After arriving in Austria at around midnight the previous evening (sharing the driving of Djuke's car, in convoy with Alex and Jess), we had a fairly relaxed first day sorting out base camp - putting up some tarps and setting up the bier tent in the hot sun. In the late afternoon a bit of a windy thunderstorm struck, so we spent the rest of the day sorting out basecamp again after the tarps tore and the bier tent leaked!
I think I had a few too many bottles of Gösser last night. I woke up well after 10 am with a splitting headache and a tongue so furry that it needed shampooing. The camp was a hive of activity and everybody was ready to go for a first carry up to the plateau. After drinking as much water as I could stomach, I drove a car load up the toll road, the meandering of the car remarkably coinciding almost exactly with the hair pins on the road. We carried a first load of gear across the plateau, up to top camp - no mean feat in my fragile physical state. We spent a few hours at top camp hauling gear out of winter storage and setting up the rainwater collection before heading back down to the valley in the early evening.
|The plateau in fine weather.|
With only 3 weeks for the camping team to rig down 204, set up an underground camp, use it and then dismantle it and derig the cave, we realised we were in a race against time. So Djuke and Kathryn went underground today to rig the entrance pitch and the big 70m pitch, 'Gaffered'. Meanwhile, Nial, Jess and I did two heavy carries of gear up to top camp (separated by an ice cream at the Bergrestaurant). We got to top camp the second time to find Chris in a mildly concussed state, having stood up too quickly under the stone bridge, finding a particularly sharp bit of ceiling in the way!
We had originally planned to get up very early to walk up to top camp and rig further down into 204, but it was raining heavily when we got up at 7am. (This was possibly a blessing in disguise, as it would turn out that the rigging trip would take far longer than we'd anticipated, and adding a walk up to the bivy to the day would be a bit excessive!) It rained fairly solidly all day and the forecast was no better for tomorrow, so in the late afternoon, rather than waste any more days, we walked up to top camp anyway, with the intention of doing the rigging trip tomorrow. We got thoroughly soaked in the process, with both Kathryn and Djuke taking some nasty looking falls on the plateau, but things were moderately cosy at the bivy. Nial and I spent some time packing the 4 bags of rope (about 350m or so), 50 hangers and 20 slings that we'd take down the cave with us tomorrow - it looked like a crazy amount of gear! We snuggled into our bivy bags before 10pm, listening to the rain still hammering down outside the stone bridge, and the tarps flapping in the wind. Unfortunately, the tarps weren't quite in full working order and, whereever I moved by camp bed, I found myself under a drip or with a tarp flapping in my face, resulting in a pretty damp night and a wet sleeping bag!
With so much rigging to do, the plan today was for Nial and I to set off obscenely early with the rope, with Kathryn, Djuke and Jess setting off three hours later with as much of the camping gear as they could carry. Hopefully they wouldn't catch us up until we were at the proposed underground campsite location, otherwise there would be a lot of cold waiting around to do, whilst we rigged the pitches. Given how wet my sleeping bag was, getting up at 5:45am wasn't as much of a chore as I expected!
At 7am Nial and I were teetering across the plateau with two bags of rope each - this must be some sort of club record for early starts! We made steady progress through the cave, our loads slowly becoming lighter as we continued to rig downwards. The rigging duties were shared between us, so that we could stave off the cold as much as possible, but Nial did most of the scary bits! As we reached the Underworld (the horizontal level above the campsite) we could hear the girls nattering several pitches above us, so we turned on the afterburners a little to try and keep ahead of them.
We finally made it to Dead Good Bat Chamber in the early afternoon, and sat in the sand for a while eating some food, both of us quietly contemplating what it would actually be like to camp here in a few days time. Twenty minutes later (what awesome timing!), Kathryn and Djuke arrived carrying several bags of camping gear each. To avoid too much traffic, Nial and I set off for the surface pretty much immediately (finding Jess a couple of pitches up). It was a tiring 4 hour prussic out of the cave, which made us all feel that maybe camping wasn't such a silly idea afterall. Even lugging the empty tacklesacks through the horizontal sections was almost more than I could manage by the end of the trip! The five of us made it to the surface early enough to walk wearily back down to the toll road and drive down to base camp after a physically demanding but really productive day.
