Supporting a dive in Hirlatz H?hle - Dachstein (Pt.1)

A tour to Donnerbach Siphon, Hirlatz H?hle

Dates: Wednesday 31st October, Sunday 4th November
Present: Wetti Wielander, Peter Hu ?bner, Katharina Bitzer, Georg Bitzer,
Tanguy Racine
Aim: To support a diving excursion to the Donnerbach Siphon, to survey two canyons in the vicinity of Pendler pitch and Sprengstelle bivouac respectively.

Wednesday 31st October

Wetti and I met at the caving clubhouse in Obertraun by the Hallstatt lake on the Wednesday in the evening. The plan was to wake early the next morning and meet the rest of the cavers, Peter, Katha and Georg at the parking spot near the entrance to Hirlatz H ?ohle. The cottage, a converted workers? home was well heated, spacious and comfortable; it was alo well furnished in reading material, in short the perfect place to meet other cavers, and while away the evenings discussing past caving exploits.

Thursday 1st November

A good night?s sleep was had, which was all to the good considering the long trip ahead: four days and three nights inside Hirlatz cave. Four days and three nights in near freezing temperatures. When the morning dawned, we repacked our bags, whereupon Wetti passed along the diving gear I would have to carry to the pushing front. With the tackle sacks filled to the brim, we departed Obertraun for the meeting point with the other three, stopping on the way at the Hirschsprung source, one of the resurgences of the system, where Wetti had previously dived.

We drove to the outskirts of Hallstatt proper and parked near a small hy- draulic power station. Barely a few minutes had passed that a blue caddy pulled up and parked next to us. Out jumped Peter, Katha and Georg; we shook hands, greeted each other and proceeded to get changed into our caving gears. Some final repacking ensued to spread the weight more evenly between the two divers, Wetti and Peter and the porters, Georg, Katha and I. Wetti pointed to the towering limestone cliffs to the south, at the base of which it was possible to spot the main entrance of the Hirlatz cave system. Some photos, and we were off for the steep approach climb.

We passed the Simony memorial, entered the forest and started our winding way up, first on mats of fallen leaves, then on scree from a gully, halting under beech trees to pick up their fruit and eat their nuts. Finally, we ended the slog uphill by traversing a grassy slope to the foot of the cliffs. Right across lay the first of many ladders we would climb during the extended weekend underground.

Peter led the way, into the draughty entrance, past the first gate and into the very first chamber where Wetti filled up the exploration logbook. For my part, I followed Peter up the entrance climbs of the Zubringer?, the introduction to Hirlatz. We hopped and climbed over deep potholes, including the ?Bathtub?, a particularly clean, deeply circular hole Peter and Wetti had once bathed in. The rest was a slog up muddy slopes sometimes aided by a handline, sometimes by a ladder which led to a draughty labyrinth of dry passages and eventually, at the end of Zubringer, a downclimb into the larger passages of the ?Alter Teil?, the old part of the cave.

The next objective was to climb up into the middle levels of Hirlatz, via the longer ladders of Schachthalle, gaining 60m in height before the Pendler pitch. There, a metal walkway bridged only half the shaft and was immediately followed by an inclined ladder, which gained access to an upper gallery where we stopped for the first time. Wetti showed me the plan of this part of the cave and indicated that a small canyon she and Peter knew existed needed surveying. There was probably 50 m of passage to add to the cave.

I was given some blue chalk to mark survey stations, while Peter, with tablet and laser disto drew the survey and Wetti took photographs. We plunged into a small, drippy side passage that immediately led to a small, but rather lovely vadose canyon taking a relatively large volume of water. A few twists and turns downstream, the water plunged over the lip of a pitch, rebounded on a ledge to spray the entire shaft, and disappeared in the darkness of the Pendler pitch. This was the end for us, but overall, we had gained a little over 100 m of new passage, some of which decorated with flowstone and in some places hosting bean ore. Quirky. In the meantime Katha and Georg has proceeded to explore every nearby crevice to keep warm.

Next, we moved further up to a breakthrough point called Sprengstelle, where the first of our underground camps lay. In the large sandy passage we found spaces to sleep, lay the roll mats and had a quick hot brew before Peter, Wetti and I continued for some further surveying not far from camp.

Next to the water collection point, we ascended a muddy slope in order to reach to the apex of one of the large abandoned phreatic tubes, where a small water inlet had carved a small canyon within the layered clayey sediments. The actual lead Wetti wanted to survey turned out to be the upstream continuation of the small water inlet.

Peter went first into a small meandering crawl and disappeared for some time. When he reappeared he confirmed that the about 20 m of ensuing passage were both worth the survey and conclusively ?dead?. We followed, crawling over the mud banks; at the bottom of the passage a sheet of water was running over a flowstone. Eventually the mud and passage ceilings were to close together to allow any further progress, and it was clear no one had bothered digging this relatively minor inlet.

