Eisriesenwelt – Austria’s Ice Cave

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In Austria the Alps rise up to towering heights without preamble. There’s a pretty valley dotted with alpine houses, a small rise barely tall enough to be called a hill, and then – whomp – a 13,000 foot mountain. Right there in the backyard. All granite and topped with snow.

It’s a stunning backdrop no matter where you look. And we’re lucky to have family who live right in the middle of this enchanted land.

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Mike and Selina (and baby Mena) have been wonderful hosts, showing us all the sights. Today the seven of us not in a stroller visited Eisriesenwelt – Austria’s Ice Cave.

IMG_3975When I think of a cave tour, I picture the ones back home where you walk up to a hole in the ground that some farmer fell in and turned into tourist trap. Usually there’s lots of signs posted about how dark the cave is, how slippery the floor is, and warnings about a small staircase. They even count the steps to reach the bottom so that folks with a hip replacement have a chance to chicken out.

IMG_3966So thinking this was another hole in the ground, I was surprised at the steep road up to Eisriesenwelt. The car climbed and climbed, twisted and turned up around switchbacks and hairpins. If I’ve translated the German correctly, and I think I have, that road is also used as a practice track for the Austrian bobsled team.

We tumbled out of the car, a little queasy, into a small parking lot with a hefty climb to the ticket counter. I was all but winded when we passed through the turnstile gates. “Where’s the cave?” I asked. People pointed up.

 

PointingWe started up a gravel path. And kept climbing. Steeper and steeper. Huffing and puffing. We climbed forever. Day turned into night. The seasons changed. And still we were climbing higher.
IMG_3970At last we reached a small wooden hut. Ah, good, I thought, we’re here. “Oh, no,” Mike said, “This is just the cable car.”

IMG_3973Now extreme altitude and strenuous exercise don’t mix real well with me, so I thought maybe I could hang on just a little while longer until we got off the cable car.

IMG_3974But then the real climb began. We were above the tree line, above the clouds, and climbing what I estimate to be a 70% grade. On the side of the path vultures were picking at the bleached bones of tourists who didn’t make it. And still we climbed.

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The guard rails were ankle high and the valley floor was too far below to see. My vision blurred and my knees stopped flexing. Everyone else was sprinting along, a good two miles ahead of me. At one point they realized someone was missing and turned around. The last hundred meters were scaled by hanging on to Tim’s belt with Mike pushing from behind.

IMG_3942Then we were at the cave entrance. But there was no time to catch my heaving breath because our tour was starting. The guide announced that we would be entering the side of the mountain and would reach the summit via a staircase with 750 steps. I felt a tear freeze to my cheek.

IMG_3960We were issued carbide lanterns with an open flame which had to be held aloft like Wee Willy Winky. Our lanterns were the only source of lighting in the cave.

IMG_3972Up we went. Into the cold and dark, climbing a staircase with 750 steps. The cavern was filled with ice floes, but I barely noticed. Every step was a life or death struggle. Once in a while the guide would stop and announce something that I couldn’t quite hear for all the ringing in my ears.

IMG_3962IMG_3961We reached the summit at last and the guide paused long enough to light a tungsten fuse nailed into the ice so we could see the blue glacier. My legs would have been screaming but they’d gone numb ages ago. I’ve got one word of advice for the Austrians: benches. There was nowhere to sit down, and before I could even come to a full stop we were headed back down the 750 icy steps.

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An hour later back in the parking lot when I could finally summon enough breath to speak I had a few choice words for Mike, which I will abbreviate here to simply, Love ya too.

7 thoughts on “Eisriesenwelt – Austria’s Ice Cave

  1. It was pretty intense…But I must have missed the scaling with Tim’s belt while being pushed from behind. Was that the deluxe tour?? Great photos and fabulous writing!

    • Unforgettable, wasn’t it! That evening I asked Sofi what she liked best – the ice cave, the castle, the eagles? She said, Schnitzel!

  2. I thought you’d write it more dramatic. “Mike dragged me up the mountains into a 42km long ice cave (largest in the world) to take over 1400 steps with small lights in our hands”. But as the Wirt yesterday said:”That’s not too bad. We have higher mountains that he could have dragged you up.”

    Great post though. You know I love you. 😀

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