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Notes from the underground: Western Slope Caving

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By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Are you afraid of the dark? How about small spaces? Bats?

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No?

You might make a caver yet.

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Micah Ball, chairman of the National Speleological Society’s Rocky Mountain Region, certainly never minded any of that stuff.

“It was natural for me. I’ve been going underground ever since I could crawl, pretty much,” he recalled. “It’s an extreme sport that doesn’t require you to be a natural athlete and there’s always something around the next corner.”

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Lorie Sheader, by contrast, worried about all those things.

“I needed to face my fears,” she said.

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Now, she’s about as knowledgeable as anyone you could find on the hot spring caves near Glenwood Springs, including the original vapor cave that contains “the hottest lead in Colorado.”

While a certain amount of caution is rational and some fears are primal, Ball thinks our culture added another layer that, for novice cavers, can be difficult to overcome.

“We see the underground as Hades, as hell,” he explained. “There’s a sociologically induced fear that’s beyond claustrophobia.”

It’s a dramatic pronouncement in a voice his professional website describes as “mellifluous … ominous, sexy, strong, rich …” and becomes even more resonant underground. It’s borne out, though, by the sheer number of people with a caving interest who never make it past a lighted tour. That’s been true since Ken Headrick, president of the Colorado Western Slope Grotto cave club in Rifle got his start decades ago.

“A lot of people were afraid to do it,” he recalled. “They talked about it but didn’t.”

Get Headrick off the trail in the Glenwood Caverns, however, and you’ll hear his cave-themed mashups of classic tunes echoing from the nearest passage before you’ve finished switching on your head lamp.

With mostly single-age limestone and relatively little moisture, caves in Colorado are generally more cramped than their counterparts back east or down south, leading to the nickname “Crawlorado.” When Colorado cavers adventure out of state, they bring an ethic of looking for new passage in every nook and cranny. Back home, there’s a good balance of extreme challenge and places to get your cave legs – though some fairly dangerous destinations have become increasingly accessible.

“Typically, you didn’t go to a hard passage or cave until you’ve gained experience, so by the time you get there there’s less risk,” said Ken Newton, founder of Timberline Grotto cave club in Glenwood Springs. “It’s too easy now. You get the GPS coordinates and you’re out adventuring way beyond your skill level.”

That can have serious consequences for both the caver and the cave.

“You turn an ankle and it could turn into a major rescue,” Ball observed.

Added Newton, “inexperience is devastating to cave passage,” — a point well illustrated by Colorado destinations like Spring Cave near Meeker, Fulford Cave near Eagle and Hubbard Cave near Glenwood Springs.

Just ask Phil Nyland, cave-bat-monitoring coordinator for the White River National Forest.

“In a cave that’s been not protected or managed well, a lot of things are broken or stolen, defaced – you could even find bits of trash,” he said. “They’re almost a nonrenewable resource. Once a cave is damaged we’re talking about recovery that takes geological time. Nobody’s ever seen a stalactite grow; it takes eons.”

It’s a contrast to caving back east, where the predominance of private land makes the main hurdle getting permission rather than getting there. The fact that most local caves are on public land also creates a management challenge for federal agencies.

“White River Forest is blessed with having by far the largest number of caves known on Forest Service lands in the Rocky Mountain Region,” Nyland observed.

The only halfway comparable concentration of caves in the state is Williams Canyon near Colorado Springs. There’s a tremendous ecological value there that Nyland has to weigh against the recreational potential.

Karst — the type of geology that forms limestone caves — tends to filter and store water and support all manner of rare life forms. Chief among them are bats, many species of which eat mosquitoes and other insects. As such, there are some major practical benefits to preserving underground environments, though Nyland sees a deeper need for protection, too.

“What’s the value of the Liberty Bell? It’s cracked, we’re never going to ring it again, but it’s unique,” he said.

These days, the biggest threat to North American caves is White-nose syndrome, a disease that has proven almost universally fatal for bat colonies since it was discovered in New York state in 2006. Its rapid spread prompted the Forest Service to shutter caves across the Rocky Mountain Region for several years, with fears that cavers may play a role in spreading the fungus, either by direct transmission or by disruption of sleep cycles and making bats vulnerable to disease.

“The concern for White Nose Syndrome is that the pattern of spread is dynamic and erratic,” Nyland said. “There’s no cure for it. Once it establishes into populations, back East at least, there’s been a greater than 95 percent mortality.”

When most area caves reopened in 2013, an array of restrictions were put into place to protect bats. Registration (tinyurl.com/cavereg) is now required to visit caves on public land, with a prohibition against gear from white-nose affected states and decontamination required in between local caves. That means fully disinfecting all clothes, gear and anything they come into contact with using federal standards (tinyurl.com/whitenoseprotocol) – submersion in hot water that maintains of at least 131º F for 20 minutes or application of concentrated alcohol, bleach or hydrogen peroxide.

Several local caves — including Hubbard — remain entirely off limits, while others have seasonal closures. Spring Cave, for instance, is open to the public April 16 through Aug. 14, while Fulford is accessible April 16 through Oct. 14.

Meanwhile, hopes that the relatively karst-free high plains would halt the spread have recently been dashed with a confirmed case in Washington state and a suspected occurrence in Texas.

“If monitoring shows that white-nose syndrome is within 250 miles of the White River National Forest, that triggers additional closures and additional actions,” Nyland noted. “It’s not here yet, but we’re managing to control its spread.”

That includes the construction of a gate on Spring Cave last year and stationing a pair of GeoCorps volunteers to educate visitors and enforce registration. Next up is a gate on Hubbard Cave, which is in the final stages of analysis and authorization with work slated to begin this summer.

Not everyone is pleased with the gates, and there are still hard feelings about the blanket closure of public caves.

“Many people haven’t come back yet because they felt betrayed,” said Richard Rhinehart, author of Colorado Caves. “The Forest Service and BLM really have to look at us as their partner. How they treat the caving community in the future will play an important role in how caves are protected.”

Nyland certainly sees value in what the caving community has to offer an agency with minimal funding and staff for cave management.

“If it’s pretty clear from talking to someone that they’re looking for direction on where to go caving, we generally send them to their local grotto,” he said. “They can show them where the caves are but also ensure that they’re doing things in an ethical manner with cave conservation in mind.”

A grotto is a local chapter of the National Speleological Society, with a complete list available online at www.nssio.org.

Along with the Colorado Cave Survey (coloradocavesurvey.org) and private partners, local grottos have installed ladders in frequently visited caves and helped with maintenance and monitoring. Most recently, they have been part of a push for a Wild and Scenic designation on Deep Creek drainage near Dotsero, which is home to several of the state’s longest caves.

Most of all, though, grottos are a place where people can go to learn about caves and caving.

“You’re plugged into this national network,” Rhinehart observed.

They’re the kind of folks who bring three sources of light, never cave alone and bring a map, as opposed to those who don’t know or don’t care about the rules and have tainted the term “spelunker” in the view of organized cavers.

There are some relatively safe ways to get acquainted with caving on your own — Rifle Mountain Park, for instance — but as Ball asserted, “don’t go past the twilight zone if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

A better approach, as laid out by Rhinehart, is to go to a show cave like the Glenwood Caverns and “take a lit tour, then take the wild tour.”

“If you still like it, seek a grotto,” he said.

After that, there’s plenty of opportunity to find your niche in a diverse and funky community.

Take photos, survey and map explored caves, dig for undiscovered passages or just admire the geology.

In the end, despite challenges and restrictions, the cavers in this article all agreed that caving is a whole lot of fun.


Published in The Sopris Sun on April 6, 2017. 
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