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The Hirlatz Hohle edges towards the magic 100km mark

By Madphil Rowsell

This article is about a recent 6 day trip (Feb 06) into the far east of Hirlatz Hohle to continue exploration of leads found during the previous winter trip. The trip comprising a 2 day journey to the pushing front (a distance of some 11 km), two days of pushing, followed by a nightmare 2 day return with all the team falling ill! Approximately 1.5 km of passage was discovered pushing the total known passage in the Hirlatz to 95 km, edging closer to the magical 100km mark.


The Hirlatz Hohle is a large fossil phreatic cave system situated underneath the Hohle Dachstein plateau. Its has been explored since 1927 and is currently some 93.5 km long (prior to this trip), and has a height range of 1077m. During this time, many fixed aids have been carried into the cave to aid exploration, comprising from simple things such as foot rungs, to fixed aluminium ladders, to the audacious Pendler (a hanging bridge and ladder arrangement suspended over a 60m deep canyon). As a result, the “tourist” part of the cave tends to resemble a film set out of an Indiana Jones movie!  It is also well known to British cavers who have for many years tried to find (unsuccessfully) a higher vertical entrance from the plateau into the system, making it one of the deepest caves in the world (upwards of 1800m deep). Figure. 1 shows the complete Map of the Hirlatz Hohle.

During recent years a combined group of Austrian and German cavers have focused their attention to the far eastern part of the Hirlatz. In this time, they have found over 2.5 km passage and last year one of them (Ulrich Meyer) dived a sump more than 11 km from the entrance and found some 400m of passage, surfacing in air space but unable to climb out of the water.  A side passage was also found during this expedition, just before this sump, which was followed for some distance to a potential bolt traverse with possible passage heading off.  This side passage was to be the main focus of this expedition; to complete this bolt traverse and hopefully find a by pass to the sump.  The team comprised of Gottfried Buchegger, Ulrich Meyer, Marcas Preissner, Johann Westhauser and myself (Madphil Rowsell). A reschedule of the trip due to bad weather meant that Joel Corrigan was sadly unable to participate.

Figure 1. Map of the Hirlatz Hohle.

The Trip

Day 1: The trip started with a two-hour slog through snow up to the entrance. From here the trip to the first camp (Säulenhallenbiwak) was reasonably arduous, made more difficult with the 16-20 kg Hirlatz bag on your back. Thankfully the fixed aids in the cave made progress reasonably straightforward. Once we left the “tourist” part of the cave however, the Indiana Jones props started to disappear and things began to take a somewhat more interesting nature. All to often you would be traversing over 30m drops on muddy climbs with no aids or protection. To start with this felt pretty hairy but the deeper in the cave you progressed, the more blasé you became. Finally after 8.5 hours, a 70m pitch down yielded the Säulenhallenbiwak. I have to say I was glad to reach the camp being pretty stuffed with the days trip and the heavy bag.

Day 2: Ulrich and Marcus stayed behind to look at potential shortcut which could greatly reducing the journey time heading out of the cave on the last day. Gottfried Johann and myself continued to head onto the final sump and set up a camp there (Sinterfahnen Biwak). The lads would catch us up the following day. The nature of the cave changed significantly from the 1st camp, having initially to cross numerous lakes on wire traverse lines, then into a series of large vertical bolder ruckles on various levels requiring SRT work, making progress more slow. Finally we broke out into pleasant stream passage which we followed upstream for some distance to the final sump. I was so glad to get here as I wouldn’t have to carry my heavy pack for the next two days!

The 2nd camp (Sinterfahnen Biwak) was in a nice sandy Oxbow just back from the sump – a fantastic spot but one of the first times I have had a real sense of remoteness in a cave. I kept thinking that Ulrich had dived here in 4 degree water and in a wet suit too, truly mad!!! It didn’t take long to set up camp, and then our minds focused on preparation for the following days exploration.

