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Spelunking

2011 March 11
by rob

Less than two weeks after my last trip, it was time for another!

Janet and many of her colleagues were attending a conference in San Antonio, Texas. They decided to follow that up with a weekend at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. The caverns weren’t actually very close to San Antonio, and they would need to fly to El Paso first. Driving from San Antonio directly to the caverns would be a bad idea. As I learned two years ago, driving across Texas takes nearly a full day!

I had some air miles sitting around that I was looking for an excuse to cash in, so I decided I would come in for the weekend. A random weekend road trip in Texas and New Mexico? That’s awesome! I had to go!

I flew from Toronto to El Paso after work on Thursday March 3. I had a short layover in Denver International Airport. It was my first time there and the airport was huge! I took the train from the concourses to the main terminal building with a graceful tent-like roof. When I arrived, I found that I had to go through security again to get back go the concourses. While I was standing in line, there was a real cowboy standing in line ahead of me! It was an old man with a white mustache, wearing blue jeans, a beige vest, and a real cowboy hat. I wanted to take a picture of him, but I feared that he might have lassoed me. If I was tied up, I might have missed my flight. That would have been bad!

My flight was supposed to land in El Paso at 11:30 PM. Sadly, my flight landed half an hour late so I didn’t arrive until midnight… and that’s Mountain Time! Since that was 2 AM in Toronto, it was almost 4 hours after my normal bed time. I was so tired! I had a pair of seats to myself on the airplane and I actually curled up in fetal position on the tiny seats to try and get some rest. Thank goodness that I didn’t check in any bags and I was able to simply walk off the plane, out of the airport, across the parking lot and into our chosen hotel where I met Janet. From the time the plane touched down to the time I reached my bed was less than 15 minutes. I consider that good planning.

In the morning we walked back across the same parking lot (which wasn’t actually that big — El Paso International Airport is small), picked up our rental car and drove to Walmart to pick up supplies for our road trip. We met Janet’s friends there. They had their own car and had stayed at another hotel that was farther away. Their hotel was cheaper than ours. However, I’m happy I was able to walk to my hotel from the plane in such a short time. I’m happy that I paid more money for convenience!

It seems that some of the values of Backpacker Rob have already dissipated, it seems!

That’s okay. I still find road trips great fun. I hope I never lose that value :)

Our two cars headed out of El Paso and into the scrubby desert of west Texas. After a short drive, we were forced to stop at a US Border Patrol checkpoint. Although Janet and I were allowed to pass through without any difficulty, Janet’s friend were forced to stop and wait there! We waited about twenty minutes to see if the Feds were going to let them go, but decided that we had to leave since we didn’t want to risk missing our scheduled tour at 1 PM. And so, we drove off into the desert with our friends stuck in the hands of the Feds. Bad times.

It was still a two hour drive across the desert to get to Whites City, New Mexico. We checked in at our motel, quickly ate some lunch, and drove up a winding road in a canyon to reach the visitor’s center for Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

There were several tours that were available for visitors at this national park. They have different difficulty ratings: easy, moderate, and difficult. I knew from past experience that the difficult tours would be the good ones. I’m a fit person and could take whatever they’d throw at me. They would have fewer people. I hate crowds. These tours would be much more rewarding. Janet supported me and decided to go on the difficult tours, too (she’s an awesome girlfriend!).

And so, we chose the “difficult” Lower Cave for our tour that day. Sadly, Janet’s friends did not make it. When we arrived at that tour meeting place, the ranger informed us that they had called ahead and said they were still stuck at the Border Patrol.

We had to provide batteries for headlamps and gloves. They provided helmets. We were supposed to provide knee pads, but we didn’t bring any. Thankfully, they had some to loan to us. I brought my awesome hiking boots. This was serious shit.

Carlsbad Caverns consists of five “levels” of caves. The main section of the cave is on the third level. There’s even an elevator to get down there. The Lower Cave is below that level (duh). To get there, we had to climb down through a small vertical crack with the aid of a knotted rope and ladder. The rock and ladder were wet and slippery. It should have been easy, but it was a bit tricky.

When we reached the Lower Cave, we were greeted with a wonderland of cave formations and winding, twisting tunnels. It was beautiful. Most of this part of the tour was relatively simple. We occasionally had to step gingerly over some piles of rock on the trail. Janet’s balance isn’t the best, so I lent her a helping hand.

