We Prefer the Term ‘Cavers’

The frame of the cave leads to the frame of man. – Stephen Gardiner, 16th century poet


To me, there isn’t anything better than summiting the top of a mountain. We’ve hiked in 4 foreign countries and numerous states including Hawaii and Alaska and the only way I can ‘top’ that feat is to explore what’s underneath!

When I was a kid, my parents treated me to the joys of ‘spelunking’ or cave exploration in Kentucky and Missouri. However, on our tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave, ranger Dave imparted this wisdom upon us: Spelunkers don’t care for the term ‘Spelunkers’ since it’s the sound that they make when they fall into a cave pool. Therefore, the politically correct term is ‘Caver’.

So, we played cavers for the day. We parked at the Slaughter Canyon cave trailhead and hiked 30 minutes up the Guadalupe mountains to reach the cave entrance. Guided by the afore mentioned ranger Dave and National Park volunteer, Lionel, our group of 18 headed down into the darkness lit only by our own flashlights or headlamps. This portion of Carlsbad Caverns was originally used for guano mining (bat droppings) to be used for fertilizer in the orange crops of California in the 20′s and 30′s.

Due to land rights and the politics of the National Park, the mining company was not allowed to use certain devices while mining such as electric lights, motorized vehicles or consuming alcoholic beverages. Needless to say, according to the ‘artifacts’ left behind, they didn’t pay close attention to or enforce these guidelines. The result is an undeveloped cave that is great to explore, but shows great signs of damage. Exploring far into the cave afforded some beautiful decorations, but a large part is dead by living cave standards.

The up side to all this is that the main caves are absolutely brilliant! The preservation of the caves is superb and we were awestruck through most of our tour. Due to our ‘aviation tap dance’ we were only allowed to have one day with the caverns. We lost out on two tours due to our delay, but were able to tour the Giant Room after our morning caving experience.

I will not go into the detailed history about the caves, but will point out that some of their brilliance is awarded to the fact that they posses some of the most unique decoration (the term for formations within the cave) known in the world. The formation of the cave was due to a shallow sea covering Carlsbad Cavern. Plants and animals lived and died in the sea. Their shells and skeletons piled on top of each other, making a reef. Over time, many layers piled up, squashing the shells and making the layers hard, compact, and thick.

The sea dried up, causing the reef to be exposed to the air. Movements in the earth’s crust pushed the reef upwards, forming a limestone mountain. Trees and other plants grew on the mountain, covering the old reef and causing cracks to develop in the limestone. Rainwater sank into the soil and went down through the plants’ roots and finally down through the cracks in the limestone. On its way through the atmosphere and the soil, the water absorbed carbon dioxide. A weak acid was chemically formed when the water mixed with the carbon dioxide. The resulting carbonic acid dissolved the calcite in the limestone.
At some point, large rocks in the cave ceiling fell. This opened up chambers, like the Cavern’s Big Room—25 stories high and a third of a mile wide… wow.

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