BRUCE GOES TO LECHUGUILLA CAVE - 2003
In 1992, a National Geographic special was made about the cave. I've watched it probably a hundred times, and it's been a dream of mine to go to Lech ever since the first viewing. Well, my wish finally came true.
Since 2000 I've been a member of LEARN, the Lechuguilla Exploration and Research Network. Getting into Lech first requires becoming a member of LEARN. Then you must submit a caving "resume", which is accepted or rejected. This must be accompanied by a recommendation from a sponsor who has been in the cave before. If all that goes well your name is put into a hat, and if you're lucky you get picked. The first 2 years of my membership, Lechuguilla was closed to exploration while a new steel entrance culvert was being built. In 2002 I was entered into the drawing but was not picked. This year my name was the first one drawn.
Time to go:
I flew out of San Francisco on August 15th, and arrived in Carlsbad, NM by 2:30pm. A group of cavers who I'd never met (except via email) picked me up and drove me out into the desert to Carlsbad Caverns Natn'l Park, and to the CRF huts (little adobe bunk houses with kitchen and bathroom) where we were to stay. I had stayed at the huts before when I had surveyed in Carlsbad Cavern in 1997.
In all there were 12 of us readying to go into the cave. We were split up into four teams of three. One group would go to the far east branch of the cave, another to the west, and two teams to the southwest. Earlier in the summer, when solicited by the expedition coordinator for a preference on where I'd like to go in the cave, I said the southwest, as that's where most of the National Geographic footage was shot. My request was accommodated. I was to go in with my sponsor, Dean Wiseman, a good friend who I've been caving with for years, and Doug Warner, a caver who I'd never met from Montana.
By this point I was nearly shaking from excitement. Less than 500 people have been in Lechuguilla, and it is considered one of the world's greatest caves, probably holding the title for the world's most highly decorated and bejeweled cave. Going in and seeing the cave first hand is a privilege that few are lucky enough to experience.
Trips into the cave are generally 7 days long. When you go into Lech, you must take a week's worth of food, batteries, lights, rappelling/climbing gear, clothing, and stove fuel. You must also pack out all solid waste. Luckily, there are water sources inside the cave, so only relatively small amounts of water need to be carried. Nonetheless, you end up with about a 50 pound pack on your back on the way in. Lechuguilla is a totally wild cave - no improvements whatsoever have been made to facilitate human travel through it. No lights, railings, stairs, or anything of that sort. The only exceptions being the airlock at the entrance (to keep the airflow in the cave as it was before the cave was dug open), and expansion bolts in the rock in certain spots to allow ropes and carabiners to be attached for rappelling purposes.
Anyone going into the cave must have a specific purpose. Legitimate reasons include biological (there are rare microbes in many of the pools) and geological studies, restoration, and surveying (mapping). My team went in with a specific list of mapping odds and ends to do - blunder checking (fixing errors in past surveys) and lead checking (mapping passage nobody has been in before).
We threw all our giant packs into the back of the pickup truck and headed off to the cave about 5:00pm. After a 2 mile drive down a dirt road through the desert, we parked and hiked a mile to the entrance. The opening to Lech is a 60 foot deep pit about 15'x 20' wide at the surface. At 6:00pm we rappelled to the bottom and reached the airlock. It's a huge stainless steel tube about 4 feet in diameter with an inner and outer door. There used to be an old metal culvert in its place, and when the door was opened wind would blow out, sometimes at 60 mph, depending on barometric pressure above ground. But this was found to have a negative impact on the cave, drying out certain formations and lowering water levels, so a new two-door version was built. The doors are huge heavy 4 inch thick slabs. Even when they are closed, a constant loud rush of air can be heard at the seals. You must go in the first one, close it behind you, then open the second door and descend down more steel tube on a ladder welded to the side. After about 40 feet of tube you emerge into cave again.
Looking up the entrance pit
Outside the airlock
The ladder below
Unfortunately, this trip was to be short-lived. After making our way about 1/3 of the way to base camp, Dean twisted his ankle. The 3 of us agreed that it was not safe to continue, so we turned around and exited the cave. It was a totally ass-kicking trip - we ended up back at the surface 12 hours later, having been beaten to a pulp ascending up all of the rope drops with our massive packs, and having done it during the course of the night when our bodies told us we should have been in bed. Once at the surface, with the sun rising, the 3 of us collapsed exhausted on the rocks for a half-hour before hiking back to the trucks, and then driving back to the huts.
