Is It On — Is It Off? Hollach 69.

What’s happening, who is on the team, how many cavers underground? Confusion, disillusion, the arrangements for our Christmas Swiss trip are all rather tenuous. People drop out, numbers in the caving team for the hole are cut. St. Laurence stuns us all with his indecision. Its great when it all comes together. Eventually Pete Hall is draughted onto the team, and travel arrangements are secured, nothing could possibly go wrong now. Whoops, spoke too soon Anne‘s attempts to make the Lada team are thwarted by a large red Capri on the farm lane. Broken bent metal, sore heads and a very immovable car that’s supposed to talke us an holiday in a week.

There was only one thing you could really say — “Oh Shit” After a week of frantic phone calls, nail biting and money counting, the transport less half of the team boarded a very small plane bound for Zurich. It was a wonder it managed to take off with all our mountains of gear aboard. Somewhere over the channel Fran had to be restrained to prevent the airhostess from clotting her. Oh what a life in the international jet-set. It was a miracle, Pete and Andy arrived, we had a full team, despite the odds we’d made it. Marcel had informed Anne that the trip down the Holloch was cancelled due to too much water. After all that we had gone through it was disappointing, but we were in a winter wonderland, with plenty to do, and we were determined to enjoy ourselves. It was Christmas eve, we all stood by the cars regarding the steep sided pyramidal peak of the 1900m. Gross Mython. It looked desperate, but it were a piece of duff. A fine path gouged its way up and soft snow under-foot made a pleasant afternoon stroll. No time for celebrations and on Christmas day we trudged up another big Swiss hill that I cannot remember the name
of. Cooing at the view, and almost feeling like real mountaineers we waded across a snow-field and up to the summit. Suddenly we were besieged by hundreds of sporty grockles, who’d done the sensible thing and caught the cable car up.

Things looked good, walking in the Swiss Alps had to be the order of the holiday. Our evenings were spent getting happily plastered back in the plush comforts of Alex’s flat. Suddenly all blissful peace was disturbed. On Christmas night, just as we were settling down for a good feed, a phone call from Marcel threw our plans into turmoil. The trip down the Holloch was back on again, a rendezvous with the Swiss was arranged for 10am next morning. Chaos reigned supreme, frantic packing — gear was strewn everywhere in the flat. We all practised the Andy Hall technique of taking everything out of your sack, throwing it on the floor, and packing it all back again. Eventually, after a goodnight tot of whiskey, we retired contemplating our seriously large rucksacks, sacks too large for a normal caving trip.

Next day we rolled up at the Gasthaus Hollengrotte at the arranged time; to find no sign of Marcel and company. The next few hours were spent drinking coffee, eating, shaking hands with Swiss cavers, and generally hanging loose. In a flurry of activity Andy, Ann, and Pete departed with their party about mid afternoon. As the day wore on, Fran and I began to wonder whether our party would show up. Thankfully a character with a large drooping moustache waved us over, this was our contact, Rees. He introduced us to the others, they seemed quite an affable bunch, and luckily they all spoke reasonable English. Following a Swiss speedyologist up and down slippery ramps in the Holloch, with a heavy rucksack is a hot and tiring task. I didn’t see much, as most of the time I had my head down, panting. Bothered with sweat we reached the bivouac after two and a half hours. Heavy sacks off and a general breather was had by all. Phew!  Relief was short lived, we set off on another trip. Our route took us through a 5OOm. gallery, a sandy inclined crawl, liberally strewn with straws and other delicate formations. A short visit to another bivouac halts progress. its quite a cosy spot, sleeping and eating areas had been excavated from a sandbank in quite a small passage. After refreshing herb tea and a brief chinwag we stumble off back to our own underground den. This time we follow the short way back, negotiating a ‘ squeeze point’ that you could have driven a bus through.

At this point I must pause to describe our residence for the next couple of days. with walls of translucent plastic sheeting it looked like an overgrown oxygen tent. situated at the foot of a sizeable inclined chamber, whose walls twinkled with small gypsum crystals. Hence its name; glittergate. It had none of the hotel like luxuries of bivouac II, still in typical Swiss fashion it was well organized and well stocked. The Swiss didn’t seem to bother about an evening meal, they made a brew, then unpacked a large barrel full of well wrapped mystery packages. These were soon unwrapped to reveal bottles of Gin, Rum, wine, and snapp,s; plus several other spirits. All that liquid would have been too heavy to carry out, so I suppose I had to drink it. What a dreadful shame.

