Avid readers of this blog will recall that I spent six weeks of last summer exploring caves in Austria. Near the end of the 2015 expedition, we had found a 5m diameter tube heading down at 30º into the unknown beyond the end of our one remaining rope. When summer 2016 rolled round, it was time for a rematch.
Exploration in this part of the cave was becoming quite arduous due to remoteness (600+m deep), and trips were starting to take quite a long time (typically 15 hours) and were only going to get longer as the exploration front moved steadily further away from the entrance. Fortunately, in 2015 we had spotted a potential site for an underground camp in the large chamber, named Kraken, near the bottom of the cave: there was a nice, flat mud floor in a sheltered corner of the chamber, with a water supply nearby. What more could one wish for?
So it was that I found myself as part of a three-man team charged with establishing the underground camp – something I had never done before. On arrival in Kraken chamber, it turned out that the “flat” mud floor of my memory was not quite so flat in reality. Thus we ended up digging out the mud with sub-Neanderthal excavation tools and building a retaining wall to hold back the spoil to create a flat area for our custom-built tent. We managed to find enough nobbles on the wall from which to suspend the tent, apart from one corner which required a boulder to be rolled up hill (a three-man job) so that we could reach high enough to place an anchor. With that done, “Camp Kraken” was born.
After a remarkably warm and comfortable night in our newly established luxury bivouac, it was time to go exploring. I admit to a certain degree of nervousness at this point. The continuing tube looked very promising, but you never really know what is going to happen. It might lead to untold caverns measureless, but equally it might choke up with boulders just round the next corner, or run into a sump (flooded passage), or disappear up an aven that would require equipment we didn’t have to climb… the possibilities are endless. The only way to find out was to go and have a look.
Off we went with a 100m length of rope – considerably more than we had had at our disposal the previous year. I had the privilege of going first, and set off down the tube. It kept on going down… then down some more… and more, until eventually I reached the end of the rope. By this point, the gradient had slackened off somewhat so I cautiously got off the rope and poked my head around the corner – and there was a 10m round passage heading off.
With a mixture of relief and excitement we went off exploring and clocked up 350m of new passage with half a dozen promising leads before returning to the surface to relay the good news. Subsequent campers who went in found more passages and even more leads. The region was christened Hydra since, for every lead that closed down, another two appeared.
A week or so after the first camp, I got the the opportunity to go down again. The plan was that three of us would stay underground for two nights, giving us two days to explore before exiting on the third day. Things did not go entirely according to plan. The exploration part went reasonably well: although all the leads we explored ultimately closed down, we were quite satisfied with our finds. At 11:00 on the third morning, we prepared to exit. One of my companions got kitted up and wandered off towards the rope… except when he got to where the rope was supposed to be, he couldn’t find it. Kraken is quite a big chamber and it is easy to get disorientated, so we spent quite a while wandering around looking for the rope without any success. Then we looked up, and saw a loop of rope caught up on a ledge at least 40m off the floor – presumably pulled up there by accident by the last member of the previous camping party. There was no way we could reach it. We were comprehensively marooned.
We had left a “call out” (the time at which we were officially overdue) on the surface of 09:00 the following day – so we knew nobody was going to come looking for us until then. Fortunately, we had brought more food with us than we intended to eat, so Camp Kraken was well stocked. We had plenty of battery life for lights and plenty of equipment, so we went off for an additional bonus day of exploration. We found a muddy passage that ultimately closed off, and rigged a pitch which had a couple of promising leads at the bottom. We called the pitch Indian Rope Trick since it appeared that one of our colleagues had achieved mastery of this particular illusion.
We spent an additional night in camp, and around 11:30 the following morning heard the voices of the rescue team heading towards us. The rope was freed and we exited without incident. The guys on the surface were understandably concerned by our non-appearance, and – although they had correctly guessed approximately what had happened – they weren’t taking any chances given how deep we were underground. Consequently two waves of rescuers had been sent in, and the third wave were just heading in when the message came out that we were ok. In addition, the Austrian cave rescue had been alerted and eight of them had turned up at the entrance in a police helicopter (which had gone by the time I got out, so I missed the chance of a lift down the hill).
I want to publicly thank the members of the expedition and the Austrian cave rescue for coming to look for us. We knew we were fine, but they didn’t and the action they took was both timely and appropriate. I always knew that, if I ever did get into a sticky spot underground, my mates have got my back. It’s nice to have that proved.
It turned out that one of the leads at the bottom of Indian Rope Trick was very important indeed. A later camping party went to look at it, and romped off into a master cave with a substantial stream in places. It eventually choked, but not before reaching 903m depth – by some distance the deepest we have ever been in Austria.
Eventually, the end of the expedition loomed and we had to get a substantial amount of rope out of the cave. The last camping party made a start by removing some of the ropes below camp and the final pitch, leaving a substantial pile behind for the next derigging party, of which I was a member.
What we needed was a paella. As we proceeded, all the ropes we collected were fastened together to make one continuous length that was hauled up the pitches (aka Pull An Extremely Long Length Altogether). By the time we had finished the pile was four times bigger than at the start (about 1200m in total) which disappeared into ten bags and was spirited out of the cave.
So that was it for another year. Camp Kraken was an unqualified success and definitely made for efficient exploration of the deep levels of the cave. Altogether there were seven camping trips involving eighteen different people, and between us we found and explored over 3.5km of passages. That represents a better return than I could ever have hoped for, and I feel justified in promoting the original lead from which it was all found as a good place to look for new cave.
Same again next year?
PS: My camera didn’t make it underground this year – so thanks go to Chris Densham, Becka Lawson and Fleur Loveridge for permission to use their photos.