An Annual Caving Expedition in the Hoher Dachstein Region of Austria.
Attended 18th August 2019 to 1st September 2019
Due to a number of factors I had originally said to myself I wouldn’t tag along on an expedition until 2020, however on the 12th July weekend whilst undertaking my usual escapades away from the towns into the rural areas of Fermanagh with a few mates which resulted in an unusual tag along onto a long Shannon trip – I somehow found myself coerced to book flights and travel along with Emily Punzalan, Adam Prior and Jean-Paul Wallace heading to the Dachstein Expedition.
Much faff was had from myself regarding the planning stage, as this was the first time I had signed up to something like this. So I made use of the available guidance from Emily and the information on the Dachstein Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/dachsteincaving/) to readily prepare myself.
I was surprised at how little kit I would have to additionally purchase – only a spare jammer and pully was on my list, along with a few new outfits of clothes and new Hiking boots (mainly to replace my old glued together pair!). So, making use of the last of my placement pay checks I kitted myself out in the weeks counting down to the expedition.
On the 17th I said my fairwells to the family and grabbed the next bus from Belfast to Dublin arriving late in the evening at Emily’s house, to which after some light banter I crashed on her sofa to be awoken at 3am for our lift to the airport.
The plan was simple – fly from Dublin to Munich on 18th August, hire a car and drive to Hallstatt. From here the gear would be loaded onto the Sielbahn and we would begin our hike up the hill. Sounds great and it was, except for that hike up the mountain – I was not prepared for just how out of shape I would be, but I bared through it making a respectable time of 2hours 25minutes from Sielbahn to Wiesberghaus with Emily. Adam and JP powered through clocking in a time of just under two hours.
This is quite a beautiful section of Austria and the views on the way up the mountain may have resulted in a few extra unnecessary stoppages to take in the awe.
The accommodation in the Dachstein Expedition is based at the Wiesberghaus and the choice is there for which of the buildings you stay at. For me, I chose to stay in Camelot which is based for all expedition talks (outside of the pub) – it's where all your personal food stays, where the communal kitchen is and where all the caving gear is stored (be that outside).
There is also the Glocken exactly opposite to the Wiesberghaus which has an upstairs sleeping area and all personal and expedition equipment can be charged here (both European and UK style plugs are usually available), however it is namely for the older members of the expedition, or you can stay in the Wiesberghaus itself.
The Wiesberghaus is a fantastic spot, beer and food are available for order with the must haves definitely Frittatensuppe and Kaiserschmarrn. It will be the only source of meat during the expedition (unless you brought your own), this is because all expedition meals are Vegetarian. This really isn't a bad thing, but really depends on which team is doing the cooking on a particular night!
The Dachstein expedition can almost be thought of as a expedition and holiday on the side. There are days when you are pushing and exploring caves, completing the required objectives for the expedition and rest days as needed. But, if you want and there isn’t much happening you can easily take a day or two spent hiking, climbing, jumping on the via ferratta or heading back down the hill to spend a day in Hallstatt or Bad Ischl.
The day after arrival (19th August) we were sent as a team of six (Wolfo, Adam Prior, Emily Punzalan, JP Wallace, Oscar Doyle and myself) to attempt to excavate the snow surrounding the WUG entrance. It seemed the snow had managed to stay longer this year covering the entrance from easy access. A 4 hour process saw us slowly but surely chip away at the snow coating.
Axel Hack popped his head over the Karst as he headed up towards Bloodmoon to drop off his equipment, returning to lend a hand. Of course, it was Axel who managed to break through into the cave stealing all the hard work and glory from ourselves. A short climb down to grab the rope and some extra chipping away at the surrounding rock allowed for us to find the deviation point. Thankfully we had left just in time, as upon our arrival back a thunder storm has begun – saving us from getting soaked!
A significant amount of my time on this expedition was spent in Bloodmoon accomplishing a number of objectives within. Looking back I spent at least 3 days in this cave over a number of different days attempting to push leads and surveying.