Tired and dulled with alcohol, an exodus to bed, the foam mattresses were pulled out and we all settled down -for a good nights kip. Only Fran was disturbed that night, she suffered a form of chinese torture, from a insistent drip from the ceiling.
The first full day underground is traditionally a long one. The Swiss packaged large sacks, full of goodies and caving equipment. Being tough? We stuffed our meager rations into small S.R.T. bags. What followed was ten hours of exhilarating caving Adopting our donkey mode we shouldered burdens of ropes and rigging gear. Up muddy ropes, splashing under a duck, squirming through a tight crawl, we reached the head of an undecended pitch. Gregor and Chris placed some bolts whilst Fran and I directed mud digging and stacking operations in the crawl. After our activities with the trowel, the crawl was christened the M6, due to its now motorway standard and many roadworks.

Abseiling down into Valhalla Hall was sheer delight, followed by disappointment when our main digging objective was found to be sumped. Oh well, what a bastard! The Swiss are glum, but it doesn’t affect their infectious sense of humor-; a decision is made. We split up, some remaining to survey Valhalla Hall, the rest of us going off to derig an aven elsewhere in the system. The undecended pitch tied into a loop that made the return journey easy.

Imagine this dear reader: You reach a narrow inclined aven, the Swiss caver that you are with, promptly invites you to help retrieve the tackle. Not wishing to appear a jibber, you gaily follow him up l3Oft. of swaying electron ladder — without a lifeline. He then hands you a 15ft. scaffolding pole to abseil down with. This promptly falls to bits, and clanks down the pitch nearly decapitating your companions below. You are now becoming a trifle uneasy, clipped to a manky bolt contemplating taking up a less scary sport, like indoor bowls. All confidence is then shattered when the Swiss caver throws all means of descent down the pitch. Apart that is from a gossimer thin piece of 6mm washing line. A jibbering wreck you thankfully reach terra firma.
Back at the camp it is time to relax, warm clothes and hot drinks. Our underground master chef, Etienne, prepares us a Swiss cheese fondu. It is rich and full of booze, Fran and I can only manage a small amount; even so we still feel pissed afterwards, but it helped to deaden the hunger pangs in our empty stomachs. Now that our main objective was sumped things seemed to slow down. So the next day the team split up again, some going to climb another aven, and Rees, Gregor, Fran, and myself embarking on a tourist trip.

Some tourist trip it was! To reach the high levels we climbed up 60m on ladder. Although broken by ledges, but with self lining and l2in. rung spacing it became an unforgettable experience. Fran later commented on how she really appreciated the Newton lifeline technique; lots of people hauling from above. Another ramp then slopes upwards for another 120m. The scale of the cave started to hit me, it was a hellava big place. Near the end of cur round trip we stopped to collect rubbish from the long abandoned Blackroom Bivouac. It was situated in a really miserable low passage and lootked like it must have been purgatory to stay at. Feeling a bit knackered we slither down the ropes and back to the biccuac.

Still no sign of food, it’s getting desperate, a Yorkshire caver needs a proper feed, not just bread and honey. Tiredness takes over now and Fran and I collapse into our pits. During our sleep Gregor and Chris leave for the surface and the decision for the rest of us is to exit next day is taken. Day or night, I hadn’t a clue what time of day it was! Packing and tidying up complete we headed off. it was a pity to leave our underground den, but it was a relief to see the outside world again. Andy, Ann, and Pete emerged and regailed us with their many tails of adventure. A general rest day was had whilst we blew our brain in a huge supermarket, and filled our stomachs and pickled our brain cells in the gausthaus.

We were all feeling mega fit, so our new year’s eve caving gear was swopped for walking gear, and we headed for them thar hills. This time the Red Rose Alcoholics expedition did the sensible thing and took the cable car up. “Don’t break the wine”, was the cry when anyone slipped. It was about a two hour walk to the Speitzmeler hut where we were going to stay. It was a spectacular setting in which to bring in the nineties. With the temperature outside at about —12c. , a very drunk bunch of cavers slithered around and fell over on the ice. Champagne and fireworks at midnight - we all made pratts of ourselves, a fine time.

The weather was fantastic, an alpine panorama stretched around us for miles, down in the valleys clouds formed as swirling blankets. In a sheltered spot we sat with our shirts off soaking up the bright alpine sunshine. Our stove spluttered, melting snow for a brew. Not wishing to waste the amazing weather conditions, hangovers had been forgctten and we’d got up on to the ridge early. Now was the time to relax after the obligatory holiday epic. (Was that the ascent or the early rising? Ed.) The nipple shaped peak of the Speztzmailer had caused the problem. An easy snow gully and scramble up to the small summit was no problem on the way up. But on the descent, with two axes between five of us, and the rope left in a sack below it was a little harder. Despite large cut steps, it was very icy and the exposed drop beneath us meant we all shat bricks. It was Andy’s swansong ,once again he demonstrated his masterly prowess by having the largest wobbler yet.

Unfortunately there was not enough snow to strap planks to cur feet and participate in some suicidal skiing. Switzerland is an expensive place, and all things must come to an end. It was time to leave this winter wonderland. It had been an incredibly active holiday and we all returned home several pounds lighter.

Chaz. Frankland

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