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Ahnenschacht  1968

While still in Austria the following report of the BEC Expedition there has just been received from Alan Thomas…

A brief description of the Ahnenschacht and its situation appeared in my previous article (1) and I shall be describing it in greater detail later on.  This was written whilst still in Austria is intended only to describe our activities and this year’s discoveries.

This year’s party consisted of Mike Luckwill, Dick Wickens and myself who had been there last year with the addition of Alan Thomas (junior), Martin Webster and Ian Daniels. We were accompanied to the Hochogelhutte by Val and Sally Luckwill.

Wise from our experience of last year we decided that it was largely unnecessary to sleep underground, as nothing saps ones moral fibre more efficiently, nor was it necessary to have an enormous carry which equally saps ones physical strength.

On 23 July, Dick, Martin and I carried up to the hole (1½ hours of fairly hard going with heavy packs) sufficient gear to ladder it to Schachthalle which is about 375 feet down.  We spent an hour gardening the entrance pitch and the equally dangerous one beneath it.  We then went ahead laddering six pitches in all which took us about five hours. We found that these upper pitches were very much wetter than last year, probably because there was snow two days before we started and then rain.  It took us about half an hour to get out from the farthest point reached.

The next day all six of us carried to the hole and all except Mike went down.  We were able with some difficulty and very wet (we all had waterproofs on) to ladder as far as the Schuppenstufe (650 ft. down).  This is only about 30ft. above the farthest point we reached last year and we got 150ft. more ladder down to this point. This was a seven hour trip but, as yesterday, it did not take very long to get out.  When we surfaced it was pouring with rain and very misty.  We removed our boiler suits and made our way back to the hut in a record 35 minutes.

We had a tent pitched near the hole which was handy both for the storage of gear and for emergency, had the weather ever been too bad to return to the hut.

The 25th July was a rest day.  Mike, Alan, Martin and I carried the remaining 880ft. of ladder and 1,000ft. of rope up to the hole.  Dick and Ian went down to Ebensee for supplies.  The altitude of the hut, by the way, is greater than Ben Nevis and the hole is situated at 6,100ft.

The next day was extremely wet and it was with great difficulty that we got some of the gear part the way down from Sintertemasse to Schuppenstufe, 170ft. below.

The 26th July was Saturday. Helmuth Planer, his wife and sister in law, Wolfgang Heumer and his fiancé (they were to be married next Saturday) arrived.  It was a very wet day.  We could not go caving but in the afternoon we all walked over to the Ischler Hut to see Frau Kratke.  We were somewhat encouraged to be told that better weather was on its way from Italy.

Sunday morning’s weather was about the same but Dick, Helmuth and I went down the hole early as Helmuth had to be out by mid-day and the others joined us later.  Between us we succeed in getting the five bags of gear down to Schuppenstufe.

The next day was occupied in getting gear from Schuppenstufe to Sickerungsstufe (only about 30ft.) and laddering the next pitch which was about 250ft.  We rigged a telephone from Sinterterrasse to Sicherungsstufe and used radios from Sicherungsstufe to the bottom of the 250ft.pitch which is known as Schachtgabel.  The next day I went down to that point and saw the so-called big shaft for the first time and threw a few stones down.  We got 700ft. of tackle down to here.

The first of August was the day we bottomed what the Austrians describe as the Big shaft.  We gave it the name Joseph Shaft after Joseph Kogler our host at the hut.  It will be appreciated that we were an extremely small team to be attempting such a hole – about three times deep as Gaping Gill, otherwise very similar to a Yorkshire Pot.  It was, therefore, very necessary to spend all these preliminary days getting gear into the cave in preparation for the descent.  The upper pitches were 70o slopes and the bags kept snagging.  For the first week the weather was very much against us; it improved for the second and the hole became drier but the lower reaches were never very dry.

