Cave Crawling in Carlsbad

Off the Tourist Track in America's Best Known Caves
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Inside Carlsbad Caverns
Inside Carlsbad Caverns

Something strange happens when you find yourself suddenly immersed in totaldarkness. First you gasp. Then you giggle. Finally you lapse into a contemplative reverie. Hearing and touch become your primary senses. I experience thisdarkness on successive days deep in the bowels ofsoutheastern New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns; first after astrenuous three-quarter-mile scramble through tightpassageways, up narrow chutes, and past deep chasms; second,at the end of a leisurely half-mile stroll beside undergroundpools, through stalactite forests, and under high rock ceilings. For all of us on these tours, being castinto a lightless world generates a humbling but profound sense ofvulnerability.

People have sought shelter and been awed by thesecaverns hidden beneath the stark desert landscape for more than athousand years, but serious exploration started only a centuryago. The area was preserved as a national park in 1930. Carlsbad houses one of the world's largest underground chambers,where the roof reaches heights of 340 feet. Called the BigRoom, tourists can take self-guided tours of the chamber,accessing it by elevator from the visitor's center or via asteep, winding, paved path through the natural entrance. Eitherway, you descend 750 feet into the earth.

Carlsbad also contains uncounted additional tunnels andchambers, some of which you can explore on off-trail tours. I begin my visit on just such an adventure tour as we set out to find the Hall of the White Giant. A group of eight men, twowomen, and two guides start down the tourist-filled naturalentrance. About halfway into the descent, our lead guide stops at an unremarkable spot. "This isit," our leader, Park Ranger Danny Cantu, announces. We're befuddled. Nothing here but a solid,craggy, tan rock wall. "Where do you think we're going in?"he asks. We shake our heads. He points to a narrow creviceabout ten feet directly overhead.

The very first step up stretches and tests my short legs. Make a grab, pull on a series of handholds, push with the legs. Three or four vertical moves later, it's onto my belly and thenaround a flat rock, one leg dangling off the side. One more turn and I disappear into the wall,leaving the tourist world behind.

Inside, it's dark and cool. The tunnels, even when theyshrink to slim, body-tight passageways, generate excellentventilation; air steadily flows through the rock. It'shumid, though: the air remains a fairly constant 580F and 90percent humidity. It coats your skinlike a cold sweat. There is a pungent dirt aroma here, like a wetsandbox or on a newly watered infield. What we can see in our headlamps' light looms a dusty, dull gray. No spectacular colors, but a never-ending series of twisted rock formations, crags and openingsleading to who-knows-where. Our way is well-marked, however. Flourescent orange tape defines the path. Candy-cane stripedtape warns us to stay clear. Some of those spotsare ecologically fragile: a new stalagmite being born, a smallsurface pool to be sidestepped. Others are plain danger: We are instructed to keep the headlamp in front of us in sight at all times and to pass messages up and down the line exactingly.

We stop slithering and crawl. A few feet further and Iunderstand why I'm wearing a helmet. By the time we've completedthe trip, I'll have knocked my noggin many times.

Soon I'm puffing, panting, and grinding grit between my teeth. Caving combines elements of climbing, hiking, and orienteering. You're required to bring knee pads, but elbow pads would be welcome, too. And forearm protection. Every time we pull ourselves through some tight space, my elbows and forearms bump and scrape nastily. There will be bruising tomorrow.

Gloves are also required. "This is as much for the protection of the cave as for your hands," Ranger Lance Mattson told me. Lance runs the Carlsbad adventure tour program. "Oils from your skin coat the rock and destroy the naturalmineral process. That's why we ask you to keep your hands off the stalactites and other fragile formations. We walk a fine line between education and preservation."

Danny holds up our line. We've reached a metal ladder. It ascends a chimney—a thin funnel-like opening that goes straight up. "Go one at a time," he says. "When you're on the first rung, call out 'on ladder!' At the top, 'off ladder'."

The rungs aren't much wider than my feet. Climbing it requires some strength. At the top, I grope for a handhold and pull. "Off ladder!"

The passageway narrows. Now we must slither on our sides. "Keep your back to the right," warns Richard Banuelos, our point guide. "There's popcorn on the left. It'll scrape you." Popcorn forms when water evaporates, leaving behind bumpy calcite deposits.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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