The day we chose to take the Dachsteinbahn up into the mountains of the Salzkammergut region of central Austria it was dull and overcast and we could see that the peaks were shrouded in heavy cloud. But this was our only chance to go so we decided gamble on the favour of the weather gods.
The Dachsteinbahn Valley station is in Obertraun, at an altitude of 520 metres. The cable car took us to the first stop at Schӧnbergalm at 1350 m, through thick cloud which all but hid the view as we rose through the trees.
After leaving the cable car station our first destination was the Eishӧhle, or Ice Cave, and to get there we walked for half an hour – up… and up… and up along the track which zigzagged through the dense alpine forest, and even though the temperature was 15°, the humidity was extreme.
The entrance to the cave was small and nondescript and gave no indication of the wonder and immensity that lay within. After a talk by our guide during which she stressed the importance of staying together, we entered and immediately the temperature plummeted to 4°.
Our first glimpse of ice was a giant pillar which reached to the roof of the cave. We walked on past massive ice domes, frozen stalagmites that reached to the ceiling and a slick, shiny floor of solid ice 25 metres thick and more than 600 years old in places.
We passed through a narrow passageway and found ourselves on a walkway suspended over an icy abyss which dropped away into the earth, with solid waterfalls suspended in time and glittering ice crystals floating in the air.
It’s a frozen fairyland, which never melts completely, even in Summer and Autumn when the water that seeps in through the mountains is warmer. The entrance we used is the only way in, and there is no air current, so the constantly cold air in the cave means the build-up of ice in Winter and Spring more than compensates for any seasonal melt.
When we finally exited the Eishӧhle the same way we came in, we welcomed the warmer air with relief, but the clouds were still hanging heavy and dense. Would the weather gods be kind to us this day?