Eureka explorer leads New Mexico expedition

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit some amazing caves in the desert southwest. Leaving Eureka Springs just as the devastating ice storm was bearing down on the Ozarks, I slipped south narrowly skirting the storm. While my friends, family and neighbors spent time buried in three inches of ice, I spent time in caverns buried hundreds of feet beneath the earth's surface.

The quest for Shield City

Standing on a stone balcony, deep inside a mountain, the beam of my headlamp fights away the blackness that surrounds me. I scan the depths below, attach my brake bar and with a quick double check of my vertical rig, begin the slow descent, 165-ft to the floor of this magnificent corridor.

Once at the bottom, I signal "off-rope" and take cover as the rest of my party begins the descent. We are part of a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course, caving in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. This three-week caving section is part of a larger 90-day NOLS semester that fosters leadership, environmental ethics and technical skills through living and learning in the outdoors. As an instructor, I am focused on keeping the students safe while also providing learning opportunities throughout the day.

We started the day with a rough hike over the ever-narrowing ridges of the High Guads. These mountains, the remnants of an ancient reef, are riddled with caves. They form a beautiful and desolate landscape comprised of sharp limestone, prickly plants and a nearly constant gusty wind.

Unlike most caves in the Ozarks, the caves of the Guadalupe Ridge are very deep and often contain vertical elements inside the cave. Large drops of 100+ ft. are not uncommon and big rooms with towering formations defy most people's belief that caves are tight, claustrophobic places.

Dropping into Sentinel Cave

Sentinel Cave starts with a 60-ft. drop into a pit. This realm of partial light and looming darkness is cool and calm, sheltered from the sun and wind above. The walls are covered with long, dangling, algae covered stalactites that resemble Rastafarian dreadlocks. We turn-on our headlamps and begin making our way down the steep debris pile that leads to the gaping mouth of the cave.

Once in the cave proper, we begin making our way down a tall, narrow corridor. The dreadlock formations are thicker now; some connect from floor to ceiling forming impossibly delicate columns. Most of the formations in this part of the cave lay dormant; water percolating down through the limestone above could cause these formations to again become active.

After negotiating a short down-climb, we pass through an area that seems to dead-end, but with a closer look we find a secret squeeze leading to a balcony with a drop-off below. We quickly find an anchor point and drop a rope.

Push, poke and drop

And so it goes throughout the day. We push passage, poke leads, drop ropes and descend deeper into the cave, marveling at the massive size of this cavern and the intricate formations along the way.

Our objective is a place deep in the cave called Shield City, rumored to be decorated with many rare shield formations. We've been in the same corridor for a while; the floor drops away in giant steps as the ceiling remains constant, now several hundred feet above. After our last drop, we scramble over a pile of breakdown and are almost immediately stopped by another large drop in the corridor.

Perched near the edge of the large drop, is a magnificent 4-ft. stalagmite-type formation, glistening with moisture from a constant drip in the ceiling, hundreds of feet above. The creamy caramel color and contrasting textures, smooth and flowing on one side and coral-like on the other, cause me to declare this my new favorite cave formation!

End of the line

Out of rope and with no way to proceed, we take photos, grab some snacks and prepare for the long climb out of the cave. One at a time we attach our ascenders to the rope and climb to the balcony above, repeating the process for each of the drops we made throughout the day.

The smell of fresh air is our first sense that we are near the surface. When we emerge, the vast night sky and ever-present gusty wind prove a striking contrast in surroundings.

We are overcome with a sense of satisfaction and relief as we prepare for the long hike up the ridges and back to camp.

During the hike, we reflect on and discuss the day's experiences. There is no disappointment about not reaching Shield City; rather, excited enthusiasm for the many marvels encountered throughout the day. Feeling fortunate to experience Sentinel's beauty firsthand, we leave having acquired respect for a cave that does not give up her secrets easily.

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