Down Below

Cave Time

James had learned of the cave from his guidebook, Caves of Montana, which was published in 1978 but remains the most up-to-date source of local cave information. From the guidebook's map, we knew that Argenta was a fairly straightforward cave, with a main passage about 800 feet long and three short side passages that quickly pinched shut. Even so, within minutes I found myself thoroughly disoriented. It is not merely dark in a cave. It is opaque. Anything beyond the thin beam of your headlamp ceases, for all practical purposes, to exist. Further, the way shadows are cast by a headlamp makes the features on a cave's walls appear wholly transformed depending upon which angle one looks at them. A chamber one passes through on the way into a cave bears scant resemblance to the same chamber as seen on the way out.Getting lost in a cave is a distinct possibility, and not an especially enticing one. In complex caves, tiny reflectors are left behind to mark the correct trail; the reflectors are picked up on the return.

The floor of Argenta was chockablock with boulders and fallen stalactites — "breakdown," it's called — and I stumble-stepped about, suddenly uncoordinated. Cave legs, I realized, must be developed in a manner similar to sea legs. James moved through the passageway as smoothly as if he were striding on a sidewalk.

As with most caves, Argenta was richly decorated with rock formations. Stalagmites rose from the floor as big as trees, ascending for ten or twenty feet into the cave's cathedral ceilings. One area appeared as though it housed a pipe organ. The walls were lacquered with flowstone, a layer of glassy, amber-like rock that is cultivated when water dribbles out of a fracture. In places, the rippled flowstone resembled sheer silk draperies hung in front of the cave's limestone walls. On the ceilings were thousands of delicate soda-straws, which are basically miniature stalactites, each with a bead of water suspended at its tip. When James swept his lamp across a field of soda-straws the droplets shimmered like crystals. Echoing throughout the cave was the steady, percussive sound of dripping water. On the floor, here and there, were clusters of cave popcorn — globulites of calcite that form beneath a slow-dripping fracture. The popcorn is as fragile as blown glass; James was continually warning me to watch where I placed my feet. Previous cavers, it was clear, had little regard for the centuries-old formations. There were ample signs of vandalism: stalagmite stumps, soda-straw clearcuts. In a few spots graffiti marred the walls, some of it dating from the late 1800s.

We eventually reached the end of the main passageway. How long this took I can't say — neither of us wore a watch. This was done on purpose. We were enmeshed in what James referred to as "cave time," and he didn't want it spoiled by some piece of surface apparatus. In a cave, all visual clues of time passage are stripped away, leaving one in a sort of timeless, suspended state. (When we emerged from Argenta, James asked me to guess how long we'd been underground. I said it felt like two hours. The actual time was nearly five hours.)

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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