Freesteel Blog » The Great Austrian Cow Wash of 1993

It’s a 750 mile drive through Belgium and Germany to get from Oostend to Hilde’s campsite in Bad Aussee near Salzburg, and it takes a day. At the time I arrived the summer expedition of the Cambridge University Caving Club had been going on for two weeks and had not got very much done. Parts of Kaninchenhohle, our ongoing cave on the Loser Plateau, a 1000m high limestone carbuncle which overlooks the town, had been rigged. There was a lot of laziness to be distributed among not very many people. Wookey, the expedition leader, had arrived half a week before me and had spent an afternoon fetching a 230 metre rope from the cave entrance–where it belonged and was supposed to be going down the cave–and brought it down to base camp. He had scouted out a gorgeous 200 metre long abseil off a cliff overlooking Grundlesee lake (a four mile long lake one mile up the road). It was an excuse not to go caving. He talked me into coming with him. Clive, the CUCC president-elect, also wanted to come. He wasn’t interested in caving either.

This silly abseil occurred the day after I arrived in Austria. Experience shows that on any hang-gliding holiday I have had, my best flight is on this precise day, the day after I arrive at the place. This was no exception. After a brisk walk up a track, we clambered down through a steep forest as far as we dared to the place where everything, including the soil, seems in danger of spilling over the edge of the cliff, and tied the rope to a tree. And ourselves to the rope. Wookey disappeared first. Half an hour later Clive and I could see him jumping up and down on the roof of his van parked by the lake about a mile away. This was the signal. It’s too far to shout. I went next, after a lot of whimpering. It became evident that we’d made a couple of little mistakes. Firstly, the rope was bone dry. Abseiling works by wrapping the rope around a friction device. The faster and the longer you descend, the hotter your friction device comes because your potential energy is being converted into heat. It is theoretically possible to accidentally melt through your rope. So progress was slow. Also, despite our rather poor efforts, the rope tied to the tree was wrapped over a few bare sharp rocks as you hung on it. I could feel it grating, trying to cut through as I descended suffering the worst case of vertigo for many years. Trying to pretend I was flying a glider just didn’t work. A hundred metres of ten milimetre diameter grey string is simply not as reassuring as fourteen square metres of wing above your back. When I was 30 metres from the bottom, Wookey shouts, “It looks like you’re going to live this one, Julian.”

I kept the pace of the expedition up by going to top camp (a mere 25 minute walk from the cave entrance in daylight) that evening and going on a caving trip with Wookey the very next day. We were to rig and poke around the limit of exploration in an area called Far Too Far. There were some complicated free-hanging rope obsticals on the way. We constructed another one at a place called Strange Downfall. This is a twenty metre deep pit. Two years earlier I had been on a trip that had discovered a tortuous route into the chamber on the other side of this pit. Some clever people had later rigged a rope down into it so now there was a short cut. You go down Strange Downfall, walk across the bottom of the pit, and then go up Strange Upfall, thus bypassing an hour of scrofulous caving that had been hitherto necessary. We improved this even more by putting a taught rope across the pit and calling it Strange Acrossfall. It was rather scary. We rigged it while we were on the wrong side of the pit, as far as I was concerned, so there was no way to avoid it on the way back out. I never went there again.

After seventeen hours underground, we got out of the cave, having missed three meals and one night of sleep. So I didn’t do anything that day. One day later I persuaded my body to get up and go hang-gliding. There was a west wind (the worst direction for Loser, the locals say) and it was slightly overdeveloped. A top to bottom takes about ten minutes. I therefore landed in the bottom landing field ten minutes after I took off. Then I was followed by a handfull of paragliders from the local school. Monique, a hanger-on to that crowd for the day, was moping around in the car park on her last day of a one month long business tour selling Airwave’s toys to the Austrians. We talked. She had been in Piedrahita last year a week or so before I went there and had enjoyed some of the best flying she had ever known. (When I was there there were cunimbs and the wind blew in the wrong direction for the whole time.) Her timing was spot on; that evening there was a serious storm which flooded the campsite and it rained pretty consistently thereon for the next nineteen days with one or two half-day breaks when the wind blew in the wrong direction.

I knew this was going to happen so I brought contingencies for other sports. Like two sets of diving equipment. (The spare one was for Wookey to have a go.) All I needed were some air tanks. Grundlesee lake was just up the road and we were going to dive in that. There was a diving shop about 15 miles away run by an american who looked like Eugene Terreblanche. I rented two bottles at exhorbitant price. (Wookey has no qualifications at all so I had to pretend that I required all that air for myself.) Being only one person, Eugene gave me one backpack to attach on the tanks. Wookey used it. My only alternative when we were diving was to carry mine in my rucksack in order to mount it on my back. We went for our illicit dive in the lake and it was appaulingly muddy and boring, just as everyone back home in England said it would be. There really was very little indeed. Except mud. You could push your hand in it up to your shoulder without any effort. There were a few logs and tree branches lying around in the murk. You had to swim forwards all the time because if ever you stopped you were engulphed in a thick cloud of silt. And when you got close to the shore there were one or two pond weeds and a few tiny silver fish. Eugene’s answer to this is to say, “The Austrian lakes have some of the best diving in the world.” He’s lying because it’s his business, but it takes you about five dives to make sure of it. So that was that. The next day a proper cloud descended on top of Loser and snowed heavily. Those stranded at top camp begged for lifts to get them down from the plateau. I drove my car up and got stuck on the road a quarter of a mile from the carpark where the path from top camp ends. There was two inches of snow and less than 20 metres of visibility through the fog which, for a small mountain in the northern hemisphere in the middle of July, is pretty bad weather.

