Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns

"Bats....millions of black little mammals whirling their way upward in a funnel-shaped cloud that grew and grew until the top-most portion seemed to fuse into the hazy clouds of a New Mexico sunset. That was the spectacle which, 111 years ago, led Jim White to discover the colossal Carlsbad Cavern.
" Carlsbad Caverns by James Larkin White"

The story of Jim White and his discovery of the caves is as fascinating as the caves themselves. Jim explored the caves on his own using crude ladders to get down in and a kerosene lamp to view the incredible formations. He was endangered a few times injured from bad falls and risking moments when his lamp went out. The base of the caves is 800 feet underground so a wrong step could have easily ended in tragedy. Remarkably, Jim tried unsuccessfully, to convince friends to accompany him down to the caves to view the spectacle. Over the years he built pathways and crude safety fences in order to encourage people to check out "his cave". It was not until an interest in the highly desired bat guano deposits that an entrepreneur arrived. Following the couple of years of lucrative guano mining, a photographer captured a few incredible images of "The Chamber of Wonders" and Jim's tourist industry began. The Cavern was proclaimed a National Park in 1930 and a World Heritage site in 1995.

We started our tour at the bottom of the elevator that is 850 feet below the desert floor. Guests look out at the roughly hewn stone walls close to the shaft. The cave bats are currently threatened by a fatal disease called white nose fungus. Visitors to the caves are thoroughly questioned and spelunkers disinfect their hiking boots as a precaution before exploring the cave systems. The entire cave complex is 3,800 feet long by 600 feet wide. Our first hour and one half was spent was inside the King's Palace Caves where our Ranger guided and informed us along the way. We were in awe of the huge stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns and crystals. In a couple of caves, our Ranger turned out the lights so that we could experience the intense darkness and extraordinary silence. The sheer enormity of the caves was overwhelming as we followed the paved pathways winding down and curving though one magical chamber into the next. Subtle lighting shows off the most spectacular formations and help visitors to stay on the paths avoiding steep cliffs and low hanging rocks.

We fetched Dixie from the car for a picnic lunch overlooking the Guadalupe mountains. Then we took her for a stroll where we could see the damage from a recent fire that burned thousands of acres in the park. The bats are now down in the warmer climate of Mexico but when they are in residence in Carlsbad (the bat cave is undecorated with minerals) a sunset event takes place each day at the amphitheater where people come to watch the bats fly out of the cave for their evening of ingesting insects. We hope to be there some day at the right time of year to see the spectacle.

                                                                            Bat-viewing Amphitheatre

Back into the caves, we headed out on a self guided tour. We followed the winding paths down from the amphitheatre into what is known as The Natural Entrance, the area where Jim White first entered the caves and later welcomed visitors. We spent about 2 1/2 hours exploring incredible sights with names like Painted Grotto, Chandelier, Lion's Tail, Temple of the Sun, Cathedral and Fairyland. The formations are a part of a reef left from an underground sea that was in the area millions of years ago. The sulphuric acid- laden water shaped the chambers. then over centuries, the minerals dripped together into a huge array of forms. Some of details are minute crystals while other ornate columns reach heights over thirty feet.

The colours range from whites, ochers and oxide reds and water still drips in some areas building new calcite sculptures.
The temperature of 56 degrees F. is constant in the caves. There are some deeper and cooler caves that are explored only by the brave and professionals with spelunking equipment. For the visitors like us, it is miraculous to leave the desolation and scrub of the desert above and be in such a world of wonder minutes later. Some caves reminded us of highly embellished cathedrals; others of fantasy stories like the world of Tolkien; some were like spacescapes in places beyond our solar system and others appeared as if they'd created by the most imaginative sculptors. Are you getting the point that this place is unbelievable?


Of the miles of 119 caves, there are many that are not open to the public. One of these is called Lechuguilla Cave. The unique features here are so delicate and fragile that only twenty specialists per year are allowed inside. My photos do no justice to the scale and magnificence of the caves. Check out a Carlsbad Cavern image website or better yet, plan a tour yourself!

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