Salt Mine in Berchtesgaden

Special mission to the Salt Mine

The salt mine in Berchtesgaden is the only active mine in Bavaria. A special environment that TÜV-SÜD employee Karl Schneider visits once a year.

Photos Myrzik & Jarisch

T

he first rays of the sun are shining on the summit of the Watzmann mountain in blazingly bright light as Karl Schneider gets out of the car in Berchtes­gaden, Southern Germany. The steeple clock indicates seven o’clock in the morning, it is still dark, and the shadowy alpine scenery rises behind him. He shoulders his backpack with the measurement equipment and puts on his helmet. “Things get started early in mining,” he explains. As an expert appointed under mining law, he inspects all electrical engineering in the salt mine. Then he becomes part of the mine, as the miners say, as he quickly forgets whether it is light or dark, warm or cold outside, whether the sun is shining or whether it is raining. Inside the mountain is a gigantic salt dome that has been mined for 500 years. The salt dome extends about four and a half kilometers through the mountains at a width of one and a half kilometers.

A heavy wooden door is pushed open with a creak and Schneider turns on his headlamp. He will be accompanied by Josef Helmiger, an experienced miner who will guide him through the labyrinth of tunnels and shafts. “I’m not allowed to walk around here alone. The danger of getting lost is too great,” says Schneider. The expert from TÜV SÜD Industrie Service GmbH has been responsible for the mine for 20 years. While inspecting the equipment and machines there for three days, he will cover 40 kilometers, bun­dled up against the cold—it will be a chilly eight degrees Celsius in the passageways. With each new section, the smell changes in the tunnel: Sometimes the air is clear and fresh, sometimes dusty, sometimes musty, and sometimes it smells like rocks. You can’t smell the salt, only see it. It pervades the rock like a wire mesh, its crystals glittering between the sedimentary layers of rock, gypsum, and clay.

innumer­able stairways

Before the salt can be mined, tunnels must be built by tunneling ma­chines, and wet mining works drilled and blasted. The mine is a huge labyrinth of passageways and isolated water sources. Water is introduced into mining works at a depth of roughly 100 meters, dissolving the salt. The resulting brine is discharged from the mountain using pumps. Due to the dissolved salt, huge cavities are created above the brine level.­ The brine is piped to the salt works in the city of Bad Reichenhall, 25 kilometers away, where it is treated to become table salt. Incidentally, the saline will be inspected afterwards—also by Karl Schneider.

Schneider trudges through the narrow shafts for several kilometers; innumer­able stairways lead downward. “Or you take the long wooden slide,” says Schneider, smiling, and zips 34 meters lower on the seat of his blue overalls. Thanks to the slides, the miners can move faster through the mountain; previously, mined materials were transported upward on them in carts. There is a smell of cool rock, water rushes by somewhere in the mountain, and from a distance there is the muffled hum of tunneling machines.

The salt veins sparkle again and again in the mountain. In the tunnels, Schneider looks at transformer distributions, impressive tunneling machines, and route distributions that are important for salt mining, as well as at the kilometers of cable that meander along the rock walls and run through the mountain. “A short circuit or fire in such an unde­rground system would be fatal. That’s why strict attention has to be paid to technical safety,” explains the expert. After all, the Berchtesgaden Salt Mine receives 400,000 visitors a year. This makes it important that the escape routes are adequately illuminated, the exhaust system for gases is in working order, and the emergency power supply starts up in case of emergency. The operation is exemplary; safety measures are adhered to just as they should be, Schneider says. The underground workers who meet him say “Good luck!” to him, a greeting which is typical of German miners. The inspection of the mine is literally a “one-of-a-kind” project for the 56-year-old expert. It is the only company in Bavaria that mines salt underground. He likes the direct contact to the salt. “It’s a real food. You can scratch it directly out of the rock,” says Schneider—normally he works in chemical plants. After eight hours in the mountains, it is back to the surface for Karl Schneider.

He again climbs a long stairway, and the winding paths lead steeply uphill; for minutes you can hear only his monotonous steps and heavy breathing: “You can already feel it in your thighs and calves.” He rides the mine train on rattling tracks to the exit with his companion Josef Helmiger. Outside, he squints in the sunlight. In the tunnels, he had left far behind what was happening outside in the world.

The inspection of the mine is literally a “one-of-a-kind” project for the 56-year-old expert. It is the only company in Bavaria that mines salt underground. He likes the direct contact to the salt. “It’s a real food. You can scratch it directly out of the rock,” says Schneider—normally he works in chemical plants. After eight hours in the mountains, it is back to the surface for Karl Schneider.  He again climbs a long stairway, and the winding paths lead steeply uphill; for minutes you can hear only his monotonous steps and heavy breathing: “You can already feel it in your thighs and calves.” He rides the mine train on rattling tracks to the exit with his companion Josef Helmiger. Outside, he squints in the sunlight. In the tunnels, he had left far behind what was happening outside in the world.