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Caves in Upper Austria

A Chat – By Dr. Hans Seigal

This is not a scientific report, nor is it a complete list or description.  Such matters would have to be published elsewhere.

It’s hard to say how often I have been asked what we cavers are searching for underground.  Whenever people find out that I deal with caves and take part in expeditions, they ask me that question.  A comprehensive answer would fill a thick volume.  Let me try to say it in a few words:  we look, experience and explore.  We are servants of science, and in our community experts and laymen have equal rights.  He, who wants to become famous, is in the wrong place.  I must beg your pardon that I am going to talk about myself a little.

When I was a youngster studying at a secondary school (one of my teachers was a grand geologist and mineralogist) I visited the Dachstein Ice Cave.  The group was guided by the present manager, Herr Roman Pils.  I was much enthused and wanted to go there again and again, but I could not.  Only after World War II, being a patient of the military hospital at Obertraun, I met my cave guide again.  My friendship with this extraordinary man, gave me a great uplift, and though I am badly handicapped, I took up visiting that cave again and again.  I even worked there as a guide.  Encouraged by my friend, I underwent the examination for cave guides and joined the Landeverein fur Hohlenkunde (the Cave Research Group of Upper Austria).  In this way I became a caver.

Some years ago, I stated in an article written for some prominent periodical, that caves should be entered only in company with an expert.  But who is an expert?  He who is familiar with the matter is one.  In the case of caves this matter is rather extensive.  A caver must at least be familiar with all alpinistic techniques on rock and ice; he must know how to handle all the material a climber needs, including rope ladders, belaying material and an acetylene lamp (the best and most reliable source of light for the caver).

Before talking of the caves themselves, let me say: caving means teamwork.  It’s hazardous to go there alone, the danger being the same as with rock climbing – but in addition to that there is complete darkness in a cave (so have a good light with you).

But now let’s start talking business:

By January 1966, 866 caves were known in Upper Austria of which 277 were unexplored, 180 superficially explored, 110 almost, and 299 completely explored. We take it for granted that there are many more caves in our province.  Our cave Research Group together with the other provincial groups being united in the Verband Osterreichischer Hohlenforscher (Association of Austrian Speleologists) is eagerly working at a cadastral list of the caves in Upper Austria forming part of a cadastral register of all Austrian caves.  In this work are interested: our agricultural authorities, our army and, last not least, the administration of tourist traffic.

There is a lot of literature on our commercial caves.  In Upper Austria there are four: Dachstein Ice Cave, Dachstein Mommoth cave, Koppenbruller Cave (an active water cave) and the Gassl cave (near Ebensee, which – I am sorry to say – has been closed down for a few years for the lack of guides).

But here I want to talk of ‘wild caves’.  Most of them are reserved to speleologists and cavers as a layman would not be able to stand the strain.  It is not always the danger that keeps the layman off, but strain and endurance. There are not too many people who want to work in darkness and moisture, creeping on their bellies though tight passages in wet loam.

Let me begin with our Hierlatz Cave (1) extending a number of miles.  It has taken many years of hard work to explore and survey it.  Many brave men have done their share in it.  The entrance opens high in the northern face of the Heirlatz.  Formerly you had to climb up to that place and to creep in on your belly (now it’s a bit easier as the entrance has been widened by blasting).  In the entrance hall you put on your overall (which ought to be water-proof).   You fix your spikes as you have to ascend on ice. It takes a few hours to reach the main system.  Most of our tours took three days.  This cave is of great interest in many respects – geologically and morphologically. It’s hard for a layman to believe that there are many places spacious enough to build a large house in it.  A detailed description would fill a whole book. I am aware of the fact that even a week or more underground does not mean a record – we do our work for science.

