Seven of us entered Lechuguilla Cave for a planned week-long trip underground, at 11:45 AM on Saturday November 10th. We were expected out by the following Saturday evening. As we travelled along, we wondered if we would make good time to camp at Grand Guadalupe Junction, in the Far East section of the cave. Of the four camps in the cave, this one was the farthest, and the most difficult travel from the entrance. A respectable travel time was anything less than eight hours to get there.
I had not been in any cave in about a year, and I was anxious. Not about making it to camp – I had done it before. Not about injury – although there is always some objective danger in a cave, I knew how to manage the route safely, and the other six members of the crew were all very experienced and skilled.
Mostly, I was anxious about letting the others down. Being slow and out of shape. All summer I had knee problems, and had not been able to do the usual pre-cave fitness program. The knee was now fine, but I was huffing and puffing.
The start of the route into the cave was easy and mostly down, including the glorious free rappel down 150 feet of rope in the Boulder Falls drop. After about two hours, we reached the top of Apricot Pit, actually a series of six slanted pits, totaling about 400 feet. This was where the real work began, but it was all going well. We descended, and then found our way through the Near East section of the cave, passing by old friends like the Buddha and the Emperor of Lechuguilla, then arriving at the huge Moby Dick Room.
Around us, the silent cave did not care, did not keep time. As we proceeded farther and farther from the entrance, the cave became ever more unchanging. The strong wind near the entrance, controlled by a strong diurnal pattern overlaid by passing pressure fronts, faded into faint convection currents.
The crux of the trip was the climb up the intimidating Aragonitemare. This set of five ropes goes up for 200 vertical feet, and requires technical skills to move from one rope to the next, in some places while hanging free more than 100 feet above the nearest ground. All of this has to be done while hauling a heavy camp duffel, a.k.a. the pig, from each caver’s climbing harness.
If there was a moment when I wondered about making it to camp, it was on my approach to the first, and most difficult, rope change of the Aragonitemare. However, there really was nowhere to go but up. I checked everything twice and then made the transition to the next rope, with two safeties clipped on to the new rope before leaving the refuge of the first. One rope at a time, I made it the top and thus to the Far East.
At camp, we checked. Seven and a half hours. Not bad. Of course it didn’t matter – all we needed to do was get there, get fed, and get some rest, to be ready for the next day.
That was an interesting concept – a day. The cave did not change from moment to moment, or even from day to day. All that changed was us. It grew late, we were sleepy. By convention, it was night. Some dark amount of time later, it was morning.
For the next six days, we conducted trips from camp to destinations through the Far East. Our mission was to explore and map parts of the cave that had never been seen before. We had a lot of success, mapping almost a mile of new passages, in a variety of shapes and sizes, in places like Firefall Hall, Lake of the Lost Marbles, the Happy Hunting Grounds, Cochise Stronghold, Kachina Lake, and the endless three-dimensional maze of the Outback. It was a solid addition to the 130 or so miles of passages previously mapped in the cave.
During the course of the week, we left behind pieces of marked flagging tape to show the location of the new survey stations we had set. These will be referenced in future years by other mapping crews seeking more extensions to the cave. Over the course of a few decades, the writing on the tape will fade, and then the tape will crumble.
Intentionally, we kept our cycle of time matched with invisible motion of the sun far away on the surface. For the last morning, we even set alarms for 6 AM so we could get out of the cave in plenty of time to get to dinner in the town of Carlsbad that evening.
There are various theories about how to manage the diurnal cycle while underground. One is to stay on the clock, as we did. Another is to make each day as long as desired, usually more than a standard day, drifting later and later, sometimes precessing all the way around the full 24 hours, like a journey that crosses the International Date Line from east to west. In this model, each day is longer, but you get one less day. In all cases, the plan has nothing to do with conditions in the cave, and everything to do with human limitations.
On the morning of the eighth day, we started our journey out. The cave did not wait long to re-impose quiet. After we left each spot on the way out, and the last of our travel sounds faded, all was still once again. The cave returned from human time to cave time.
