The Sound of Music -  The Holloch -  Xmas 88.

 Hugh. Andy. Anne.

I must be seeing things. Surely no one would dare cut a track called ‘In The Holloch, Muotathal’? I mean, can you imagine it? You walk into Bernies in your freezer fresh Levis, crushed satin jacket, shades and Brylcreemed hair, lounge over to the jukebox and thumb a coin in the slot as the Ingleton talent eye you longingly over their coke and crisps. Barn! You hit the buttons, spin around on a polished heel, thrust your hips out and jive, man, jive to ‘In Lancaster Hole, Cumbria’. Chart topper. Smash hit. Platinum disc. Mental. But there it was. D5, next to Benny and the Jets. I hit the buttons, this I just had to hear. Hardly a hot party number what with all the mumbled Germanic and thigh slapping accordion stuff — but it helped to cast the mind back over the past few days.

We’d arrived at the Hollgrotte Restaurant after a 24hr. dash across Europe in Hurricane’s ‘White Tornado’, alias the escort, loaded up with Beanfeast foods. Now a quick phone call to Bali and all was settled. He’d come and take us in the next evening. Naturally we had a few beers to celebrate, which led to a few more as Andy realised that Switzerland wasn’t so expensive after all. Andy looked like a salmonella case the next morning, but a quick ascent of the local mountain soon saw us fresh again and by six we were eating a last Schnitzel with our guides Bali, Werner and Barbara. No amount of persuasion would convince Andy that Bali was going in the cave dressed in jeans, shirt and purple tie. To add insult to injury Bali applied lavish coatings of face glitter making his bristled bonce look more like a Christmas tree. ‘Bloody poofter’ said Andy and promptly fell over on the icy road. The short walk to the entrance turned into a minor epic as over—loaded English cavers attempted to throw themselves into the gorge like demented lemmings. It wasn’t to be the first case of lack of grip.

Through the gate and the key turned behind us. No going back now. Andy made a vain escape attempt by having light failure five minutes in, but only burned his hand fettling, it and then knackered himself running through the show cave to catch up.
Faintly, far off, could be heard the sound of music as Bali vanished into the huge phreas that plunged along like a switchback in a nightmare. 3Oft. across the monster tube rose and fell with monotonous predictability, boring into the mountain. Boring, that is, until we reached the Bose Wand. A fixed ladder leant against the wall. Somewhere overhead, yodeling. After 50 rungs I wanted a rest. After 80 I wanted to clip on. At 95 the camera box snagged. On 112 the rungs ran cut and a final 10ft. rail was clawed to land in a sweaty and relieved heap at the feet of the insouciant yodeler. I said ‘Bugger me”, the first of many such defamatory remarks to be frequently repeated by my colleagues.

We couldn’t sit for long. Shouldering our 30lb. sacks we set off to burn rubber up and down an eternal series of slippery ramps. It was OK I suppose, if you’re the sort who likes running over Hardknott Pass, at night, in Teflon coated trainers with a sack of bricks on your back. We lost track of time and direction. Fixed ladders rose 150ft., then slopes and ropes descended 200ft. Up again, down again. Would it never end? Julie Andrews piped up: “You know, all this cave we come through, it is under water in the spring.. Good Eh.” Fine, Bali, Fine. Nailed to the wall was a red card index box and the signing in book appeared. Signing in? So it was only just the beginning? Hell fire’ Another pseudonym for Bali confirmed that he was currently persona non grata with some of the Holloch Groups. Not surprisingly, purple tie and face glitter is just too much for some of the old hands.

We descended to Styx Sump, one of the lowest parts of the cave, and climbed into the dinghy for the 40ft.. beat trip. At the far side Julie Andrews piped up again:
“Now we are at Innominata! “ I was immediately suspicious. Half an hour later I knew why. Innominata — no name? I could give the passage a few, all beginning with F. A pigmy in crampons would tire of innominata. With gear and a sack it became a life sentence..... ‘that you would be taken from this place unto a place of humiliation where you shall climb up and down until your ego is deflated and you are utterly and completely knackered,,....

