Field excursions are a bit difficult to plan out in normal times, so you can imagine what it was like in the middle of the pandemic. Luckily, caves aren’t usually crowded, but, since the cave we were visiting was in Colorado, we had to travel. My advisor, Nicola, and I had a seed grant accepted in June 2020. At that point, we weren’t sure when we would go. This was my first ever field trip that was for my own research, and I was very excited and eager. We almost bought tickets for three dates before we actually made official plans for May 2021.
Caving is a relatively intense field experience, especially with this particular cave. We had to hike up a cliff for a bit over an hour to get to the cave entrance while carrying all of our equipment: safety gear, sampling supplies, food, etc. Once we got to the cave, it was about a four-hour crawl to reach the sampling site near the back of the cave. I’m usually pretty good with tight caves, but there were some spots where I was surprised I got through! It was completely worth the effort when I saw the beautiful formations found in this back room. I had been caving before but had never seen such unique structures up close. We took a food break and began sampling for another few hours. The goal was to collect biological samples and sequence their DNA to figure out what microbes lived in this cave and how they interact with the rocks. Luckily, we had local cavers guide us through the cave and help with the sampling work. After gathering some speleothems, water and mud, we started on the journey back out. After about 11 hours in the cave, we finally emerged into the pitch black and headed for the climb down the cliff with only our headlamps steering us away from certain death. We were exhausted, covered in mud and starving, but it was one of the most rewarding days of my life.