Deep squeeze |

Deep squeeze

It’s one thing to be asked to take off your shoes when you enter someone’s house.

But to have to change your clothing?

Welcome to Steve Beckley’s world, deep inside Glenwood Caverns on Iron Mountain above Glenwood Springs.

Beckley, a Glenwood Springs resident, has operated the Glenwood Caverns commercial tour since 1999, reviving and expanding upon the historical Fairy Caves tours offered a century earlier.

Beckley leased the caves from Pete Prebble until just a few weeks ago, when he and his wife, Jeanne, purchased them. And on this sunny March day, Beckley is showing two visitors around some of the deepest, darkest, most marvelous parts of his new home.

We have changed shoes and donned clean shirt and pants so as not to introduce dirt into this little-traveled section of the cave. In it are underground waters that are host to animal species found nowhere else in the world – including microbes that could offer hope in the fight against cancer or other diseases.

All around are fantastic formations protected from impact by man. No one ever laid eyes on them until only a few brief years ago.

That was when Beckley and three others discovered the area, now known as Beginner’s Luck, because one member of their party was a novice caver.

Beckley rigidly restricts access to the Beginner’s Luck area, which contains the caves’ largest-known lakes. It isn’t included on the Wild Tour portion of his commercial cave operations. For photographer Jim Noelker and myself, our visit there was a stroke of good fortune, our own beginners’ luck.

The few permitted within its hallowed halls generally are expected to do something in return – clean the area, further survey it, or in our case photograph and report on it. But Beckley also allows as how he doesn’t mind having a reason to get out and spelunk – something he’s had a lot less time to do since starting a family and a business.

“Once every six months I remind myself why I got into caving,” says Beckley.

For Beckley, a trip back to Beginner’s Luck is a trip back in time, to one of his most memorable days underground.

“This is by far one of the prettiest things I’ve ever found,” he says of the Beginner’s Luck area. We are sitting above a small pond that is dotted with stone “lily pads” and is home to two dust-speck-size, springtail shrimp found nowhere else on earth, along with an equally-unique pseudoscorpion.

“Turn around and look at some of this stuff. These are world-class formations,” he says of the stalactites, drapery-like displays and many other adornments surrounding him, in a room that soars some 120 feet skyward.

Nearby, cave bacon – flowstone featuring wavy, parallel strips of color hanging from the ceilings – is being slowly eroded by airflow, leaving its base chewed away at a 45-degree angle.

The air must be coming from someplace else.

“There’s a lot of airflow,” Beckley observes. “There’s probably more cave here somewhere.”

We look here and there at a room that Beckley characterized as “profusely decorated,” careful because even a careless turn of the head can cause irreparable damage.

“It’s hard to beat this room in Colorado,” Beckley says, almost as awed as he was the first time he came across it. “There’s nothing like it, that’s for sure.”

Then he leads me up a steep gully and we stare down a 60-foot freefall, which he downclimbed once without ropes, and now descends on rappel.

From there, Glenwood Caverns keeps going, just as it seems to in every direction. It beckons to Beckley, who has known what few humans can – the feeling of going where no one has gone before.

It’s a big part of what draws him to caving.

“There’s not much left in the world to discover,” he says.

But discoveries aren’t unusual in Glenwood Caverns, where finds in the last several years have pushed its known length to three miles, making it one of Colorado’s biggest caves in explored length. Groaning Cave, in the Deep Creek area of the Flat Tops, is the longest-known cave in the state, at 10 miles.

In the 1960s, Prebble was re-sponsible for helping open new passages in what is now called Glenwood Caverns when he and others pushed past an obstacle called Jam Crack. But Prebble also was highly protective of the caves.

It was only after Beckley began leasing the caves that more extensive exploration could occur. As a result, many thousands of feet of additional passage have been discovered in Glenwood Caverns only in recent years.

As Beckley leads us to Beginner’s Luck, he recounts the stages of discovery that brought him there.

From the Barn, a part of the commercial tour area, we first drop with relative ease into Black Grotto, discovered in 1962. Manganese in water caused the black and blue colors that give the large room its name.

A long while back – perhaps some 9 million years ago – the hot springs that make Glenwood Springs famous filled these openings. The mineral-rich waters helped produce the formations. The elaborate stone sculptures remain after the springwaters dropped thousands of feet in elevation, as the Colorado River sliced ever deeper into the landscape.

Beckley points out one of many “rafts,” slab-like formations that floated on top of the water and were left behind when it receded.

