Beyond my comfort zone: Caving in the Totes Gebirge
It's been six hours since we left the quiet, calm space of the fossil level and started dropping down hundreds of metres of spray-lashed pitches. Six hours fighting hypothermia with not one alcove or sheltered ledge to escape the unremitting, icy gale. We're at the head of another 50m pitch with anchors going in for the final bag of rope but I can't wait any longer. I strip half naked to piss in the churning pool at the base of a waterfall then battle for ten minutes to get dressed again, my useless, numb fingers refusing to grip my central MR tight enough to turn it. Over 800m above me the sun is baking the limestone pavement. What am I doing here, struggling to hold it together?
Having spent several weeks as usual this summer with the Cambridge University Caving Club (CUCC) expedition to Austria, I took a few days out in the final week to join the local Austrian club, the VHO (Verein für Höhlenkunde in Obersteier). They were having their annual week of expedition to the Plankamiraarea, a few kilometres east of CUCC's patch of the Totes Gebirge.
After five weeks of expedition caving I wasn't expecting anything too stressful and I thought I knew what to expect as I'd joined them twice before to cave in Wildbader Höhle. With my flaky German I only realised we were heading on a multi-day underground camping trip the night before we set off.
Wildbader Höhle was explored to -874m in 1982 by a team of tough French speleos from the Société des Amateurs de Cavernes de Rioz (SAC). Since 2013 VHO has been systematically resurveying and extending the cave. However, bad weather in the past two years meant that they hadn't yet reached the deepest horizontal level because the only route down is via a wet
shaft series. I set off down to the underground camp with two tackle sacks - my own, laughably small by Austrian standards, plus another I was lent that was over twice the size. En route, three of the five of us diverted off to start re-rigging the deep, wet pitch series. However, after a couple of short pitches, we reached a big shaft where the overnight rain meant that a powerful waterfall was shooting across it to hit the far wall, filling the shaft with spray. Since we were sleeping in our caving under suits and the cave temperature is only 2°C we weren't willing to get soaked so we left the rest of the rope and headed back up.
Whilst unpacking at camp, I spotted a wetsuit. Hmm, what's that about? It's for Robert, I was told. Strange, I thought, surely he's not diving here? Then later, mixed in with the bags of food, I saw a neoprene hood - err, so what's this then? After all, the Austrians think British cavers are crazy for going anywhere near pitches with water. They explore flood-prone caves in the winter, when water levels are low and predictable as any precipitation falls as snow. Well, as far as I know they do except that, just this once, and unbeknownst to me, our plan for this trip was to try to bottom the notoriously wet Wildbader Höhle, dropping from the camp at -400m to follow the master streamway down another 500m of aqueous pitches. And so they all had their wet gear with them. WHY HAD NOBODY THOUGHT TO TELL ME? I even had some neoprene back at the CUCC Base Camp, neatly packed away, that I could have brought. And it looked like I was supposed to be in the team of three going deep tomorrow.
The next morning I could hear them talking about me but I couldn't follow what they were saying. Eventually Paulina said that Robert and Glitzi would wear their wetsuits under their over suits and that I could use her thin rubber suit which should keep the water off my furry underneath it. I didn't really understand what I was being offered but anything had to be better than getting all my clothes drenched. It turned out her suit was a Russian-made, lightweight, membrane caving dry suit. Despite being taller than Paulina I managed to get into it, though once I had my harness on I couldn't raise my arms far ... but hopefully there'd be no stretchy free-climbs. It felt constricted but also toasty and comforting - hurrah, things were looking up. However, barely five minutes after leaving camp, my wrists were being squeezed unbearably tight by the seals: this just wasn't going to work.
I struggled out of the top half of the suit then tied the arms around myself, so effectively I was wearing pontonnieres under my PVC over suit. I was now perfectly equipped for wading deep canals .... but that wasn't where I was heading. I was scared that, with water falling on me, I'd fill up like a huge tackle bag without drainage holes ... and then what?
The three of us set off down the pitches. The water levels hadn't dropped from yesterday and we were each struggling with a beast of a bag. Together we had around 300m of 10mm rope plus rigging gear, a hefty drill, spare battery and all the rest of the usual junk you need. Around 250m down we got to VHO's previous limit of rigging. Here, we slowed down as Glitzi started to put in thru-bolts whilst Robert began surveying, doing notes and instruments. I was at the back, tasked with the no-brainer, donkey-plus-Disto-target role.
Is this the worst water yet, I kept pestering Robert. No, no, it probably gets wetter further down, as inlets come in. Sheeesh. The low point was a long drop that ended with a 10m section of broken ledges where the rope forced you right into the middle of the main water course. I abseiled through, water pounding down on me and emerged to join Robert at a small ledge. The shaft here was 7m in diameter. Some bits didn't even have much spray. All innocence, I shouted to him above the din: could the rig perhaps not have gone, err, a little further away from the water? Not possible, I was told, firmly. Oh woe.
Fortunately below here Glitzi found a dry parallel shaft series for a series of drops, so we escaped the spray and the thundering din. Unfortunately the draft was even stronger. Pitiably, I tried to hunch behind my tackle sack to shelter from it.
As we slowly crept deeper I knew I wasn't the only one struggling to keep my temperature from steadily dropping: I could see the tell-tale, jittery dance of the laser beam of the Disto
as Robert tried to take readings and I felt for him as I watched him battling to control his hand shake enough to draw his survey notes. I found out later that he and Glitzi were in just 2mm of neoprene under their cordura over suits - madness. They also told me that, when the original French explorers got hit by heavy rain down there, they couldn't keep their carbides alight. There was nowhere to shelter so they'd put plastic bags over their heads so they could breathe and then prussiked up through the waterfalls in the dark. There's always another level of misery to sink down to.
Finally, seven hours in, first Glitzi then Robert whooped and then I too touched down in the huge chamber at the base of the shafts. I climbed stiffly up the boulder pile to them, out of the gusts of spray, and we shook hands formally and grinned inanely - we'd done it, reaching the deepest point in the cave. We stomped off down the huge phreatic passage slowly driving some warmth into ourselves, took photos and heated drinks on the Jetboil (an excellent, well-designed bit of kit - light and really fast to boil). I then braced myself and breezily asked
so, what now? Do we finish the survey down here? No, it's late -we'll just head out. Phew.
Five hours later I was at last away from the water. My arms were sodden from ice-water running down the rope and onto me from my jammers. The prussiking hadn't warmed my core despite having to thrash myself and my fatter-than-me tacklesack up through some tight pitch heads that vied with the most awkward that Yorkshire has to offer. We made it back to camp before 3am after fifteen hours of effort. The other two woke and cooked for us whilst Robert and Glitzi peeled off their wetsuits and changed into their dry furries with shudders of pleasure. No such instant relief for me but, from now on in, it was just a waiting game. I pulled off my sodden outer layer and tucked up in my pit to slowly warm up so that I could start the long process of drying off my clothes.At last, back within my comfort zone.
About to start the two hour walk up from
the valley to the surface camp at Plankamira; left to right, Becka, Paulina, Robert,
Peter, Glitzi, Heidi and Robin.
About to start the two hour walk up from the valley to the surface camp at Plankamira;
left to right, Becka, Paulina, Robert, Peter, Glitzi, Heidi and Robin.
The French survey of Wildbader Hoehle (1625/150) after exploration from 1977-1982.