Austria: Eisriesenwelt

Salzach valleyWe flew into Salzburg and drove through the Alps to get to Leoben. The mountains were towering nearby, we were excited as I had picked a driving route that would take us straight into the Northern Limestone Alps and down into the Central Alps. The Northern Limestone Alps are formed of soft carbonate rocks and although they have steep slopes the peaks are more rounded. The Central Alps consist of hard crystalline rocks like gneisses and shale. These have the characteristic steep slopes and craggy sharp peaks. Even now on a late summer day (well, early autumn now) that was in the seventies and sunny, snow was still capping the peaks. We marveled at how it seemed these mountains just didn’t seem to be high enough to have caps of snow.

Amidst this spectacular landscape, on the way to Leoben, we stopped at Eisriesenwelt, the ice caves in Werfen, the largest system of ice and rock caves on Earth, on top of the mountain Achselkopf, about 1575 meters (5167 feet) above sea level. How many caves have we been in lately? Chalk caves in England, countless Tuff caves in Turkey, now, an ice cave in Austria. These ice caves involved a twisty drive up part of one of the mountains, then a twenty minute hike up to the funicular, which was steep and fast on the exposed mountainside, then another twenty minutes or so further walking up the mountain to the cave entrance. Even at the cave entrance, we could see our breath in the air and we pulled on our warmer clothes to go in. Inside, it reaches freezing temperatures.

Our guide for scale, ice cavesIt takes about an hour to go on the guided tour that takes you in as far as the first kilometer or so of the cave system, and up 700 stairs and back down 700 stairs in a nice loop. There are over 42km of caves in this mountain. Although the caves were known by local hunters, they weren’t “discovered” until Anton Posselt, a natural scientist from Salzburg, did in 1879. As we passed the opening to the rest of the cave system, I wondered about how many spelunkers come to these caves and just how well mapped out the system is. At this point in the cave, we could see equipment used to measure the depth of ice as scientists were working out just how old some of this ice is.

Deb looking over the edge in funicularWe were given carbide lanterns to carry, Mark recognized the smell of the lanterns before we even saw them. The lanterns lit the ice formations eerily as we trekked up the steep stairs built into the cave (so we would could actually get up into the caves and so people don’t damage the ice by walking on it). There is a natural strong wind that builds and is at full strength at the entrance. Wind finds its way into the caves through various small cracks, there is no other entrance to the cave. As the air cools it sinks to the lowest parts of the cave system, the wind caused by the dramatic difference in air temperature outside the caves.

Before heading back down the funicular, we stopped at the mountainside cafe and enjoyed some frittatensuppe, a beef consomme with strips of the Austrian crepe like pancakes in it. Before us was the panoramic views over the Salzach Valley. The Salzach river below us, milky white with eroded particles from the mountains.