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Further Caving In Switzerland

The first three issues have included details of the new discoveries and this number continues on the same theme – this time exploration in north-east Switzerland.

by Mo Marriott.

Despite the rather general title of this article it is more or less devoted to the exploration of one system.  But first a brief picture of our caving activities here in the north-east of Switzerland.  Caving here is divided into two distinct seasons; from spring until the end of summer we amuse ourselves by exploring caves situated in the lowlands, some of these are found in small outliers of limestone and are partially solution in origin, while many others are formed in glacial deposits and are almost entirely erosional in nature.  In addition there are a number of abandoned lignite mines and stone workings, some of which are of considerable antiquity.  At all events none of these caves or mines are extensive – they are small, or very small by Mendip standards.

The second season starts at the end of August – weather and the previous winters snow conditions permitting – and ends with the general rise in temperature at the end of February. During this period we are able to get up into the mountainous Karst areas, where by far are the most interesting systems found.  At first we are restricted to the shallower pots and the meandering stream passages found in the Karst areas.  These meander passages are quite interesting, they run more or less parallel to the surface seem to form a pattern of drainage largely independent of the major vertical systems which pierce the limestone.  Stream capture between meander passages and shafts can be seen in a number of places, and collapsing of these shallow passages has produced extensive trench-like depressions which are characteristic feature of this Karst area.

By the middle or end of September the remnants of the winter snow have either vanished or the nightly sub-zero temperatures have reduced the melt streams to a minimum.  It is only then that the ‘serious’ caving begins, and that means the deep shafts.  Over the last two tears our attention has been centred on one system called “Kobelishohle” (literally Jacobs Cave).  This cave has been known to the local Senner (alpine herdsman) for many years as a steep sided depression at the bottom of a high rift entrance leads down into a high but narrow rift chamber – an extension of the entrance chamber.  After a further 40ft. the rift petered out in a horizontal direction but extended vertically downwards, forming the mouth of a very large shaft.  This shaft was plumbed and founds to be 530ft. deep and apparently quite vertical.

The first descent took place a few weeks later.  After many hours of transporting material; ladders, ropes, a winch, we were finally ready to tackle this very deep shaft (See B.B. No.217).  The shaft was truly vast, 30 to 40ft. in diameter, and tending to a double shaft profile with a figure of eight cross section near the bottom. The massive beds of cretaceous limestone were everywhere gentle fluted and scalloped and polished to a finish like marble.  Several promising ways on were seen at or near the bottom of the shaft, but in view of the lack of time, the small size of our party (five, including the people manning the winch) and the fact that the three of us in the shaft were now soaked from the constant spray, we were obliged to return to the surface.

In the few weeks of 1965 that remained we were prevented from making another descent, as the result of bad weather, and this situation continued in the early part of the year, so that the second trip did not come until September 1966.  We had benefited much from the experience of the first descent, so that the rigging of the shaft went very smoothly, although we were still plagued with lack of people, on this occasion – six instead of five!  Three of us were soon at the bottom of the shaft and we immediately set about the task of surveying the large hall which formed the bottom of the shaft.  On completion of this we turned our attention to the two obvious ways on from the bottom. We decided to tackle a “window” in the wall of the shaft first.  This hole was very conspicuous and about thirty feet from the floor.  We were quite easily able to enter the hole by climbing a little way up the ladder and swinging across.  We found ourselves at the head of a steeply descending rift, from ten to twenty feet wide, and in places more than sixty feet high, with some very nice stal. decorations on the walls.  The rift was quite tricky to negotiate, in some places we could climb, while in others we had to hang ladders, and our progress was steady but slow. At a point about 130ft. below the window we were disappointed to find that the rift closed down to an impenetrable slot, and no way on could be found.  We returned to the shaft and examined the second passage.  This was a very high rift breaching the south wall of the shaft but only two or three feet wide.  We followed the floor of this narrow meandering rift, which descended quite rapidly in a series of potholes of up to a depth of twenty feet.  The narrowness of the rift enabled us to climb down these pots by bridging against the walls, so we did not have to use ladders. 

Here we were able to make rapid progress, surveying as we went, and we were soon around 120ft. below the floor of the big shaft.  Then we came to the second disappointment of the day, but a rather different barrier than the first.  The rift widened suddenly to around eight feet and appeared to ascend slightly or at least the floor of the rift.  On closer inspection we found that this was only a local widening of the rift, and a narrow slot continued steeply downward.  One of us squeezed into the slit whilst another climbed up into the widening which formed a sort of gallery along the rift axis.  About one minute later the discovery of the second shaft was announced, by the man in the narrow slit who had found himself peering out a little way down one wall, and by me when I found myself looking straight down into the mouth of the shaft.  It was a big one, and we were not sure that our ladder would reach.  The plumbing settled the matter, the shaft was 200ft. deep to the first landing, and we had only 160ft. of ladder with us.  We made the long grind back to the head of the big shaft, and began the equally long task of de-tackling the cave and transferring the material over the mountain.  In the ensuing months the weather was again against us and three attempts at descending the hole were frustrated by excessive water.  It was to be almost exactly a year before another trip could be made.

