Safe support at the edge of the abyss: When everything hangs from an anchor

9. October 2019
An international team of speleologists is on the right track in Upper Austria: the deepest cave in Europe. Again and again they go into the depths of the Dachstein mountains. Especially here, where the trail leads vertically down and can be extremely cold, clammy, slippery and wet, secure rope fixings are vital.

“Twelve people have already been on the moon,“ says speleologist Axel Hack. “But there are spots on our planet that nobody has ever stepped onto.“ What is underneath the surface of the earth in caves can‘t be measured and observed by satellites. Axel Hack and his colleagues again and again make their way to this unknown territory and bring to light what is hidden here. An area of research that is also called speleology. “We explore caves to learn more about our earth so that we can protect it better,“ explains Axel Hack.

© Axel Hack

Adventure Dachstein Caving Expedition

Since 2012, he has been a member of the Dachstein Caving Expedition, which has been exploring and mapping the caves on the plateau of the Dachstein Mountains in Upper Austria for more than 40 years. “More than 850 meters under the surface, far away from any help, we make our way through the narrowest passages and deep shafts,“ Axel Hack continues to describe. “We fight against coldness, hard rock, flash floods and liquid clay.“ Numerous vertical lines were interspersed with former river loops that had dug deep into the rock, Axel Hack adds. Crossing these so-called meanders was a power-consuming business. Not to mention the many steep walls, which the speleologists had to climb again and again.

“Especially here, where the up-and-down trails are so vertical and slippery, the cave ropes must be securely anchored,“ says Axel Hack. “Here, we rely on fischer steel anchors. I feel safer when I am connected to the fastenings of a German quality manufacturer.“ Therefore, thousands of fischer bolt anchors have already been installed on the expeditions to fix ropes in the caves, such as the FBN II and the FAZ with eight millimetres in diameter. Most of it was used in the Wot U Got Pot (WUG) or “Meltwater cave.“

© Axel Hack

Breakthrough for the speleologists

The breakthrough came in early September 2018: after more than ten years of research in the WUG, the explorers discovered a new passageway from the WUG to the Hirlatz Cave. As a result, the explored total length of the underground labyrinth grew by 7.2 kilometres to over 113 kilometres. That makes the Hirlatz Cave the 20th-longest cave in the world. In depth, she ranks ninth with a difference of 1,560 metres in altitude.

Since then, the explorer team has been hoping to connect with additional higher situated caves. Prospects are good that the system will grow vertically by up to 90 metres. In terms of depth, the Hirlatz Cave catapulted itself on the sixth place in the world ranking and second in Europe. In addition, it is intended to explore further shaft caves. Therefore, the explorers from all over Europe returned to the abyss of the Alpine major cave from the 17th of August to the 5th of September. Meeting point was the Dachstein plateau on the Hallstatt side. “In expeditions like this, it is a top priority to have a safe equipment,“ says Axel Hack. “As before, we knew what lay ahead of us: temperatures of around two degrees Celsius, high humidity and frequent flooding of the vertical sections as well as passageways full of clay.“ Partly, the walls into which anchors were to be inserted were coated with a layer of clay of some centimetres, Axel Hack adds. “And the Dachstein limestone is hard and composed of thick layers. In some cases it is also cracked or corroded.“

© Axel Hack

Packing for the subterranean world

The speleologists took plenty of ropes, bolts, cordless hammer drills, freeze-dried meals and camp equipment into the subterranean world. All these items were transported in special backpacks made of tarpaulins and robust enough to be dragged over the ground. Also part of the baggage: 300 fischer bolt anchors FBZ 8/10 made of stainless steel (A4) as well as galvanized steel. The fixings provide secure hold in the stubborn limestone. Bent M8 flaps made of aluminum or stainless steel Inox 304/316 are anchored into the rock. With quick links attached to these flaps, the ropes can be hung.

At first, the weather prevented the group from progressing: “The WUG, our gate to the Hirlatz cave, lay under seven metres of snow. But where there‘s a will there‘s a way – which we were able to clear successfully,“ reports Axel Hack. “However, thereafter it rained for days and the caves were heavily flooded.“ Finally, the subterranean gorges and passages could be explored after all. The team was able to do further research at the Thundergasm Cave that they had discovered in 2017. Last year, the researchers measured it at a depth of about 200 metres, but were stopped by an unknown meander. This time, the team learned more. “While exploring we never know what to expect: in this case we went from a deep and slippery canyon into a wide corridor and then into an area with falling water and rust-red, crumbling and sharp-edged stone. On the ground, a deep and torrential meander wound its way,“ Axel Hack describes the unknown mountains. The speleologists also learned a lot about the WUG. “Coming from vertical shafts and canyons, we entered huge fossil tubes.“ Sticky mud was constantly spreading on the equipment, doubling the weight of the boots. From the Chutney Mine they went to the Glory Holes, which they explored and measured: a very muddy dead end with a breach at the end. Also the Left Fork section and the so-called Time Bandit were further explored.

© Axel Hack

The speleologists brave unfavourable circumstances

In addition, the team continued to explore the end of Uphill Gardens. Here Axel Hack and his team drilled through a steep 25-metre clay ramp. Partly, the rock had to be cleared of a ten-centimetre deep and moist layer of clay in order to be able to set the bolts. The team worked under these unfavourable circumstances for four hours. After about 30 set anchor bolts they were through: The explorers stood in the spacious, unexplored Passage No. 33. “I‘ve never seen a more beautiful passage in the WUG. It is amply decorated with stalagmites and other formations,“ Axel Hack says enthusiastically. “However, after a good 100 metres we unfortunately had to turn back. It is true, the passageway stretches much further into the mountain, but we were running out of time. And we had to come back to the ropes and then climb up 650 metres.“ After a total of 18 hours, the team arrived at the surface exhausted but safe and sound.

Although they haven‘t been able yet to discover a further connection between higher situated caves the explorers have taken plenty of new knowledge about the mountains and their winding ways to earth‘s surface. They‘ve got much nearer to their goal. “Throughout the expedition, the fischer bolt anchors we used were stable, even in surprisingly bad rock,“ Axel Hack says with a sigh of relieve.

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