Of course, the surface world was stunningly the same. That was a good thing, and comforting.
In addition to the adventure and the experience, a trip into Lechuguilla Cave offers a glimpse of something more. Deep within the week, it becomes possible to be, simply, here and now. Looking around the corner and seeing a new and strange mineral formation, or just a perfectly formed passage shape. At that moment, there is no outside, there is no want, there is no future, there is no past.
On another level, the otherworldly formations and strangely random shapes of passages in every direction convey clearly that this is not a place that was ever intended for people. It is tempting to imagine the work of a cosmic genius, providing spectacular sights that took a million years or more to develop and only becoming visible for a few moments by the artificial light mounted on our helmets, but perhaps an even greater miracle is at work – our ability to find beauty and meaning in something that just is.
One thing I have really come to appreciate over the years of visiting this unique place is how, just by luck, it is located in a National Park. The main parts of the Lechuguilla Cave were discovered in 1986 and more recent years, decades after Carlsbad Caverns National Park was created and its boundaries defined. The National Park Service has taken an active role in managing all activities in the cave, setting standards for safety and for protection of the resource.
We are especially fortunate that NPS plans are based on the idea that the cave will protected forever. It’s a match to the grand age and heritage of the cave. And, it’s a lesson in the almost-forgotten art of maintaining a long planning horizon.
These institutions were and are imperfect, of course. Many pristine places were destroyed. The original inhabitants of the land were treated shockingly badly, an enduring shame on our history. But, we did save some places, and that does matter. No market-based solution could have achieved anything close to what these federal government initiatives did.
A century. That seems like a really long time. So far off, with so many changes, that it seems futile to even imagine how anyone could plan now to move the needle a century hence. Yet, we can see how decisions made decades ago, decisions that were made specifically with a clear eye to the future as measured from that time, deliver enduring value to us here and now.
It has taken me a long time to realize that a century is a short time. When the National Forest System was created, there were plenty of naysayers who maintained that the system stood in the way of progress, as measured by short term economic activity. More than a century later, there is more forest land in the United States than there was at the time the National Forests were established, and we are so much better off for that fact.
We can also look ahead. My daughter was born in 2003. Guess what? She may see 2100 (not exactly a century from now, but a standard measure of the end of this century, used for projections such as our climate). If she has one or more children, reaching that date is not a stretch for them. That’s my planning horizon. A long time from now? No - it’s stunningly soon. And 2050 is even sooner – my daughter will be younger during that year than I am now.
I’m grateful for the vision that gave us places like National Parks, Monuments, and Forests. But now we know it won’t be enough for the future. As certain places were once recognized as special, now it is time to extend that vision to places that should be regarded as equally sacred as well as being critical for our survival, such as our oceans, our rivers and our atmosphere. In 2100 or even in 2050 or 2030, people who are alive right now, and perhaps even living under our roofs, will thank us.
Another visionary Roosevelt, FDR, once said this.
People who are ignorant and people who think only in terms of the moment scoff at our efforts and say: 'Oh, let the next generation take care of itself.'President Roosevelt was, of course, deeply embroiled in the issues of the day, and under sharp attack from many quarters for his policies. It takes real leaders to look past short term wants to make real plans for our future, recognizing that every present moment to be experienced by our future selves and our children is just as precious as the one that is with us right now.
We, all of us, must be those leaders.
Any time you think that you don't have a choice, you actually do.
Any time you think you have to do something that's wrong, you don't.
Not Any More.
We Shall Not Participate in Our Own Destruction
Thanks to Peter Bosted, Ann Bosted, and Daniel Chailloux for many photos, taken on prior expeditions. To check out a set of the world's best cave photos, see Cavepics. Thanks also to Peter for the invite 4 years ago to return to the world's most beautiful cave after 20 years away.
Thanks to Andy Armstrong for the joyous shot of unclipping from the very last rope.
Thanks so much to those who read my columns (now up to dozens!), and to members of the local and dKos environmental community - your kind words of encouragement go a very long way to providing the energy for the next one.