Despite all this utter nastiness in the mountains, down in the valleys, particularly on Grundlesee lake, there was hardly even a hint of wind. Wookey had brought along his windsurfing board which, consequently, was rarely any use. A local Austrian caver who dives and to whom I had complained about the price of hiring tanks one evening showed up and deposited his spare in the campsite. So now I had free diving, for what it was worth. Though a full tank can sustain life underwater for about an hour, I found that the optimum dive time was about twelve minutes. Longer than that and it becomes exceptioninally tedious. I found an airbell in one corner of the lake. Someone had bolted five enormous chains to a big rock and had hung above it a sort of inverted fibreglass bucket into which you could surface and sit down. For a change, I started diving at night with a caving lamp. The difference is you can see less, which is an improvement.

Back at the campsite there was a lot of festering going on. Normally shopping is a chore no one wants to do, but Clive seemed to enjoy it and went to town twice a day to get bread, cheese and eggs (breakfast and lunch), and bags of cheap vegetables for the evening slop. There was an infinite supply of beer (40p a bottle) bought in by the crate, and, for the first time in history, no women whatsoever so everyone had to be sociable for a change.

It was a tough task, but even with all this excellent entertainment, we got bored out of our minds. Unwisely some people decided to go caving. I wasn’t so stupid and compromised with a day out surface prospecting. That is, clambering over the plateau looking for new cave entrances. A pair of us took some ladders and checked a few holes that day. At the bottom of one shaft I found a tight little slot, slipped into it, breathed out and got through. I wound up in a promising chamber which, after half an hour of poking around and setting off minor rock falls everywhere, I decided didn’t go anywhere. There was now a problem of getting out. Going up through tight bits is much harder than going down. Particularly as you have to breath more than once because it takes more time. This hole was out of the question. Fortunately we had brought a hammer or I would have been trapped there until I chipped off enough bone from my ribcage to let me out.

Meanwhile, even Clive had got critically bored and went caving for the first time. Wookey took him on a trip to Far Too Far and, not surprisingly, he got knackered beyond belief. Usually it takes about four hours to climb out. Wookey and the other guy on the trip left him behind. Later on, Clive’s lamp expired. Sometime in mid morning he was noticed to be still missing and something got done about it. Clive had been underground for 27 hours–quite a respectable sum–so he didn’t bother to go caving again.

Suddenly it was sunny for a day. In fact it was a perfect day for hang- gliding. Little fluffy clouds could be seen popping up in a blue sky. At last I was going to have a proper flight. But the wind was still west. Never mind, I knew of the perfect hill to fly from only 50 miles away. I found a second driver from among the pool of bored cavers and drove off. The sky became more excellent, but when I reached the hill there were no gliders flying above it. The single track road up it seemed rather busy and full of policemen who diverted me into a small town before I was near the top. A pilot who lived there came out and explained to me that the hill was closed for the day because of a downhill cycling race competition. I had wondered why people were wandering around covered head to foot in plastic armour. But, said the local pilot, if you think there is a west wind then there is a site 20 miles further along the main road that you should go to. It was well past midday when I reached it. The site must have been less than 100m high, covered in trees, overlooking a town. There were a couple of paragliders not doing too well. Only a complete bastard would redirect someone to this location, I thought, and drove all the way back to Loser.

It’s now 2 o’clock and I have just driven 150 miles to get to the place where I originally started. One solitary hang-glider was flying from mountain to mountain very high above. Would I get a chance to join him? No! I flew, the sky went grim. I went down not having gotten above take off. He came down and told me that I had set off too late. And anyway one mother of an alpine storm was heading this way. We could see it darkening one half of the sky. There were spots of rain as I tied my glider onto the car. High above some maniac had launched and was flying in a totally straight line away from Loser. I could tell he wasn’t losing any height because he cleared a second mountain whose ridge is at the same altitude as take-off. Obviously he was riding some sort of gust front. Even now I still wonder what became of him.

The rain was unbelievable. Over two inches in a quarter of an hour. The campsite became a network of lakes and rivers. Boxes of mixed herbs floated out of the mess tent, down the road and underneath the cars which were themselves in water up to their wheelhubs.

I had one more notable flight where I managed to stay level with take-off for a whole 25 minutes. My peace and frustration was only disturbed by a helicopter which kept flying past me and landing on the hill. I wondered if I was supposed to do anything about it such as go away and get down because it was passing underneath me, going over the top and going around me. I decided to ignore it. If a helicopter wants you to piss off there are many ways it can say so. Finally it flew past fairly close by at a slightly higher altitude. It was dangling a dead cow by its neck from a rope. I went down.

The final day of the expedition was a scorcher. There were no thermals at all. Not a single one. This was verified by a procession of paragliders gliding down the rocky face of the mountain at fifteen minute intervals. It was time for washing ropes and drying things out in the campsite. This year we took all our ropes back England with us. Some of last year’s rope which we left behind at Hilde’s got eaten by mice. Next year I’ll get it right. Last year I was stuck with one bad site as well as bad company. This year it was one bad site, but good company. Next year I go for relocatability (in other words, going somewhere else if it is raining). One’s got to make sure that the quality of the company doesn’t slip. Then the car’s probably going to break down then. Maybe in ten years time I’ll get everything together and for once experience the sort of European flying that everyone else I know seems to take for granted.

Julian Todd 1993.