Dachstein Caving Expedition 2019

There have been British caving expeditions to the Dachstein plateau, high in the Austrian Alps, for over 50 years. The Dachstein is a world-class caving destination with large amounts of both limestone and potential. The annual summer expedition attracts hardened expedition cavers, students and others from a large number of caving clubs and countries. In 2018 the expedition made the historic connection between WUG Pot, high on the plateau, with the monster 112 km Hirlatzhöhle system at the bottom of the mountain. This increased the total depth in the Hirlatzhöhle to over 1500 m, making it the 9th deepest cave in the world.

As the depth of the cave being explored and the distance from the surface has increased, so have the hazards. Cavers camp in the cave to make exploration practical, but this means being cut off from weather reports for several days. The entrance descends through 550 m of vertical sections called ‘pitches’, and in rain these can turn into dangerous waterfalls.

View over the caving area (© Paul McCarron)

The 2017 exploration also discovered a deep section of passage that ‘sumped’ (filled completely with water) as snow on the surface melted. Fortunately, the explorers were not on the far side of this passage when they discovered it blocked. To reduce these hazards, expeditions can use specialised cave radios which can send and receive messages through kilometres of rock. These can send weather forecasts down to the cave camp, which is a safe haven even in the worst weather. This can ensure that cavers do not get trapped behind sumps or caught by flooding while exiting the cave. However, the high price of cave radios meant the Dachstein expedition was not able to afford to purchase a complete set of radios.

Ghar Parau Foundation funding allowed the Dachstein to purchase a single underground radio, which was used in conjunction with a surface set purchased by Cambridge University Caving Club (CUCC) and also part-funded by Ghar Parau. By sharing equipment between CUCC and the Dachstein expedition, both expeditions are able to make use of this important, but expensive safety equipment on their respective expeditions. The equipment is available for use, subject to conditions, by other suitable British caving expeditions.

The expedition runs a pre-expedition training weekend. This was successful and well-attended, with 39 cavers teaching or learning surveying, underground survival skills and advanced SRT techniques. The weekend included a full-day rescue practice from a vertical cave entrance series. The Dachstein has focused on training newer cavers in expedition caving for twenty years and we are pleased to continue this.

Digging snow from the entrance of WUG Pot (© Paul McCarron)

Recent years have discovered large amounts of new passage in WUG Pot, the main expedition cave. This culminated in the 2018 connection to the Hirlatzhöhle, but exploration continues to produce open leads, and so expedition members were keen to return. However, on arrival the cave entrance was found to be buried under several metres of snow! Not to be deterred, a day was spent digging out the cave entrance to allow access to the cave.

Exploration this year has focussed on the area close to the base of the entrance pitches and around the camp. Several resurveying trips mean that virtually the entire explored cave now has a modern digital survey (to ‘survey’ is to use instruments to draw a map of the cave). Meanwhile, a bolt climb at the end of a rising passage led to open walking passage which could provide a new easier entrance to the cave.

Another expedition objective was to connect the cave PL2, which ends in a huge boulder chamber last reached in the 1980s, with PL2 inlet in WUG Pot. Surveys show that the two caves are now just tens of metres apart, and so an ambitious trip to reach the cave from both ends simultaneously was launched.

Much of PL2 has already been re-rigged in recent years, so it was hoped that it would be possible to reach the bottom in one trip this year. Unfortunately, the cavers in PL2 ran out of rope and time in a cave that was much wetter than recorded, and so were unable to reach the bottom.

In WUG, cavers were able to reach what is probably the bottom of the boulders at the bottom of the PL2 inlet, but could find no way through the boulders and digging upwards proved impractical. This connection had to be left for another year…

Alex Noot bolting in Thundergasm (© Ari Cooper-Davis)

The Dachstein is often a caver’s first expedition, and we encourage people with less experience to join in so they can learn expedition skills, and apply these to search for new caves and then bolt, explore and survey their discoveries. Blood Moon, discovered in 2018, has been partly surveyed and explored by newer cavers this year with the hope that it will provide a higher entrance to WUG Pot. The connection to another cave, Burnie’s Pot, has been surveyed. Another cave called Tiger Trap has been similarly explored by a committed team of younger cavers. This cave required some enlargement before progress could be made, gaining a series of tight pitches in rifts. The cave has been surveyed, with 200 m of passage and a maximum depth of 57 m.

Finally, the 2017 cave Thundergasm has now been surveyed and pushed to 250m deep, primarily by new expedition cavers, and is now becoming a much more serious deep Alpine cave.

The 2019 Dachstein expedition achieved many of the expedition objectives and leaves next year’s expedition with many targets and objectives. With the help of the Ghar Parau Foundation, explorers can now push these deep caves in greater safety, and we are grateful for their support.

Text: Andrew McLeod
Photos: Paul McCarron & Ari Cooper-Davis

Download: Summary Expedition Report


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