I’ve finally got round to penning a few words about what the other half of daysyearoff was up to while Julia was gallivanting around the Lakes and India. I spent six weeks on the CUCC expedition to explore the caves of the Loser plateau near Bad Aussee in Austria – not for the first time it has to be said: this was my nineteenth visit since 1993. I guess that either demonstrates a certain lack of imagination on my part, or shows that the CUCC expo must be bloody good.
So to a large extent, I spent my summer doing exactly what I have done most summers for the last twenty-odd years. There were a couple of innovations however. The first pertains to clothing. Austrian caves are quite cold (about 2degC) so you need to wrap up warm – but that leads to an overheating problem when hauling yourself and copious quantities of gear around the cave. The solution: fishnet undergarments. I came across these in the context of cross country skiing via Andy Kirkpatrick’s blog (thanks to HW – fishnet aficionado – for putting me onto this). Whilst the temperatures when skiing are much lower than in a cave, the problem is substantially the same. The idea behind the fishnets is to create a layer of air next to the skin that serves to moderate the wild temperature swings that occur between periods of activity and inactivity. I can report that it appears to work: I perceive that I have generally been at a comfortable temperature when underground for more of the time compared to previous years. In particular, I found that when I was working hard and sweating like a pig and then stopped moving, the extra layer was particularly effective at negating the sensation of sitting around in a soggy, gradually cooling, undersuit. There was one problem: I experienced a moist posterior due to continuing to wear cotton underpants. An obvious solution presented itself – and it worked.
The second innovation is that I decided to try my hand at cave photography. Photographic documentation of our finds in Austria has generally been pretty erratic, and I figured that one way to contribute to improving the situation was to take a camera underground myself. I never had any intention of trying to take award-winning pictures: Robbie Shone will not be quaking in his shoes at the prospect of competing with my offerings. However, a low quality photo represents better documentation of our finds than no photo at all. With that in mind, I entered negotiations with the chief photographer in our household. The deal was that Julia would get a new SLR for Christmas so that I could take our point-and-press camera underground. Having delivered on my end of the deal, Julia decided that she needed a small camera to take to India after all. This turned into an excuse to buy yet another new gadget, which meant that I did manage to take a camera underground this year and got a few vaguely presentable shots, some of which are on this page.
On the caving front, since I was in Austria for a longer period than usual, I figured this would be a good opportunity to have a go at a relatively deep lead. At the start of the expedition, the deepest known point in one of our caves – Tunnockschacht – was 470m below the entrance. The ongoing passage had very strong airflow (blowing up the series of shafts). This is a good sign that there is more undiscovered passage waiting to be found: the air must come in from the surface, via as yet unknown caverns measureless, and blow out of our shaft series. The only issue was whether I could find enough mugs to accompany me down there – and in the end this proved to be not at all difficult. It took five trips to get all the rope in to the pushing front, and there were then a further six trips exploring new territory. From the previous exploration limit, we went down a further three drops to emerge in a substantial collapse chamber (about 100 x 30 x 20m). This was connected to another similar sized collapse chamber via a 65m drop. Just as it looked as though we were running out of promising leads, on the last available day for exploration we stumbled across a 5m round tube heading down out of the lower chamber – we ran out of rope and can see it continuing into the unknown.
All pretty exciting stuff, and ample motivation to come back for the 20th time next year. It is getting to be quite hard work however: the bottom is now about 625m below the entrance – not much in world terms, but quite deep enough for me (my personal depth record in fact), and it is only going to get further. After six weeks slogging in and out of there, I was quite tired.
As promised, here are a few low-quality pictures:
Loser plateau with the Dachstein and other mountains beyond, taken at about 7am with the mist still sitting in the valley. Why on earth would anyone want to go underground when the surface looks like this?
Wookey placing a bolt in preparation for the first descent of “Inferno” (so called because the wind at the top of it was bloody freezing).
Wookey surveying “Kraken” – the chamber at the bottom of Inferno. Note the black crust on the mud that is mostly untouched except where we have tramped our size 10s across it.
A dirty great big black space in Kraken – descended two trips later.
A crappy shot of The Bottom. Chris Densham is on surveying duty, and the left a big tube leads to who knows where – come back next year to find out…
Proof that I was actually there – clinging to the deviation on “Magic Glue” pitch for dear life, about 3/4 of the way to the bottom. Photo by Fleur Loveridge.