Back at the camp, before we settled for the first underground night, Wetti took me on another tourist short tour to some decorated pools further down the main Sprengstelle passage. On the way she showed me a plaque under which she lit a candle, in remembrance of a friend who had sadly died on a return journey from a tough trip, within minutes of the bivouac.

Friday 2nd November

This was more of a travel day: we got up in the morning some time after 8.00 am, repacked the bags slightly (the fins from Wetti?s bag, which Katha volunteered to take, were rotated to offer a more comfortable fit), and started the ascent towards abandoned passage we had briefly seen the day before.

This was my second big Austrian cave - and even though I have been caving for five years, there was something truly awe inspiring about the silent, sandy and not necessarily decorated, passages of the Hirlatz cave, these big palaeo- phreatic levels. First their size, the majority between 5 and 10 m wide and high head clearance, which make the caving more akin to hiking indoors than anything else. Then, their character, which changes every so often, and I?m not talking just of ascents and descents in quick succession, but the colour, texture and quality of the sediment underfoot which increases the allure of the cave. And then, it goes on for a very long time.

I think it takes time to adjust one?s expectations, but coming from a back- ground of exploration and sport caving in the UK where ?500 m? of walking passage is an often repeated joke, something to aim towards, the very real presence of not just 500 m but a kilometre or more of nearly uninterrupted walking passage was completely disorienting. It was certainly a relief when we approached a quick succession of landmarks, turns or stoops which were much more easily registered.

About an hour out from camp, we found a water refill point where a stream cascaded from the ceiling into a pitch (something Wasserschacht), and where a reflective bollard caught the attention. Some traversing later, we ended up going past a muddy but decorated chamber with flowstones and caramel coloured stalagmites, some slightly smaller sandy passages and a quirky passage full of ?Nougat?: a flat surface of slippery hard mud we could only cross through hands and knees crawling.

Then the silent passages resumed, we passed a Hermit stalactite and not too far beyond the small Elephant?s Graveyard, where blocks which looked like massive vertebrae littered the passage. Beyond that, we had to navigate our way through a boulder choke, helping one another with the bags, which ended with a slippery ascending pitch rigged with a traverse, an upwards squeeze through boulders, and a larger space: Drei Tor Halle.

Once at the top, we traversed a pitch, and continued onwards through a very potholed section requiring care to put one?s feet on the sharp and now mud-covered edges of sculpted rock, often switching between full body bridging and bouldering moves. All with quite heavy bags. But soon, this passage gave way to a smaller set of galleries where we seemed to corkscrew our way down for an age, never quite able to stand up. Eventually though, we emerged into more spacious passage again where a junction beckoned.

We opted for the downwards sloping passage to our right, which ended with a dug out squeeze in beautiful white sand: the way onto the New World. On the other side of the squeeze, we trod upon a high sand bank and further on, onto some dessicated clay where the cracks could be seen to extend further than 5 m down: impressive! The cave continued: ups followed downs followed ups, but overall, it was clear we were still going deeper.

Eventually, we reached another junction between two big ways on: on the left, about ten minutes caving took us to Wolkenbivak, where we took some barrels containing dry sleeping bags, and a selection of roll mats, before turning back around. Our aim was to go right, to Fragenzeichenbivak (question mark bivouac), but before heading off, we picked up fourteen kilograms of lead which had been stashed at the junction. It put two in my bag, but immediately lost them to the ensuing crawl. These Wetti kindly picked up. The passage soon improved at the large Fragenzeichen passage, you guessed it: a descending, abandoned phreatic tube with lots of sand, and boulders to hop onto. On one of the downclimbs, Wetti decided to throw her roll mats down before downclimbing herself. It was a throw perfectly aimed at my head, which led to a string of swearwords being uttered in the silence of the cave.

At the bottom of the big Fragenzeichen - this had been a good six hours caving from our first camp, we realised we were actually quite close to our goal, but there were side passaged in all directions, so Peter and Georg went ahead to inspect one of the branches, reporting an SRT pitch ahead. This could not possibly be the way on. Further on the main branch, we found another junction. Peter disappeared again for some time, before completing a round trip and reappearing behind us.

Thankfully, he?d located the Fragenzeichen bivouac, so we followed him up and down, traversed around a pitch and found, in the middle of the passage several places where the mud was relatively flat. In total, the bivouac could accommodate six to seven cavers, but not many more.

