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A large chamber containing a large, white stalagmite. Rangers regularly lead special wild-cave tours to this room.

Hall of the White Giant TourEdit

There are few places left where one can have a real adventure. The Hall of the White Giant Tour at Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers such an adventure. This is an adventure where the route is the scenery and the experience is more than halfway made up of getting there. The White Giant feature itself is the eventual reward, a tall column that sits in the middle of its own hall, presiding over a chamber locked in perpetual dark, save for the lights of adventurers who complete this challenging journey.

This tour requires reservations and equipment. This is not a casual adventure that one can undertake in their regular street clothes. This journey will be dirty and physically very challenging. The minimum requirements are sturdy shoes, preferably hiking boots, work boots or combat boots, which offer a great deal of protection and traction. Guests must also have soft knee pads for this journey. Gloves are required, cotton or leather, and visitors should make sure that all of their clothing is sturdy and that they don’t mind getting it full of the Earth they’re about to explore.

This journey is characterized by narrow passages. There will be a great deal of time spent in these passages. Those who suffer any degree of claustrophobia should take another tour option. Matlock’s Pinch is the name of one of the highlights along this tour and should give visitors some insight into what they should expect. Those who fear heights will also find this tour a bit too much. Because of the treacherous terrain, communication is vital to this tour. Those who feel they may have a hard time with being in tight spaces for prolonged periods of time and who loathe getting dirty should not take this tour.

Cave Crawling in CarlsbadEdit

Will things open up past the popcorn? No. Welcome to Matlock's Pinch, a very narrow passageway named for the person who, in 1966, first explored this cave section. It's hard toimagine being first to venture into a place so dark and unpredictable. Admittedly, explorers like Matlock had experience—they knew how to read the formations, the air temperature, and breezes, all of which reveal hints about what they'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.