Today's Travelers are Facing Rigor, Danger and Dread--and Loving It
Kevin F. McMurray
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00
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CAVING IN CARLSBAD, NEW MEXICO
In 1923 inspector Robert Holly, a surveyor sent by the U.S. Department of Interior, wrote the following of his first inspection of the now-famous Carlsbad Caverns: "I am wholly conscious of the feebleness of my efforts to convey in words the deep conflicting emotions, the feelings of fear and awe, and the desire for an inspired understanding of the Divine Creator's work which presents to the human eye such a complex aggregate of natural wonders."
No better words were ever written to describe the incredible sights that are entombed under the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. Two hundred and fifty million years ago the Guadalupes comprised an ocean reef. When the great inland sea dried up, it left behind the now 400-mile-long limestone mountain chain. Over the innumerable millennia, water containing hydrogen sulfide moved upwards along joints and fractures, mixing with fresh water and oxygen at the water table.
The combination produced sulfuric acid, which dissolved the limestone and created the caves in the Guadalupe Mountains. More than 500,000 tourists a year visit the main caverns, descending 750 feet by elevator.
As spectacular (and crowded) as the main caverns may be, most people are unaware that within the Carlsbad Caverns National Park 10 other equally beautiful cave systems there are set aside for recreational use, though these require a bit more exertion. Visiting these caves with park rangers is a good jumping-off point for the uninitiated. With a little experience you will be ready for a visit to the adjacent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Carlsbad Field Office, where more than 175 known cave systems beg for some exploring, or as cavers say, "climbing dark."
These caves are not accessible by elevator, nor lit, nor--as you may have guessed--crowded. Climbing dark is not for the out-of-shape or claustrophobic. Two popular cave systems in the BLM-managed area that will test your aerobic conditioning and fearlessness are Parks Ranch Cave and Endless Cave. Both cave systems offer a wealth of challenging crawls and climbs, as well as a dark world of strange and beautiful geological formations that few venture down to see. Parks Ranch Cave is a 3.7-mile serpentine system that was carved out of the gypsum karst by running water.
In this area, called the Chosa Draw, the land is pocked with sinkholes, and the caves are, in effect, nature's storm drains. About 50 feet underground the cave has a unique eco-system that caters to the likes of small spiders and crickets with low eye function and pale pigment, and scuds and other fish that have never seen the light of day. Parks Ranch is a good initiation into caving, or spelunking, as the academics refer to it. While there are no difficult climbs or precipitous drops, some tight squeezes will have you sucking in your gut.
Endless Cave is much more difficult. You will need a permit from the BLM office in Carlsbad, which limits incursions due to the cave's fragile rock formations that defy description. Deeper than Parks Ranch, Endless is your classic limestone cave system complete with stalactites (hanging calcium deposits) and stalagmites (standing deposits). There are several vertical climbs and narrow holes to negotiate.
Descriptive names of the rooms such as Mud Crack, Gypsum, Easy Chair, Green Lake, Grand Canyon, War Club and the Express-way are a good indication of what you will find 80 feet below the earth's surface. Caving in Carlsbad is a year-round endeavor because the temperature is always between 57 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit underground. As well as a pair of hiking boots and some durable clothing that you won't mind getting wet and muddy, purchase a helmet with a good primary light and two backup lights.
In Carlsbad Caverns National Park, guided hikes through the less trafficked cave systems are available by reservation. In the field office area you can pick up maps and obtain permits for the 16 caves on the protected list at its office in the city of Carlsbad. Then you are on your own. Make a point of stopping at the Guadalupe Mountain Outfitters at 216 South Canal in Carlsbad (505-885-9492) for caving gear and advice. For more information contact: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220. Phone: 505-785-2232. On the Web: www.nps.gov/cave. or the BLM-Carlsbad Field Office, 620 East Green Street, Carlsbad, NM 88220. Phone: 505-887-6544.
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