We unpacked our gear, checked the time (mid afternoon) and decided to have a look at the passages beyond camp, both to collect water and reconnoitre the area. Only about fifty metres down from camp, the hitherto ubiquitous mud disappeared. We had just entered a beautifully sculpted, clean washed maze of passages, with photogenic potholes, scallops, fault breccia with striking shades of red and ochre against the grey rock, and here and there, some protruding Megalodont (large heart shaped mussel) fossils.

Peter, who had been there a decade earlier, tried to remember a short-cut from these passages to the Donnerbach series he and Wetti had planned to dive the next day. We somewhat adventurously found an SRT-free way to the head of 15 m pitch opening directly over a large fault plane. This Peter instantly recognised as being connected to Donnergang, but the way down eluded us. So we turned around and climbed back up to camp to fill water containers for the night. In so doing, we ascended up a narrow rift which had been a breeze on the way down. This took some time, not the least because one of my wellies got completely stuck under a rock overhang I?d used as a foothold. Much swearing and prolific sweating ensued, which eventually culminated in the release of the offending welly.

After this little touristic adventure, we ate some warm food before Peter announced the final part of the day?s caving would be to recce the other way down to Donnergang, the way we would use the next day to reach the siphon they were about to dive. Wetti elected to stay at camp, so Peter, Katha, Georg and I managed to extract ourselves from the comfortable sleeping bags and put our caving gear on again.

It took some searching and many wrong turns before realising the ?SRT pitch? was the actual way on. Peter went down, declaring that the rigging was also useful as a handline and climbed down the 6 or 7 metres that made up the pitch. Katha, who had brought her harness and a karabiner, abseiled down. Georg and I climbed down to rejoin them both.
Just beyond the pitch, a turning to the right fit exactly the description Peter had given us: we emerged at the top of a drop, which it was possible to circumvent by careful traversing on the left, and further down, the passage opened into a large, boulder filled hall equipped with handlines. From here on out, a low rumble could be heard: the Donnerbach.

We carried on down the handlined drops, found a descending passage which merged with the Donnergang series. The rocks were deeply scalloped and pot- holed and there were many megalodonts to be seen. After some wandering around, we made our way to the bottom of the fault controlled pitch we had so recently been contemplating from above. Some quick looks to the side re- vealed a small convoluted passage corkscrewing its way up through puddles and squeezes until we emerged on a ledge three quarters of the way up the pitch. Alas, there was no obvious way on from there, and deciding that we could well spend hours looking for the ?short cut?, without Wetti knowing where we were, opted to turn around and go back to the camp.

In no time, we were treading the now familiar passages back to the bivouac, eager to get to sleep.

Part 2!

Saturday 3rd November

This was the big day, where we would finally explore the Donnergang passages fully, and reach the Donnerbach siphon. Peter had been to the other side about a decade previously, but as he had emerged on his own, with a dry-suit, in the middle of a sharp canyon, there was no choice but to turn back immediately. The passage was going somewhere, it was clear, but where and for how long?

These questions he wanted answered, and this time, Wetti would be with him. We got up, packed the diving equipment, dividing up the weight and headed off towards Donnergang on the route we had found the day before. We passed the bags down the pitches and drops, and without any glitches, got to the pre- vious day?s limit: a balcony over the Donnerbach streamway. We bridged across the high level traverse, sometimes walking over ledges on the right, sometimes on the true left bank of the river, heading upstream.

The roar became gradually louder as we progressed, and eventually, we started seeing the water foaming under our feet in the deeply entrenched vadose canyon. We got off the ledges and reached a deep, frothy pool where the pas- sage split. We climbed up several metres to regain a (at the time) dry passage, noting the height of the foam on the scalloped walls. At this point, Peter took out a map of the Donnergang and started leading us to the upstream sump.

We traversed over additional pools, bridged more streamway and reached a part which looked like an Escher painting. Taking a convoluted high climbing route, we ended up once more near the ceiling of the keyhole shaped passage, stooped for a bit and at a junction heard Peter exclaim we were now very close. We climbed back down to the stream at a picturesque location, which happened to be by the sump pool.

We had made it to the sump! Wetti and Peter requested the bags and started getting prepared for their dive, which they knew would be approximately 20 m long, and less than 5 m deep. Katha, Georg and I on the other hand, had some food and a hexamine stove to wait out the dive. Katha in particular had some powder Rindlesuppe on hand and made three consecutive soups which would go a long way to ensure we did not get too cold waiting.

After several minutes of preparation and general milling around in the sump pool, the two divers set off under the rocky archway. While they did that, we turned our head-torches off, contemplating the Wetti and Peter?s dwindling orange lights from Wetti and Peter before they finally disappeared completely from the sump pool, leaving the remaining three of us in complete darkness.

The wait was not particularly unpleasant: Georg and I went for a quick explore of the surround area - picking up Peter?s map in the process to orient ourselves. We ended up completing one of the loops we could see on the survey but also identifying an inlet which had not been indicated on the drawing, and which, after perusing the survex file for Hirlatz, is missing there also.