We took many pictures. I opened up my aperture to the widest setting (f/1.8), cranked up the ISO, and kept the exposure time short. I considered bringing my new Gorillapod (a portable tripod), but decided that I didn’t want to carry it during the tour. Although some parts of this cave featured electric lighting, many parts of this cave were dark and required our headlamps to provide light. I usually had to use my headlamp light to illuminate my scenes. In short, photographic conditions were very difficult. I still managed to get a few good pictures, though.

Beautiful Cave Formations

Beautiful Cave Formations

Awesome Girlfriend

Awesome Girlfriend

More Cave Formations

More Cave Formations

After the tour finished, we explored a bit more in the visitor’s centre and the canyon before heading back to the motel. We finally got a call from Janet’s friends. They had been stuck at the Border Patrol for five hours. They had to get FBI checks run on all of them. So stupid!

We met up that night and went to the nearby city of Carlsbad for Mexican food at a Roja’s restaurant. It was far off the main road and probably catered to mostly local people. The staff was really friendly. I ended up eating the mole chicken. Very spicy!

In the morning, we met up at 9 AM for our first tour: the “moderate” Left Hand Tunnel. This tour as actually very easy. We just walked down a side tunnel while the ranger explained the history and formation of the caves. Most caves are formed by underwater streams. The Carlsbad Caverns, however, were created by underwater pools of water laced with sulphuric acid. Lovely.

The rock formations on this tour were not as stunning as the Lower Cave. If there was one tour that I could have skipped, then it would have been the Left Hand Tunnel.

Nevertheless, the day continued. We immediately embarked on our next your, the self-guided circuit of The Big Room, a HUGE underground chamber, 1200 meters long, 190 meters wide, and 107 meters high at its highest point. It was jammed packed with an endless array of gorgeous cave formations: stalagmites, stalagtites, flowstone, columns, curtains, domes, boulders, pits, soda straws, and cave popcorn. It was stunning. It was amazing. I don’t have enough adjectives to describe this place. It’s a must-see. You must go see it.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures of this spectacle to share with you. Our ranger from the day before informed us that our afternoon tour would be rather difficult and it would be wise to leave our expensive DSLR cameras behind.

This tour was the “difficult” Hall of the White Giant. Our group of eight people and two rangers started at the surface and raced down the natural entrance of the cave. We stopped at a nondescript bend in the path. The lead ranger, Mark, asked us if we could tell where the tour continued. I couldn’t tell! There was a big craggy rock wall in front of us. No visible path whatsoever!

One of more keen guests noted that we might be able to climb up on top of the rocks and squeeze through a couple of them. No flippin’ way. The space wasn’t more than one or two feet high and lead into total darkness. Is this what I signed up for?

Yes it was! The next four hours were a true adventure. We crawled through cracks, shimmied on our bellies through squeezes, climbed up rock chimneys, shambled up slippery flowstone, ascended six-inch wide ladders, and carefully hugged rock walls while crawling on our knees with yawning black chasms below us. We got very dirty. There’s no way our cameras would have survived unscathed. Thank goodness for our helmets and knee pads! I bumped my head in many places. Janet, however, earned many bruises on her shins from crawling and bouncing around against various rock walls. She didn’t complain, though. She was having fun, too!

At the end, we were rewarded with a beautiful sight: a big room with many active rock formations. As we shone our lights towards the ceiling, the light twinkled and sparkled back: there were hundred of tiny soda straws with drops of water on their ends. One entire wall of the cave was a shimmering sheet of white flowstone. There was a huge column of white rock: the White Giant. It was amazing! We made it! It was so much work! I was so happy! What an incredible tour!

There was only one way in, so we had to come back the same way. It was easier to get back, though since it was somewhat downhill. Everything looked different from the other direction anyways. Caving is such a treat! When can we go again?


Rob Szumlakowski
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 12, 2011

    Yeah, it was wonderful. When can we go again? ;)

  2. March 12, 2011

    Soon, I hope! I wonder if there are some good caves we could visit in Ontario. Also, we should make sure that when we plan our overseas trip for later this year we try to include some good caving!

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