Roland and I went into the cave ahead of the others to rig the pitches. The cave wasn’t very technical – there were only a few places where we would need to use ropes to descend. Pitch two was about ten or fifteen metres deep, and according to Roland, tended towards being a waterfall when it rained.
Frankly, I surprised myself by getting the knot right on my first go. Even Roland had fumbled with the figure of eight with bunny ears for almost two minutes at the first pitch. This is a man who has decals of bats and cavers on his car doors, and a drysuit for his drill so he can bore anchor holes underwater. I was completely out of practice; twisting the rope into shape slowly and deliberately.
“Do you see the other anchors?” he asked, “This one looks a little old.”
There were none, so we made do. As I tied the knot, he screwed the second temporary bolt into the limestone with a ratchet spanner. Then he took the knot and clipped each of the ‘ears’ into the bolts with a pair of karabiners. The pitch was rigged.
Roland went first. At 30 centimetres wide, the pitch didn’t leave much room to do a smooth jumping descent. Instead you sqeeze down the sloping drop on your back, more pulling yourself down the rope than using it to slow your descent.
I’ve been caving regularly for the last two years since I joined the club at Dublin Institute of Technology, my college at home. When I found out they were sending me to Munich on some academic wild goose chase or other (they mentioned “Erasmus.” Odd.), I decided I wanted to get underground while I was at it.
So, when I packed my bag in Dublin back in March, in went Wellingtons; my fleece undersuit and cordura oversuit; my climbing harness; ascenders and descender; neoprene socks, and a helmet fitted with a lamp. The gear took up a third of the volume of my luggage.
After making contact with members of the Munich caving club online, I ended up spending Easter in Slovenia. Bavarian cavers have a tradition of driving south for the Easter holidays to enjoy the early spring of the Mediterranean side of the Alps. I tagged along with a group who were photographing the caverns below the Brkini Hills, near the Croatian border. The caves were so pristine and so unspoilt that I was sworn to keep their locations secret. “You can have the co-ordinates as long as you don’t publish them,” said Roland, “We don’t want British cavers trampling on our formations.” I celebrated Easter Sunday with a Lindt bunny handed to me by the vice-president of the German caving federation.
The caves of the Chiemgauer Alps are a little less secret. Back in April I made the excursion to the nearby Schlussellochhöhle, or “keyhole cave” with Florian, a caver from Rosenheim I met in Slovenia. We trekked through snowdrifts that swallowed us to our waists and managed, somehow, to find the entrance in the snow. This time was a little easier.
Vehicle access is restricted to locals and, conveniently, Roland’s mates in the Bergwacht. As we messed around with gear in the car park, a red and white van pulled up beside us. I suppose when you’re caving with Munich’s top caving muckety-mucks, you ride in style.
The entrance to the Große Spielberghöhle is in a small doline near the summit of the mountain it’s named after. Roland and I climbed down over muck and rock and broken branches, and under the hill, leaving the others to unpack the camera and flash guns from their rucksacks.
Inside, the entrance passage narrowed, but not enough to force us onto our hands and knees. Now and then the passage would run into a wall; the only way to continue was to scale it. There were ropes, but Roland, ever the purist, called that “cheating”.
The first pitch drops you into a decent-sized chamber. A trickle of water flows across the floor, and reportedly swells into a raging torrent when rainstorms hit the peaks above. Lovely.
After the second pitch, the system branches and fragments. While the photo team continued their mission to document every phallic tropfstein in Southern Europe, Roland and I went exploring. A bag on a rope demonstrated that two levels of the system were connected by a deep pothole. There was an uncomfortable-looking boulder choke which, based on the spitzen (called “popcorn” in Britain and Ireland) which had formed on the wall above it, went somewhere interesting.
I got a little chilly and caved out ahead of the others. I pulled on a wooly jumper and sat in the entrance to keep myself and my sandwiches out of the rain.
As the sun came out, so did the rest of the party. We offered around sweets and cigarettes and relaxed, letting the sun dry our undersuits. This would be the last time I’d cave with Germans before going home, and I’m really glad I made contact. I’ve been caving at least once a month since I got here. I’ve met dozens of people far removed from LMU and Erasmus, kept my caving skills fresh, and seen much more of Bavaria, Austria and Slovenia than I would have otherwise. Life as an international student in Munich is fantastic, but it seems that most of the time you seem to only meet other international students. My advice: if you have a hobby, bring your gear and make friends with ordinary Germans.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to clean the muck off my kit.
Stephen Bourke blogs at shlockdoctrine.wordpress.com and wrote this sentence all by himself.