We rejoined Katha and had soup, waited a bit by the pool with all our lights off. I probably dozed off for a few minutes, reclined on a tackle sack, listening to the gurgle of the water way under our feet. But then Katha made more soup, which we drank avidly, before switching our attention to some very rounded pebbles which looked like cannon balls. Katha and Georg seemed particularly taken with the idea of collecting the pebbles and building a little dam by the pool. Just at the moment where a large boulder was passed from hand to hand to keep warm, I spotted the lights of the returning divers illuminating the bottom of the pool.

With a broad smile Peter and Wetti successively and successfully emerged from Donnerbach Siphon. They kept shaking hands on what had evidently been a successful outing. The passage continued, branching between a deep, linear canyon which they had pushed a short distance upstream, and a low gallery which, again they had been able to explore for some distance before turning around due to the cold setting in. All in all, they had surveyed about 200 m of new galleries. What is more, one of the leads seemed to be heading towards another branch of Hirlatz (the Tiefkarkluft), which is only currently accessible through a long detour, or a sump. More exploration in this area will surely yield a sump bypass and a connection?

So what to do next? We had a quick group photo session to crown the achievement and started packing the bags for the return journey to Fragen- zeichen bivouac. Although it was still relatively early in the day, we decided against further tourist exploration of the eastern passages of Hirlatz (we were apparently still in the ?Near East?, with the ?Far East? extensions another kettle of fish altogether). The consensus was that an early night at camp would allow for a respectively early start the next morning and plenty of time to get out of the cave in one go.

Sunday 4th November

The alarms went off before as I recall, and soon enough, we were packing up the bivouac, putting the sleeping bags and unspent carbide back into the sealed drums, rolling the sleeping mats rolled into tubes we could carry back to Wolkenbiwak. Peter inventoried everything, and saying goodbye to Fragenzeichen bivouac, our home for two nights, we set off back towards the surface.

We took our time, walking up the big Fragenzeichen, crawling through the New World dig, climbing up the corkscrew way. We stopped at Drei Tor Halle for some water and snacks and plunged through the draughty boulder choke towards the small Elephant?s Graveyard. Then, the hermit, the nougat, the decorated chamber and finally, the traverse towards the reflective bollard. The next long walking section beckoned, and yet it felt shorter than on the way in. Soon, we passed the now surveyed mud canyon and tobogganed our way down the mud slope to Sprengstelle bivouac.

Time for the last break before the entrance series. I swore: there?s nothing more frustrating than finding out the fish I had saved for four days was not mackerel but sardines...

Wetti and Peter led the way out, leaving Katha, Georg and I to find our way back to Zubringer. We climbed down the ladders to the Pendler pitch, giggled nervously at the half-bridge/half-ladder crossing, and carried downwards the Schachthalle, losing more and more elevation.

At the bottom, we followed the main passage to the ladders of Zubringer where Wetti and Peter had waited for us. We climbed up into the muddy and breezy passage and then further up to the labyrinth where just following the draught could get you lost. At the top, we found the entrance water inlet, which indicated the way out. With each step bringing us closer to the exit, the draught became more chilling. In the entrance chamber, we could hear the wind rushing through the very first blasted crawl.
Wetti opened the exploration book, wrote a few notes and declared that we could go on and exit the cave at last. And just beyond a corner, there was daylight, streaming through the circular entrance. The colours of the autumnal afternoon touching every mountain top, bringing tears to our unaccustomed eyes. With every different shade a joy to watch, we walked down the mountain, leaving the mineral realm of caves, for the rich smells of the pine forest.

I am glad to have visited Hirlatz even if what we saw eventually amounts to only a small fraction of the cave system: it was unlike any caving experience I have had so far and probably ranks as one of my most memorable trips for many reasons, the duration of the trip notwithstanding. I like a caving adven- ture, so much so that long and varied but not necessarily technically difficult excursions are among my favourites. Hirlatz definitely delivers on this point. I?ve recently acquired the book about the history of exploration/cave science conducted within Hirlatz and I know I will be avidly reading about it in the months to come.


Active member
A most excellent write up that really captures the size and nature of the cave. I only went in once about 20 years ago, again as a dive porter to a sump beyond Sahara (I think that is where it was.). I think we only camped for 2 nights but it could have been 3, it was a long time ago. I have a feeling Peter Huebner may have been one of the divers on that trip too, but may be wrong there??
Peter Huebner may indeed have been one of the divers. I'm attaching a survex file with the location we were in.

For reference: from the original entrance of Hirlatz H?hle, the cave roughly branches between the West and the East branches. We went into the eastern branch, but only as far as the near East.

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