We entered the cave at 10am and having nothing to carry we quickly reached Sinterrasse where we left Ian to lifeline us back up the 170ft. pitch.  As things turned out he had to stay there on his own for ten hours. Mike stayed at Sicherungsstufe for nine hours whilst the rest of us proceeded to Schachtgabel.  It was not easy to ladder the big shaft; it’s a loose scree slope, though there is solid rock at the lower end round which we are able to tether the ladder.  A short way down the pitch a ‘doorway’ gave access to a chamber beneath the scree slope. The first fifty feet was a series of steps, after which the ladder was against the rock for another fifty feet and tended to snag every few feet.  Even when it was clear of rock our troubles were not over because I had hardly gone down 150ft. before I came to a great tangle of ladder all depending from one rung. It was easy enough to kick free but the sensation it caused as it hurtled down  and the ultimate ‘boing’, rather like a guitar, as it reached the destination and the rest of the ladder took the shock was remarkable.  This happened twice.  It proved to be about 300ft. down to a circular ledge about 20ft. across.  Going off to the west and then meandering partly south of west was an upstream passage which I followed for about sixty feet before it became too tight.  The floor was a distinct vadose trench.

The shaft continued on the east side of the ledge which needed extensive gardening before continuing (as it was one of the ladders was damaged by falling rocks).  The next pitch was about 20ft., then a scramble over boulders led to a further pitch, east again, of 15ft. and the bottom of the Joseph Shaft.  This last pitch had a very definitive stream pouring down it which I took to be the accumulative drainage for the entire hole.

From here I was able to climb up over some boulders and gain access to a high passable rift passage meandering in an easterly direction which was about 250ft. long before it began to narrow.  The floor was a vadose trench which had a stream flowing in it.  There was mud on the ledges and signs that the passage took a great deal of water at times.  There was abundant botryoidal stal. on the sides as well as an erratic in a form resembling bract fungi of which there were many examples and which I could not remember seeing before.  The passage then narrowed but I did not follow it further as I had spent 2½ hours at the bottom of the Joseph Shaft and it was midnight before we were out of the cave.

At this point some explanation is needed of what happened next.  The day before descending Joseph Shaft I had received an insect bite on the wrist which had greatly swollen and turned septic by the day after which was a rest day.  The others set out on August 3rd to begin de-tackling.  The ladder would not pull up Joseph Shaft (Shades of G.G.! – Ed.) immediately and Martin descended a hundred feet in order to free it.  He therefore saw the ‘doorway’ which I had observed when I had been down and decided to have a look through it.  He soon confirmed this to connect with the other shaft and he called Mike to come down.  Mike entered a tiny passage on the right of the dome-shaped chamber to which the ‘doorway‘gave access and this led into a large rift running at right angles. The rift was heavily decorated – more so than anything we have on Mendip – there were formations coated with formations! This rift was 50yds. Long and gave access to a large passage and further hours of exploration made it abundantly clear that a big system existed.  It was decided that it would be necessary to spend an extra day exploring and surveying and therefore the tackle that was not required for this was taken up the 250ft. pitch.

The further exploration of the lateral development took place on Sunday night.  An exploring/surveying party consisting of Alan, Martin and Dick were taken down the cave by the support party, consisting of Mike and Ian who came out after they had life lined them down the 250ft. pitch. They entered the cave at 4pm.  The support party was out of the cave by 8.00pm. At 5am the support party left the hut and arrived ay the head of the 250ft. pitch only 15 minutes before the exploring party arrived to be life lined back up the pitch.  All were extremely tired and much of Monday was spent in sleep, but the amount of work they had done was formidable. They were partly enabled to do this by the extremely dry nature of the extensions and partly by the fact that took the trouble to wait until they returned to Sinterrasse which was our usual soup kitchen.

About 15 photographs were taken and 2,600ft. of passage were surveyed using a hand held compass read to the nearest 50 and distances to the nearest yard.  Some three large new shafts were discovered, and several smaller ones, of course, not descended.  All the large ones took at least 5 seconds for the stones to fall; the deepest took 9 seconds before the last bounce.

