Bottoming Eislufthöhle

First discovered in 1977, and explored on ladders to a depth of 150m that year, Eislufthöhle was my first piece of serious expedition cave exploration (see this write up). We’d returned in 1978, now competent in SRT, and pushed on to about 330m, including a very roomy 48m pitch which we named “Hall of the Greene King” (for which various club members, not including myself, who was elsewhere, got free tee-shirts on a later brewery visit).

Hall of the Greene King
Ben with the Greene King Pennant in Hall of the Greene King

Below this, the cave seemed to lose its way a bit, with two small pitches going different ways to reach a thrutchy, and very muddy, traversing rift above a streamway we didn’t even consider trying to reach. Unfortunately, after a long overnight trip, a road accident cut the number of cavers and left the remaining ones to derig and retreat. In 1979, we were back, with a comparatively small number of cavers to see how deep we could get. Camping at the col on the way to or from the cave was our approach to avoid the risks of driving down the hairpin road after a long trip.

17m pitch below Hall of the Greene King The new 17m pitch found early on in expo 1979

The initial vertical entrance series, known as Plugged Shaft, contained lots of snow and ice, which accumulated in different places each year, so the rigging needed a day or two of rebolting before we could start to get back to any great depth. Once this section was passed, progress to -260m was quite quick. On our first pushing trip, Tony Malcolm, Ben van Millingen and myself chose to try to bypass a pitch here, and found a nicer route with 17m and 9m pitches dropping to the final canyon, Fiesta Run. This awkward, incredibly muddy traversing section with various off-vertical drops was every bit as unpleasant as we remembered it being.

The Gents’ pitch, 9m pitch used in 1979The Gents' pitch, 9m

Nick Thorne and Julian Griffiths reached the end of this just beyond last year’s limit. The cave opened up, but the stream now made the obvious way on look uninvitingly wet, so Julian found a traverse leading on, to a dry 15m pitch. From here a side passage starting with a 5m climb down into a steeply descending meander seemed to offer a dry bypass. This was quite awkward passage, and led to a 25m pitch with some very sharp rock. Below this, an increasingly narrow rift was becoming unreasonably tight when it suddenly popped out in to the side of a pitch. This looked to be about 15m (to a probable depth of c400m). However, there was no sound to suggest that the pitch would regain the stream. He retreated, but did not derig the 25m pitch. Discussion in the Bar Fischer decided that this was not an attractive way on, but the rigged pitch ensured that I would revisit this passage on the next trip to reclaim the rope. I also went on to peer out at the unexplored pitch but agreed that this was a project for “the next generation”. Julian and I were the only people ever to visit this bit of the cave. Indeed, as far as we know, nobody has been back to this depth in the cave since 1979, so maybe we are skipping a generation.

On this next trip, starting from Julian’s 15m pitch, Ben and I worked our way forward to a 28m pitch which dropped into a huge cross-rift, and regained the stream, as expected. Compared with the confines above this was positively agoraphobia-inducing. The rock, however, was much cleaner than in the Fiesta Run (which gave us a clue about the effects of spray when it rained on the surface – there really was quite of lot of that on this trip already). A further pitch led on, looking at least as big as the one we had rigged. The next trip, Nick and Julian again, got down this, 33m. To gain further progress, the pair climbed up and traversed forward, to reach a pitch which they descended for 42m on rope. From the end of the rope, they could see that the pitch was bottoming out, with a big ledge below, but a six metre free-climb (in cold spray from the wet pitch) was needed to reach this, making for an awkward rope get-on on the way back out. The ledge looked out over yet another pitch, this time of 25m, meeting the water part way down – a very wet and cold location. Beyond, a further pitch was longer than the available rope. This series of linked pitches made up a vertical of about 120m in essentially the same shaft which we called “Madlmeier Schacht” after the owner of the campsite in Altaussee who had been our extremely helpful and friendly host for the first four expeditions.

Madlmeier Schacht, wet 25m pitch The bottom of the wet 25m pitch in Madlmeier Schacht

At this point, nearing 500m depth, the weather chose to make life miserable. One trip was aborted owing to the amount of water underground, and we had to wait four days before there was a reasonable prospect of making progress. By this time, the end of the expedition was looming, and we had a lot of gear in the cave and not a lot of people willing or able to go that deep to get it out. We were at the limit of our logistics for the small team, and really had no backup when we fielded a five-man team into the cave for a final push.

The 13th August saw Nick, Ben and Simon Farrow heading in to push on, while Julian and I followed behind, taking photos. We didn’t have the time or manpower to survey properly, but pitch lengths were measured and some sketching done. The undescended pitch was rigged with a longer rope, and the floor attained. Immediately there was a change of character in the cave. The water sank in rubble, and the large passage led to a boulder climb and short pitch where the dark, soft mud had an obvious message. A further climb down boulders led to a large, cold, deep-looking sump. The nature of the walls suggested that any search for a bypass would be futile, and we really didn’t have the margin of safety needed to make any further effort on this trip. We regarded it as critical to derig the cave at least back to where we could avoid the water if the weather turned wet again (as we had every reason to believe it might).

Photographs were taken in some haste (the place was rapidly becoming quite steamy as there was no draught) and we headed out, derigging and hauling all the kit as we went. In the event, we got all the gear back to -210m (the top of the 48m Hall of the Greene King pitch) and left it there, finally exitting after 16 hours. The remaining derigging was accomplished fairly easily, as other expedition members were also up for a trip to that depth, and the weather remained benign for the last couple of days. All eight of us carried huge loads off the plateau and down to the road.

The Final sump, only visited by five people, ever.Deep, cold, rift sump at -506m

Throughout the exploration, ropes became muddied by gritty clay from the Fiesta Run being transferred via people’s oversuits. Descenders wore rapidly, ascenders clogged up and failed to grip and several of the team experienced significant slippage, dropping them down the ropes. Toothbrushes were carried to clean increasingly polished/worn ascender teeth at the start of each pitch, every opportunity was taken to try to wash mud off kit when water was available, but overall, nothing seemed to make much difference. There were some quite scary moments, and we would recommend anyone choosing to push on in this system to have at least one rope-walker type of ascender which grips by pressure, rather than just by teeth on a sprung-cam. Prusik loops would probably be worth considering as a final fallback, certainly for the upper ascender. We had one rather small diameter rope with a kevlar core and a tight sheath which seemed particularly prone to this, and as kevlar-cored rope has very low stretch and little ability to take a dynamic load (as when the ascender finally snatches a grip) this was particularly frightening at a depth of 400m with very little backup in a cave at 2 or 3 degrees. We feel in retrospect that the group was probably operating with quite inadequate margins for safety – everyone who knew the cave was on that final trip and only one of those left above had been even part way down the system.

Drawing up the sketches, with measured rope lengths, we came to the gratuitously precise estimate of 506.2m for the depth of the cave.

Postscript (writing in 2016): Although no-one has been back anywhere near the bottom, Olly Betts with others have been in the cave and found considerable ramifications off side leads that we ignored in the nineteen seventies (including the “Brave New World” series starting quite near the surface). Surveys they have done of parts of our route suggest that our rather crude and hurried survey methods were not that far out, which is encouraging. We feel that our depth estimate is not unreasonable, but it is frustrating that we have no real idea of the direction the cave takes in its lower reaches. No-one seems keen to visit the deeper parts of the cave, the upper parts of which are now within 200m of linking to the vast Schwarzmooskogel system which CUCC have been exploring since the early nineteen eighties. It remains unconnected at the moment, though, and as such I’m pleased to have been the one who found, and one of the ones who bottomed, CUCC’s second deepest cave.