Tucked away in the Alps are some truly special features that are not particularly common around the world: ice caves. These are often overshadowed by the gigantic peaks of the alps and the endless amount of outdoor activities you can do around them. But since I have a mini obsession with all thing’s “ice” related, when I was traveling through Austria, I knew I had to check them out. On this trip I traveled to two ice caves: Eisriesenwelt and Dachstein Giant Ice Cave.
So, what is an ice cave?
First of all, it is important to note that an ice cave, while filled with ice, is different from a glacier cave.
To understand the difference, it may be important to go back to the fundamentals of what a cave is. Cave’s are typically formed in limestone (CaCO3) or some other calcareous rock (such as Dolomite; CaMg(CO3)2). In very simple terms, rainwater picks up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and percolates into soil when it rains. This turns the water into a weak acid, which can dissolve limestone along a rock’s bedding planes or structural weaknesses (e.g. fractures or joints). Over time channels and chambers dissolve out of the limestone and form caves.
An ice cave forms when water and/or ice encroaches into the cave and freezes in the winter season. Assuming there is no major summer melt, ice can continuously build up inside of the cave, turning it into an ice filled cave (i.e. an ice cave). Technically this ice can help build passages through erosive forces, although it’s likely that acidic water led to the formation of many of the caves along the alps.
In contrast, a glacier cave is a temporary cave that forms from meltwater inside of a glacier. This is a very natural phenomenon that transport water laterally and/or vertically on a glacier. But this is not what we are discussing here! I will have a separate post about these.
Visiting Eisriesenwelt and Dachstein Giant Ice Cave
Eisriesenwelt is the largest ice cave in the world, although only the first km of the 42 km long cave is covered in ice. Unfortunately, when I went in 2012 photographs were not allowed inside the cave, but I can tell you from my personal experience, the trip was well worth the visit. I organized a trip with a tourism company which took us near the entrance. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) the entrance requires you to walk along the mountain side to reach the cave, which can reward you with some great views of the countryside. Although I really do enjoy going spelunking (or on a “proper” caving trip) this was a bit touristy, but still, it isn’t every day you can experience something like this, so I was more than willing to go the more traditional cave viewing route!
Dachstein Giant Ice Cave is nearby the town of Hallstatt, which is frequented by many tourists. You can take buses close to the cave and ride a cable car up to the entrance. I recall staying in a nearby village (Obertraun), walking to the base of the mountain and hiking up. Whatever you feel like I suppose! This was also something were there was an organized touristy caving experience where you’re taken around by a guide. Nonetheless, I still found it well worth my time.
View from the entrance of the cave.