints..... and then I saw two more -- we've definitely got to somewhere people have been before. I walked over with tape and straight to survey station 23 and we finished the survey then went for a run to see where we were. We traced the footprints back and into a small muddy tube. Holly and I muttered to each other that this looked very like The Wares -- but we didn't want to count our chickens so on we ran until "Oooh" said Holly pointing at a nondescript mud bank we had to crawl over "I've been here -- for sure -- its The Wares -- WE'VE CONNECTED we shrieked at each other"
It had previously been postulated that a fault might prohibit this connection being made, but thankfully that was not the case. This discovery makes Tunnockschacht the highest entrance to the Steinbrueckenhoehle system.
In parallel with explorations in the Steinbrueckenhoehle area a small team made a return to a cave by the name of Eislufthoehle, an exceedingly draughty place, whose entrance lies in a depression out on the main Loser/Augst-Eck plateau amongst a group of erratic boulders. This cave was one of the first to be explored by CUCC way back in 1976 when single rope techniques were in their infancy. At that time it was visited over three expeditions, reaching a sump at a crudely-surveyed depth of 506m in 1979. An extended elevation was produced, a handful of leads noted, and exploration moved on to other areas (initially Stellerweghoehle). The first visit in recent times was in 2004, to produce a modern survey and see what had been missed before. For four expeditions a small team (often just two cavers) re-explored down to 297m, surveying 2.5km of passage on the way. Many leads were noted and explored, most notably a small alcove in the wall about 50m down the entrance pitch series which lead to the Brave New World area. This was the first significant horizontal development to be explored under the plateau; previously such passages had only been found under the neighbouring Schwarzmooskogel ridge. Several pitch leads still remain to be explored in Brave New World, another part way down the original route, and two upstream leads at about -260m.
Other nearby caves have also been re-explored and surveyed, and several connections were made, first between 1623/99 and 1623/76, and later 1623/81 to 1623/148 (Marilyn Munroe Hoehle) and 1623/85 with 1623/82 (Bräuninghöhle). A new pitch series "Deep Space" was found in 1623/148 shortly before the end of the 2007 expedition, leaving exploration at -100m, about half way down a 70m pitch.
Many questions remain unanswered. Some of the areas of interest include obtaining a more accurate altitude of the sump at the bottom of 1623/76, whether the system forms but part of a larger system under the Loser/Augst-Eck plateau, and whether there may be a connection with the Schwarzmooskogel system.
At the time of writing CUCC's 2012 expedition is in the planning stages. The main aim is likely to be work in the area between Kaninchenhoehle and Steinbrueckenhoehle with a view to establishing a connection between these two systems. Hopes are high that this may be achieved in 2012. At the present time, Tunnockschacht would form the new highest entrance to such a combined system. The area in which any such connection likely lies is one in which relatively little cave passage is known; there is probably much more to be found. In particular, there is some indication that there may be development trending out from the relevant area of Kaninchenhoehle under the Loser/Augst-Eck plateau itself; who knows if this might connect to caves in the area of Eislufthoehle, or even to Eislufthoehle itself.
Work will also no doubt continue in the coming years in other areas of Steinbrueckenhole---there are deep leads remaining---together with Tunnockschacht, and any further holes which might be found by prospecting further to the north. The German group ARGE have already made some discoveries in this area and there were sporadic discoveries by other groups some time ago. It seems likely that many kilometres of passages and pitches are lying silently under the barren karst, never having heard the trudging of wellington boots nor the clinking of metalwork, and as yet unseen by human eyes. Who knows if, one day, these galleries may be found to connect the Schwarzmooskogel systems draining to Altaussee with the caves under Schoenberg, perhaps even including the great system of Raucherkarhoehle and Feuertalsystem, whose waters reach daylight at the Nagelsteghoehle above Blaa-Alm. One can but wait: the long story of the caves of the Schwarzmooskogel is only beginning.