Out of the gloom a great shroud of plastic sheeting appeared, like some netherworld oxygen tent. We collapsed into Biwak 1 and drank the water bucket dry. Half way to Biwak 11. One thing you quickly realise about the Holloch is that it is long. OK, so you’ve already read the book and know that it is 150 Kilometers and all that. But it doesn’t really sink in, does it? Not until your legs have turned to jelly, the sweat on your Lila has frozen back onto your skin, and you know you have to face another two hours of this purgatory. “Off we go!” shouts Bali. It’s like working on a chain gang. What follows is unpleasant. Low passages that snag your pack on the roof and bring you time and time again to your knees cursing the day you ever took up caving. Then it pops out big again and and Titanengang meanders endlessly on, big ellipses up and down the dip, over pools, up ladders, down ropes, slippery slopes, boring into the mountain. Bali stops at the top of a pit. A bit of tat on the left drops into an univiting black hole. “Now we go down to Biwak II”.

The tat lands on top of a precarious ladder that lands on a platform that leads to a rope down another treacherous cliff of greased flutings that lands on a big slope that goes down an enormous distance to the edge of a lake and another boat. A quick pull across and into another ellipse. The faint smell of tobacco wafts on the draught. We must be there! The last few corners and there it is, Biwak 11, a homely glow of lights at the end of a long trenched tube. A large table, benches, a cooker, washing lines, beds, lime washed walls, bottles of booze. I must still be dreaming.
I am dreaming. A bottle of champagne appeared from a tackle bag. We settled down to re-hydrate in style, 4 hrs. from the entrance. The five Swiss cavers in the camp ply us with endless cups of herbal tea and the eloquent champagne. Unreal.
At 11pm. Bali, Werner, and Barbara leave and we say our farewells. They are working in the morning! Their lights fade down the passage and we make new friends with Johnny, Marcel, Kurt, Arto, and Ruth. Johnny takes us round the corner to the ‘Hotel’, alias Biwak 1.19, where a camp of epic proportions and efficiency is sited. There are beds for about sixty here, so we’re not short of kipping space. The drying room is an insulated cubicle with stoves beneath. Far out! And the bog? A large pit; you swing out rope in one hand, bog roll in the other, it’s only 3ft. into the hole but
a fall could be fatal! Mesmerised, we fall into pits on thick foam mattresses and
fall into a deep sleep punctuated by visions of a dormitory in
Comes Cavern

The cuckoo clock chimes. The Tilly lamp blazes. The stove roars promises of pints of herbal tea. We eat cheese biscuits, wondering why the Swiss are having double helpings of chicken curry, have we missed a day somewhere?
Marcel beams at us, advising to travel light with one spare fill, can’t be going too far eh? Once again Hurricane bumbles about trying to find some grip. Lifas are cold and wet, but once on the move we soon warm up. Past the bog and off into the unknown. (Yes, I know shit does that too.....) Words can only fail to describe the enormity of Holloch. There are bigger passages in Lancaster Hole, larger chambers in the Berger, more stals in Gale Garth even. But nothing is as long, so unendingly long as Holloch — except Mammoth I suppose. Where else can you just about keep seven cavers strung out ahead of you in sight continuously for an hour?

It’s the same old tune we played yesterday, ramps, ramps, and more ramps, ellipse after ellipse, tube after tube. The three figures in PVC steam like pressure cookers. In Holloch you wear a tee—shirt and cotton boiler suit -- and still sweat.
Another slope rears up to the right off our passage and we nip up to goggle at Biwak 7 complete with hammock chairs of stone slabs slung on ropes from pegs. Comfy.

