Thursday, August 22, 2013

Caving in Slovenia, and Other Europe Fun

View from the summit of Viševnik
A week of congressing in the Czech Republic was followed by a caving expedition in the heart of Slovenia. More time spent in the Alps after our earlier trip to Austria, but this time our friend Matt had invited Andrea and myself to join him on Viševnik mountain. While living in Slovenia for two years, he had spent time developing the area into one of his caving club's project locations.

Camping was comfortable. We set up in a clearing about 200 meters away from our parking spots on a service road in the Triglav National Park. From there, it was another short (but steep) hike to our main cave: Evklidova piščal (Euclid's flute) is a fairly technical cave, currently somewhat over 400 meters deep and -- due to some additions as a result of our expedition -- a little over 2 kilometers long.

Garmin and Matic setting up the survey gear in Evklidova piščal -- a DistoX connected by Bluetooth to a PDA for sketching. None of those old-fashioned instruments and paper that most of the Texas cavers still use. ;-)
Caving in Evklidova piščal was, well, not quite as comfortable. I went on one survey and exploration trip in the cave with Matic and Garmin, two of the Slovenian cavers who had joined our contingent of about eight American cavers for the week. Lots of constrictions and fairly tight meanders required a fair amount of squeezing and climbing in all sorts of directions (upward, downward, sideways), only every now and then interrupted by relatively benign rope work. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted, had ripped a huge hole into the butt of my PCV suit, and felt like an unprepared and too-big-for-the-cave novice caver, compared to my new Slovenian friends who I'm sure I slowed down significantly. Hadn't had this kind of experience for a while! ;-)

Other days on the mountain involved ridge-walking (looking for caves) on a plateau that features both tons of exposed limestone and a lot of mountain pines; registering locations of karst features and potential caves by means of GPS; and surveying a number of smaller caves. One of the biggest results of the expedition was the discovery of a new cave that was pushed to a little over 300 meters depth and keeps going. Very exciting!
Panorama of the plateau that we spent our time on in the quest for new caves.
After a week on the mountain, we took a break for two days of "tourist caving" in some of Slovenia's best-known and famous caves and karst. This included walking through some huge caves and limestone bridges in the Rakov Škocjan park, visiting the famous Škocjanske jame show cave, and rappelling down (and climbing out of) the impressive entrance shaft of Kačna jama (Snake Cave).

Tiny caver marked for scale in the Kačna jama entrance pit.
This concluded Andrea's and my participation in the Slovenia expedition. Together with friends from Austin, we headed from there to Berlin to visit with some friends of mine for three days, bike around the city, and eventually make our way back to Austin.

Andrea emerging from a yet-to-be-named cave on the Viševnik plateau.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ice Cave Touristing in Austria

Before attending (and presenting at) the International Congress of Speleology in Brno (Czech Republic) at the end of July, Andrea and I went on a pre-congress excursion to some of the most fantastic ice caves in Austria. (Ice caves, roughly speaking, being caves formed in rock -- typically limestone -- and having perennial ice formations in them.) For a week, Austrian speleologists took us (and a number of other cavers from around the world) on a tour of these marvels in the Austrian Alps.

Beautiful rillenkarst in the Austrian Alps...
We spent most of our time in and around the Dachstein massif of the Northern Calcareous Alps. A good number of the caves we visited were commercially operated show caves, where we either pretty much stuck to the tourist trails and snuck in in between regular guided tours, or in some cases went into the cave after it had closed for the day and veered off trail to follow our guides through non-commercial parts of the cave. These included Dachstein-Mammuthöhle, Dachstein-Rieseneishöhle, and Eisriesenwelt.

Ice crystals in Dachstein-Mammuthöhle.
Our most involved trips went to Schwarzmooskogelhöhle and Eiskogelhöhle. Hiking to the Schneevulkanhalle (snow volcano hall) of Schwarzmooskogelhöhle took us through some beautiful scenery in the Alps, while the hike to Eiskogelhöhle was more straightforward, but required a number of skills inside the cave. Most of our caving trips involved wearing crampons to be able to move around on ice floors.

Rappelling into Hall of the Circe in Eiskogelhöhle.
A bonus caving trip not on the original itinerary took us to Kraushöhle, which did not contain any ice, but stands out as a cave formed by hypogene development. (Meaning, dissolution driven by water from below, rather than water cutting downward into the rock. [PDF]). And our last day took us to one of the eastern-most ice caves in Austria for a quick visit before heading to Brno.

A frozen waterfall has formed a huge ice stalagmite on the floor.
The excursion was extremely well organized and offered a good deal of education on ice caves in general and the genesis and other geological aspects of the particular caves we visited. We made new friends, and learned to enjoy Austrian schnapps -- in particular Zirbenschnaps, made from pine cones. Good times!