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Cambridge Bottom Eislufthohle

Nick Thorne has sent in the following report on his trip to Austria with the Cambridge….

Late July and August of this year saw Cambridge University Caving Club in the Totes Gebirge of Austria again, for the fourth year running.  Unlike previous expeditions which spent a large proportion of the time prospecting, this year's expedition had only one objective.  Our prospecting to date had unearthed no fewer than three pots in the 200-300m depth range and one, Eislufthohle, 350m deep and still going. And it was Eislufthohle, with its powerful draught and huge shafts, that was the sole raison d’etre for this years effort.  As the pot became deeper and harder to push, it was clear that a more serious expedition was required than ever before, with the sole aim of bottoming the place. Consequently it was a small (only eight) but dedicated bunch of Cambridge Speleos that took to the field this summer, gunning for a really deep pot.

Eislufthohle, discovered in 1977, is situated on the Loser Plateau, reached by driving up a toll road in the village of Altaussee (near Bad Aussee, about 35Km from the Dachstein where Graham Wilton-Jones and J’Rat were) and then walking through pasture for about an hour.  In the year of its discovery Eislufthohle was pushed to 150m depth to the Tap Room (see survey).  This involved descending the 75m Plugged Shaft.  This snow and ice nasty begins after an initial snow slope and spirals down through snow plugs and icicles, the pitch being split several times. Immediately following this is Saved Shaft, 13m to the Boulder Chamber.  Crawling through boulders leads to a climb down and a crawling traverse over a puits-en-bayonette.  This pitch was descended in 1977, but since it had no draught it was consequently named Keg Series, and abandoned in favour of a route beyond the pitch head.  This way was followed down a short climb and a broken 30m pitch to a vadose canyon and the Tap Room a good sized chamber to end exploration for a year.

Last year CUCC pushed Eislufthohle to still bigger things.  A climb down and a crawling traverse led to a small chamber with a huge boulder suspended in the roof, and the take off to the fourth pitch in the floor.  The pitch begins as a slot and widens into a fine sized rift with a small stream falling at one end.  About 15m down the rift lenses in a little and the rope was belayed for a further 30m descent to the floor.  We were tackling exploration at this sort of depth last year, as some of you will doubtless remember by caving overnight.  (This avoided negotiating the difficult Lapiaz to the cave entrance during darkness).  We pushed our sleepy bodies down the short fifth pitch, having made a 'bold step' across the passage to reach the pitch head.  Next came a superb piece of pot, guaranteed to blow the cobwebs out of anyone’s brains.  A short traverse led to the spectacular Greene King Pitch.  This drop is huge and black and the rope hangs nicely free in a finely sculptured corner of the main shaft.  The Balcony Pitch follows immediately to gain the floor of the 'Hall of the Greene King'.

After essentially nothing but good, honest grabbing vertically, we were then surprised and not a little disappointed when Eislufthohle started spreading outwards. A large passage with equally large hanging death led to a short pitch from jammed boulders.  From the bottom the route forked.  At the time we followed the right hand passage along a traverse to a very muddy, broken 20m pitch, a free climb and more traversing. This year we took the left fork and managed to bypass this section, of which more later.

This next traverse was quite a long one in a very tall vadose canyon.  Although not technically difficult it was quite arduous, especially with tackle.  It ended in a slippery mud slope/pitch, The Fiesta Run.  Below this the mud cleared a little and the traverse continued down to another pitch head with the dull roar of water somewhere down below.  It was at this stage during last year’s exploration that proceedings were bought to an abrupt stop by a car accident. (See B.B. 321 for an action replay of all the gore).

With the accident being caused, in no small way, by the fact that we were caving overnight, it should come as no surprise to learn that we gave up such tactics this year.  Instead we supplemented our luxurious base camp in the village with a smaller advanced camp at the edge of the Karren Field (about 20 minutes walk from the cave) and then linked the cave and the advanced camp with a long length of high visibility polyprop string.  On the whole this ploy proved very successful despite several very cold, sleepless nights up at advanced camp, piling boulders onto tents in order to stop them taking off in the driving rain.  To be honest it was very comforting knowing that the camp was here bringing civilization a little closer to you after a long, hard trip.

It took us three trips to rig in down to The Hall of the Greene King at the start of this years caving, the main stumbling block being a new arrangement of snow in Plugged Shaft necessitating new bolts.  Then, continuing down below the eighth pitch we decided to make the left fork, the main route. (The right fork is omitted from the survey).  This way descended a fine free hanging 15m pitch and reached more traversing.  After a short distance a 10m pitch entered a small chamber containing an expedient little water trough, ideal for washing muddy ironmongery - The Gents.  Below The Gents the previous years route was picked up on the long traverse to the Fiesta run.

