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Hirlatz Expedition, 3rd-11th February 2007

Expedition Organiser: Madphil Rowsell
Report by: Andy Kuszyk

Participants: Peter Seethaler, Madphil Rowsell, Rich Hudson, Chris Jewell and Andy Kuszyk.

Apparently, according to Rich Hudson and Madphil Rowsell, the way to pack socks and your SRT kit is to pack your socks in your SRT kit, as well as fitting Snickers bars down those little gaps left at either end of your sleeping bag when itÙs wedged in a bag, and pilling as much as possible into your mug before trying to squeeze it in the billy can. It was only the first morning of the expedition, we hadnÙt even left for the cave, and already I was realising that I had much to learn about mostly everything.

To be fair to the guys, packing our bags well was definitely a priority. We all needed to fit as much gear in as possible to prepare for our seven-day camp in the Hirlatz cave, Dachstein, Austria. Madphil and Rich had done a carry into the cave (about half way to the end) the previous day but, even so, a significant amount of kit was still left to be taken in. Having arrived late the night before, I was frantically trying to fit everything in my bag on the morning of the trip.

With our bags weighing in at 17kg and my rucksack for the walk up to the cave standing at a blistering 24kg, we eventually set off up the snowy mountain side. Peter Seethaler picked out a route up the tricky slope towards the cave. After about 45 minutes slogging up the snow, feeling very glad I had pointy walking poles, we were trudging across a shelf of snow, pearly white, approaching the base of a towering Alpine cliff. Greeting me was the sight of the metre-wide entrance to what I was sure was the longest cave I would have ever been in.

I wasnÙt really sure what to expect from the cave, having heard bits and pieces from various people, but my overriding impression was that it was going to be big, with various Indiana Jones-style fixed aids. Having passed the entrance series, filled with icy pools and various ice formations, the cave did not disappoint. Ladder after ladder seemed to lead up enormous slopes only to deliver you at the head of yet more ladders leading down a similar distance. After a few hours we reached an awe-inspiring metal bridge spanning a 60m canyon that really serves as a tribute to the amount of work put in by Austrian cavers to make the journey in as efficient as possible (and very much reminded me of a scene from the Lord of the Rings!). Very soon, however, the cave started getting big(ger) and we began wandering through huge galleries and passages. Many were larger than any I have seen in Britain, making the Time Machine in Daren Cilau look like a small tube. Not only is the Hirlatz long, but it is also impressively sized, presumably due to its ancient lifespan.

After about 6 or 7 hours on our first day, we finally reached the first camp that we were to be staying at, Grunkogel Biwak. We brewed some dinner (dehydrated Indonesian rice!) and whilst the others headed back to retrieve the gear carried in the previous day, Rich and I retired to our bags to keep warm – a necessary activity since, by our best guesses, the ambient temperature was between 3 and 5oC.

The next day saw us make a swift Ready-brek breakfast before packing our bags and heading off. Strapping roll-mats to the side of our heaving bags, we still left 2-3 loads behind when we set off for the far west. We were to return for this extra gear later so that we could fully establish a camp in the west. By about 2pm we had reached Sahara. This was the site for our camp and is an impressively sized chamber, immediately before the final sump. Sahara was something else, filled with copious amounts of desert-like sand, stretching out around me beyond the limit of my faint LED light.

We established our camp in Sahara on a shelf of sand by one wall, quite close to the first aven we were to climb. Having dumped our bags and unpacked, Madphil and Chris prepared to start bolting using the petrol drill we had borrowed from the Austrians, whilst Peter, Rich and I headed back to the previous camp to collect the rest of the gear. After a couple of hours, we were all reunited back in Sahara and I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly the guys had managed to start bolting – after only about 2 hours they had managed to bolt about 15-20m up and across the wall of the chamber towards the aven itself. Rich and I continued to climb after Madphil and Chris had finished and by the end of the day we had managed to begin the ascent into the aven proper – not bad after a few hours on the job!

The third morning dawned cold and black. After someone had finally volunteered to get out of their sleeping bag to put on a brew, we enjoyed a hot cup of tea and some porridge before setting off to work. Madphil and Chris immediately began to continue climbing the first aven. Peter, Rich and I moved over to the second aven that weÙd come to look at, nearer to the entrance to Sahara. This aven had a long slope running up to vertical walls, so we began by bolting a traverse in order to reach the slope. Free climbing the slope lead us to the base of the chamber wall which Peter and Rich began to climb. In the afternoon, Peter took Madphil and Chris to look at other leads nearby, whilst Rich and I returned to finish the job with the first aven. MadphilÙs account of the top didnÙt sound encouraging and we soon found that the aven ended around 60m off the deck. At the top were a couple of tight, muddy rifts that led off, far too tight to squeeze into with no large amounts of space beyond. After having de-rigged the aven, Rich and I brewed some dinner, ready for the guys to return from their scouting trip.

