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Where the earth breathes

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Where the earth breathes

Even before we arrive at the cave mouth, it’s clear there is something magic about this place as if imbued with the magic of fairytales or perhaps the entrance to the underworld. A cold wind blows from within...

We meet in Bizau at the square in front of the church and soon enough a small group of six people forms. Shaking hands, we say little more than “hello” to one another.At this early hour, the group seems sedate, cautious. To which depths will cave guide Lutz Schmelzinger lead us?

What follows is a communal journey to Schönenbach and along the way we meet a group of cows, a reminder that its summertime in the mountains. From the summer settlement of Schönenbach, we hike up towards the Ifen mountain range arriving at the Schneckenlochhöhle cave.The hike to the cave entrance alone is well worth the effort: The water flowing through the stream is loud yet deliberate, the cool of the forest is near, and in the background there is a humming sound and then silence. The mood at this place is pure magic, like the setting for a dramatic fairytale.

After about an hour’s time, we reach the mouth of the cave where cool air flows from the giant hole in the rock, and the sensation on our sweaty limbs is unexpectedly cold. We gather together our gear, change into overalls and don our helmets. The finishing touch is a head torch to light the way. Before entering the cave we take a group photo, appearing like members of some alien race on a journey of discovery. “It’s a goodbye photo,” says our guide with a wry grin.

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The Schneckenlochhöhle cave is shrouded in myth and legend and although many stories have been told about the place, very little has actually been written. Where the name comes from is unknown. It’s likely that a shepherd or a hunter discovered the cave some 400 years ago. In the summer of 1906, the first cave explorers entered to uncover the secrets of its depths. What they discovered was a minor sensation, even garnering mention in the Wiener Tageszeitung newspaper at the time.In 1907, the travel magazine “Dillinger” prognosticated that the cave would soon become the area’s main tourist attraction after skiing.

The cave was properly measured and charted in the 1940s and 50s. For quite some time, many believed the cave to be several kilometres long when counting the two main branches of the cave.The Schneckenloch was promoted as Vorarlberg’s longest cave. Not much has been researched or discovered about the cave in the last few years: The cave, it turns out, is about 50% longer than assumed although in the meantime a cave in Montafon has been discovered that is about 50 m longer, robbing the Schneckenloch of its title. 

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Barely a moment after setting foot in the cave, the sliding of a stone clatters loudly beneath the feet of Schmelzinger and the sound echoes dramatically deep within the cavern. We must have awoken the spirits of the caves he quipped.Do they wish to scare us away, someone asks innocently? “But of course not,” he says. “It’s a warning so that they can put some clothes on before we barge in.”

Things continue much the same as we penetrate deeper through a forest of stone and rock.The floor beneath our feet is cold, moist and slick so at times we are forced to support ourselves against the rock walls with our hands. Moving safely requires concentration and good balance. Turning back to look over my shoulder, I see that the cave entrance has been reduced to a tiny point of light and before we know even knew it, the mountain had swallowed us whole!Like wisps of fog, the darkness surrounds us. Unbroken save for the beams emanating from our head torches.

The first cave pioneers entered hundreds of years ago carrying only candles or gas lamps. They reported stalactites, relics removed many years ago, and they spoke of icebergs and icicles thriving in wintry conditions in the height of summer. The first part of the cave appeared to them to have the size and dimensions of a church hewn into the rock so their reports were enthusiastic and full of pathos. I think it’s safe to say that these pioneers were truly amazed at what they’d witnessed.

 

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We come to an abrupt halt and Schmelzinger highlights portions of the wall. From time to time, he also points out the diminutive shape of a bat, little more than a small black spot on the wall. Other than that, few other animals were spotted. And yet in a pond we observe small little cave crustaceans. Beyond the dearth of fauna, there is little flora to be seen save a few lichens in the lamplight. What a stark contrast the cave makes to the magnificent variety of plants and animals beyond the entrance: the many colours, sights, and sounds of summer in comparison to the still, dark and barren environment within. But what fascinates the visitor is the sheer volume of rock and the uneven structure of the cave walls: Layers upon layers of calcium, seemingly devoid of pattern or recognisable shapes, as if the stonemason had forgotten his spirit level.

The shape of the cave it seems to me, threatens to collapse like a house of cards should one remove just a single stone. Yet, as Schmelzinger explains, the cave is actually a static masterpiece, one that has survived numerous earthquakes and will survive the human race by many millennia yet. Over the countless years, acidic water has bored through the gullies of chalk. In fact, entire streams can flow through stone, through an entire mountain, to create exactly such caves. As water makes its way downward, it branches out to create a labyrinth of passages in which we can now freely move.It suddenly becomes apparent to us that we’re actually travelling within a giant time machine on a journey through earth’s history. A layer of calcium some 20 centimetres wide represents about 30,000 years of Earth’s history. An entire cave wall, like the one before us, represents more than a 100,000 years.

Just as one appears small on a high mountain peak as seen from afar, here in the depths a few hundred metres below the surface, a human lifetime seems comparatively small and insignificant. We move deeper and deeper into the cave. After a while, the cave ascends and we scramble through a few small passages avoiding rocks and stone.

 

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Suddenly, a cold wind blows: It’s a sign that the cave is becoming increasingly narrow until we reach a wall. Is this the end, we ask ourselves? No, instead it’s the beginning of the true cave. On the lower end of the wall is particularly narrow passage. We crawl inside, creeping along for several metres on our bellies like snakes. The narrow entrance leads to a grotto with silvery walls that shine in the lamplight. The next obstacle follows, and once again we crouch down and crawl. The cathedral like cave has become a catacomb. The sound of flowing water, a stream, reaches our ears as it makes its way through the stone. The water is pure and clean our guide tells us, and he takes a drink directly from the wall face. “At least you won’t die of thirst in here,” he says with a laugh.Finally, we reach the end of the cave after some 700 m, though to us it seems like several kilometres. Via a stone wall, we reach a kind of intermediate archway barely a metre high.

Together we rest, turning off our lights to conserve battery. Here the darkness is complete and somewhere in the distance we hear water.Nothingness surrounds us and yet far in the distance there is something audible:A pulsing sound, like the breath of the Earth.

Author: Georg Sutterlüty