The Eisriesenwelt (World of the Ice Giant) is a wintry wonderland of naturally produced dazzling ice formations. Hidden in the Austrian Alps south of Salzburg, thawing ice drips into a labyrinthine cave and re-freezes into beautiful formations. Evocative names like the Ice Organ, Odin’s Hall and the Frozen Falls offers a glimpse of the remarkable ice patterns nature sculpts through the cave’s corridors.
The journey to the Werfen ice caves provides part of the experience. A fifteen minute walk from the bus stop leads through alpine forests and glorious mountain panoramas, past the imposing Hohenwerfen Castle and to a small hut. From here, a short cable car ride climbs a vertical rock wall of 500 metres. From the top of the cable car, a steadily ascending fifteen minute walk along Pincer Path leads ominously to a small rounded dark archway punched into the mountain side.
The guide greets the small party handing out instructions and small Davy Lamps to help find your path through the chambers. Ice already paints the walls and crunches underfoot. Through the first room and the group is met by a huge 20 metre high sheet of ice extends across the cave. The guide lights small strips of magnesium which shoots a sharp shot of bright light illuminating the magic of the cave for a few seconds before the light expires and the dull glow of the lamps and guide’s torch offer a more chilly feeling.
A narrow passage called Hymir’s Hall is named after the ice giant in the Norse sagas with the main formation being a huge overhanging presence called Hymir’s Castle. Carefully stepping between the castle and the Ice Chapel, the remarkable ice trees appear through the gloom. Sparkling on lighting of the magnesium strips, the trunks have tiny horizontal ice branches caused by the ever present cave winds that blow the water droplets into these patterns.
With more Norse inspiration, Odin’s Hall has a ceiling sprinkled in ice crystals like the starriest of dark nights while the deep bluish-green Castle of the Gods glistens against the rust-red cave walls. Through further immense caverns, the gleaming Ice Palace is the point to return having travelled 800 metres into the cave. On the path out, the staggering Mork Glacier has a polished eight metre wall smoothed by the wind and with elegant blue and white stripes sprinkled with brown cave dust. Occasional releases of magnesium strips illuminate the wonderful caverns into a fairy wonderland.
Accessible ice caves are relatively rare requiring elevations between 1400 and 2000 metres above sea level and suitable winters and summers. Eisriesenwelt, at Werfen, is the world’s largest ice cave and is a dream-like travel wonder in the Austrian Alps, making for a rewarding half-day visit among the majestic alpine vistas.