A Visit to Dóbsina Cave in 1895

from: Edwin Swift Balch (1900): Glacières or Freezing Caverns

Balch was an American who was educated in France and Germany and after graduating from Harvard, was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar. He never practised his profession, instead he lived the life of a wealthy gentleman and travelled widely.

Dóbsina Jegbarland, in the Carpathian Mountains, is easily reached either from Poprád to the north, or from Dóbsina to the south. The hotel at Poprád is better, however, than the inn at Dóbsina, where my brother and I spent two nights. It was decidedly primitive. The food was not so bad, but the pigs ran round in the courtyard, and one morning a gypsy band woke us at half-past three o'clock by playing in front of our windows, in dreadful wailing tones, which were most irritating at that hour. At the proper time, however, Hungarian gypsy music, - despite the fact that none of the players ever seem to look at the leader, and that each man appears to play the tune he likes best, - is stangely fascinating.

Dóbsina itself lies in a hollow, surrounded with well-wooded hills, the general appearance much resembling some of the valleys of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My brother and I started from Dóbsina on the morning of the 27th of July, 1895, at half-past seven o'clock, in a little open carriage excellent horses and a Hungarian driver in national costume. He was a nice fellow, but he did not understand a word of German. The road reminded us of some of our own mountain roads, as it was rough, full of holes and partly washed away by the rains. We first ascended to the crest of the surrounding hills and then descended to the Stracena Thal, a wild limestone valley covered with fine forest. Two and a half hours driving landed us at the hotel-restaurant near the cave, at which I should certainly stop on another visit. It was half an hour's stroll thence, through beautiful woods to the cavern entrance. North-wards in the distance the Tátra Range was visible, a set of sharp bare rock peaks, at whose base, ensconced in pine forests, is situated the famous Hungarian summer resort or Tátra Füred.

The entrance to the cavern is enclosed by a fence with a gate, and here the Dóbsina people have a high tariff and take toll from tourists. At the gate, we waited for half an hour, until a sufficient number of persons had arrived to form a party. This mode of visiting the cave rather detracts from the pleasure, even though it does away with all difficulty and makes the beauties of Dóbsina accessible to everyone. It is necessary to wait long enough to cool off thoroughly before entering, on account of the icy air of the cavern, where heavy winter clothes are indispensable.

The entrance to Dóbsina faces nearly due north. It is small, perhaps two meters wide and three meters high, and is perfectly sheltered from any wind. The sudden drop in temperature at the entrance was startling; in fact it was the most extreme temperature change I have noticed in any cave. Within the length of an ordinary room, say in a distance of five meters, we passed from an extremely hot summer morning to the chill of a mid-winter afternoon. A slight air current, perhaps, issued from the entrance, as we observed a faint mist here. At the rock portal there was ice on the rocks overhead, and underfoot was the beginning of the huge mass of ice which almost fills the cavern. A descent down eighteen wooden steps landed us at the beginning of the huge ice floor, which is called the Großer Saal. It is a magnificent cave. The floor is a sheet or rather a mass of solid ice, the surface of which is level enough in one place to permit skating; in other spots it is sloping and covered with small ice hillocks. The ice is solid throughout, without any holes or cracks. Several fissure columns stream to the floor from cracks. Joining the roof to the floor are numerous big ice stalactites, which form frozen pillars and columns. These are from eight to eleven meters in height, and some two to three meters in average breadth and width. Nearly translucent, they are covered with all sorts of icy ornaments hanging about them in tufts and fringes; they are beautiful in their shapes, as well as in their white and blue colours. One of these columns is called the Brunnen, because until ten years ago, a small stream dribbled continuously from the roof and cut a channel across the ice floor; but now the stream has solidified into the pillar, and the channel is filled up, although it can still be traced in the ice.

The cavern is lighted by electricity, which has the merit, even if it brings in an element of artificiality, of clearly revealing one of the chief glories of Dóbsina. This is the rime or hoar frost, which in the shape of ice or snow crystals, covers the entire limestone roof, and, reflecting the electric light, shines like frost silver. Some of these crystals seem to be precipitated to the floor, and in one place I found a small sheet of them, perhaps two meters in width each way, which looked and felt like genuine snow. The general color effect of all this upper cave is white, although there is some blue in the ice, and gray and brown in the rock and shadows. It would not be much of a misnomer to call Dóbsina "the great white cave".

The ice extended to the sides of the cave except in two places. Here there were holes in the ice, bridged by rock arches. We passed through one of these and descended by a wooden staircase some eighty steps, afterwards returning up through the other arch by another staircase. At the bottom we stood in a magnificent gallery named the Korridor, formed by a solid wall of ice on one side and by a wall of limestone rock on the other.

The ice wall is the lower portion of the ice floor; the rock wall is the continuation of the roof. For the entire distance the ice wall rises almost perpendicularly some fifteen meters in height, while the rock wall arches overhead.

The bottom of the Korridor was filled with blocks of fallen limestone, through which any water drains off, and on which there was a wooden walk, so that we circled round the ice with the greatest ease. At one place on the limestone wall hung a cluster of big icicles, which, from their shape really deserved the name they bear, of the Orgel. At another place a hole, some six or seven meters deep, was hewn, in the form of a small chamber, directly into the ice mass. This is the Kapelle, where we performed our devotions by leaving our visiting cards on the floor. Near the middle of the Korridor the ice mass bulges out and extends to the limestone wall, breaking the whole Korridor into two parts, the western portion about eighty meters, and the eastern about one hundred and twenty meters long. This necessitated cutting a tunnel about eight meters long in the ice to get through. The color of the Korridor is a darkish gray and is much more sombre than that of the ice Großer Saal. A remarkable feature of the ice wall is the fact that distinct bands of stratification are visible in the ice in many places. Why the Korridor is not filled up with ice and why the ice is perpendicular for such a distance are questions I am unable to answer satisfactorily; but it is probable that the temperature of the rock walls is sufficiently high to prevent the ice from forming in winter or to melt it in summer if does not in winter.

The air in Dóbsina seemed still, and scarcely felt damp. In one or two places in the Großer Saal there was a slight sloppiness, showing incipient signs of thaw. In the Korridor it was freezing hard.

Found and digitized by Tony Oldham (2002). Used with kind permission.

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