A Very Special Attraction: Cave Diving in the Austrian Alps

by Elisabeth "Eli" Smejkal-Hayn

The Rötelsee Cave is situated in the Austrian Limestone Alps within the massif of the Erlakogel, next to the Traunsee. The challenging peculiarity of this cave is its difficult accessibility: a small climbing path leads up through an altitude difference of some 200 meters, topped by the crossing of a stretch of scree. Fifty minutes of strenuous climbing leads to the entrance of the cave, which is classified as a natural monument.

The Rötel Lake, a lake within the cave, was visited by the Austrian Emperor at the beginning of the last century. The remains of a small wooden boat, which sank near the cave entrance, is a silent witness of this historical event. The massive dome of the cave entrance shows two different karst formations: limestone and dolomite. From the Rötel Lake, the first sump starts, leading to a second air dome after 100 meters. After this second dome, the cave drops further down and splits into two main tunnels.

In June 2009, a team of cave-diving enthusiasts was formed with the aim of further exploring the cave. The dive team comprised the Austrians Jochen Kern, Gerhard Wimmer, GUE Members Wolfgang Smejkal and Elisabeth Smejkal-Hayn, and Lukas Pflug, from Germany.

It had taken eight years for a new team to climb up to the Rötelsee Cave ("Rötelseehöhle") for further exploration. Back in 2001, primary explorer Jochen Kern, the owner of the local dive station, explored and surveyed this cave with his former team and placed some line. They explored one tunnel to about 200 meters; a second tunnel had been discovered by our team member Gerhard a couple of weeks before the present exploration team joined up. The goal of our new undertaking was to further explore the new tunnel and to check and renew—if necessary—the line in the “old” tunnel.

During our three days of diving, five divers made eight dives all together. In the main tunnel, 80 meters of line were added to provide a new total of 300 meters of line. The maximum depth the team reached was 40 meters, but the sump goes on, dropping further. The main tunnel invites further exploration, but due to gas logistics, exploration dives were stopped at 40 meters depth.

Beside its accessibility, the cave presented two more challenges: the water has a temperature of only five degrees Celsius and the visibility is, on good days, about three meters. Therefore, while the output of the exploration may seem small, in view of the determining factors, the team has been quite successful!

A further project is foreseen for September 2009, where the gas logistics for greater depths will play an important part; further exploration of the "old tunnel" is also being planned.

Special thanks goes to the 14 volunteers who helped during the three days, carrying all the dive equipment up and down the hill; also many thanks to team member Gerhard for acquiring the permit to explore the cave and to Jochen from the local dive center (www.tauchschule-traunsee.at) for supporting the whole dive team with the gas logistics.

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