Down and dirty in Fairy Caves

Will Grandbois
Ken Headrick, left, and Steve Beckley take a break on the return climb to the surface.
Will Grandbois | Post Independent |

Caving in Colorado

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Forest Service policies

For the average person, a standard guided tour of the Fairy Caves at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is enough to satisfy any desire for underground adventure. But the Western Slope is also home to a small, dedicated group for whom, lacking a spaceship or a submarine, caves are the final frontier.

Recently, I was privileged enough to embark on a journey to depths of the Fairy Caves with two of the area’s most passionate cavers: Steve Beckley, co-owner of the Glenwood Caverns, and Ken Headrick, chair of the Colorado Western Slope Grotto, the state’s newest caving club.

It was an unlikely pairing, with cavers and show caves often at odds, but Glenwood Caverns has deep ties with the grottos. Most local grotto members also do occasional work for the Glenwood Caverns, conducting digs, leading tours or showing other cavers around.

“We’ve really reached out to try to partner with the caving community,” said Beckley. “The reason this happened when we first started is that we worked with the local cavers.”

Beckley himself started out as an amateur. He got into caving while getting his degree at the Colorado School of Mines, and first saw the Fairy Caves in the now out-of-print “Caves of Colorado.” From 1982 on, he tried to get landowner Pete Prebble to let him explore the cave, which had been closed since 1917. He finally succeeded in 1994, bringing his future wife, Jeanne, along on their first date. At the time, the only way into the better-preserved and roomier lower sections of the cave was through Jam Crack — a long, narrow climb that gives experienced cavers pause.

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Luckily, I was not obliged to begin my first major underground adventure as Jeanne did. Instead, we entered the caves through a man-made tunnel. I first got my look at The Barn and King’s Row, one of the largest and most decorated rooms in the state, shortly after the caves opened on Memorial Day 1999. My 9-year-old self peered over the railing at the depths beyond the last lighted areas and wondered what lay beyond.

Stepping over the fence and trailing Headrick and Beckley down the slope of jumbled boulders ranks as one of the more satisfying experiences of my life.

‘Beginner’s luck’

Our destination, Beckley informed me, was a section of cave discovered shortly after Prebble finally agreed to a lease with an option to buy in early summer 1998. Numerous members of the Colorado Grotto, including Headrick, showed up to help clear out the existing caves and explore further. It was the first major effort of the sort since the 1960s, and they soon began uncovering new rooms and passages.

On one occasion, returning from a deeper dig, Beckley had spotted a previously overlooked hole about five feet off the ground. Through it and down a narrow, winding path, they found an underwater pool with a host of stunning formations. Because one of their party was a first-timer, they named the room Beginner’s Luck.

In Colorado’s comparatively cramped caves, many finds come from just such observations, which impacts the way Coloradans cave elsewhere. In the 1980s, a group of cavers from the Colorado Grotto conducted a dig at a small cave in New Mexico and uncovered Lechuguilla Cave, the world’s seventh-longest explored cave.

“Colorado Cavers are some of the premier cavers in the world,” said Beckley. “They use the Colorado caving ethic of looking under every crack.”

Exploration in the Fairy Caves continued after the park opened. A host of new and species — from pseudoscorpions to springtails to microscopic extremophiles — have been discovered in the cave. New rooms uncovered include Lame Haven, nearly as big as The Barn but devoid of formations, and South Shore, a remote pool with rare bacteria.

Most will probably never get a concrete path or even make the wild tour. The route to Beginner’s Luck has several tight squeezes, and at the bottom, Headrick and I were obliged to remove our boots and pads for fear of tracking mud into the pristine room.

Still, there are many other leads for future tour expansion. Only 10 percent of the 3 1/2 miles of explored cave is on the tour, leaving a lot more cave to discover. Remote sensing has revealed a room 10 times bigger than anything so far discovered, and the mountainside has numerous small outlets.

“You’ll find these holes that are blowing 52-degree air, the snow won’t stay around them,” said Beckley. “You know there’s cave down there. We just don’t know how to get to it yet.”

Said Headrick, “All it takes is crazy people willing to dig for days.”

‘Gone forever’

Right now, the Western Slope is a little short on those types of people. The caving community waxes and wanes, and although White River National Forest — particularly the Flat Tops — and adjacent BLM land are rich with caves, closures have put a damper on exploration.

After the white nose fungus wiped out bats across the East several years ago, the Forest Service closed caves across the state. Last year, the agency reopened some caves on a limited basis, with seasonal closures and required registration and decontamination procedures. Some caves, such as the popular Hubbard Cave, remain completely off limits. Caves on BLM closure remain open under a new policy enacted at the end of August, but are subject to immediate closure if the fungus is detected within 100 miles.

Local grottos assist government agencies with cave management, and often gate entrances to fragile or dangerous caves.

“We don’t want people to go to pretty caves because they will hurt themselves or hurt the caves,” Headrick explained.

Grottos allow newcomers to learn the ropes and provide a guide in tough caves. Even experienced cavers occasionally get hurt or stuck, but damage to formations often goes hand in hand with inexperience.

“People don’t realize how long these formations take to form,” said Beckley. “Once you break something it’s gone forever.”

Despite the limitations and the risk, Beckley, Headrick and their ilk continue to seek out the underground frontier. Since registration began last August, 519 people have visited caves in White River National Forest.

Meanwhile, interest in the easily accessible caves at the Glenwood Caverns has continued to grow. The original image of a small mom-and-pop outfit with a few employees and winters off began to fade on the first day, when 500 people showed up for the tour. Soon, the hair-raising van ride up the mountainside couldn’t keep up with demand. The Beckleys opened the tram, restaurant and gift shop in 2003. Attendance continued to grow, and by 2005 the wait for a cave tour was so long that they begin adding rides to occupy people in the queue.

The cave tour, split into two routes and expanded in 2012, remains the No. 1 attraction.

As we emerged into The Barn after nearly three hours of crawling, I found the lights on and an adventure park photographer shooting down at us. A dozen or so tourists were ushered in, staring at us in our filthy knee pads and helmets.

It was all I could do to scramble onto the platform among them instead of plunging back into the depths of the cave. My eyes quickly adjusted to the daylight outside, but a musty underground smell lingered in my nostrils. It took me back to my first tour of the caves in 1999.

“What is darkness to you is light to me,” Jules Verne wrote in “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Now that I’ve glimpsed what lies behind the darkness, I have some idea of what Verne’s words mean.

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