As you may remember from Part One of our August Austrian vacation in Sank Johan im Pongau, we tried to visit the world’s largest ice cave in one hour. Maybe I should have paid a little more attention to the fact that this was the WORLD’S LARGEST ICE CAVE! After our failure on the first day, we decided to go back the next morning, because, I have to say it again, the world’s largest ice cave! This was not to be missed, and even though there were several other things in the region that looked very appealing, and this was our last full day, I was determined to see it. Now, my husband was still unsure that we should attempt such a feat with the kids. Now, I know that I told you last time that you should listen to dissension among the ranks sometimes, but this was not the time. Why was this time different than not listening to him before? Because I knew he wanted to go see it too, he was just unsure the children would make it up to the top. But, we now had the whole day, not just an hour. And we’ve been through this debate before “Let’s just go next time. We love this place so much, we’ll come back.” And then we never do. So, knowing that the kids actually did fine on the 1st part of the hike we tried before, I was determined that today, with the whole day open ahead of us, we would make it up to the cave.
Arriving just 30 minutes after they opened that morning, we were already parking three phases further away from the entrance, unlike the evening before when we were in the first parking lot. The weather was gloomy and supposed to rain that day, but the temperature was still mid 50’s Fahrenheit. We were warned however that it would be much colder in the cave. But having done the first part of the hike the day before, I knew how hot you could get just on the way up. So, we decided on pants and short sleeve shirts that morning and jackets that could be taken off and tied around the waist. I knew the stroller was not a good choice to go up the mountain, but I couldn’t remember how far the walk was to the entrance, and that was already up hill. So we took the stroller up and left it in the locker rooms that were available for rent. Though we just stashed it on the side as it wouldn’t fit. A risk, but one we figured would be ok given the area. We purchased our tickets again and started the walk. This time, I kept it at a pace more enjoyable for all. With the boys and husband walking along and my 18 month old strapped to my back in the Ergo, up we went.
The path started out wide and remained nicely graveled, and even paved in some areas, all the way to the gondola. At the gondola entrance, there was a snack shop with some benches for a pit stop going up or coming down the mountain with drinks, packaged snacks, ice creams and a few hot snacks. The best part was the bottled water. The line for the gondola started further back this time, it took us 30 minutes to get to our turn. The ride itself was smooth but startling if you look down as you get closer to the top. At one point we were literally being pulled straight up rather than the gradual across and upward slope direction.
Once at the top, we were greeted by a restaurant, which we noted as an ideal stopping point for the way back. The 2nd trail of the hike up was more narrow than the first, but plenty wide enough for people to stand 4 by 4 across so you could go up and people could come down without a problem passing each other. Some parts of the trail were covered with a nicely built awning. The scary part was, you were winding up the side of the mountain, and it was steep up at the top. There was a guard rail the entire way up to the mouth of the cave, however it was merely two wood logs between posts. It was a good thing Madelyn was content with riding on my back, at one point she even fell asleep. Our children, fortunately, are used to traveling and trusting in our guidance in new situations, so when we’d tell them not to do something or where to walk, they listened. But if your children are a bit more adventurous and don’t always like to stop climbing or running around when you tell them, this could be a more stressful or dangerous trip. Just on the other side of the “fence” is a deadly drop over the side of the mountain. This again reminded me of how lucky I was to have my husband for this experience. Even with my daughter on my back, it was necessary to have those extra set of hands, and I hadn’t even saw what was in store for us INSIDE the cave! After winding our way up the 2nd hiking path to the mouth of the cave, there were several terraced benches with a steep view of the valley below and surrounding mountains. We were all happy to have a rest on the benches after the long hike. There were a couple benches along the way to stop too. But it was nothing like finally reaching your destination.
