Cave Crawling in Carlsbad

Hall of the White Giant
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Hall of the White Giant
Hall of the White Giant

Will things open up past the popcorn? No. Welcome toMatlock's Pinch, a very narrow passageway named for the personwho, in 1966, first explored this cave section. It's hard toimagine being first to venture into a place so dark andunpredictable. Admittedly, explorers like Matlock hadexperience—they knew how to read the formations, the airtemperature, and breezes, all of which reveal hints about whatthey'll probably find next.

"Large people will have to turn their shoulders sideways," Danny warns. I can feel the claustrophobia welling up.

Beyond the pinch, Matlock's 1966 footprints still dent the silt's calcified but very breakable crust. We steer clear. Here, we can actually walk for a few hundred feet, until we reach the rope. The rope ascends a fifteen-foot flowstonechimney. The red and white flowstone has a smooth face. It shines. And it's slippery as ice. You can't grab or push against it for purchase. Thus, the rope, knotted at intervals. You grasp it, brace your feet against the rock, and pull. By the rope's end, I'm starting to tire.

The word comes down the line, passed from person to person."Hug the wall. There's exposure on the right." "Exposure," a caver's term for nothingness. A place where the cave floor disappears. This particular exposure looks like it travels forever, further than the rabbit hole that took Alice to Wonderland.

I lean my torso towards the rounded rock wall on my left, grasping with gloved fingers, placing each footfall with precarious care. Vertigo is setting in; my knees are shaking, which completely surprises me. I really didn't expect to be dealing with a fear of falling at 400 feet underground. Whatever you do, I mutter to myself, don't look down. And I manage not to. Not until I've reached completely solid ground.

Finally we reach the Hall of the White Giant. A grand room, maybe 50 feet high from where we enter it somewhere in its middle, the ceiling is dominated by a massive soda straw forest (soda straws are hollow mini-stalactites), and a pair of huge exposures dropping into oblivion to the right and left. The white giant, a stalagmite nearly 20 feet tall and thousands of years in the making, grows from the ground high on a rise to our left.

Here, we rest. We sit in a circle, extinguish our headlamps, and disappear into the darkness. The communal reaction of fear and awe would occur the next day at the terminus of the Left Hand Tunnel lantern tour.

A gentle walking tour under high ceilings and along a well-defined path that is suitable for children as young as six, Left Hand Tunnel reveals marvelous formations - including fantastic popcorn, stalactites, stalagmites and dramatic soda straw forests. Traveling with oil lanterns in hand, we study the effects of both nature's work and man's. We see where tiny animals reside in murky water pools, where fossils indicate thelong past presence of a great sea, and where cracks lead to unexplored passageways. We also see the scars resulting from pre-preservationist era exploration, destruction and construction.

But, in Left Hand Tunnel, too, the highlight is the strange rush that results from being unable to see your hand in front of yourface. When that last lantern is extinguished, you can hear the kids reaching for their parents' hands. In both tours, our guides utilized the darkness to illustrate the importance of safety in even casual caving. They cited the vital "rules of three": carry three independent light sources; travel with at least three other cavers; and have each caver tell three people where they're going and how long they expect to be gone.

The return from White Giant passes more quickly, but not without its challenging moments. When we pop out of the rock and back onto the public walkway, a small group of tourists stands with mouths agape. We can see them wondering,"Where are these dirt-covered people coming from?"

We've come from down under. From a place where geological time and darkness rule. From a place where danger and challenge lurk at every turn. A place where it takes four hours to cover a mile and a half. And where the view of the earth's insides yields a good look inside yourself.

About Carlsbad

Carlsbad, New Mexico, is located in the southeastern corner of the state 275 miles form Albuquerque and 164 miles from El Paso, Texas. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located 20 miles south of the city itself.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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