Cave network still being explored for the first time | AspenTimes.com

Cave network still being explored for the first time

Dennis Webb

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

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

We have changed shoes and donned clean shirts 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 species found nowhere else in the world.

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

That was when Beckley and three others discovered the area, 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.

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 said 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,” said Beckley.

“This is by far one of the prettiest things I’ve ever found,” he said 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-sized 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 said of the stalactites, draperylike 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, cutting its base to a 45-degree angle.

“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” carefully because even a careless turn of the head can cause irreparable damage.

He leads me up a steep gully and we stare down a 60-foot free fall, which he climbed down 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 said.

But discoveries aren’t unusual in Glenwood Caverns, where finds in the past 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 responsible 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.

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.

Some 9 million years ago, it’s thought the hot springs that make Glenwood Springs famous filled these openings. The mineral-rich waters helped produce the formations. The elaborate stone sculptures remained 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,” slablike 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, crystallike 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, again referring to airflow.

“Why we get excited about aragonite is it’s a good sign of more cave,” Beckley said. Indeed, there’s much to see below Black Grotto.

We seek to describe the otherworldly in terms we can relate to and understand.

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

In some places, strips of tape guide our paths, to keep us from treading where we shouldn’t. A little farther on, a circle of tape surrounds bat bones that Beckley said 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 said.

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.

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