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Digging the dark

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

By James Steindler

Sometimes it takes friends to get you out of your comfort zone. It takes even better ones to get you to cross that proverbial boundary while at your side every step of the way. So, with a little help from my friends, for 2022 I tried something new: caving. 

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Jan. 2, was an especially brisk morning after nearly a week straight of snowfall in the Rockies. My boyfriend and I awoke and began preparing for an underground expedition. 

None other than Will Grandbois, The Sopris Sun’s former editor and current graphic designer, was to guide us on our maiden voyage into the depths of the earth. 

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We met Grandbois at the base of the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s gondola and we boarded promptly with no others in line. We set off for the top of the mountain and the mouth of the cave, dubbed the Borehole Entrance. 

For someone who hasn’t been to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park since it first opened (and before there was a gondola), the attraction appears to have transformed into a quasi-North Pole. Tourists bustled to and fro with hot chocolate in hand. We meandered around the jolly sightseers, but nevertheless stood out in our caving gear (provided by Grandbois). 

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We entered industrial double doors and walked down the Borehole Entrance hallway (like astronauts about to board a rocketship) and ended up in the largest room of the underground maze, known as “The Barn.” 

There, a tour group ahead of us used the designated stairwell with sconces lighting the way; we did our best not to disturb them. We weren’t taking the same path as these plain-clothed, helmetless visitors. Instead, we crossed a rope and descended a steep shoot where there were no wired lighting fixtures. 

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The passages took us deeper and deeper into the mountain. At a certain point it was difficult to discern which way was up and which was down. 

We crawled, slithered and wriggled through tight spaces formed by rock that had fallen within the cave ages ago. 

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At one point, our fearless leader got onto his stomach and went headfirst into an opening, which seemed to lead downwards… I hesitated, but then followed suit. The other side opened into a large room with stalagmites and stalactites reaching for one another from floor to ceiling. It took my breath away. We’d reached the Black Grotto. 

After settling into the awe-striking magic of the place, we had a seat to behold its magnificence. 

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The speleothems — formations from “cave bacon” and “popcorn” to the stalagmites and stalactites — dazzled the grotto. The temperature was ideal at about 50 degrees (the average annual temperature of the exterior region) which the cave maintains throughout the year. 

There are not many living organisms in these particular caves, other than pseudoscorpions (which are less than a quarter inch long), according to our guide. However, we did come across a packrat’s remains that were marked and not to be disturbed.

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“Going dark!” Grandbois warned. 

Then, in an instant, not a speck of light or even a shadow was visible. Down in the bowels of the earth it is pitch black. 

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“Have you tried waving a hand in front of your face?” Grandbois asked. His inquiry prompted me to do so and, sure enough, not a trace of my hand — waving three inches in front of my face — was seen. We sat in silence and listened to the cave. The epitome of darkness accentuated every drip of moisture that fell in the natural chamber. 

The noise and worries of the outer world were foreign to this place. My own anxieties were left outside the cavern awaiting my return from the undersurface. But at that moment, in the sheer darkness, my mind was at peace. 

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For a myriad of logical reasons we’d have to ascend to the surface. Once we were outside and the bright sun struck our sensitive eyes, we left with a longing to return to the tranquil soul of the earth. 

Unfortunately, as with many things, humans can have a negative effect on natural caves. Wild caves in White River National Forest have strict guidelines to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome to bats — and some have been gated to further limit human impacts.Not to mention, caving can be very dangerous, so it’s important to go with someone who is experienced. In this case, our guide led the expedition completely by the book. We had the right gear, let folks on the surface know where we were going, followed a marked path, and were careful not to disturb the natural beauty of the caverns. Glenwood Caverns offers a wild tour for folks to try caving. Your local grotto (caving club) is also an excellent resource for learning more and getting involved. The Colorado Western Slope Grotto serves those who are interested in this area. Visit www.coloradowesternslopegrotto.org for more information. 

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Tags: #Caving #Colorado Western Slope Grotto #Glenwood Caverns #grotto #Will Grandbois
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