The next Kilometer is a ten foot diameter muddy tube, and then it’s up into the big stuff again, and a few rope climbs break the monotony. The Swiss have an interesting method of descending these. None of the old hand over hand business: you press the rope against your belly one hand on either side, and run full tilt looking straight down the pitch. It takes a bit of nerve, but Anne and I got the hang of it in the end. Andy decided that discretion was the better part of lunacy — which it probably was, having watched the washing line on one climb see—saw over a nice sharp edge. Undaunted, the Swiss turned the climbs into a competition, often going back up for several more runs, yodeling as they came down. Faith in the alleged safety of Swiss ski lifts and cable cars began to dwindle from that moment.
After four hours of hard labour we finally burst into the really big stuff at Hoffnunsgang, a large bore in grey limestone liberally veined with white calcite veins. Down this and a low arch ducked through into Pagodengang and the first proper stal we’d seen in 10 kilometer of cave, the Pagoda. Bobs Boss would knock spots off this, but it was light relief to the eyes after miles of rock and mud.

The Swiss setout their picnic table while we took a few pictures and consumed our solitary Mars bar. It was too much to look at the cold meats, cheeses, biscuits and cans of larger coming out of their sacks, so we beat it back to Hoffnunsgang and blitzed the big bore with a-few4’ more snaps.

Pagodengang is the end of the cave on the middle level. A complex high level system rises above it where work is continuing to force a route through to Schwyzerschact, a 15 Kilometer system 200 metres higher and 300 metres horizontally away. Unfortunately the end of Schwyzerschact (did you have to repeat that one’? Ed.) is an enormous boulder choke continually on the move Routes investigated one weekend are simply not there the next.

But I digress. The Swiss suddenly run past muttering ‘Gin and Tonic’. It’s one of those foreign rituals. If you reach B 11 by five o’clock everyone has G&T’s. After five. well, tough, you’ve blown it. We blew the 5 o’clock bar session and then a series of light failures blows the 7 o’clock beer session as well. Only the champagne and whisky left. It’s too much for the Swiss. One by one they ditch the Brits and burn off into the distance. Anne clings on to the end of the Swiss Express and I try to keep them in sight without loosing the Caves and Caving editor who as usual is bimbling along in the guards van. Eventually the carriages come adrift and I sit on the top of another giant slope all al one shouting into a 150 Kilometer void. It’s not really’the r place to get lost isn’t Holloch.

Coupled to the guards van once more we navigate the last Kilometer by nose as the bog gets ever closer. Shit does have its uses. Refreshed by the lights of camp after several hours in the dark, Gourmet Hall springs into action with a five course special, only to be outdone by the Swiss who produce a joint of pork with all the trimmings. Our riposte is to have a sweet in the shape of rice pudding, but this only brings derisory calls of ‘baby food’ from the Swiss. A bottle of Russian champagne pops to celebrate Ruth’s birthday and the entente cordiale is restored. The, revelry is punctuated by the arrival of Mad Max II from the Hotel with some of his tigers. Max is a netherworld Ron Bliss who keeps the camp fires burning while the tyros go out to play. Like Mad Max I at Biwak 1, these old flames come in year after year to relive glories past, suggesting passages visited in bye gone days that have never been seen since. It’s a veritable Bull Pot Farm underground — only difference is that the Biwaks are cleaner. I drag a reluctant team away from the champers to take some more piccies. All goes well, then Andy hands me the camera he’s testing for Caves and Caving. ‘Try a few shots on this’ he says, so I position the slaves and get then to stand still, and frame the shot in the viewfinder of the Le Clic Tuff 35.

 “OK?”
“Yeah, get on with it, don’t want to be here all night!” I press the shutter button.
“BOOM!”
The intimate world of the viewfinder explodes in a thunderous bang. I fly backwards through the air and lie prostrate on my back as the echo of the explosion reverberates down the passage. Maybe I can’t see? I feel my face, and slowly test my eyes one by one. Relief! I can see. Andy and Anne run over thinking the roof’s collapsed.

“What the F... was that?!”

“Search me”.

We recover the camera which predictably doesn’t work anymore. Seems the capacitor might have exploded. An alarming incident which fortunately didn’t have any more serious consequences. That ends photography for the day, so we retreat to camp for a nip of whiskey to soothe the nerves. One thing you can say far the Holloch, the bar never closes. Prior to pit time we have a quick foot inspection and giggle at the onset of trench foot. A distant rumble emanates from the hotel — someone snoring again. We clock out.

