A Shot in the Dark: Caving in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico

"Onnn… rooope…!" My voice echoes off the walls from the chamber far below me. In the world of safe caving etiquette, this is the essential warning that I have just attached my rappel rack to the rope and am about to begin my descent down the pit. It means don't be in the fall zone below, nor drop anything from above. Even the smallest rock let loose by accident can gain velocity and do some serious damage to the caver or the rope on which his life depends.

My two fellow caving partners on this trip, preparing themselves for the same drop I’m about to make, mutter acknowledgment behind me. Although no one is below me in the pit, force of habit compels me to yell out my intention, in part to gird up some personal courage for the long drop beneath me. I’m pretty much a coward when it comes to heights, but my inquisitive brain and my inner fears have come to a detente agreement that I can still do this and that it is worth the effort.

Our team of three experienced cavers is already deep within the cave and far away from normal human connection. We are on a three-day trip into Virgin Cave and specifically heading for The Cavernacle, a spectacularly beautiful portion of the cave that few people ever get to see. We’ve driven 60 miles over increasingly worse roads, high into the Guadalupe Mountains of southern New Mexico to reach our destination. The last few miles were in a four-wheel drive, followed by a 2-mile hike and climb down steep canyon walls to the entrance of the cave. We each have heavy packs, filled with the necessities of our trip: vertical gear and rope for the various drops, sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses, a single camp stove, a pot in which to boil water for our freeze-dried food, assorted personal necessities and lots of camera gear. I have somehow convinced my two caving partners that their sharing of the load of my camera gear is going to be worth it for them in the long run.

The pit we’re about to descend is one of the deepest and most challenging of any vertical caves in the Guadalupe Mountains. Named the Four O’Clock Staircase, this 500-foot-deep pit is a series of pitches with several re-belays down a narrow slot to Thermometer Ledge. At the Ledge, we’re 250 feet down the drop, and this is where the real fun begins. From here, we each must clip into the next portion of rope, which takes off horizontally from our narrow perch. There are ten double tie-off points along this horizontal route roughly 200 feet long. You not only clip yourself in, but also hang your heavy pack separately on the rope to drag along behind you. Each tie-off point requires passing over the hanging re-belay knots and onto the next horizontal section. All this must be done with redundant backup connections so that you are never fully unhooked from the rope at any time. The same goes for your pack. Despite your being attached to a horizontal rope, the pit beneath you continues down another 250 feet to the bottom. A fall from here would leave your shredded remains on the walls all the way down to your final resting place. Putting that thought aside, you continue to the end of the horizontal portion, then continue to rappel straight down another 175 feet or so. One more short horizontal rope traverse at the bottom of that drop brings you to the final tube going up at a 45-degree angle into the beginning portions of The Cavernacle. The remaining short climb up to the underground designated campsite is a welcome relief after being on rope for several hours. There is still more rope climbing to be done to reach the main chamber of The Cavernacle above, but that will wait until the following morning.

tie-off points: bolts in the wall
re-belays: tie-off points that redirect the rope into safer positions
redundant backup connections: two separate short ropes attached to the seat sling with a carabiner at the end of each one
grotto meeting: local caving group affiliated with the National Speleological Society

Does this trip sound like something that most people can’t wait to do? Most likely not. For many people, the concept of going into a cave at all gives them the willies. Fear of darkness, claustrophobia, getting lost or sealed inside a cave from a collapse are the most terrifying things they can imagine. In many ways, it is a good thing that more people don’t take up the challenge of caving. Certainly caves can be a dangerous place for those who are unprepared for entering them. Three sources of light, appropriate clothing, good footwear, letting people know where you are going and when you expect to be out are just the basics and pure common sense. On the other hand, it is also good to know some caving ethics. Caves are fragile and delicate environments. Every footprint in a cave is left in perpetuity. Unlike the surface where rain, wind and nature can erase some human impact, caves are a closed environment that don’t clean themselves very easily. Outright vandalism by callous visitors is not only abhorrent, but a felony in many cases. The safest way to go caving is with a group of experienced cavers (and no, we don’t call ourselves “spelunkers”) who can show you the ropes, both literally and figuratively, and teach you proper underground safety, caving etiquette and conservation. Going to a grotto meeting is a great way to start. To learn more about local caving activities, go to http://caves.org.

