It’s dark in here, very dark.
We have descended only a short distance into Rat’s Nest Cave, so named for the long-tailed, odoriferous creatures that like to nest near the cave’s entrance. But it already feels like a different world. After edging forward on our backs, or at times on all fours like infants, along moist, sculpted and — to my mind at least — extremely narrow passageways, we arrive at a broad chamber where we take a breather. My guide, Jonathan Rollins, of Canmore, Alta., decides this would be a good time to take full stock of the elements. Shutting off the lamps on our hard hats, we are plunged into utter darkness. “It doesn’t matter if your eyes are open or shut, you see the same thing,” says Rollins, who is standing just a few feet away but is invisible to me now. “All you have is the psychological jumble of your mind.”
Just so. And right now my mind — when not wondering how it got the rest of me into this situation — is focused on the one question that has intrigued me since I first heard of the small but dedicated band of men and women who like nothing better than to descend for days at time into the subterranean mountain depths. What drives them? As it turns out, Rollins, a British-born former child-welfare worker who has operated his own cave-guiding service for the past decade, has an explanation that almost makes sense. “You have the opportunity to go where no one has gone before,” says Rollins, 44. “Where else is that the case, unless you are an astronaut or a deep-sea diver? Every inch of the earth’s surface has been mapped either by aircraft or satellite imagery. But there is no technology that will accurately find caves or explore them. A cave can only be experienced and explored by a person going underground.”
OK, but what about the inherent dangers of caving, not to mention our primordial fear of dark, enclosed places? “Those fears are probably quite logical,” observes Rollins. “They are rooted in the instinct to stay alive. Fear of the unknown is the big one. But along with that fear is a fascination. People are a bit like cats; they get into dangerous situations because they are inquisitive.”
These caving cats are a rare breed all the same. Rollins estimates that there are perhaps a few hundred active cavers in all of Canada, and only about 30 in Alberta, home to the Rockies. Small wonder. Most of the 200 known caves in the Rockies are extremely remote, with entrances located at about 2,440-m elevation, and require at least a day’s hard slog uphill from any major roadway or trail. A rare exception, Rat’s Nest Cave is located just seven kilometers from the mountain resort town of Canmore, and its entrance, at an elevation of 1,500 m, is a modest 25-minute hike from a major highway. Its accessibility is a godsend for Rollins, who takes about 1,000 people a year into the four- kilometer-long cave.
By his own admission, Rollins is a bit of an odd duck in the caving community. For one thing, he’s a caving guide, introducing tourists and other novices to the secreted depths. “Some cavers see guides as prostitutes,” says Rollins. “They are viewed as selling out.” For another, Rollins is currently putting the finishing touches on the first-ever guidebook to caves of the Canadian Rockies, which Rocky Mountain Books will publish early next year. “The book is very contentious,” he says. “A lot of cavers are upset. Some predict there will be hordes of people rushing off to the caves, getting injured and trashing the environment.”
Rollins thinks that’s unlikely. “Caving will always be serious,” he notes. “Caving can never be made safe. And in the Rockies, because it’s such an isolated activity, you will always have to work hard to do it. So I’m not sure it will ever become massively popular.” Still, Rollins is hoping the guidebook encourages others to take the plunge. “My hope is that more people will cave and more caves will be found. So far, only 200 caves have been discovered in a 1,000-mile stretch of mountains. There’s got to be more out there.”
In fact, cave exploration — as well as recreational caving — is still in its infancy in Canada. It began in earnest about 25 years ago, sparked in part by the arrival of British emigres like Rollins, who came to Canada in 1979. Caving in Britain goes back nearly a century and is now a well-established sport; a score of universities have caving clubs. And like many things British, it’s a social activity typically accompanied by the imbibing of a generous pint or two. “You start at the pub, go caving and go back to the pub,” is the way Rollins recalls the drill. “There’s always a big rush to get out of the caves before last orders at 11 p.m.”
Although there are now active cavers in several provinces, there is no national caving organization. In part, says Rollins, this is because cavers tend to be dogged individualists suspicious of regulations and authority. “Caving is an anarchistic sport,” he notes. “Cavers hate to be told what to do and there are a lot of outlaw cavers. It’s an underground activity in more ways than one.”
For ardent cavers, the Canadian Rockies present tantalizing challenges. They are home to some of the deepest caves in North America, many of them featuring steep vertical drops that require specialized ropes and equipment to traverse. They are also extremely old, many dating back more than a million years. Rockies caves were formed by water melting off a glacier and dissolving limestone on its way down to the water table — a process that can take hundreds of thousands of years. Almost as slowly, calcite-laden water trickling down through the cave forms pointed stalactites that hang from the ceiling at various junctures. Another striking feature, visible in stretches of Rat’s Nest Cave, are sculpted formations that appear along passage walls. These dish-shaped depressions known as scallops — they resemble scallop shells — are formed over time as water plus carbon dioxide eat away at the bedrock.
When not twisting their bodies through pretzel-shaped passages, or using ropes and chains to rappel down a vertical pitch, cavers may find a Rockies cave a surprisingly calm and comfortable environment. The temperature is a constant three to five degrees Celsius, the mean annual surface temperature in the region (the thick rock a cave is contained in insulates it from surface seasonal variations). And throughout a cave system, no matter how long or deep, there is an ample supply of good air. This is because Rockies caves usually have more than one entrance set at different elevations, allowing for the free flow of air. Inside, the silence is profound, broken only at times by the drip-drip of seeping water.
The recommended uniform of the caver is as basic as it gets: gloves, coveralls, knee pads and a helmet with a chin strap to protect against low ceilings or falling rock. The most essential item, of course, is the miner’s light on the headgear; if it fails, all is lost. For this reason, experienced cavers carry at all times at least two backup lights.
Most caving is done in short bursts, with participants spending less than a full day underground. But visiting particularly long caves, or exploring new ones, sometimes entails overnight stays. The longest stretch Rollins has stayed underground is six days. At such times, he says, the body and mind are robbed of all visible clues as to whether it is night or day and a new rhythm is adopted. Typically, 14 hours of steady caving will be followed by 14 hours of sound sleep, a pattern that is repeated until the caver finally resurfaces.
In spite of the inherent risks in the sport, there has been only one caving fatality in the Canadian Rockies over the past quarter century. That occurred in 1991, when Rick Blak, an experienced caver, was crushed to death by a boulder that unexpectedly came loose as he was leaving Arctomys Cave, near British Columbia’s Mount Robson, the deepest cave in North America. Some 30 cavers from across Western Canada, Rollins among them, were recruited into a massive rescue mission that quickly turned into a recovery effort when it became clear Blak had not survived. What goes through one’s mind at such a moment? “That it could have been you,” responds Rollins, with a sad shake of his head. “That it could so easily have been you.”
For Rollins, the biggest attraction of caving remains the thrill of discovery. Among other things, he has found passages in Castleguard Cave, in Banff National Park, one of the longest and grandest of all Rockies caves. There is also the physical exhilaration he experiences, especially after a long expedition. “When you come out of a cave after five or six days, it’s really quite magical,” says Rollins. “Inside, there’s not much colour or scent, and you are in overalls and gloves, so your sense of touch is muted. You come out, throw off your caving gear, feel the sunlight and the wind, smell the plants. It’s like being reborn and you realize that’s where you belong — on the surface.”
I felt a glimmer of this — or was it just relief? — when we emerged from Rat’s Nest Cave after about three hours underground. When we went in, it had been raining; now it was warm and sunny. I felt languorous, relaxed. A crucial difference, of course, is that Rollins can’t wait until his next cavingexcursion. Me? I’m planning to stay in the daylight.