Hints of that saturated environment remain in Black Grotto. Drops of water gleam like jewels where they hang from the ceiling, ready to drip. A moist cave is a living cave, and Beckley has worked hard to install sealed doors, humidity-sensing devices and other means of protecting and monitoring the many parts of Glenwood Caverns that are still alive.

On the walls grow delicate, crystal-like aragonite. Unlike most cave features, which form by dripping, aragonite is a product of airflow and changes in air pressure. It draws the minerals out of the air.

There’s that airflow again.

“Why we get excited about aragonite is it’s a good sign of more cave,” Beckley says.

Indeed, there’s much to see below Black Grotto. But before we proceed, Beckley remarks about how the Black Grotto conceivably could be added to the commercial tour someday. An elevator could drop visitors into a place where they could see formations sometimes described by terms such as cauliflower and popcorn, bacon and draperies.

We seek to describe the other-worldly in terms we can relate to and understand.

“We call this the Angel Wing,” Beckley says of one drapery several feet in length.

Later, as I walk, I discover I have moved uncomfortably close to Angel Wing. It would not be the first time I felt clumsy and a bit careless during our tour. I think of cryptobiotic soil in the desert. Fragile as it is, it grows countless times faster than cave formations, and some of them, once destroyed, are gone for good.

“Be real cautious,” Beckley urges at one point. “Sorry I keep saying that,” he adds.

In some places, strips of tape guide our paths, to keep us from treading where we shouldn’t. A little further on, a circle of tape surrounds bat bones that Beckley says could be 10,000 years old.

That bat died a long way from the entrance, Beckley notes. While it hadn’t taken us long to get to that point, that was thanks to a tunnel Beckley had bored into the Barn, knocking off hours of belly-crawling and a lot of bat-flying as well.

Evidence of other past life forms appears. We pass hard black rocks formed by decomposing sponges, Beckley says.

As we drop ever lower, Beckley tells about how he and fellow explorers hit several obstacles on their way to Beginner’s Luck. An early one was overcome by the removal of a single rock. At other points, during a trip that ended up lasting some 15 hours, the cavers would each try different leads before finding the right one.

One passage turned out to be veritable birth canal. We slither behind Beckley through a body-width tunnel, pushing our packs before us.

“Just slide right through, kind of like being born,” he says.

After Beckley had opened up more passage, a fellow experienced caver deciphered the route that led to the magnificent discovery of the lakes.

Beckley can’t recall the name of the novice on the trip; nor does he know if the fellow has done more caving since.

“He probably said (of his experience), `Oh, you go to a cave, find a bunch of virgin passage, no big deal,'” Beckley adds with a laugh.

We bypass a route leading to a lake where Michelle Lyons, a Rifle High School graduate now studying pre-med in Virginia, found and tentatively identified seven new forms of bacteria. Research on the bacteria is on hold for now due to limits on time and money, but research on bacteria found in Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky found that the previously unknown bacteria can destroy breast and bone marrow cancer cells.

In the interest of science and medicine, I don’t question Beckley’s decision not to lead two rank amateurs to this potentially important body of water.

Through blind, twisting holes and rooms of varying size, we faithfully follow Beckley wherever he leads us, knowing that any hope we have of returning to the surface, bruised and dusty but none the worse for wear, rests in his hands.

It’s enlightening to watch this veteran explorer of Glenwood Caverns continue to make discoveries, even after so many trips.

“I didn’t even see that bacon. Look up there,” Beckley says in Black Grotto.

“You see new stuff each time, and I’ve been down here a lot,” he adds.

It’s also alluring to think of all that remains to be explored in Glenwood Caverns. There is all that airflow, after all. And half the time I ask Beckley where a tunnel goes, he answers that he doesn’t know.

He says of one hole, “In this cave, that could lead to a mile of passageway, and no one’s poked their head in it.”

To the untrained eye, some passages look easy enough to probe. But there is much damage that can be done getting to them, so exploration must move slowly.

Part of the problem, too, is that even experienced cavers don’t have Beckley’s intimate knowledge of this cave’s geology – how the systems of cracks and fissures connect, and which leads are most promising. And cavers with only a day or two to look around can’t generally hope to have as much luck as the explorers did the day they found Beginner’s Luck.

With Beckley’s time to explore restricted, discoveries have slowed.

But some cavers speculate that passages could lead thousands of feet lower, all the way down to the water table below Glenwood Springs.

I sometimes worry about becoming claustrophobic in a cave, but not on this day.

Glenwood Caverns, far from feeling closed in, seems endless, with new discoveries only waiting to be squeezed into or scrambled over.

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