The lead we had come to look at was a small low wet side passage on the far side of a 20m lake, just prior to the sump. An inflatable boat would help to ferry people and gear across the lake to an island just at the start of the side passage. From here the gear would have to be man handled down the side passage (water waist deep) as the boat wouldn’t fit! By evening time, we had a game plan for getting across the lake, the boat inflated, the necessary climbing gear and ropes packed and sorted.

Day 3: The three of us got up early eager with anticipation. Ulrich and Marcus would join us later, haven obviously chosen to camp at one of the earlier camps rather than make it all the way up to our camp yesterday. For the boat crossing, a variety of gear was worn. Gottfried had pontonieres, Johann had a long john wet suit, I had kacks and a cagoule - great! What’s more I ended up being the ferryman transporting all the kit across the lake to the island. In the end it turned out to be great fun once the fears of puncturing the boat and wallowing in 4 degree water had abated. From the lake, down the side passage was pretty grim waste deep in cold water.

With all the gear the other side of the water, a change back into caving gear and we were off down immature stream way, more reminiscent of the Dachstein. Finally we got to the climb and the bolt traverse, an easy 10m climb up and a short traverse over to a big ledge where it looked like passage leading off.  I was really surprised when Gottfried asked if I wanted to do the technical work. Not a problem!! The  climb up and traverse itself pretty straight forward only requiring about 6 bolts to make the ledge, the best thing was that there was indeed passage heading off. While I stripped the traverse and rigged the pitch properly, Gottfried and Johann went off exploring. They still hadn’t returned by the time I had re-jigged things, so it must have been looking good. I caught the guys up to much jubilation as from an initially small grovelly passage, it had broken out into more Hirlatz sized passage. We progressed along surveying as we went. What a find!!

We continued along this passage to a climb down intercepting another large bore passage. A quick initial recce showed that to the left of the climb down it headed down to water with passage heading off, and to the right of the climb down, the passage headed down to a small active stream, but with a climb up leading to more big bore tube. We halted for lunch, and finally Marcus and Ulrich appeared. The climb that they had been looking at the previous day had crapped out and provided no short cut for the way out, but they were obviously excited by this new find. We tackled the left had section first, quite a complicated section of passage which kept dropping down to or having windows looking out to lakes terminating in sumps. In one of these windows, we looked down onto Ulrich’s dive line from last year! A great shame for Ulrich as if he had dived one more short sump he would have been able to have walked out of the sump into the passage we had just found!! For the rest of us however,  I think we were glad that a by pass had been found!!

With the left hand section finished, we turned out attention to the right and the climb up into the big bore passage. After a short while the main bore passage headed down to a large sump pool and disappointedly terminated. Being reasonably late in the day, Ulrich and Marcus decided to head back as their campsite was some two hours the other side of the sump!! I was really glad I didn’t have to make this journey back with them as they would have to do it all again tomorrow!! Gottfried was keen to do some more surveying, so we did another hour or so of tidying up small leads etc, leaving a few more exciting leads for tomorrow, prior to returning to camp. A great day but again pretty tiring.

Day 4: We were all excited and keen to continue exploring, but we waited for Ulrich and Marcus to appear before setting off across the lake and off to the sharp end. The main lead we had was a small passage that took you down into a phreatic zone, close to sump level.  This area obviously flooded regular and stayed that way for sometime as most of the passage had a thick layering/banks of black sump mud. It also turned out to be a maze of passages (most of which disappointingly ended up at sump pools) which was very complicated to understand until the final survey was drawn up. In this zone however, some passage was found heading up out of this sump zone into a series of large chambers above, but no obvious continuation was found. As the day drew to a close so did the obvious leads. Ulrich had been looking at a couple of bolt climbs and while none were drawn to a complete conclusion due to running out of bolts and battery power, none looked really exciting.