While only a small proportion of people will ever be convinced to take up caving as a pastime, that should not deter you from visiting commercial caves. These are caves that have been tamed by the installation of walkways, stairs, railings, electric lights and, in some cases, elevators. Many of them are privately owned, but some of the biggest and best have been set aside as national parks or national monuments. From my viewpoint, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is at the very top of the list.

The Guadalupe Mountain Range is home to many hundreds of known caves (and undoubtedly has thousands more that are yet to be discovered), but the most famous and perhaps the grandest of all is Carlsbad Cavern. The cave was once simply called Bat Cave due to the nightly exodus of hundreds of thousands of bats from its huge natural entrance during the warm season. Several local caves in the lowlands of “the Guads” were mined for their bat guano as a natural fertilizer and Bat Cave had some of deepest deposits to excavate. A local cowhand by the name of Jim White was one of the first people to enter the cave by way of a handmade ladder and the first to see the deep guano deposits. However, he was also deeply impressed by exploring in the opposite direction of the bat guano piles. Using only a handmade kerosene lamp with a wick and a bunch of matches, he descended 800 feet down the huge passages over extremely dangerous terrain where a slip would surely mean a severe injury or death. Being a generally quiet man with a limited education, his descriptions of what he found down there were greeted with great skepticism by nearly all who listened to his stories. It took him nearly twenty years to find a photographer willing to accompany him into the cave to take pictures and prove his seemingly tall stories. It was not long before the cave was declared a national monument in 1923 and later designated as New Mexico’s only national park in 1930.

Despite paved walkways, electric lights and stainless steel railing, a trip through Carlsbad Cavern leaves most visitors awestruck. Its size is colossal, the formations are gigantic and spectacularly beautiful, the mystery of what is down the dark side passages is inspiring. With some modern amenities such as the Underground Lunchroom, its clean underground restrooms and the elevator that returns you to the surface 750 feet overhead in less than one minute, it is a trip easily made and one to remember forever. A walk through the Natural Entrance will take you safely down the steep switchback trail passages which Jim White saw only by weak kerosene lamplight. At the bottom of the 800-foot decline is a side tour one can take through the Scenic Rooms with names such as the King’s Palace, the Papoose Room, the Queen’s Chamber and the Green Lake Room. From the Underground Lunchroom, a walk around the Big Room (11 acres of floor space) will take the rest of your day to see and attempt to comprehend. For the more adventurous, side trips down Left Hand Tunnel and into the beautiful Lower Cave can be made for an added fee that is well worth the time and expense. One can only imagine what the cave must have looked like when Jim White first entered its virgin passages over 100 years ago.

While Carlsbad Cavern is the main attraction, the National Park Service also serves as steward of the other caves within the boundaries of the Park’s 73-square-mile area. There are 126 known caves, several of them once similarly mined for their bat guano deposits, and a number of them are open for real cave exploration by special permit. One of them is offered as a guided tour and is well worth the fee and climb required to reach it. Slaughter Canyon Cave is accessed by a drive about 20 miles from the Visitors’ Center over paved and gravel roads to the mouth of Slaughter Canyon. From here, a 45-minute hike up a 750-foot inclined trail will bring you to its entrance. A park ranger will take you on a gas lantern tour of this enormous cave with a long history of guano mining and many odd and beautiful formations.