Once below this we were soon at the limit of previous exploration and moral began to rise with each of us eager to be 'out in front'.  We started to rig the twelfth pitch of the pot.  After only three metres the way on down seemed fairly thrutchy and more obvious was a traverse outwards.  This was followed to a broken 15m pitch and a free climb down to the base of a sizable aven.  The passage was totally dry, the stream having been left at the previous pitch. What on earth was the pot doing now? The outlet from the chamber/aven was a descending traverse to the inevitable next pitch.  This again was a broken 15m one, but unlike the last one, this one landed in a fairly restricted passage.  One of our lunatic fringe pushed this tight, muddy grovel for perhaps 30m until he popped out into the roof of another shaft, quite roomy, that he estimated as 15m to a floor with a stream.  Had we picked up the stream way again?

We were never to find out. The difficulties involved with this ‘dry route’ made sure that the next party in the cave had a closer look at the twelfth, later named Madlmair Shaft after our beer vending campsite owner, in order to push downwards instead of the traverse.  The restricted pitch head soon opened out and a 'good' descent was made, 28m down to a ledge, the shaft continuing.  We were back in business.

The next trip saw tackle hastily pulled out of the dry route and down the new shaft Eislufthohle had answered our prayers and returned to its former vertical self.  So much so that in one trip 120m of depth was added, with yours truly swinging on the rope of the fifteenth pitch very close to the 500m mark.  I say swinging because the rope was actually 3m short of the floor!  Ah well.  The cave covered on this trip included a fine, wet 33m section from the ledge to the floor of Madlmaier Shaft.  An 'under/over' type move followed (everybody went over as under was wet) and then the 13th pitch.  This was descended 50m in a large dry gully, the stream having been lost in the floor. One rebelay was required just over half way down.  The stream then reissued from a hole high up in the wall and cascaded down onto the free climb and pitch that followed.  The 14th pitch was noted for its airy take off from natural belays.  (One of the few non-bolted pitches in the pot).  It was quite wet and gave onto a large platform at the head of the 15th pitch.  This pitch as I said before had to wait for another trip and a longer rope to the bottom, but nonetheless the view onwards was encouraging to say the least.  The passage was about 5m wide, goodness knows how high, mid simply went on off into the inviting blackness as far as a light could shine.  Eislufthohle was getting bigger all the time.  It had the 500m depth barrier beaten, and looked like making mincemeat of the 600 one too……And then…………..

Well, I suppose all good things must come to an end.  The weather closed in something rotten, and for about 5 days it rained heavily and the wind blew.  And of course now we had a cave where it mattered whether it rained or not.  The lower pitches would be awash and further exploration had to wait.  Several bad nights were spent up at advanced camp waiting for the sun to shine and calculating runoff times.  The expedition was drawing to a close and time was running out (I think I've written about the previous two years weather as well!)  We reckoned on one last pushing trip providing that we combined it with a little surveying/photography/de-rigging.

When the break in the weather finally came, we soon got down to the head of the 15th amidst lots of flashbulbs going off.  A proper length rope was rigged and 20m descended to the floor.  The stream ran along just under the boulder floor, and the passage sloped steeply past huge boulders in the floor and ceiling, and then absolutely unmistakably thick, black mud covered rock.  It was mud created by a sump backing up - the pot would shortly end.  Soon the head of the pitch was reached.  Drop tests indicated a short pitch with a deep pool just ahead.  An interested party soon gathered at the pitch head to witness the placing of what we believed to be our last bolt in Eislufthohle.

With the pitch rigged, we descended and our footprints soon desecrated the virgin black mud on the bouldery shore of an enormous lake - the far wall being only just visible.  How inconceivable that a passage of such size should close down to a sump, yet it had.  Eislufthohle had been bottomed.


Turning about, we began to de-rig.  Our moment of glory was soon weighed under by wet pitches, tackle hauling and prusiking with tackle.  In one massive effort our five man party managed to clear the cave below the Hall of the Greene King.  We eventually emerged to a starlit sky after about 15 hours underground.  Over the remaining few days of the expedition, in blistering sun again, the gear was bought the rest of the way to the surface, and so back to base.  Our advanced camp had served its purpose too, and was dismantled.

As we packed to leave for home, we considered both achievements arid plans.  We had taken three years to bottom a 500m pot, something none of us had done before.  We had gained valuable expedition experience in what, by continental standards, I believe is not a simple pot.  Unfortunately we have no complete high grade survey of the place.  Our grade 5 survey stopped at the Tap Room with a defective Clino, and the rest of the cave was just a question of measuring pitch lengths. This exercise alone however, makes us feel confident that 506m is a minimum depth possible for the pot.

For the future, then I think few of us, if any will return to this exact area of Austria again for at least a couple of years.  This in no way reflects the caving potential of the area as our results will testify. Finding deep pots on the Loser Plateau is a real clinch; pushing them however, as one of our rank dryly points out, is a little more difficult.  Our reasons not to return in force for a couple of years stems from a desire to see some other countries and karst areas in order to widen our experience.  Most of us haven’t seen a continental cave outside Eislufthohle!

Finally I would like to thank the IDMF committee for donations towards my expenses over the last couple of expeditions.  The aid I found invaluable; so much so that I would like to see the fund continue for a long while yet for others to use, supplying the capital in future quite possibly by repaying donations.