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!

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