The first of these days (20th August) involved a 3 person team trip into the cave, comprised of Axel Hack, Oscar Doyle and myself. The objective was simple – to resurvey from station 12 down to the connection to Burnies that had been found the previous year. A slow and steady process resulted in a trip time of around 10 hours whilst we had a nosey at several other possible leads which we would re-visit later on in the week.
The second trip on 22nd was with a slightly bigger group comprised of Adam Prior, Lydia Leather, Rob Watson, Nadia Raeburn-Cherradi and myself. The objective for this trip surrounding a possible connection between Burnies and WUG as the comparison between the two surveys noted an unsurveyed passage which could have had the possible connection to WUG (it sort of headed in the right direction) we also had to re-survey the connection to Burnies after an issue with Qave resulted in the last 3 stations being lost.
Unfortunately, this was also the trip I found out I still had a peanut allergy after eating an unmarked cereal bar, so storm shelter up, candles out to keep warm and a heartrate of 5000 I attempted to keep calm whilst the allergy past – obviously hoping that I wouldn’t be killed in a cave from what I ate! This was quite amusing tho as Lydia made sure for the remainder of the trip I did not forget about this! (N.B still need to go for that allergy test). So Adam, Nadia and myself left Lydia and Rob to push the possible lead, which was through a tight rifty meander. On the way out however we spotted lights and a much easier method of rigging.
My final trip into Bloodmoon on the 25th August was with Axel again – he we wanted to try and push one of the possible Isreali leads found the previous year, before we arrived at the entrance however we made use of our spare time to set up the tarp outside of the WUG entrance to make storing gear a bit easier in the area. Some doubious rigging was made to try and attempt to make the passage as safe – not sure much can be done with 8mm rope, significant rope rub and not enough anchors – but oh well, we made the best of a worse situation. The lead dropped into a tight rifting meander, as is common for Dachstein caves and ended in a tight squeeze – the passage could be seen to go forth, but alas was too constricted and unsuitable for capping! Tom Foord almost joined us but some almost incomprehensible reverberated dialect from myself stopped him from jumping down the sketchy rope. All in all a successful trip and the lead surveyed – now only one further lead remained which would be left for another team to explore.
Bloodmoon is quite a nice cave, the worst bit about it is the horrifically steep walk up to it, made worse with a heavy backpack – think 75 degree slope! It has around 150m of pitches and takes about 3 hours round trip if you are bouncing – a must visit if popping over to Dachstein.
On the 23rd August to mark our goodbyes to Richard and Éabha we decided a Tiergarten trip was in order. Tiergarten is basically the equivalent to a tourist trip on the Dachstein Expedition. It’s a single 35meter pitch into a large bowl-like opening filled with boulders and after a small amount of searching, an opening into a large ice-chamber can be found. Here we spent some time faffing about with photography.
Whilst Adam tried to perfect some shots we could be seen dicking about in the ice – from sliding to falling, it was all great craic! I look forward to seeing Adam posting the pictures he took of us all. Some highlights in here include the rock-the-boat style slide, the rave in the cave and JP attempting to play football in the cave. All-in-all a great trip.
The highlight of my Dachstein trip.
After an agreement between all parties involved we made the decision to push this trip back to Tuesday 27th August. There were two teams, one team comprised of Emily MacKinven, Tom Foord and Andrew McLeod who would be taking the time to complete a number of surveying and pushing tasks further on past camp, whilst the other team comprised of Axel Hack and myself would be pushing the number of leads surrounding the Deep Sludge area of WUG and on the following day, Emily would switch groups and join ours for some photography. The other duty for Axel and myself would be to test functionality on all of the Cave Links in the cave, especially the unit at camp.
Team One entered at 1100, followed by Axel and myself around 1200. It took us around 4 hours to descend all 590m of pitches, arriving at the bottom of the pitches at around 1600ish.
