The speleo grillfest down on the river Isar in Germany last year was really just another method to Shanghai cavers. Guy Jackson wrote about it in a recent Pelobates article "Bumbling in the Dales"; all you have to do is replace the Marston’s Pedigree with Augustiner Hell, and bump up the quantity.
I must say that I spent the first few days wondering how to get out of it. The plan was to drop to the bottom of Stockelhöhle on Untersberg, to the north of the Berchtesgadener Alps. (These Alps form quite a well known jigsaw puzzle tab shape in the bottom right hand corner of Germany, and were once famous as Hitler’s happy holiday retreat. Nowadays, the mountains remain, but the "Eagle’s Nest" represents just another stop on a pan-European bus tour). At present, Stockelhohle is just over 600m deep and still going. There are two routes from the entrance, one of which I’ve spent some time helping to garden and boulder bounce, the other of which consists of a narrow, tortuous descending rift passage. For those of you who know something of German politics, the latter route is known as Franz Josef Strauss Strasse, which may help to explain my determination to opt out of the trip.
The day slowly dawned, and one of the organisers, Werner Zagler, phoned to ask if I was still interested in the trip. I muttered some words of agreement, not being able to think of a good enough excuse at such short notice. Werner replied that that was "Syooperr", but that we would be off to Brauseschacht on Reinersberg instead. Ap-parently, Stefan Glaser had had some ideas about connecting it to Reinersberghöhle. We wouldn’t be bothering with Stockelhöhle after all! What a pity
Unfortunately, I couldn’t leave with them on the Friday afternoon (24th July), and joined the group instead at Stahlhaus (pronounced with a ‘Sh’ at the beginning) on the Saturday evening. Being a complete masochist, and to occupy the afternoon, I decided to go for a stroll up over Hohes Brett - a mere 2340m high. Why not take a full rucksack of caving kit too? The route up to the summit followed an interesting karst valley (so I also lugged a few litres of water), with a strange aircraft landing gear section sticking out of some rocks at about 2050m, complete with rubber tyre. It turned out that this is in fact a signpost for knowing members of the Verein für Höhlenkunde in Munchen (VHM - the local club, of which I’m a member), that directs them to a bivvy complete with sleeping bag, food, water etc. Not that it’s a difficult place to get to, of course.
Well, once over the top of Hohes Brett, I was faced with a pleasant descent of 600m down to Stahlhaus, nothing to do with steel, but named after the famous Carl von Stahl (eli?). Anyway, it’s a rather pleasant alpine hütte, complete with beds (mattresses, blankets and pillows: you just provide a sleeping bag if it’s cold), costing about 14DM for the night, plus large quantities of food, beer and beer. I reached the hütte at about 8:30pm, which is sad, because they usually finish hot meals at 7:00! However, it wasn’t too difficult for them to whip up an old Bavarian veggie speciality, a soup consisting of pea and numerous assorted sausages, together with a litre of beer or six. With this, I could gladly relax on the balcony, watch the sun set, and wait for the guys from VHM.
Werner and Stefan were the first to arrive at about 9:15, complete with smiles and muddy boots. (They insist on wearing expensive mountaineering boots underground, and of course totally bugger them in the process. In contrast, I usually show off my caving origins by bringing a clean pair of wellies out of my rucksack, which I have carried up over 2000m high mountains etc etc ...). News was that Brauseschacht was closed with a large snow plug, but that they had entered Reinersberghohle with the aim of looking for a way through to Brauseschacht instead. Pushing a small choke for 5 minutes in a little visited area had opened up about 400m or so of new passage, they reckoned. Following Werner and Stefan came Robert Spieler and Elmar Bachmann, the last of our VHM team for the weekend.
Beer, food, and yet more beer were ordered until everyone was ready for bed at the miserable time of 10:00pm. For those of you not familiar with alpine huts, I’m afraid the bad news is that everything finishes at 10:00 in the evening: beer, food, lights - the works. And what’s amazing is that practically everyone actually goes to bed at this time! Except of course for Brits and cavers who usually sit outside with a bottle of schnapps, or in the case of Meilerhütte, get invited into the kitchens for free schnapps - but that’s another story.
