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Delicate underground

Tom Boyd

Hanging above C.J. Page’s head is the smiling mouth of a drooling monster at least, that’s what it looked like to me. Lathered in dripping, waxy calcite deposits, the mouth is actually a massive, horizontal hole in the ceiling of Glenwood Cavern’s Fairy Caves Colorado’s third largest cave system, sprawling underneath Iron Mountain.Page has just finished guiding me through the cave’s labyrinthine limestone passageways on a Wild Tour, where we contorted our bodies in order to squeeze through tiny cracks and miniature hallways, and rock climbed through the dark to reach cavernous rooms with wet stalactites and pudgy stalagmites. Page, a 19-year-old Newcastle native, is one of humanity’s rare specimens a small and nimble caver who is perfectly comfortable 100 feet beneath the surface of the earth, suspended above a 20-foot hole and wedged between two massive, slippery boulders in a cave roughly the size of a microwave oven.In fact, he’s more than comfortable.”Caving isn’t something you do,” he tells me (as the drooling monster lurks above). “It’s something you live. People write songs about it, create artwork out of it, build their lives around it.”Looking at Page, and looking at the monster, I suddenly feel that the two are kin involved in some sort of mystic interconnection, and that Page himself is a kind of guardian over the earth’s innermost bowels.Strangely, he doesn’t disagree with that perception. Colorado’s caving systems are vast, but the caving community is small, even when measured against other outdoor sporting communities. About 350 people are registered with one of four main caving “grottos” statewide, and just about all of them know Page or one of his hard-core caving friends. For those who cave on daily basis, the protection and conservation of underground lairs is serious, secretive business. A caver who explores, or “digs,” through new caving systems generally belongs to one or more secret societies, clandestine groups that have the aura of the freemasons combined with the attitude of sheer party animals.”It’s become a secret, club kind of thing, because it’s so easy to destroy something in a cave,” explains Dan Sullivan, chairman of the Southern Colorado Mountain Grotto caving club. “And, because a lot of life-threatening situations can come up, people get pretty selective about who they’re going with.”Sullivan and his caving pals, who call themselves the Mad Rats, haul a few kegs of beer up into the wilderness each year for their annual Mad Rat Party. After getting to know each other on the surface, they delve beneath, exploring the complicated interior of some portion of the Leadville Limestone rock formation.”Everybody’s pretty friendly,” says Sullivan. “We’re all out there all the time, but no one ever sees us doing it, because it’s all underground.”The Leadville formation is huge, lying beneath the surface of most of central Colorado. About 300 million years ago, portions of Colorado were covered in a shallow sea, creating a thick layer of limestone. The sea receded and underground creeks and pools formed massive cave networks equally as complex as the mountains under which they wind.But, massive as they are, people like Page and Sullivan make it their business to monitor who enters and explores these caves. A calcite cave formation takes about 1,000 years per square inch to build, yet clumsy spelunkers and ignorant souvenir hunters can undo a million years of natural craftsmanship with one break of a stalactite.Once a cave is dug up or uncovered, it is often closed off again.”It’s kind of like walking on the moon,” says Sullivan. “When you discover a new room, you’re the first human being to ever walk in it caves and the oceans are the only places left where you can do that.”Leaving the caves untouched helps preserve the lives of microscopic extremophiles, small bacteria that survive underground by eating the minerals in the rock. Prehistoric-looking bugs like the pseudo-scorpion eat the bacteria, and packrats eat the bugs. Packrat nests have been found as far as 400 feet below the surface, and the high calcite content of their diet means their urine trails harden into spines of rock. Scientists are studying the underground ecosystems of Colorado in hopes of understanding how life may exist on other planets.Cavers like Sean McDonough, of Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs, are introducing the public to the underbelly of the planet in hopes of protecting other caves from future damage.”There’s a fine line between conservation and commercialization,” he says. “If you don’t get (people) in a cave in the first place, then they’re not going to care about saving it.”Conservationist or not, McDonough says he sees every kind of person coming through the Cave of the Winds.”They call to all kinds,” he says. “Caving is so alien. It’s like being on another planet.”Without unique cartographic skills, exploring caves can be extremely dangerous. The first step for a potential caver is to go to Glenwood Cavern’s office on Pine Street next to the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood, or cruise to Manitou Springs and take exit 141 six miles east to Cave of the Winds. Both companies offer walking tours and wild tours. If you’ve already got the caving bug, take ample lights, batteries, warm clothes, and a strap-on helmet and try the Fulford Caves near Fulford, south of Eagle.For information, contact Cave of the Winds at (719) 685-5444 or http://www.caveofthewinds.com, or Glenwood Caverns at (800) 530-1635 or http://www.glenwoodcaverns.com.Info box:What: Exploring caves in Colorado.Where: Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves, 508 Pine Street next to the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs (guided); or Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs, six miles west of exit 141 off of I-25 (guided); or Fulford Caves, located 8 miles south of Eagle near the semi-ghost town of Fulford (unguided – experienced cavers only).When: Cave of the Winds is open year-round, on every day except Christmas. Glenwood Caverns is closed during the winter.Who: Any age, any size, any level of ability.Cost: Various family tours are available for less than $15; various wild tours cost between $40 and $60.


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