Time underground: 11 hours
A well earned day of festering at base camp to recover from yesterday's exertions! We spent the day planning the first camping trip - drawing up lists of what was required, buying extra food in Bad Aussee, working out the timings for the night shift and the day shift (we would be 'hot bedding' to make things more efficient - carrying three people's worth of gear into the cave was easier than six) and looking at the cave survey to finalise which leads we'd push. The underground camp would be known as the Butlins Holiday Camp
Kathryn, Holly and I were going to be in the night shift for the first camp, meaning that we'd not be heading underground until tomorrow. This made for a very restless (and rainy) day at base camp, especially when the day shift (Nial, Djuke and Jess) left to head up to top camp in the afternoon
Days 8, 9, 10: the first underground camp
Another wet morning in Austria! The three of us had a damp walk up to top camp (with Fer and Aiora, who had just arrived and were doing their first carry), and were finally underground at 3:30pm, with some tacklesacks full of food and clothing, and a drill. We were planning on staying down for two 'nights'. Half way down the cave I casually looked in the drill bag and noticed that the setting tool for the bolts was missing - disaster! I spent the next three quarters of an hour prussicing back out until I found it sitting on a ledge below the Gaffered pitch. What an embarrassing waste of time, after all our earler efficiency! At 6:30pm we finally made it to camp and had our first underground cup of tea.
|Holly and Kathryn making tea at Butlins|
By the time we made it to camp (5am) we had been up for 22 hours and were cold and tired. Surprisingly, once we'd turned the stove on and made some hot drinks, it was warm enough to sit around (on small pieces of roll mat) in our furry suits. This also helped dry the suits and thermals off. We ate boil-in-the-bag curries with couscous and had some more hot drinks, before waking up the day shift with even more hot drinks. I had been worried that it would be very cold when sleeping at camp (the caves are about 1 degree above freezing), and that I would be unable to sleep in the absolute darkness. Both fears were unfounded. With extra thermals, a spare furry, a fibre pile sleeping bag and a fleece liner, all in an old tent inner, I felt as cosy as I had ever done (possibly even as snug as a bug in a rug) and was wearily excited at the prospect of finally spending a 'night' underground after so much planning. Having been up for so long we were all totally knackered and slept right through the day with no trouble at all.
|Holly gets ready to go to bed, whilst Djuke gets up.|
We spent our second 'day' (or night - every time I looked at my watch I had to work out whether it was am or pm!) in an area of Steinbrückenhöhle known as The Wares, looking at some of the many un-explored passages in the hope of extending the cave towards Tunnockschacht. Most of the leads choked after a few metres, or connected back into known bits of cave. We found two interesting passages however. The first led, via a sloping mud-floored chamber, containing some strange sand castle formations, to the top of a pitch with a freezing cold draught coming up it - a very good sign - we would return another day with fresh drill batteries. The second dropped down a steep narrow stream canyon to a horizontal walking-sized passage. We left this lead still going, at the bottom of an awkward climb. We had had a productive day.
At 7 am on Day 10, we were in bed once more. For various reasons, none of us slept very well this time. Our body clocks were no longer fooled and had now worked out that it wasn't actually night time afterall. This meant that we weren't as sleepy and had to get up loads to pee! In addition, the constant dusty atmosphere had started to irritate my nose somewhat - a condition known as 'cave bogeys'! By the time 'morning' came round (6 pm) the day shift had exited the cave. This was a surprising psychological blow (and meant that nobody was around to make our breakfast!) - I felt ready to get back to the surface myself now.
We spent the next few hours surveying and finishing off the lead in the Wares that we'd left the previous day before beginning the long prussic out. The ropes above the Underworld were beginning to get excessively muddy - sometimes when I slid my hand jammer up, it would slide straight back down the rope again. At 3:30 am, on Day 11, we finally dragged our ailing bodies out to a beautiful clear, starlit night on the plateau. I'd like to write something romantic about sitting outside gazing up at the night sky. Unfortunately, there were more pressing matters at hand: the first thing we did was to dig a hole and bury the 18 person-days worth of human excrement that we'd so lovingly collected (in compostable bags) over the past three days.
We woke up at 8:30am to a beautiful morning at top camp. Later in the morning, with the day shift, we walked down to base camp. Having only seen brown things for the past three days, the views across the plateau were particularly stunning; vivid, green and sharp, with a dozen or so wild gemze eyeing us from afar. It felt wonderful to be on the surface and as I lounged in the river at base camp a little later, I wondered where I'd find the motivation to camp underground again! Entering the survey data into the computer revealed that 204 was now about 500m longer, with many tantalising leads still to be explored. Over dinner at the Gasthoff, we discussed what we'd learnt from the first camp: sqaures of roll mat to sit on were a necessity not a luxury; drill and lamp batteries needed to be kept warm; we could have carried fewer thermals and shared sets between day and night shifts for sleeping in; poo bags need to have the air squeezed out of them to save space; and above all, camping underground in Austria works! As the beers took their toll on our 3-day dehydrated and underfed bodies, conversations became somewhat less coherent. I found myself dreaming of finding the Tunnockschacht connection and finding bottomless pits and vast caverns. Before I knew it I had been persuaded to spend even longer underground on the next camp.