You’ve no doubt all at some time lain half awake in your bunk at Godre Pentre on a Sunday morning, listening to the bleating of sheep outside as they pass by. "Curses", or "stuff this for a game of marbles" you might say, as you pull your sleeping bag tighter over your head. Even worse if it happens to be one nameless member, arriving at 7:00am in search of cavers to accompany the "caravan people", whoever they might be! Anyway, picture if you will, the idyllic sight of an alpine cow, complete with lush meadow. There’s only one minor, problem: the bell. Multiply this by twenty or thirty, apply continuous ringing and add a dash of 5:00 am. Excuse me whilst I go and scream in the corner.
So after a pleasant kip of 1 hour, we all awoke at the thoroughly European time of 6:30 (cynic or what?). Werner, Stefan, Robert and Elmar all ate their cold provisions from home, largely comprising bread the consistency of oatcakes, assorted meats you wished you’d rather not know about, and a particularly vulgar cold German fluid which once came close to a teabag. Yours truly naturally indulged in bacon and eggs cooked to order by the huttendienst, with lashings of steaming coffee (we have a lot to teach these Germans).
Then off at a romping pace to the entrance: a mere 80 minutes walk through wild alpine terrain, akin to walking from Ystradfellte to the SWCC cottage and back in the same time, but with a somewhat greater height difference. The main problem was when we came up behind a couple of tourists, who just fancied a stroll up to the top. With Werner in the lead, and carrying the ubiquitous Bavarian umbrella, they were more or less bulldozed along the rather narrow path. Had they been British, one would hope that they might have ‘retired’ early. However, their German insistence on not bending over an inch ensured that they were swept along at a great speed of knots. We left them in a somewhat exhausted state just as the path topped out into a pleasant dry valley. From here it was only a short climb up the rugged karren, and there we were at last, greeted with an intensely cold wind blasting out of the cave.
Once inside, it was a familiar routine: follow the main passage upstream to the first shaft, which had been the end point of the cave for about 20 years, considered blind. A lined traverse however leads around the corner (you provide the line) into an obvious continuation. This is maintained for several hundred metres, before crawling through the most incredible example of the Venturi effect I’ve ever come across -it puts the Giant’s Windpipe to shame. If you can keep your carbide alight (and I don’t know anyone that ever has!), you’ll emerge into larger passage which soon winds up amongst some very large breakdown chambers (typically 30m high by 20m on each side). Alternatively, you can put your electric light on, and arrive at much the same place.
After about 1.5km we turned right, a new direction for me, as the main passage continues straight into the mountain. Another couple of hundred metres, and we arrived at the breakthrough point, a dripping chamber about l0m in diameter, mostly with a solid wall. However, to the far left, a jumble of boulders hinted at a possible continuation, and 5 minutes digging the previous day had in fact resulted in a tight squeeze over a prominent boulder into a small crawl, finally opening out to a mud-floored, wide passage.
Before I even entered, Stefan and Werner had decided that the squeeze was too small for me, and heroically started bashing away at the rock with a lumphammer. "Entschuldigung sie bitte" I said (or words to that effect), "but could I possibly try to get through?" So I had a go. No luck - they were right (how typical - these guys have built-in Vernier gauges). Anyway, a few moments later, and I was through, into what is described in German as "Neuland". How true - the cracked mud floor had been hardly touched (only by yesterday’s party). Our job was to follow up some obvious leads (Werner and myself), whilst the others would accompany us to the end, and survey out.
The Neuland was primarily a number of large chambers, each connected by smaller, muddy passages with the odd squeeze. After about 3 such chambers, the general orientation stops at a solid limestone wall, and the passage turns left, through a very muddy series aptly named "Sonnen Studio". The nature of the cave changes dramatically as, over another freezing Venturi point, you hit the top of a 30m pitch. There’s an annoying 45 degree slope about half way down and at the time of the trip, you had to play about with rope protectors - something that could be cured easily.