While the parking lot was crowded, the wait for the actual tours once you got to the top was not long at all. We only had to wait about 5 minutes for our English speaking tour to begin. As we gathered around to hear the rules before going into the cave, they handed out our open flame lanterns to light the way. Only natural light is permitted inside the cave for preservation purposes. The guides use magnisium strips to light certain areas once inside. After the door was open to enter the cave, you experience a huge rush of wind. Then with your open flame lanterns in hand, you proceed on a short path to the first flight of stairs. We were ultimately about to climb up and down a total of 1,400 steps throughout the tour.
We had to climb two very tall flights of stairs in the beginning of the tour. Then there were some flat trails along boardwalks around some of the sculptures. The ice “sculptures” as they called them, were very beautiful and impressive. There were about 5 different main formations along the way. The hardest part was being stressed over the lanterns and making sure that however we held them that one of the kids didn’t turn slightly into the flame. There are also a couple main areas along the tour where you and another tour group pass by each other on the way in and out of the turn around. There is only a bar rail separating the path and not a full barrier and some of the other tourist would just carry their lanterns in the hand next to the rail so that it risked brushing up with the tourist walking on the other side. Several times I had to step to the side so as not to get burned by their lanterns. Besides the acute awareness you must have while walking up and down the stairs and along the paths of this 70 minute tour inside the cave, the ice sculptures themselves are breathtaking. One the one hand, I was really sad that I would not be able to take pictures inside the cave. I desperately wanted to catch the beauty and magnificants of this place. But, I will admit, being forced to experience very second with wide eyes and not camera lense, did make me appreciate what I was seeing even more. You really got to take it all in rather than worry about taking a picture. And in the end, that was the best part. It was like we were lost in an exciting underground world. I did however purchase a couple of postcards from the gift shop to remember how amazing it was inside. Here is one of the official postcards from the visitor’s center.
You might be wondering how the kids did trekking up and down all 1400 stairs? Well, the 18 month old slept through half of it in the Ergo on my back, and when she woke up, I think she was so confused she spent the rest of the time just looking around trying to figure out where she was. As for the 4 and 6 year olds, we didn’t get much complaints at all. During the longest stair stretch of about 200 steps, there were one or two questions of how many more. But they got a kick out of counting the stairs and that kept them pretty amazed on those parts since it was a new thing that year to count up to 100, and now they were past that! Our 4 year old did complain of being too cold when we got into the deepest part of the cave, but other than that, they did great, especially with the promise of hot chocolate and kaiserschmarrn waiting for them at the restaurant we saw at the top of the gondola. Once we got back to the mouth of the cave and returned our lanterns, we look one last resting break on the terraced benches to take in the view before the walk down.
The walk back down the trail to the gondola decent post and restaurant was of course much easier and faster than going up. We ducked into the restaurant just as we realized that we had left our umbrellas at the mouth of the cave where the tours meet (they were not allowed inside the cave and we wouldn’t have been able to carry them anyways). Had they just been one or two cheap umbrellas that we bought at a drug store, we would have left them, but they had been gifts so my husband graciously agreed to hike back up to the mouth of the cave while I saw at a nice warm table in the corner of the restaurant. It was very crowded and we just lucked into a corner booth table and chairs just before a big rush came in. There were several tables with people that had reserved signs on them, so I think that you can make a reservation when you get off the gondola so that you have a table to come back to after the tour. We did not do this and took our chances and it turned out nicely, that time. But given the crowds, service was very slow. In fact, it took my husband nearly 40 minutes to go up and get the umbrellas and come back and we had only ordered and received drinks. But the kids got their Austrian, powder sugar dusted, crumbled up pancakes (kaiserschmarrn) and hot chocolate so they were all happy campers.
By time we got back to the car, we had been gone for 6 hours. I couldn’t believe we had spent that much time on one attraction, and I had no regrets, including the 2 hours it took to have “snack” at the restaurant before going back down the gondola. I was so proud, not just of my kids, but of us as a family. We endured a fairly physical activity, supported one another through it, and got to experience a “once in a life-time” sight with the five of us all together! It was a good day.