In the beginning of October last year we were able to get a reasonable party together for a further attempt at pushing Kobleishohle.  On this occasion five people descended the shaft equipped with an extra 250ft. of ladder, which with the ladder on the big pitch comprised our entire stock – some 800ft. The rigging of the 200ft. shaft proved quite a problem since the polished rock in the rift at the head of the shaft offered nothing in the way of natural belays, and cracks scarcely wide enough to fit a razor blade – let alone a piton.  Eventually we installed two somewhat doubtful pitons and the first man descended.  The plan was for three people to scout ahead and see what lay in store for us, the other two people descending using a double lifeline when they were required. The 200ft. shaft, although somewhat smaller in diameter than the big shaft was equally impressive.  Almost circular in section and some twenty feet in diameter, the rock was quite black in contrast to the deep browns and yellows of the big shaft.  Our hopes were very soon shattered, when, only a very few feet below the floor of this shaft, a further pitch was found.  We were praying that that our fifty feet of ladder would be long enough, but the time for stones to fall down the shaft was ominously long.  The shaft was not quite vertical, a smooth ledge at thirty feet obscured our view of the bottom.  We lowered our last ladders into the shaft and one of us descended.  The ledge was very round and smooth, and did not offer a very good footing, certainly not good enough for a second belay point.  By clinging to the ladder and leaning out one could see the end of our last ladder swinging in space a long way from the bottom.  Once again the plumb line was brought into use – the pitch was 90ft. total. It was decided to leave all the tackle in the cave, with the intention of returning within a week or two.  This at least made the return to the surface less of a slog.

It was six weeks before another trip could be made, but the weather at the end of November seemed to becoming more stable, and we had high hopes.  However, an unseasonal snow storm occurred 24hrs. before the trip and we were faced with a long climb up into the mountains through five feet of very soft snow. In fact we started the climb but gave up almost exhausted after three hours, and after the prospect of at four more to reach the cave.  The end of the year approached and the weather remained atrocious.  By now we were getting a little worried about the condition of the equipment in the cave, since most of the ladders were hanging in very damp conditions.  A further attempt was made at the beginning of January, this time the cave was reached on ski, but even so, it required five hours of climbing.  When we reached the cave we were horrified to find the depression almost filled with drifted snow, we were faced with the prospect of having to dig more than twenty feet to reach the floor of the entrance chamber. It took us the entire weekend to ‘open up’ the hole, the snow in the lower part of the entrance (probably the November snowfall) had compacted almost to ice and we had to chop it out with an axe.  On top of that the snow had drifted into the crawl for some distance, almost filling it. We covered the ‘snow shaft’ with some wooden planks to prevent the snow from drifting further into the cave and returned to the valley.  Three weeks later we made a ski trip into the mountains again, this time with a strong party reinforced by some colleagues from the French speaking part of Switzerland.  This was to be something of a do-or-die attempt, not so much to push the exploration but rather to recover the equipment from the cave before the Spring melt began – to have left the tackle in the cave during this period would have meant writing it off, what isn’t hopelessly corroded by the water would have swept away.  This time we and a further 150 feet of ladder with us, and an extra 650 feet of lifeline. We made record time on the big shaft and just under two hours we had five people on the bottom.  The 200ft.

shaft was also quickly descended and the 90ft. pitch was rigged.  The bottom this pitch proved to be very roomy, with a very large rift passage leading off to the north.  At least, it seemed, the cave was starting to level out. But not for long!  After 50 feet of gently descending passage we were again staring forlornly down into the mouth of yet another shaft – another big one! 200ft. to the first landing the plumb line told us, and at the same time told us that we were about 100ft. short of ladder.  Time was very much against us and after toying with the idea of lowering ladders from some of the higher pitches we decided to call it a day and shift all the tackle out of the cave.

So this is the situation up to date.  We now have face the long wait until the autumn and colder weather.  During this wait we will all be wondering about what waits in store for us at the bottom of the latest shaft.  A chamber?  Another big pitch – another five hundred footer would be by no means improbable. A big passage?  This time next year we will know the answer, I’ll let you know then.

 “Mo” Marriott.

P.S.  According to the survey the bottom of the latest shaft, or at least the landing struck by the plumb line, is about 1,250ft. down.