Again Ulrich and Marcus headed off early to get back to camp while we remained to do some tidy up surveying, before finally heading back to camp. It was a mix of feelings returning to camp, one of jubilation at the passage we had found, but also sadness that the remaining leads for next year were not wide open passage; some bolt climbs and a very tight, but strongly drafting passage that really needed blasting. Once the survey was drawn up, it might give us some indication where to head back to for a more detailed look to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.

During this night, one of your worst fears when camping underground started – we became ill. It started when I threw up during the night. Great, guess I should have cleaned my pans a bit more rigorously, but when Gottfried and Johann started puking and shitting in the morning, we came to the conclusion it must have been our water supply. The other really bad thing about it was that not only had it given us the shits, it was a bit like flu with no cold symptoms as it completely zapped all of your energy! This was really not what you wanted when you had a 2 day trip to get out of the cave! Still there was only one way to get out of the cave - mind over matter, so we slowly packed up camp and headed out.

When we arrived at Marcus and Ulrich’s camp they were still in bed, also with the lurgy!! The verdict was that we must have all drank some pretty stagnant water from the far end somewhere. We battled on back to Säulenhallenbiwak (the 1st camp), all glad we had made it this far. Thankfully for me, I think I was beginning to turn the corner, but rest still seemed to be pretty stuffed with the lurgy.

Day 6: People had stopped shitting in the morning, but we were all still pretty weak. Each step forward was one more closer to the entrance. Finally after about 10 hours we arrived back at the entrance.

It had snowed quite a bit while we had been in the cave, leaving 3” covering of powdered snow on top of hard packed ice. Not the best for walking down. I had arrived with Gottfried ahead of the others. He headed on first snow ploughing the soft snow out of the way using it as a breaking mechanism. When it came to my turn, I was left basically with a ice floored Cresta Bob run. I tried using my walking poles to slow my descent but they were practically useless and soon found myself flying down the steep slope out of control. All I could do was roll on my front spread-eagled and pray that I came out of this alive!! Thankfully I hit a snow bank before the drops halfway down. I had just finished negotiating these when off I went again screaming my way down again crashing into snow at the bottom off the slope. I was so glad I was still breathing and not off to hospital. Ice axe and crampons next time!! How the others following me got down safely is bamboozling! That brought the trip to a pretty exhilarating end.

The Team: Marcus,Johann,Gottfried,Madphil, Ulrich Photo by: Gottfried Buchegger

One of the fixed aids – a 60ft aluminium ladder climb

Another fixed aid – The Pendler. Photo by: Jogi

Battling the snow up to the Hirlatz entrance Photo by: Flo Blider

The climb up to the Hirlatz entrance. Photo by: Gottfried Buchegger

Gottfried and Johann at Säulenhallenbiwak. Photo by: Gottfried Buchegger

Ice formations at the start of the Hirlatz Hohle. Photo by: Gottfried Buchegger

Madphil cooking at Sinterfahnen Biwak (the 2nd camp) Photo by: Madphil

Heading down the 70m Pitch to Säulenhallenbiwak

The ferryman! Photo by: Johann Westhauser

Exiting from the by pass tunnel to more dry passage. Photo by: Johann  Westhauser

Gottfried doing book. Photo by: Madphil

Madphil bolting across to the window. Photo by: Gottfried Buchegger

Gottfried near the entrance still feeling distinctly un-well: Photo by: Madphil

Ulrich reunited with his dive line. Photo by: Gottfried Buchegger



In summary, the trip in to the far East of the Hirlatz is one of the best trips I have done, pretty hard especially when you are not used to caving with a 16 – 20kg sack on your back. One has only admiration to the team for the passage they have pushed over the recent years in the far East, and even more so for Ulrich’s dive last year – truly amazing. I was exceedingly lucky to have gone on this expedition where we found nearly 1.5km of new passage, finding Ulrich’s dive line, and have several leads to go back this winter (2006/2007). They may not be the wide open passage that one would always hope for, but it is certainly worth a trip back to this pretty awesome remote spot.  Many thanks to the guy’s for letting me have the opportunity to join the expedition.