Once down, we walked toward deep sludge removing all unnecessary equipment such that it wouldn’t get clogged in mud. We headed for the initial upper lead and with the trusty Crowbar and hammer in hand we made steadfast work in removing the boulder blocking the way, squeezing into what we had initially thought would be a large open and spacious chamber with possible lengthy leads. Yeah we had our hopes far to high and the new passage ended just after 20meters into a mud sump. So we quickly surveyed the area nicknaming it peanuts (a bit like when you pay someone peanuts or give me a peanut chocolate bar). So with that disappointment, we quickly surveyed the passage to blend the thoughts out of our minds before heading down to the lower passage.
Axel had been also going on about this lead, but I couldn’t quite put it together why he had been calling it “The Exhaler.” For a solid few hours prior I thought he had been calling it “The Excalibur” but shortly after arriving I quickly realised why it was called such. Looking down on the pitch-head seen a tight constricted climb down through a meander. There was not much room and it was heavily drafting. Axel got me to sort out the drill and pass it down with associated hardware such that he could rig a pitch to investigate what was below the constricted entrance and what a tight entrance it was. On the way back up Axel managed to get stuck in a position where he found it difficult to move either of his jammers up to maintain progression, simply as he had very little body movement.
Whilst this had been happening I had been sitting for probably about 90minutes at the top of this pitchhead with around 4 layers on getting cold. So after Axel had tired himself out and got through the constriction, it was decided to get the hell out and head down to camp. But unknown to Axel at the time, the cave had stolen his watch – forever giving this pitch the name of “Time Bandit.”
Camp in WUG is quite nice – the only depressing thing is the pitch series you have to go through to get water, but apart from that its quite a cosy stay. Chef Axel decided to make us some dinner after sorting through the carbide mess to pull out the sleeping bags and other camping equipment. On his menu was delicious Cous-Cous with a side of spicy sauce and mud, some cup-a-soups for refreshment followed by a desert of tesco value chicken flavoured noodles with a sprinkling of mud for seasoning. Quite delicious if I might say so. Following the fulfilment of this meal the 5 happy cavers decided to drift of to sleep and have some cosy dreams about the journey into WUG.
The rude awakening by the party was complimented by Axel prepping coffee for us, however word had spread the night before that porridge is my specialty so it was my turn to impress the guests. For breakfast a delicious serving of honey flavoured ready-break was served with a hearty side of raisins. The meal was delicately served with some additional mud for seasoning from the previous nights washing up (yes, the washing up in WUG is completed with mud!), yummy.
Camp was swiftly packed up after the morning faff was completed and the now team of three headed out towards Deep Sludge to take pictures on the way down PL2 passage. Switching between Emily and myself as models for Axel’s shots we slowly made our way through, that was until we got to a fantastic waterfall area which is exactly when the flash bulbs stopped working! Bummer. Pissed off and dishearted from ever undertaking cave photography again, we all decided to walk towards the Aven in PL2 passage to inspect if there was any possible bolting methods that we could take. It was also here that we stumbled across the perfect place for a second camp – that was if there was a running source of water that wasn’t at least 20minutes walk away. This marked the end of our exploration and we made our way back to the bottom of the pitches, sorted out some equipment before brewing a quick pot of coffee to share between us.
The prussik back out was quite uneventful. The biggest thing to note was how awkward the first initial 150meters of pitches were simply due to how much mud was on the ropes which caused all of the jammers to constantly jam up! A complete nuisance but manageable. For some reason my tired brain decided to make me pop my Gimp-Mac on at the bottom of the 110 pitch, which meant for 300meters I was overly warm, simply because I thought at any moment I would become overly wet. This didn’t happen until the toureleen, about 50m from the entrance. Silly me. The total out time for myself was just under 7hours, of which I don’t actually have an accurate time as I forgot to check the watch before heading up, but I know I was out at around 0100, so around 36+ hours within that cave.