A visit to Lettenmayr Cave near Kremsmunster is far less troublesome.  It is one of those caves are protected by our authorities (Authority for the Protection of Architectural and Natural Monuments) and you must ask permission so as to visit it.  Any kind of digging is forbidden, you mustn’t take away any samples of minerals or other things either.  It has been badly devastated when saltpetre was obtained, or rather extracted, from the cave after World War II.  Thousands of years ago it was populated by the cave bear (ursus spelaeus).  There are more caves of this type here in Austria the largest of them being the Dragon Hole (Drachenloch) in Styria from which wagon loads of phosphate were extracted after World War II.

To the mountaineer roaming our Dead Mountains (Totres Gebirge) (2), a cave entrance is not a rare view.  He often meets with such things.  Many a big hole has been a disappointment, while small ones have often opened up wonders. There is a dripstone cave near Hangender Kogel (you would possibly call it Slanting Peak). This is not a very high mountain but it’s an imposing one with respect to its shape.  Coming from Hochkogelhutte, you follow a narrow footpath that, quite abruptly, ends somewhere in the rocks.  But at last you reach the entrance near which (inside the cave) there is a jackdaw’s nest.  On you go climbing over big boulders.  Soon you are faced with wonderful dripstone formations (you Englishmen have a clearer expression in your language – you find both dripstone and flowstone). Deeper down you find terra rossa which proves that many millennia ago there was subterranean climate in this region. Words are too poor to describe all the wonderful things you will see there: among others there are clusters of calcite crystals resembling Christmas trees, although tiny ones only.

We cave people mostly avoid speaking of these things because such stories might attract people who are likely to devastate such places.  This has happened in the cave mentioned above, and that’s a great pity as such formations will not form any more – the climatic conditions have greatly changed. There are even eccentrics (you will also hear the word helictites being used for them) in this cave.  Far more of this type of calcite formation you will find in some other caves, especially in Excentrique Cave in Lower Austria where they prevail.  It would be a sin of omission not to mention a cave situated quite near the border of our province – the Raucherkar Cave (3) which is known to quite a number of you. Here you may find anything a caver’s heart may long for.  The start was not very promising (1961) but after the expedition of 1967 it has turned out to be a gigantic phenomenon.  Nobody can foretell what new things lie ahead of us in this cave.

There is one more range of mountains, the Hollengebirge (a misnomer as it ought to be “Hohlengebirge” – cave mountains).  In recent years quite a bit of work has been done here.  I must beg your pardon having told you so much that you have known already. Maybe you have not heard of the Kreidelucke (Chalk Hole) that is near a waterfall (called Stromboding) near Windischgarstein.  In dry weather it is quite a pleasurable trip, but when it is wet you might lose your boots in there.

Italienerloch (Italian’s Cave) is another interesting phenomenon.  It was given this name as Italians came here in former times to carry away large pieces of calcite sinter having colourful stripes (from a snowy white to a deep brown hue).  It was ground and polished and used for making tabletops, ashtrays, etc.  There are also Karst springs, the largest of which is Piebling Ursprung (Piebling Spring).  Divers have tried to find out its mystery.

I know I ought to say a few words about our hypogean fauna but this is so very much specialised an item that I do not dare to do so (I know some of your specialists to whom I want to bow most devotedly).  But there was some event that I want to mention.  In the late twenties one of our comrades found a tiny beetle - a trychophaenops angulipennis.  At first scientists were in doubt whether it had been found in places indicated by him. But he was proved the truth of his report and, in this way, geologists had to abandon a whole theory on the glacial period.

But let’s stop thinking about work, let’s go down into the caves and look for the wonders waiting for us down there.  Gluck tief or as you would possible say Good caving to everybody.

P.S.  I do hope you will not mind my English.

References numbered in the text above are the Editor’s additions.  Refs 1, 2 & 3 see B.B. No. 214 (Dachstein Massif, Hirlatzhohle, Raucherkar System, Kroppenbruller Hohle, Dachstein Ice Cave & Eisrienwelt. B.B. 222 Raucherkar System.  B.B. No. 237 & 239 – The Ahnenschascht.