A short distance beyond this pitch, after a section of passage, is an interesting aven which looks as though it goes back up 30m: this really must be climbed one day to look for the Brauserschacht connection. Beyond, the passage enlarges, eventually turning a corner to meet a very solid wall with the scallops roughly 30 to 40cm diameter! (How slowly does the water have to travel to get scallops that big?) There is an awful lot of breakdown here, at the final point of our new passage, and Werner and I clambered, squeezed and fell down various likely leads, all unfortunately ending with no way on. (This was worse than the Ogof Ffynnon left hand series, for those of you who know that rather strange ‘little’ cave).
After an hour or so exploring this area, we decided to head back after the surveyors, following all the likely leads. The first good lead was a short Sm pitch on the left hand side (heading out), of a largish chamber. I don’t know if it was that Werner had suddenly lost his enthusiasm, but when I started to free climb down, Werner was busy shouting words of encouragement. It wasn’t long before I reached the bottom, opening out into a small, rather muddy chamber, with an obvious tight pitch continuing in the floor at the end. Werner proceeded to pass all my SRT kit down a rope, and I soon had a rig tied up around some firm-looking belays. Oh lovely, reminiscences of tight rifts in Belgian caves, but with stones splashing in water at the bottom, things sounded hopeful. About 9m lower down, it was clear that this was a dead end. With several heaves to the top once more, I was proud to announce the conclusion of a not-to-be repeated trip in "Englander Schacht".
I had a quick look at the 30m aven (climbed in parts) whilst Werner prussiked up the 30m pitch a little further on. Just past the "Sonnen Studio" was a crawl to the right blowing a fairly tantalizing breeze. This led after about l0m to a chamber, the only way on a climb up above a jumble of rocks. The climb itself looked straightforward, with a few bold moves to be made - however, one fall, and a broken ankle was the order of the day. Werner started off, but about two-thirds of the way up, one of those awkward leaps was required, and with handholds that came off, left him somewhat defeated. "Oh, I’ll give it a go", says I, "the draught is too good to stop now". Well, OK, it may not have been the best tactic, but a lunge forward grabbing onto anything that appeared seemed to work. With a rope thrown up the climb, Werner quickly joined me. The top opened into another chamber with a high aven up one side. But the draught, amazingly, seemed to have disappeared. A possibility was that the aven took it; there certainly appeared to be no draught coming from anywhere around the chamber.
Leaving this little gem, by running the rope around a large boulder and trying to remember the Italian hitch, we soon got back into the main passage and headed for the surveying party.
Stefan, Robert and Elmar only had about 50m or so to go now, back to the break-through point, and had even managed to find a decent closure loop on the way to check the surveying accuracy. Werner and I tried following a small stream, which didn’t appear to go anywhere (!), and we had a quick look at some passage largely filled with mud, except that you could see over the top for l0m or so; worth a follow-up, as the dig might only take an hour or two.
Collecting all our kit together, it didn’t take long to head out, and the surface was reached at about 5:30, with a rewarding warm, sunny evening in which to change. A quick "brotzeit" followed, and we were legging it down as fast as possible to Koingstalalm, a picture-skew wooden alpine hut surrounded by yet more ding-donging cows. It maybe about l600m or so above sea level, but getting your litre of beer was no problem at all (and much cheaper I might add than you’d expect to pay at the famous Oktoberfest!).
It would be another 2 hours or so of walking, back to Stefan’s car parked down by the Jennerbahn Mittelstation. However, with a glorious sunset in front of us, over some oddly protruding mountains known locally as the "witch of Berchtesgaden", our thoughts were on what the weekend had brought: a surveyed total of 599.6m (oder so) of Neuland, and some more leads still to push. But the witch must have had the last laugh, as a return trip wasn’t made for one reason or another during the end of the summer, and when the first snows arrived, we knew that the secrets of Reinersberghöhle would be locked away for yet another year
Drumroll for effect, or ... Ja mei, noch em bischen bier, oder was?