Joel had left some hot drinks in a flask at the exit which Axel had poured for me as he heard me exit. A quick change out of the mud-fest clothes allowed me to sit in the dark watching the stars as we waited for the others to exit, who were only 30minutes behind.
All in all a fantastic trip and I look forward to doing similar on my next return trip to the region.
For the other days that I hadn’t taken as a rest day I explored the area around the Wiesberghaus, prospecting for unexplored caves or checking caves which had previously been noted on the ViewRanger file, but hadn’t been pushed. The main day of prospecting was on the 21st August where team Ireland (Emily P, Adam P, JP Wallace and myself) prospected around the 651 trail surrounding the via ferrata area. A couple of caves were noted with possible prospects however, those we checked out which were marked on ViewRanger led nowhere. The information on these leads was passed back through the correct channels.
I also took time to enjoy the 601 trail to Simonyhütte on the second to last day of my time in the expedition, but didn’t actually ever reach the hut – simply me and Axel walked the trail to prospect for new caves in the area, getting distracted at every turn. It was also here where I managed to complete my first fully survey on a cave Axel had named “Einhöhle,” at only 24meters long it passed under itself 3 times and so was a fun and interesting cave to attempt to draw.
During the expedition everyone is assigned a group. The main purpose of these groups is to ensure a set amount of daily tasks are completed, from washing up, tidying up, filling the water jugs from the rainwater collection point, to doing the cooking – they are in place to ensure the place doesn’t become a barbaric mess. But they aren’t forceful tasks either. For example if you have a masterful plan set out, getting up at 6am to cave until midnight, you don’t have to cut your plans short to come back and sweep the floor, no, moreso others who are not busy, taking a rest day or in the hut will instead help complete the tasks. Really you just help out when you can!
For me the most fun I had was cooking. I managed to pick up many recipes for use with large group cooking (some nights we were cooking for 30 people!) whilst also gaining a taste for the Vegetarian diet. Before this expedition all my culinary skills in the kitchen were pretty lacklustre – I mean I struggled with even basic tasks in the kitchen when it came to dicing some of the less common vegetables however, quickly gaining a skill for it, before I knew it I was working with others (namely Jo and Joel) to produce some of the finest (okay maybe not that amazing) culinary delights for everyone to enjoy after a fine day of work.
These delights included;
Succulent Fried TVP (marinated in pepper sauce, garlic, ginger, veg stock, lemon juice and jam – basically anything we could get our hands on) with a side of Onion soup, Mash and Deep Fried (in a wok of all things) chips. This was probably one of the biggest clusterf*** meals I helped prepare, and it was done between Joel and myself. I think at one point we had 4 frying pans on rings, full of oil, full of chips – definitely a fire hazard waiting to happen!
A Sweet Potato and Chickpea curry; This fine delight was put together on one of my rest days, as such I remember we spent probably 2 hours faffing trying to ensure the flavour of the curry was perfect, but not too spicy to annoy those who don’t enjoy the magnificence of spice and heat. Funnily enough it’s the only recipe I wrote down all the ingredients for, shame we forgot quantities….!
Onions (many - diced)
Ginger (some – diced)
Garlic (much – crushed)
Carrots (enough – sliced)
Peppers (3 – sliced)
Sweet Potatoes (many – finely cubed)
Corgette (few – sliced)
Coconut Milk (2x Tins)
Chopped Tomatoes (Large tin, x2?)
Chickpeas (many tins)
Spices (To Enhance the Sauce Flavouring)
Curry (Spice of Life)
Tomato Pureé (4 heaped tablespoons)
Salt (to season)
Pepper (to season)
Veg Stock (vegan variety)
There were many other culinary delights, however it seems I forgot to note what they were, so instead I’ll briefly summarise what TVP is….. nah you’ll have to find out for yourself if you come on the expedition. All I will say is, its surprisingly nice.