The heavily decorated rift passage first entered continued for about 150ft. and gave way gradually to an undecorated wider ascending passage emerging in a large boulder chamber – also ascending  The passage continued at the top (after a few awkward climbs over boulders) about 25ft. high by 10ft. wide for about 60ft. when it dropped into a stream passage. This was about 40ft. high.  It was followed upstream, a ten foot waterfall was climbed and the passage followed for a further 50ft. to a fork.  The right hand passage at the fork was followed up a 20ft. mud slope into a passage 15ft. high by 20ft. wide with a mud floor.  The passage dimension slowly diminished until it emerged into a large chamber the roof of which could not be seen.  A mud slope led down to a 30ft. diameter shaft with a falling time of 5 secs. clear or 9 secs. to the last bounce.  The shaft was skirted through large boulders on a mud slope and on the other side a climb a 20ft. climb up a mud slope led into another large shaft with a falling time of 5 secs.  At the bottom of the mud slope a descending passage 10ft. x 15ft. was followed to a fork after 200ft.  It was a rift passage 20ft. high b y 6ft. wide with several potholes in the floor with passages leading off.  None of these were followed.  The main rift was well decorated with dying stal. but was not followed to its end.

Returning to the fork inn the stream passage the left hand branch was then followed.  It was an ascending passage 400ft. long with several potholes in then generally boulder strewn floor.  A stream entered from the left at the bottom of a large shaft and apparently flowed back down the passage but could not be heard anywhere in the passage. Here the explorers had a brew up. At about 400ft. the passage changed after a short phreatic section to a descending passage.  The general shape of the passage was low and wide – 6ft. high by 30ft. wide.  It continued for about a hundred feet to another fork with the left side continuing downwards and the smaller right hand passage ascending.  From the ascending passage a strong draught issued.  This was followed for about 400ft. until it emerged in a small chamber and continued at the bottom of a rift too difficult to ascend without tackle and about 25ft. deep.  Throughout the passage the draught was pronounced.

The larger descending passage, left hand at the fork was followed for about 500ft.  It was tunnel like 15ft. in diameter.  After about 250ft. a large chamber about 40ft. high and 40ft. in diameter was entered at the far end of which a steeply descending squeeze about 109ft long gave access to a low steeply descending bedding plane with a sandy floor, wet in places.  This closed down after 100ft. and a vertical squeeze led into a similar descending passage which was followed for 150ft. until several shallow pots in the floor prevented further progress.  At this stage the passage forked.  One side contained the pots already mentioned and the other side of the fork emerged in the bottom of a large shaft and no way on found. (The explorers had no maypole – about 600ft. would be desirable).  It say much for the stamina of the party that when their relief arrived they de-tackled the top of Joseph Shaft and sent three bags of gear up the 250ft. pitch.

The next day (Tuesday) a party consisting of Dick, Alan (Jnr.), Martin and Ian de-tackled the cave as far back as Schachthalle.  This took them about 10 hours.  The following day it took Mike, Dick and Ian about 7 hours to get all the gear from the cave.  On Thursday (about 2am) Mike, cunningly persuaded a member of cheerful Austrians to accompany them on that days carrying.  The result of this was that in fact the carrying was completed in one trip.

The entrance of the Ahnenschact is at 1890m.  The main horizontal development has therefore been found at approximately 1590m and although we did not realise it until afterwards this is exactly what we should have expected.  The entrance of the Raucher is only 3km away and the altitude of its entrance is 1570m. It is more than likely that the geological conditions which appertained to cause the formation of one would have applied to the other.  It is possible that they are connected.  The Raucher entrance lies roughly SSW of the Ahnenschacht and each cave has ¼km of passage in the direction of each other.  Another interesting feature is that the lateral development from Schachtgabel leads off in the direction of the Feuertal where we have seen many possible shafts, some plugged with snow.  The discovery of an easy entrance in the valley would be a boon to the further exploration of the cave.  The possibility of such and entrance existing is supported by the fact that a bat was seen in the horizontal passages leading from Schachtgabel.

Once again having safely got everybody and everything not only out of the cave but back to the hut without mishap we are already labouring under the delusion that we had an enjoyable holiday.  I was perhaps lucky in developing an extremely painful carbuncle at the critical point of the expedition.


References: -

‘The Ahnenschacht’ – A. Thomas B.B. No. 237 (Dec. 67)

‘The Ahnenschacht’ – R. Stenner B.B. No. 239 (Feb. 68)

Osterreichs langste und tierfste Hohlen – H. Trimmel, Wien 1966 (pp. 46-47)

Die Tiefenvorstosse 1958 in den Ahnenschacht (Totes Gebirge) Die Hohle 10, 1, Wien 1959.  (pp. 5-8)

Ed. apologies.  The correct name for the Joseph Shaft is JOSEF SHAFT