Loser Plateau, Austria
Catherine Hulse – a student new to the world of expedition caving – describes her first experiences of caving abroad in Austria, thanks to the sponsorship of the Ghar Parau Foundation.
I was a student coming to the end of my third year caving with the University of Bristol Speleological Society (UBSS) and it was about time I got myself onto an expedition. With UBSS not running one that year, I was enticed by promises of massive shafts and wide open passages to explore in the Austrian Alps with Cambridge (without even having to do any digging- was this really possible?!).
The caves we were exploring are in an area Cambridge University Caving club (CUCC) have been going to for over 30 years, the Loser Plateau, close to the village of Altausee. While caving, we stayed at Top Camp, a bivvy site on the plateau under a rock bridge where up to 20 of us would curl up on rocky shelves after a hard days caving and eat noodles cooked with a variety of exciting powdered flavourings and bulking agents (smash and minestrone soup being particular favourites).
Our days were filled by exploration of three caves: Steinbruckenhöhle, Tunnuckschacht and Kaninchenhöhle. After brief tourist trips in the first two caves, I was sold to the latter with it’s entry requirements of only 50m, 30m and a 25m pitch to get in with plenty of proper caving in between meaning a minimal prussic (in comparison) out when tired and ready for bed. Before arriving, a major breakthrough had been found by the first of this years expoers and there were exciting prospects for us in Kaninchenhöhle. Leads after a bolt traverse made on a previous expo had been explored and gaping draughting passages seemed to lead off in every direction.
One of the more promising leads in the new section was still going and had lead to the discovery of yet more leads. And on another stay on the mountain it went big. On the final day of pushing, I was part of a team that found 956m of passage in a single trip, as we stomped through the cave, excitement building with each survey leg. We were eventually halted by time and the minor obstacle of a pitch, and headed back admiring how far we’d come, forced to ignore the draughting standing side-passage openings off the main route we were following on the way back.
And this wasn’t the only big find of 2011. Just a few days earlier, a connection was found between the other two caves, making a system of 27.9km in total. Together, the discoveries have made next year’s expedition look as exciting as ever, as after our final trip the SMK-system (of which Kaninchenhöhle is a part) is estimated to be around just 30 metres from the closest part of Steinbruckenhöhle, creating the promise of an opportunity to make the system one of the biggest caves in the world if connected.
Summary of the total finds in 2011, and final cave lengths
Cave End 2010 End 2011 2011 finds
Tunnockschacht 8.3 km 10.2 km 1.8 km
Steinbrucken 16.5 km 17.7 km 1.2 km
SMK - system 63.5 km 66 km 2.5 km