Tag Archives: spelunking

Civilized Spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns

I’ve been in many caves before, but none quite as grand or civilized as Carlsbad Caverns.  There was no desperate clinging to dusty ledges above a river plunging into a dark abyss, no riding an inner tube with only a stick to protect me from the rapidly approaching walls that I couldn’t see despite the penlight held in my teeth, no being bitten by cave shrimp and I crawl on my belly through a subterranean river, and no bat guano squishing between my toes.  There were none of the gaudy coloured lights popular in the caves open for visitors in China, and very little of the damage that I’ve found in unprotected caves like in Vietnam.  Very civilized.

Patrick and Diane seated on a stone wall with the large, dark cave mouth behind us

At the entrance

We chose to hike into the caverns via the natural entrance rather than take the elevator.  It’s a walk of over a mile down a paved but continuously steep switch-backed trail that can be hard on the knees, but hiking down provides a much better appreciation of the caverns’ size and depth.

Diane and Beth standing on a paved path with many swtichbacked paths visible extending into the darkness below them

Diane and our friend Beth at the start of the many switchbacks

The first non-native person known to have explored the caverns is Jim White, a local cowboy.  In 1901 he saw a dark moving column in the sky, investigated, and found a giant stream of bats issuing from the cave mouth.  An estimated 800,000 bats of 17 species live in the caverns, the majority being Mexican Free-Tailed bats.  Evening programs are held at the cave entrance to watch the departure of the bats between Memorial Day (end of May) and mid-October.

Many bats against the sunset

Carlsbad Caverns, located in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, is protected as a National Park.  Despite its remote location, it receives 500,000 visitors annually.

The caves were formed when a large, underground limestone deposit, once the floor of an ancient sea bed, was dissolved when hydrogen sulfide (H2S, a colourless gas with the foul odour of rotten eggs) from deeper petroleum reserves mixed with oxygen (02, from water) to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4) The entrance to the caverns was caused by natural erosion from the surface afterwards, within the last million years.

The self-guided tour goes through several large chambers displaying lots of different and hard-to-photograph speleothems (the structures found in caves caused by the deposit of water-borne minerals) like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, soda straws, draperies, helectites, and popcorn.

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The biggest room in the caverns, uninspiringly called ‘The Big Room’ but also known as ‘The Hall of the Giants’, is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at the highest point. It has a floor area of 357,469 square feet (33,210 m2) and is the third largest cave chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world.

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The caves are cool but comfortable.  The self-guided tour travels a paved path, most of which is wheelchair accessible.  If you’re seeking a civilized spelunking expedition, Carlsbad Caverns is a great place to visit.

Posing Underground

Posing Underground

Spelunking

We rented a scooter and headed north out of the popular backpacker hangout of Vang Vieng in Laos. Thirteen kilometers later, after passing through several poor villages, we turned off onto a dirt road. We were following the hand drawn map provided by the young woman who had rented us the scooter, sans insurance or helmets. After about 800 meters of red dirt road punctuated by mud puddles we arrived at the bank of the Nam Song River. Here we found a man willing to watch our scooter for 5,000 Kip (under a dollar). This wasn’t really necessary, but we felt it a wise investment at that point, thinking that paying money might avoid an unfortunate ‘accident’ from befalling our only transport home. Diane thought it was a ‘parking fee’, but there was no shortage of space to park along the river bank, so it seemed more like a protection racket to Patrick, who begrudgingly paid the fee. We crossed the river on a small bridge covered in woven mats.

Using the bridge cost us 5000 Kip each (death by a thousand cuts!), but one used to have to pay a boatman before the bridge was built, and the return trip across the bridge was included.

We arrived in a small village, home of Tham Sang. ‘The Elephant Cave’ is in a small rock outcropping at the end of the village. There is a large Buddha statue inside and a rock formation that really looks like the front of an elephant, tusks and all.

We walked on, picking our way through the rice paddies and following trails through the jungle, heading in a generally north westerly direction, looking for another cave called Tham Hoi. We started following some locals that we thought might be going in that direction, but they stopped and sent us back. Tham Hoi is a long thin cave that goes three kilometers underground to a lake. It has a generally level floor of mud, not smelly, but slippery in places. It didn’t have the smell of bat guano which is now familiar to us. The interior of the cave was filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and many formations that looked like melting candle wax. The cave is completely dark once you progress away from the entrance and we were all alone. We went in a few hundred meters using our headlamps before Diane decided that it was time to turn around.


Nearby Tham Loup is a cave reached by climbing up the lower reaches of the cliff then descending some wooden stairs into a cavern in the darkness. There were two guided groups deeper in the cave which we could sense from their distant voices and lights. At the rear of the initial cavern it was possible to climb through some tight squeezes to another cavern behind. Diane was a bit freaked out because this cave had a slippery floor with occasional jagged holes waiting to swallow us up. Tham Loup was very pretty inside, but had sustained some damage from previous visitors. We followed the faint lights and voices of the other groups, but we struggled to keep up. Patrick was concerned we’d get lost and Diane was just about to panic. Fortunately the rear chamber had another exit that looped back to the first cavern, and we found our way out unscathed.

Our final cave, Tham Nam, known as ‘The Water Cave’, was about half a kilometer away and was a bit of a surprise. It has a wide, low opening with a tributary of the Nam Song running from it. For a small fee we rented inner tubes and waterproof headlamps from a young woman who lived nearby. Each headlamp looked like a torture device, with a large, heavy battery worn on a string around the neck, and wires running up to the light attached to the head with a tatty old bit of elastic. The batteries had exposed contacts with bare wires twisted around them, which was disconcerting because they lay balanced on our chests as we pulled ourselves on the tubes through the low entrance and into the darkness.

We made progress against the current by going hand-over-hand on a rope. The cave was about fifteen meters across and one meter high, cut from the rock by the water over the eons. Diane led the way as we tugged ourselves upstream and into the unknown.

Eventually Diane reached the end of the rope. We thought perhaps that we’d missed something, but found that the water was now shallow enough to walk. The cave roof was not high enough to stand so we splashed upstream bent over at the waist.


We found a small piece of dry ground to leave our tubes on, hoping that they wouldn’t wash away before we returned, which would result in a rather scary swim. The roof gradually lowered to the level of the water, and the river rushed from under the wall, so we turned around. On the return journey we just floated downstream, waiting for the sunlit opening to appear. Diane thought that she’d be most freaked by this cave, but it was the one that she enjoyed the most.

Overall, we had a very enjoyable day. Diane recently said that we haven’t had as much ‘adventure’ on our trip recently. Her comfort zone must surely have expanded on this trip if this isn’t exciting enough for her! Perhaps she just recovers quicker.