Once we arrived, Doug went up to the Cave Resource Office and discussed the situation with Stan Allison. I was worried that I might not be able to go back into the cave since Dean was injured. LEARN rules stipulate that any newcomer must be accompanied in the cave by their sponsor. But after a quick phone call to Dale Pate, the head Cave Specialist, Stan gave Doug and I the ok to re-enter the cave the next morning after a day of rest.
Here I must tip my hat to Dean. When he entered the cave he was not quite recovered from a mild ankle twist he'd suffered about a week earlier. I'm sure he was aware of the possibility of ankle problems on the trip, but he went in anyway so my opportunity to see the cave would not be lost. Thanks Dean, I owe you one. Or three.
The Trip Back In:
The next day, with lighter packs (only 6 days of gear instead of 8), Doug and I went back in. We rappelled the 60 foot entrance pit and went through the airlock. We descended two nuisance drops of approximately 20 and 15 feet respectively, over large masses of flowstone. This part of the cave alone would be a classic cave in many states.
Next we came to the top of Boulder Falls, the largest drop in the cave. It's a 150 foot rappel into a large hall called the Colorado Room. This is the first of many large rooms in Lechuguilla. It's floor is strewn with large breakdown blocks interspersed with grey and purple cave pearls. A cave pearl is a grain of dirt that is continually hit with drops of water, which carry calcite in suspension. Over thousands of years the water deposits layer upon layer of calcite around the grain, and each time it is hit the grain swivels preventing attachment to the floor. Eventually you get little spheres of rock, sometimes up to 4 inches or so in diameter at the largest.
We next entered a large hall called Glacier Bay. This is a big room with a 20 foot thick crust of pure white gypsum as the floor. When you walk into the room you are initially on top of it, like walking on hard snow. There are "drill holes" interspersed through it, where water has dripped creating tubes all the way through to the bottom, from about 3 inches to 3 feet in diameter. You come to the edge of the gypsum, a 20 foot cliff, and climb down to the bottom where you reach bedrock again. From this vantage point, the white gypsum looks like a giant glacier coming into the room.
About 1/3 of the way to camp, we reached the Rift. It's a big crack between 3 and 15 feet wide, that goes both up and down a long ways. I honestly don't remember ever seeing a flat top or a bottom to it, just a fade to black. The rock strata is tilted at about 80 degrees in this part of the cave, so the crack leans over slightly, it's not perfectly straight up and down. Over time tons of rock and large breakdown blocks have fallen and gotten caught in it at various levels, creating pathways interrupted by deep voids. At each void you must clip your harness into a traverse line and skirt around the edge. The Rift culminates in a spot where you grab the rope and essentially swing around, your feet still on the ground, around the edge of a sloping boulder.
After the Rift we walked awhile through brown passage covered in corrosion residue. Corrosion residue is a rust-brown colored fluffy dirt on the walls that is thought to be a byproduct of rock-eating bacteria. This is just one of a number of biologically caused physical features of the cave.
Next we came to EF Junction, where the cave splits into its branches. We took a right turn and soon came into bleach white tubular passage lined with gypsum snowballs. At the end of this came the Little White Bastard. The LWB is a place where you must rig into a rope and rappel through a small white tube that's leaning at the same 80 degree angle as the Rift. Your body scrapes on one side the whole way down, and the huge pack on your back barely fits.
Then, the passage started to slowly open up. I started to see "small" gypsum crystals sprouting from the ceiling, small meaning 1 to 2 feet long. These crystals alone would be classic formations in most other caves. I knew we were close
we walked up a breakdown slope and as we got close to the top I could see around into the room. There they were, the chandeliers. We had reached the Chandelier Ballroom, the most famous place in Lechuguilla Cave. The ceiling is probably 60 feet high from the top of the breakdown pile in the center of the room, and as you turn 360 degrees you see huge crystal chandeliers sprouting from the ceiling, sometimes individuals, sometimes in groups. My guess is that there are somewhere between 30 and 40 of them in the room, with the longest one appearing to be about 20 feet. On the floor of the room, on top of and between the breakdown, are chandeliers that have fallen off the ceiling during earthquakes millennia ago. Huge broken pieces of crystal on the floor everywhere. I had waited 10 years to come here, and I just stood there staring in amazement. We followed a trail down and around to the right to view the largest and most photographed crystal group in the room. They were absolutely beautiful. Then it was time to move on. I had to tear myself away - I simply could not look at the chandeliers long enough.
