May 21, 2018
We were up too early with too little sleep, but the three of us had a long field day of cave monitoring to attend to. We drove an hour on winding desert roads toward Sitting Bull Falls cave, just north of the Guadalupe Mountains, New Mexico. The January temperatures remained low during our morning work, and we were begging for the sun to continue rising above the short cactus bundles. Our morning work included collecting cave dripwater and surface water data for geochemical analyses to understand the modern cave system. Researchers interested in studying past climates through the geochemistry of stalagmites in caves prefer to investigate the modern cave system to calibrate paleoclimate (stalagmite) data against collected modern cave data. For more about the research being conducted, we refer you to ‘A study of caves and climate,’ posted earlier this year. We arrived at the cave and heard of recent snowfall that blanketed the ground and caused the 120-foot waterfall to crystallize in a series of icicles. We shivered while packing the gear, dawned our raincoats, and marched up the treacherously frozen limestone bedrock steps to the cave entrance. To our surprise, half of the cave floor was flooded with the newly infiltrated snowmelt and made site access questionable. We discussed our options and made the decision to fulfill our scientific curiosity, and that we’d go home with the full set of cave water samples. Bare skinned and shoeless, we waded through freezing water, past pools to our knees, collected our samples and hiked down from the site without feeling in our toes. The sun provided some relief as we scurrying back through the canyon, and we hustled through the remaining five-mile sampling tour of the watershed that overlies the cave.
The morning of Sitting Bull Falls surface water and cave dripwater sampling was the first time the three of us worked in this specific team setting, and provided the necessary test to move through the remaining agenda. With the scientific endeavor taken care of, we raced down the canyon where we’d pile into a Jeep and begin the journey to a truly wild cave. The following hour was filled with bouncing on washboard carved roads that switched back and forth as we gained altitude through the Guadalupe National Forest. Once the Jeep was parked, we quickly hydrated, got suited in coveralls, and hiked another mile to our second underground excursion.
Walking through a grassy knoll, we started to descend the rocky trail where Guadalupe Ridge became visible in the distance. It wasn’t until the next bend in the trail that the group would become truly aware of our upcoming adventure- the enormous mouth of the wild cave was calling us in. We had been warned before entering that there would be some technical work required, and with a range of comfort levels and experience between us, we were certainly contending with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. Down switchbacks through an immense chasm we stopped half way down the endlessly sloping cave floor to traverse its bedrock wall into a small passage. We realized that it could be a significant consequence to endure a dance with this wall, with just one misstep you’d tumble down much further than our headlamps could shine. The fear and consequences were real, and it was at this first obstacle that we realized trust in each other and confidence in ourselves was completely necessary if we had any chance of moving through this cave safely and with the admiration and respect that it deserved.
The next mile and a half of passage was no different. We moved close together working our bodies through every angle of rock and dried mud, shoving ourselves through passages with names like “the worm tube,” “the keyhole,” and “the nine-inch verti-zontal.” Our legs quivered as we talked each other through chimney climbs called “too large,” “too narrow,” and “too scary.” Together we dealt with fears while laughing wildly about the difficulty with which we moved through each section, but with each new passage our connection, trust, and confidence grew stronger.
We finally reached our destination, the Wonderland rooms. It must have taken hours to get there, yet none of us cared to check the time as it didn’t seem significant in this setting. The cave walls were decorated with ancient speleothems, fractured, and riddled with enigmatic helectites, each one taking some seemingly unnatural, yet stunning, twist and turn in defiance of physics. We moved through the remaining rooms delicately, and with static contoursions of our bodies we passed with admiration for the power of water, rock, and immense time. There were few words among us, but few were needed.
Turning back for the surface was difficult but our motions were in sync. Gliding through the passages we feared before, we passed our packs off to each other through tight squeezes and exchanged glances to check-in without words. We reached the surface after hours in darkness and were met with the starlit desert sky overprinted by the great Milky Way Galaxy. Fatigue and exhaustion began to sink in among us, but we took those moments to silently admire the day and the million stars that continued to emerge as we gazed at them.
Encountering pure joy and extreme danger within the cave, embracing each moment and working through them together drew us closer as a team of field scientists; we cared for one another and it strengthened our collaborative bond. Sharing the experience through both the caves and the wildlands of the Guadalupe Mountains emphasized the team aspect of field work and its value to enrich and improve our science. Science was the foundation of this adventure, and its less likely we wouldn’t have experienced the day without it.
Cover photo caption: The wild cave entrance with steeply sloped cave floor and collapsed ceiling blocks (Photo Credit: Lakin Beal).