Breakfast at 8 o’clock they said. So much for Swiss timekeeping. At 8.30 prompt I pump the Tilly into life and rouse the continentals from their slumbers. Must be more knackered than I thought! However, the Brits head start is neatly counter pointed by another Hall mega bimble — much nail biting and hopping from one ‘foot to the other, picking up bits of gear at random, picking his nose, and generally failing to find grip of any kind.

‘Come on Andy!” chides Kurt.

“You’ll have to wait, I’m not ready, now f... off!”

At last he’s kitted up and we head off out, once again falling about with huge packs and praying for a rest we know won’t come. Kurt and Johnny have been ten minutes at Biwak I when we arrive with Marcel, who generously blames it on his dicky ticker and not our snails pace. Off again, and now for the dreaded Innominata. But it’s not so bad this time, mostly down, running the ropes Swiss fashion. Getting casual I ‘fall and crack my elbow.

We sign out at Styx, but still the cave seems unrelentingly long. ‘Where’s the Bose Wand’ I think to myself, knowing we’ll be almost in the show cave then. But the tubes, tunnels, slopes and ropes continue. It’s all getting a bit fractious, tempers fraying. After 2 1/2 hours we finally make the ladder and timorously, respectfully descend its 112 rungs. But it’s not over. The sting in the tail is several huge ramps, sapping the strength of already tired muscles. Lights are playing up and Anne virtually crawls up the slope of a 30ft. tube in tears. But joy of joys, a rail at the top. We’re in the show cave. A last twenty minutes of countless concrete steps, and then there’s the gate, and we’re out in the numb, bright, icicled Alps. The cave is forgotten. “Drei bier, bitte’” Done it. Ticked it. Im Holloch, Muotathal. “Fancy some skiing, Andy?”.

Hugh. St. Lawrence


The Holloch — a few facts.

First a resounding thanks to Marcel Brandli, Johnny huller, Kurt Arto and Ruth. Without their hospitality (and champagne we’d never have had such a fantastic first introduction to the Holloch. They’re from something Arbisgemeinschaft, and it’d be a lot easier all round if they just called it a club. Thanks also to Hans Rudi Baliman, Warner Walz and Barbara Weber for taking us in late one evening when they had to be working the next day. Thanks finally to the Holigrotte Restaurant for providing the numerous beers and some very inexpensive accommodation.

Now:

The Holloch is Long. Often it’s quite borinq. Never dull, but: it does tend to qo on a bit. It ‘a nowhere hard, at least where we went but it no wimps trip - The Swiss keep most of their kit in the cave from one year to the next, so the travel liqht But if you are visiting and going in for a few days you need to take everything with you. This amounts to a large rucksac full, which does’nt make for easy going.

Required:  Sleeping bag. Food. Track suit or similar plus a good warm top for lingering about in camp, a feather duvet is ideal it rolls up small in your sack. Oh, and a hat. Booze, of course, a minimum two bottles of something. Caving gear should :ideally consist of Lifas and a cotton, yes cotton, boiler suit. In PVC you sweat like a pig, and then freeze when you stop. Carbide. Spare batteries.. and a Peetzl head torch for camp. Oh, yes, toilet paper

For the basic trip you don’t need any SRT gear. We carried it and added totally unnecessary weight. How to get there? Well, you can get to Switzerland, can’t you? Go to Zurich, then head for Schwyz. In Schwyz take the road to Muotathal, through that town and then turn left on the road that leads to Pragelpasse.. One mile further on is a small hamlet with the Hollgrotte Restaurant on the left. Check in. The cave is a short 400 yard walk from the Restaurant.

Access This is controlled by the numerous groups who are working in the Holloch. You need to make a personal contact and make arrangements for a visit, someone needs to take you in. The entrance is locked and gated. You might just find your way to the Biwaks, but route finding ‘aint exactly a piece of cake. Winter is the ONLY safe time to go in the cave. Even then it can flood. A few weeks before we went a party was trapped.
We’ve been offered a trip and our own area to explore for Xmas/New Year 89. A party of eight or so. Interested? Contact Hugh, Anne or Andy.

 

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