The Chandelier Ballroom
From there we went into a black passage with warnings written on flagging tape: "no wake zone". We had to walk slowly and gently through the room so as not to create any destructive air currents, as there were occasional gypsum hairs hanging from the ceiling. Looking just like clumps of human hair only unpigmented, they swayed gently from the hot convection currents coming off of your body, and from the air current if you even spoke or breathed in their direction. Later in the week Doug and I would come back into this room looking to correct a survey error, and would find ourselves crawling into a side passage with a huge ball of white gypsum hair the size of a cantaloupe, and a 1 foot long banded net of the stuff. I had to turn my face toward the ground every time I exhaled so as not to destroy it - it was the most fragile place I've ever been.
We came up into a room called Land of the Lost. White aragonite bushes covered every inch of the breakdown floor and most of the ceiling, except for the brown trail through the middle of it all.
From there we clipped into a traverse line and skirted along a high ledge for about 30 feet. Then it was all up. For a good 15 minutes we hiked uphill in passage with a talcum powder-esque floor. We ascended up a 20 foot nuisance rope. The passage got larger and we continued to hike up on a thick gypsum crust similar to that back in Glacier Bay. Finally we reached a huge passage 70 feet in diameter lined with black manganese with the occasional white streak accent of flowstone. This was Big Sky, where we would camp. We turned left through a 40 foot arch and into a round alcove with a 70 foot high dome ceiling. We had made it to camp, having descended 900 feet below the surface. The other southwest group's stuff was already there, but they were off surveying somewhere. Much to our delight, just around the corner from camp, past the pee/poo spot, was one of the more famous places in Lechuguilla - the Pearlsian Gulf. The first night while waiting for the other team to come back, we went and saw its deep green pool, large white stalagmites, and a few hundred of the finest cave pearls found anywhere.
Camp was basically five 4x6 plastic tarps in a circle, each with sleeping bag and pad, and a profusion of gear and Ziploc bags filled with batteries, wet wipes, and other assorted stuff.
Generally we'd wake up around 8:30 and cook breakfast. Slowly get the gear together, then head off to our survey destinations by about 10:30 or so. We'd survey for about 8 or 9 hours, then come back to camp for dinner and be in bed by midnight. Sleep was easy. Every day we'd come back pretty exhausted and easily drift off. And it was a real treat to wake up to total silence and darkness.
My daily diet was freeze dried eggs and bacon for breakfast, tortillas with warm individually wrapped string cheese and beef jerky chunks for lunch, and freeze dried chicken and rice or turkey tetrazini for dinner. And granola bars too.
Every day we'd leave camp, rappel the nuisance drop, cross the ledge and end up back in Land of the Lost where we'd begin looking for our objective.
The first day was correcting survey errors in the Land of the Lost. The second and third days sent us into a place called the Voids, a massive boneyard maze. Boneyard is crumbly crusty passage with tubes and holes going in all directions. Imagine being a dust mite in a sponge. We routinely found ourselves stepping across and traversing around dark voids, crawling through tunnels, and sliding down crumbly slopes. Much of the area was at a 30 degree slant like the rock it was formed in. We used survey designations (little pieces of flagging tape with a number written on them in permanent marker) and line plot maps to find our way in to our destination. If you didn't pay attention you could get lost in 30 seconds.
On the sixth day we woke up and had breakfast, packed up our tarps and all our stuff, dumped out our pee at the dump site, and packed up our poo in 3 layers of Ziplocs and one layer of waterproof kayak bag. Doug and I headed out of the cave together before the other group. After a week of caving every day, we were feeling very in-shape and energized. The trip out took us only 5.5 hours, and we emerged to a beautiful partly cloudy and mercifully cool desert afternoon. The above ground is an amazing cornucopia of odors when you've been smelling only dirt and your own incredible B.O. for a week.