Upon the return of the others, we shared the news of the close-down and started making plans for the next day. Madphil and Rich were going continue bolting the second aven, whilst Chris and I were to go with Peter to look at a lead further away.

The next day Peter led Chris and I to another large chamber a couple of hours away called Untertisch-Kathedrale (Under-table Cathedral). We took PhilÙs battery drill as well as the usual climbing gear and plenty of rope with the hope of starting to climb a large aven that had been spotted in previous years. Having crawled through large amounts of thick, sticky mud to reach the chamber, we began climbing up the loose and slippery slopes to the base of the aven, which was extremely muddy. In fact, the bottom of the aven (which was massive) reminded us of the bottom of any number of larger pitches at the top of the mountain – exciting stuff! We began the ascent and after a couple of hours fighting against many mud slopes and loose climbs we finally found ourselves facing another sheer cliff face that led up into the dark abyss above. We could do no more that day, not only had we run out of rope, but it was also getting late, so we decided to start heading back. We left our rigging in place, because next year the aven definitely deserves some serious attention.

Returning to camp we found that Madphil and Rich had already hit the sack having had another hard day in their harnesses. TheyÙd made significant progress, rigging about 70m off the deck with the aven showing no signs of stopping. Chris and I brewed up our dehydrated HunterÙs Stew and called it a night.

The next morning I allowed myself a lie-in, being pretty knackered from the late finish the day before, and when I awoke was greeted by an awesome sight. I could hear the distant sound of a petrol engine whirring and upon sitting up (presumably with perfect night vision from my 8 hours) saw the whole aven illuminated by the caving lamps of Rich and Madphil. The shaft was immense, with an enormous bridge stretching across its span part way up. The guys had climbed a long way but the shaft was still far from complete, tunnelling straight up into the unknown. It was a fantastic sight.

Chris and I spent the remainder of the day resting and cleaning our SRT kits (which were completely covered in thick, gloopy amounts of sticky mud) and some ropes, whilst Peter headed out of the cave alone. Madphil and Rich came down half way through the day before returning to the mammoth task of climbing what was definitely becoming a monster aven, at least in my eyes.

That evening, the remaining four of us headed over to a small inlet nearby so that Chris could practice a bit of bolt-climbing. The climb didnÙt lead anywhere in the end, but it was a good exercise and worth completing.

Thursday, our sixth day underground and last day in Sahara, dawned with a slightly urgent air to it. Chris and I were busy packing up the camp all morning, trying to sort out as much gear as we could, whilst the guys were making a last, desperate effort to reach so much as a ledge in the aven. However, after a few hours, their efforts were not wasted and we managed to gather from the echoing yelps that a discovery had been made. Although the aven was far from over and the roof was still completely out of sight, Madphil and Rich had reached a slope leading off from the aven that led into a chamber. From here, a passage led off but this was left for the Austrians to explore since the aven had been discovered by the Austrians around 10 years previously.

And thatÙs how we left it. Rich and Madphil came down, we packed our bags to bursting level, stowed what camping gear was remaining out of the reach of the spring floods and left Sahara. A few hours later we reached Hal Des Staynens (HDS) Biwak, a camp about 4 hours from the surface where we stopped for the evening. We had a leisurely dinner, treating ourselves to copious amounts of custard for dessert and began to discuss the prospects for next yearÙs expedition, a thought that we were all very keen on.

Four hours after setting off the next day, I found myself crawling through the low entrance. There was a howling draught rushing past me into a passage ending in a blazing slot that opened onto a stunning mountainside. The sky was a brilliant deep blue; the trees a thousand shades of green and the valley itself took up an incredible amount of space! Spending a week in the Hirlatz hadnÙt felt at all strange, but the sight of open hillside was certainly a beautiful one.

We donned walking boots and descended the entrance ladder onto the snowy slope that awaited us, spending the next hour or so slipping down the slope towards the bottom of the mountain. Arriving at the car park I felt both hungry and tired, but I also felt that weÙd definitely achieved something in the cave. WeÙd completed all of our objectives and confirmed a couple of very interesting leads, leaving plenty to be explored on future expeditions – a privilege that I hope IÙll be able to undertake in future.

My thanks go to Madphil for organising the expedition. RichÙs help was also invaluable, not least for sorting out some surprisingly tasty dehydrated meals. Peter Hubner deserves a special mention for, although he was ill and couldnÙt join us underground, he still picked Chris and I up from the airport and drove us all the way to Obertraun. Finally Peter Seethaler and the Austrian cavers deserve a thank you for allowing us the opportunity to explore the Hirlatz on what I can only describe as a first-class expedition. I would also like to thank the BEC for making the trip possible via access to the Ian Dear Memorial Fund. 



To see a full size  image of the above map click here.