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World's Largest Ice Caves Offer Summer Wonderland

The Eisriesenwelt -- the World of the Ice Giants -- is invisible from the road and virtually unknown to the thousands of Americans strolling the streets of nearby Salzburg. Still, more than 200,000 tourists -- mostly Europeans -- come each year to tour the world's largest ice caves, an underground wonderland decorated, it seems, by ice fairies, with frozen statues carved not by artists but by the elements and time.


A visit to the caves is a full day's adventure, starting in Werfen, a small alpine market town about a half-hour south of Salzburg. From there, it's three miles by car or taxibus to the parking lot, another 15 minutes by foot to the cablecar, four minutes by cablecar to the summit station, and another 15 minutes by foot to the caves. Tourists enter the caves at more than a mile above sea level.

Four friends from Salzburg -- Christian, Claudia, Jörg and seven-year-old Maxi -- joined me on my most recent visit. Christian powered his BMW up the mountain road. The road grew narrower and steeper, the turns tighter. Clouds puffed like cotton in the valley.

To avoid the crowds, we arrived at the parking lot at 8:15 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, after an easy walk, we were on the first cablecar of the day. (By the time we returned, three hours later, the lots were full,
the wait two hours.)

The cablecar disappeared into the morning fog, but we soon broke through to azure skies. Behind us, alpine peaks stretched to the horizon. In front, a rocky footpath carved into the sheer cliffs of the craggy mountainside led to the gaping entranceway to the caves.

At the summit station, we met our guide, Alois. As we walked along the path, he explained the caves' development and history. At one time, he said, the Salzach river actually flowed where we were standing, carving holes and passageways in the mountains. Thawing snow and rainwater, then as now, would drain through the limestone into the caves, freezing in winter and thawing -- slightly -- during warmer weather. Even in mid-summer, temperatures stay near freezing.

The caves were discovered in 1879, but a huge ice wall blocked entry beyond the first chamber. In 1913, Alexander von Mörk became the first person to overcome the obstacle and chart the labyrinth, climbing the wall and diving through icy pools. With the addition of stairs and walkways, it opened to the public seven years later. Soon, nearly 10,000 visitors a year climbed to the caves. The number jumped to 35,000 with the opening of the cablecar in 1955 and has been growing ever since.

Today's visitors have the benefit of gangplanks, stairs and handrails. Still, just more than a half-mile of the caves' 50 miles of passageways and chambers is open to the public.

Just before the entrance, blocked by a massive doorway, Alois handed out miners' lamps. As he lit them, he explained that the temperature difference inside and outside the caves often caused powerful winds when the door opened -- enough, he said with a wink, to blow a seven-year-old right off the mountain. As Maxi put a death grip on his parents, Alois threw open the door. A brief, cold gust blasted past, putting out some lanterns. Maxi let out a sigh.

"In the winter, when it's colder outside, we leave the door open, and the air is sucked inside," Alois explained. "The moisture in the air forms ice crystals when it hits the walls."

He closed the door and re-lit the lanterns. A vast cavern glistened with ice. Minerals leeching through the limestone walls created rusty rainbows in massive ice formations that line the route.

We step carefully, one hand on the railing, the other on our lanterns. Only the sounds of footsteps and dripping water disturb the silence. In moments we face the giant ice wall that blocked the first explorers. More lucky than they, we make our way up a wooden stairway -- the first of the tour's 1,480 steps. A short distance up, we pass a cross and the date "1879" drawn on the limestone wall where the first "tourist" gave up.

Ten minutes later, we arrive at the top of the ice wall, 100 feet high, 120 feet wide and 70 feet thick. With the lanterns pointed forward, we see ice layers colored by minerals in the water and by centuries of freezing and thawing. I look behind us from our perch and see -- blackness.

Von Mörk, who likened his wanderings to that of Thor's journey to the ice giants, gave the rooms and structures names from Norse mythology. Thus, as we push forward through a narrow passageway into the next chamber, we enter the magnificent Hall of Hymir. Alois steps behind a row of ice towers and lights a strip of magnesium. It starts as a bright yellow and then burns a rich blue-green.

We turn right to Frigga's Veil. From the opposite side it looks more like an ice organ, complete with 16 "pipes." Until a few years ago, it looked like an elephant."Everything here changes over time," Alois says. "Adults who came here as kids ask where the elephant went!"

In the next chamber, the Odin Room, the Norse god's throne sits majestically in the center. Overhead, the ceiling glows red, frost crystals glistening in the lamplight.

We pass a pool of water, once 10 feet deep and blocking further passage. Here, von Mörk covered his body with tar, plunged into the icy water and swam to the next chamber. Today, hoses siphon off the water, and we pass through easily, climbing through a series of cramped passageways and up steep stairs to the Ice Gate, its walls covered with shiny curtains of ice.

We are now 400 feet above the entrance and more than a half-mile into the labyrinth -- the highest and deepest part of the tour. I fight off twinges of claustrophobia.

Anxiety turns to wonder as we descend to the 120-foot-high Alexander von Mörk Cathedral. As we continue our descent, we pass under an urn with von Mörk's remains, placed there after he died in World War I -- barely a year after he explored the caves. We stop for a few moments in the Ice Palace, nearly two-thirds the size of a football field. The ice shimmers as Alois lights more magnesium strips. In the distance, we hear the trudging footsteps of another tour group, then their laughter. As they pass, Alois shouts to their guide, "Hey, sing for us!"

"Na, na," the other guide says, smiling and shaking his head. "He's the Salzburg yodeling champion," Alois says. "But sometimes he gets a little shy."

In too few moments, we're back blinking in the sunlight. We ask Alois to join us for soup and wurst at the Dr. Fritz Oedl Haus, a terrace restaurant near the cablecar. By now, the clouds have disappeared, and we can see the massive, medieval Hohenwerfen fortress -- toy-like from our vantage point -- deep in the valley below. "Inside or outside, it's all like a dream," Alois says.

If You Go:


Tours, including round-trip on the cablecar, cost $18 for adults, $9 for children and run daily from May 1 through early October. The cave temperature stays near freezing year-round, and the walkways and stairs can be wet and slippery, so dress warmly and wear sturdy shoes. Allow at least a half day, and try to arrive at the cablecar base station by 8:00 a.m. to avoid long lines.


Major international airlines fly to Munich. With advance reservations, take a van from the airport to Salzburg. Austrian Airlines flies from New York to Vienna with connecting flights to Salzburg. Trains run several times each day to Werfen. Walk (90 minutes) or take a taxi-bus from Werfen to the base station.

For further information contact the Austrian National Tourist Office, 500 Fifth Ave., Suite 2009, New York, N.Y. 10110, telephone: (212) 944-6880

The Salzburg State Board of Tourism, A-5300 Hallwang/Salzburg, telephone 01143-662-6688

The Eisriesenwelt, A-5440 Werfen, telephone 01143-6468-248.