18 December 2011

The Wonder of Ice Caves

Where you have lava tubes or limestone passage ways below the ground, occasionally a rare form of cave evolves – the ice cave. Strange, mysterious and often dangerous they are often difficult to get to and so not seen by huge amounts of people. Take a short tour in to the magical world of the ice cave.

Size, of course, is not everything but let’s start with the largest ice cave on the planet. Translated from the German, the name of the cave is the ‘Word of the Ice Giants’ and to be frank, it is not a piece of Germanic overstatement. Forty kilometers south of Salzburg, Austria in the Hochkogel Mountain the cave stretches for more than forty kilometers. However, the more than two hundred thousand visitors the cave receives each year are restricted to the first kilometer only.

This huge ice cave was formed when the river Salzach drove – over millennia – passageways in to the mountain. One can only imagine the tiny beginnings of the cave and marvel at the sheer tenacious power of water. Why the ice remains throughout the year is fairly straightforward, during the winter, ice cold winds rush in to the cave and freeze the snow that has been blown inside. Contrarily, in the winter, wind from the bowels of the cave blow up to the entrance and ensure that the frozen formations do not melt.

The cave itself was ‘discovered’ in 1879 – locals were well aware of its existence but had never actually explored the interior. There was a simple reason for this. Despite the ice – they believed it to be the entrance to hell. Ice caves are different from glacier caves (people sometimes confuse the two). A glacier cave is a cave that is formed within ice itself rather than in an already existing natural structure.

Demänovská ice cave is situated in the Low Tatra Valley in Slovakia and has been known in Europe since the Middle Ages, first being mentioned in 1299. It is quite off the beaten track so if you like your destinations a little less traveled then it could be ideal for a visit. It is a little known fact that Slovakia is full of caves and this ice cave is one of 44 cave systems in the small eastern European country.

Although the cave was well known it was not until the middle of the 1800s that the caves were first opened to the public. The entrance to the cave was modified to make descent easier and there was even a hostel built to accommodate the tourists of the time. Approximately seven hundred meters is opened to the public nowadays and the tour is quite spectacular – if a little frosty.

There are times when ice caves can look a great deal like glacier caves. This amazing shot was taken by Ian McKenzie of the Alberta Speleological Society in the wonderfully named Serendipity. Serendipity is a limestone ice cave situated in the Canadian Rockies. Within it, water ponds as it freezes and creates enough space for a little reflection. Ponded ice water is what happens when surface water collects in a cave and then freezes. The resulting clear ice mass can be enormous – tens of meters thick – and it can also be hundreds of years old.

The Crystal Ice Cave, California
Ice caves in California? Not exactly what one might expect but the Lava Beds National Monument contains a true cave of wonders. Although there are ice formations in many of the Lava Bed’s numerous caves the ones in the Crystal Ice Cave are the most spectacular – and the weirdest too. The formations are delicate and as such there is a very limited amount of visitors allowed each year.

For three months each year, between December and March, small tours of no more than six people are given each Saturday, which means that the cave is visited by only just over a hundred people each year. It is not for the faint hearted either – visitors are expected to be in excellent physical condition as they well have to use their upper body strength to get down a sheer sloped ice floor on a rope. They must also be able to crawl through small holes and have good coordination. Do you consider it worth the exertions?

Scărişoara, Romania
In the midst of the Carpathian Mountains, this wonderful ice cave was discovered in the eighteenth century and is believed to be around three and a half thousand years old. It is high up – almost twelve hundred meters above sea level and is over a hundred meters deep and seven hundred in length. Despite the freezing temperatures, bats and small insects inhabit the cave.

Kunguruska, Russia
One of the oldest towns in the Urals, Kungar is home to the Kunguruska ice cave. There are over twenty grottos in the cave system, including the Diamond the Polar grottos. Many of the grottos feature unbelievable formations of ice, from solid walls to ‘organ pipes’. The cave itself was thought to have once sheltered an army during a winter invasion of Siberia. There is also an onsite stonemason’s workshop where the history of selenite is explained to visitors.

Fish Creek, Canada
Fish Creek ice cave near Calgary in Canada is an example of how the configuration of the cave allows convection to bring extremely cold air from the surface in the winter but not in the summer. In the winter the cold air settles in the cave and forces any warm air upwards and out of the cave. In the summer the cold air stays exactly where it is as the warm air is lighter and so cannot enter. This makes it what is known as a cold trap.

Tignes, France
Can an ice cave be man made? Perhaps if a tunnel is deserted and left to its own devices. In Tignes, in the Rhone-Alpes region of France, this disused tunnel soon became a wonderful ice cave. Wherever they are found in the world there is no doubt of the strange allure and outstanding beauty of ice caves.