Another well earned rest day was spent eating ice cream in Bad Aussee, buying more cave-food, planning the next camp and removing cave-bogeys from my nose.
Day 13, 14, 15 and 16: the second underground camp
It was already time for the next camp! Nial, Kathryn and I were now making up the day shift and Nial had somehow persuaded us to have a three night stint underground. How could this be happening already! I'd sworn during the harder moments of the last camp that this was it, I'd had enough and would quit caving altogether as soon as I was on the surface once more. Yet, two days later, memories of how cold and dank it was were dulled, but the excitement of new finds was still vivid. So here I was dragging myself, and a tacklesack, through the 204 entrance crawl early on a Friday afternoon, not to surface until the following Monday evening. Seriously, how the hell was this happening!? This is not what 'long weekends away' are about!
The three of us made it down to camp in the mid-afternoon and dumped our food for the four days. Then we headed back up the bottom pitch, Chalk and Cheese, on our way to the draughting hole we'd previously found in the Wares. Two metres below the pitch head, I found that a section of rope had rubbed through to the core. This was dangerous, and we would really have to rebolt the pitch to make it safe as a matter of some urgency. For now I tied out the damaged section of rope and we made sure that we prussiced very gingerly. In the Wares, Nial drill-bolted his way down the freezing cold pitch until he'd used up all the rope (we had about 90m with us). We left the lead still going and headed back to Butlins for a curry (alas no poppadums) and a very cosy night's sleep.
|The rope rub on Chalk and Cheese|
After another comfortable night's sleep (albeit slightly colder owing to having got wet feet the previous day), we spent Day 15 pushing and surveying the passages beyond A Grand Day Out. The cave changed in nature. We found a steeply downward sloping and smaller section, leading to a rifty horizontal area - the Chicken Run. A narrow section of cave (a Close Cave) led to a pitch which we also descended. We returned to camp with another 250m of survey data and woke the night shift from their fitfull day's slumber.
|Tortellini on the second night of camp 2.|
We reached the Underworld (the next horizontal area) after a couple of hours and began shuttling the gear through the next set of passages. By now the bags were so muddy that it was becoming very difficult to grip their haul cords. I was on my own a few minutes ahead of the others when I heard voices up ahead. A blessing from the heavens had arrived: Emma, Olaf, Gareth and Holly were hoping they'd be down the cave in time to see our camp and scrounge a cup of tea! Instead they agreed to act as tacklesack mules! They kindly took half of our gear from us and set off out, whilst the three of us continued upwards at a slower pace, but with morale vastly improved. We derigged the next pitch series and pulled the 200m rope up the pitches with us (known as paella'ing). At the top of Gaffered, we had accumulated a lot of rope again and were beginning to struggle. But our four heroes returned again! They'd dumped our gear on the surface and, feeling sorry for our plight, turned straight back around and went underground again! Together we pulled 300m of rope up the Gaffered pitch which we would leave there for another day. We finally emerged at 7:30pm, in time for a beautiful sunset (after the ceremonial burying of the poo of course...).
|A gorgeous sunset as we emerged from the cave.|
I won't attempt to describe quite how repulsive our thermals and underwear were - they had been worn for 4 very sweaty days non stop.
Time underground: 78 hours
Another beautiful day for a walk down to basecamp (having first attempted to sort out the repugnant pile of muddy camping gear at top camp).
Nial, Kathryn and I walked up to top camp (with some new UBSS expoers, to show them the way). We spent an hour there trying to make our caving gear sufficiently flexible to wear once more, and then a further hour underground pulling out the 300m of rope that had been left at the top of Gaffered. When we resurfaced things were clouding over rapildy and it had started raining heavily by the time we made it town to the toll road. A very pleasant meal of cheesy stodge followed by fuity stodge was then enjoyed at the Loserhutte.
Time underground: 1 hour
Day 19, 20 and 21:
Expo was pretty much over for us now :-( We spent the next day recovering, sheltering from the rain, washing our caving gear in the river, and looking forward to the expo dinner. Then it was a day of packing and more sorting of gear, before setting off at 9:30pm and driving across Eurpoe, finally ariving in New Mills 25 hours later.
Got a spare twelve and a half minutes? Then here's a video of the trip: