Mai Huong

A visit to Austria’s Eisriesenwelt, the largest ice cave in the world, is a dreamlike experience of natural beauty.

Austria is a winter sports paradise filled with snow-capped mountains and ski resorts. Perhaps it doesn’t come as a suprise, then, that the world’s largest ice cave is also found in Austria. However, a visit to this natural wonder leaves one speechless, struck by the grandeur and splendid beauty of the ice and wondering how nature can create such perfect sculptures.

The cave is called Eisriesenwelt in German, a name that means “the world of ice giants.” Eisriesenwelt was discovered by Austrian explorer Anton Posselt in 1879. Before then, only local people knew of the existence of this 42-kilometer limestone and ice cave, and they believed that it was the entrance to hell.

The formation of ice

Eisriesenwelt is found inside Hochkogel Mountain in Styria, Austria, about 40 kilometers south of Salzburg. It is a winding, glittering cave with ice hanging from the roof like daggers and a glacier which seems to be stuck in time.

Formed by cracks in the limestone mountain about 100 million years ago, the entrance to the cave hides in the Tennengebirge Range, overlooking the town of Werfen in Salzburg. One of its special characteristics is that the ice inside the cave almost never melts, even when spring comes. In winter, the freezing air outside enters the cave, keeping the ice from melting. In spring, ice melts and water seeps through the fissures in the stones. When coming into contact with the cold air inside the cave, the water freezes and creates fascinating ice statues. Many ice stalactites here were formed over a thousand years ago.

Exploration of the ice cave

The Eisriesenwelt cave is only open to visitors from May to October each year and the journey to explore the ice cave is not an easy one. You have to wear warm clothing even in the middle of summer because the air inside the cave is always freezing and feels as if you have stepped inside a refrigerator.

All vehicles have to stop halfway up the mountain and the rest of the way has to be completed by foot. On a visit there, my group climbed up a winding road through the mountain to get to the cable car station. Two female companions of mine, however, carried mountain climbing gear and chose not to ride the cable car. Instead, they would conquer the altitude of 1,641 meters of the ice cave on their own. Some other visitors chose to hike. It took only a few minutes to cover the distance by cable car, while hiking takes one and a half hours on a steep road.

After getting out of the cable car, we had to walk for another 20 minutes on an uphill road around a precarious ridge. The higher we got, the more spectacular the surrounding view became. The bare limestone ridges seemed to lead to an unknown void. Aside from some bushes, only pine trees still stood tall along the mountain ridge.

As I was trying to catch my breath, I kept taking in the majestic landscape that was unfolding before my eyes. The sky was blue that day. The mountain range seemed to stretch endlessly, with rugged terrain and cracks looking like wrinkles on an ancient face. As the twisting path opened onto a clear view, I could see the beautiful town of Werfen below with its little winding river glittering under the sun.

Perfect creation of nature

An ice cave tour typically takes over one hour. Visitors are divided into groups of 20 to 30 people with one tour guide each. It is pitch dark inside the cave as no fixed lighting has been installed in order to protect the ice. Each group of two to three people is given a small lantern to provide illumination. The tour guide has a number of firework fuses which he sparks one by one to add more light for the visitors. Each time the fuses burn out and another one is yet to be lit, only the weak light of the lantern remains and the atmosphere is thick with the surrounding darkness.

As I navigated my way in the dim light and freezing air, I tried to hold onto the handrails and followed the group through each step. We started from the magnificent Posselt stalagmite which was named after the explorer who discovered Eisriesenwelt, then walked along a glacier which had been in deep slumber for thousands of years. Next, we reached a giant ice dam with a height of 23 meters and passed through the so-called Hymir Castle with magnificent ice “bells” hanging from the dome. The tour guide lit a fuse so people could admire the grand ice works. The cold color of the magnesium spark created an effect that highlighted every line of the gorgeous ice sculptures. Our last stop was where the ashes of cave explorer Alexander von Mörk were spread. According to his will, he was laid to rest for eternity here.

I followed along with the group as if in a dream; I did not even realize I had climbed 700 steps up and 700 steps down. The grand ice had taken us through so many emotions, as if a symphony moved from a high-pitched tune one moment to an epic song the next before turning into a warm melody. When the journey ended at the entrance of the cave, I suddenly awoke from my dream, a dream that had been grand and very real.