For once, this is going to be a non-technical post. I hope to share some of what I’ve been up to in my summer holidays this year.
In late July, I spent two weeks on the Löser plateau in Austria, as part of a long-running caving expedition exploring the caves up there. The plateau is a huge expanse of limestone, opposite the Dachstein, and it contains hundreds of caves of varying sizes. The same expedition has been going there every summer for the last 40 years, slowly working its way across the plateau, trying to find big and deep caves. This was the first time I’d joined them.
Some brief background: What is caving? It’s a sport where people descend caves, generally to the bottom (or as deep as they can get), to see and map what is there. It typically involves a lot of water (less of that in Austria than the UK) and mud, cold temperatures (definitely cold in Austria), and technical rope work to descend and ascend vertical shafts (‘pitches’). It combines the skills of climbing, scrambling and surveying; and often requires unshakeable enthusiasm for prolonged physical misery. It’s good fun.
This year, we focused primarily on two existing (and large) caves: Tunnock’s, and Balcony. I spent a number of my days down Balcony, at around -300m (that’s 300m vertically below the entrance of the cave). We explored various new bits of passage, including a 100m×80m×80m chamber which, sadly, was a dead end; but good fun to get to and explore. Other trips included setting up the ropes (’rigging’) in some bits of cave so they could be re-explored from previous years; and re-surveying some other pieces of passage where the original surveys were incorrect.
Aside from trips down Balcony, we spent some time prospecting for new caves, finding a couple of promising new ones, and another which looked promising then turned into a dead end after 100m of depth. Since I left, another few cave entrances (some new, some rediscovered from 2012) have been found, and leads have been pushed even further in the existing caves.
What are conditions like in the caves? Unlike caves in the UK, most of the ones on the Löser plateau are dry apart from one or two sections. It’s only very recently that exploration has got down to a depth which routinely sees water. There is some mud, but not as much as in the UK. However, what there is is thicker and more pervasive. There’s generally more sand than one sees in caves in the UK, which does a good job of gritting up equipment and hands (think about what happens whenever you go to the beach). The caves are cold, but not ludicrously so — a few of them are cold enough to maintain large ice columns, but I was warm enough in my UK caving gear without extra thermals.
Why do people do this expedition caving? Many reasons, but most commonly, because it takes you to interesting new places, it’s a technical challenge, it’s a physical challenge, and the other people who do it are good fun to be around.
When not caving, due to tiredness, laziness or weather, people spent their time in the valley, relaxing and drawing up surveys of the sections of caves they’d recently explored (‘nerding’). There are various bits of software for this, which take the legs of dead-reckoned survey and tie them together, using error distribution through loop closures to increase accuracy. The results are pretty nifty, though it takes a while to get up to speed with the software and draw up your surveys efficiently.
Caving’s a fun sport with opportunities to go places where literally no human has ever been before, if you take it far enough. It’s easy to get into, too. Read more updates from the expedition if you want.