All in all the whole expedition was fantastic and I would recommend anyone interested in tagging along to just go – don’t worry one bit about experience as you’ll quickly best yourself as soon as you head out. Joel, the expedition leader runs this as a training expedition as it allows for you to gain the experience you need to become a better caver.
Just remember to pay your bar tab with Renata at the end of the expedition!
Below is a list of equipment that I brought with me – where I could be bothered, I marked down the type and brand of equipment I own
Caving Equipment (Clothes):
Oversuit - AV Titan
Undersuit - AV Powerstretch
Baselayers (Merino Wool top with zip, thermal layers)
Helmet + Lights (Petzl Ecrin Roc, with Rude Nora 3 and mounted Sidelight)
Spare Light (Wowtac A2s)
Wetsocks (didn’t use)
2x Work Gloves
Dry Bags (EXPED – Extra-Small and Small sizes)
Tackle Bag (brought 15L but would bring much bigger next year)
Knife and Whistle (use bungee around neck – slightly safer)
First aid kit as above in Darren Drum
Personal Food (probably don’t bring peanut based food if your allergic to it)
Caving SRT Kit:
Harness (MTDE Amazonia)
Chest Harness (Petzl Torse)
Descender (Simple is probably best - my stop kept jamming from mud!)
Chest Jammer (CT Chest)
Hand Jammer (Petzl Basic)
Foot Loop (Petzl Adjustable Dyneema)
Safety Loop for Hand Jammer
Cowstails (Both Snap-gates – brought a spare pair as mine were pretty worn)
Spanner, 13mm (Snoopy Loop + Cord works well, then you can attach around your arm)
Spare Cord incase footloop broke
Sling (came in handy many times)
Foot Jammer (Petzl Pantin)
Donkeys Dick (for Tackle Bag)
Spare Karabiners (Screw Lock) x4
70 Litre Rucksack
30 Litre Day Pack
Sleeping Bag (3 Seasons)
Sleeping Bag Liner (For Cave Camp)
Above Ground Clothes:
1x Microfleece Hoodie
3x Socks (Hiking Socks)
2x Rubble Bags
2x Water Bottles (Decathalon cheap ones worked really well)
First Aid Kit (incl, Pain Killers, Blister Kit, Gaffer Tape, Eye Wash, Basic Dressings, Sam Splint, Candle, Lighter, Wound Wash, String, Foil Blanket etc)
Washkit (Soap, Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Roll-on deodorant, Towel)
Multi-tool (v. handy for fixing dodgy equipment)
Repair Kit (Thread & Needle)
Brewkit (Small stove, propane, lighter + coffee/hot drink - stored inside the pot)
A new Gimp Mac
Survival Candle (tea lights just aren't powerful enough for alpine situations
A good sized tacklebag
- Don't Arrive on a Sunday! This is something we completely forgot about as a group collectively. On Sundays in both Germany and Austria, all of the supermarkets and grocery stores are closed which makes it quite difficult to get a decent shop done - we had to resort to asking Richard and Éabha to buy stuff for us and send it up the mountain on the Monday when they were coming up
- Pringles fuels the Irish team on the expedition. They are a fine snack. Topics of discussion from Pringles include how many tins can be fitted into the Seilbahn based on the dimensions, weight and proportions of the tins in the Seilbahn!
- A SIMPLE or equivalent descender is a better shout than the stop especially when going down WUG with the muddy ropes - my STOP kept jamming at one point due to mud clogging (but it is fairly new!)
- Wetsocks (the Warmbac variety) are useless and you really don't need to bring them. I found them to be awkward and sweaty so after one trip just switched to my a pair of hiking socks and regular socks, much better!
- Definitely bring a second pair of footwear other than the hiking boots, like crocs or an old pair of trainers. Much more comfy than wearing hiking boots all the time!
- Get an Allergy test before you start eating peanuts underground.