Not all the caves within the Park are so easily accessed and visited. One of them in particular has a short history, a long length, the deepest depth of any cave in the US and is perhaps the single most spectacular cave in the entire world. Lechuguilla Cave, once known as Misery Pit when mined for bat guano in the early 1900s, was a seemingly small and inconsequential cave. What drew cavers to it were the strong winds that could be felt coming up through the rocky floor and out of small holes in the wall. Caves breathe to equalize their internal air pressure with the barometric pressure on the surface. As the air pressure outside of the cave goes down relative to the cave, air blows out of it. As the pressure outside goes up, air flows into it, always approaching a state of equilibrium. As the saying goes in cavers’ vernacular, “if it blows, it goes,” and Lechuguilla certainly did blow! Several attempts at digging in the cave took place over time, and in 1986 a breakthrough was made. Word of its discovery quickly spread throughout the caving community, and it wasn’t long before there was a stampede of cavers eager to explore it. At first, it was thought the end of the cave had been reached fairly quickly and that its large chambers and narrow entrance opening size were responsible for the great winds blowing out of it. With further intrepid exploration, it was soon evident that this was not just the discovery of another pretty cave within the Guadalupe Mountains, but rather the equivalent of man landing on the moon. It is hard to express in a few words the degree to which this cave has forever changed the lives of those involved in its discovery and exploration. I was privileged to play a small part in its exploration over the past twenty years. Suffice it to say it was the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had. Lechuguilla, while closed to the public, is still being explored to this day and now its known length is over 140 miles. Recent discoveries have led to whole new and extremely significant areas of the cave that could more than double this length over time.

Having rightly glorified the grandeur of Lechuguilla Cave, it is also necessary to relate that it has taken its toll on a number of cavers over time. Everyone who has ever been in “Lech” has felt that they have been squarely kicked in their hindquarters any number of times. In several cases, it has involved serious injury and the need for rescue. The biggest and most “famous” rescue was that of Emily Davis Mobley in 1991. Emily was a strong and very competent caver for over twenty years when a rock dislodged and hit her knee, causing a tibial plateau fracture. As great fortune would have it, one of her team members was an emergency room doctor who was able to take care of her throughout the rescue extraction from the cave. Talk about doctors making house calls! Due to the complexity of this cave with its many pits, rope climbs, tight crawlways and dangerous exposures, it took four days to bring Emily safely out of the cave from the site of the accident, 1.5 miles away from the entrance. Over ninety cavers (and another seventy backup people on the surface) were involved in the extraction and, despite the difficulty involved, it was considered one of the best cave rescues effected by cavers themselves. Two years later, I suffered a broken ankle half a mile farther into the cave beyond where Emily’s injury took place. My first reaction was “Oh no, not another Emily rescue,” having been one of the rescue party members two years earlier myself.  Fortunately, my own self-rescue, with the aid of the eight other cavers on the expedition, was achieved by my being able to crawl along the passageways with my ankle set in a homemade cast and raised behind me.

Morning came to our underground campsite in Virgin Cave not with the sun gently rising, but by someone turning on his headlamp. Breakfast was inhaled and we made the last two rope climbs up into The Cavernacle. This being my fifth journey into this vast chamber, my goal was to find new areas in which to photograph. One of my teammates found a safe way to enter and exit a portion of the cave I had not been to before. Getting into an area is one thing, getting out of it is another more important consideration. Here there were an abundance of new images to choose from. The Arched Shield, for example, was a formation the likes of which I had never seen before. Most shields look like a disk embedded in the wall with virtually nothing growing on the top side and stalactites forming on the underside. This shield seemed to have arched into a reverse curve with enormous stalactites up to 25 feet long hanging off its bottom side. I was glad to discover a strategy by which to light it properly from a distance away in the convoluted cave passages. As the sun was likely setting, had I been able to see it, my final image was to shoot Diana’s Shield, an odd formation above our source of drinking water. The prep work for taking the image was challenging. Setting up the light sources, climbing up to the highest and least comfortable perch from which to take the shot and later “removing” the striped trail markers from the image in Photoshop all added to the complexity of it. As the last bursts of light from my strobes died away to darkness, we rappelled back down to our campsite for a late dinner, sleep and our long exodus from the cave the following morning.

Despite attempts to change my date of birth, Ol D’agé (French for old age) keeps knocking on my door. I’ve spent 50 years going underground and I will continue to do so to the best of my abilities for as long as I can. Aches and pains have always come with any caving trip, but I believe that caving is also my own fountain of youth. For me, it is the best way to continue being who I am.

Photo: David Anderson