Sulphur Cave yields scientific riches

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Donald Davis shows off a collection of elemental sulfur on a rock near a spring source on Howelsen Hill on Saturday morning. Davis and a group of scientists and cavers met to explore the Sulphur Cave on the side of Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs.

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Dr. Fred Luiszer, left, and Dr. Norman Pace take a reading of air quality at the entrance to the Sulphur Cave on Howelsen Hill during an expedition to explore and document the cave Saturday morning in Steamboat Springs.

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Caver Mike Frazier of Colorado Springs emerges from the Sulphur Cave on Howelsen Hill during an expedition to explore and document the cave Saturday morning in Steamboat Springs.

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Donald Davis, left, and Randy Macon discuss their objectives near the entrance to the Sulphur Cave on Howelsen Hill during an expedition to explore and document the cave Saturday morning in Steamboat Springs.

— Along a hillside overlooking the baseball fields at Howelsen Hill, a group of cave aficionados of varying scientific professions met Saturday at the seldom-explored Sulphur Cave.

The cave entrance, which resembles a sinkhole, descends about 15 feet into the soft limestone. Once in the cave, each scientist squeezed through a narrow, vertical passageway to enter a 6-foot-high chamber.

"The idea is that we have a team of cavers who are going to survey the cave so we know the extent of it under the hill," said Richard Rhinehart, editor of the Rocky Mountain Cave Journal, who was on hand Saturday. "Then another team will be doing geology, while another team will be doing microbiology to see what critters are living in here."

Before the scientists could safely enter the cave, the highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas had to be pumped out. Dr. Fred Luiszer, a geologist and speleologist with the University of Colorado in Boulder, monitored the air as cavers Mike Frazier and Randy Macan descended below.

"Many personal safety gas detectors are set to alarm when hydrogen sulfide reaches 10 parts per million, and most employers won't let workers in an environment for long periods of time at 15 parts per million," said Luiszer as his alarm started to beep, indicating the air was at 35 parts per million.

"It's time to get those guys out of there," he said.

Luiszer added the gas doesn't pose long-term risks unless the parts per million reaches 150, when olfactory nerves are paralyzed after a few inhalations.

Frazier and Macan exited the tunnel covered from head to toe in mud and sulfur deposits. The cavers said they were slightly woozy from the gas, but their descent into the dark, egg-smelling cave was fruitful. On Frazier's digital camera was a photo of a microbe all the scientists had come in search of - snottites, a geological oddity in North America.

"They have been found in a cave in Mexico, which is similar in that it has several hot springs, sulphuric acid and a high level of CO2," Rhinehart said. "We are thinking that if the Sulphur Cave has the same sort of thing, it's easier to go to Steamboat Springs than to Mexico to study them."

The colonies of single-celled bacteria hang from the walls and ceilings of caves. They are similar to stalactites, which are more common, but differ in texture. Snottites have the consistency of snot or mucus.

Luiszer noted the high level of hydrogen sulfide might play a bigger role in snottite formation than they previously had believed.

Frazier, whose 2001 descent into the cave was cut short when the Steamboat Springs Police Department told him he was trespassing, said Saturday he was sure they had found snottites.

"As I blew on them, they'd start to sway back and forth," he said.

Rhinehart said the team obtained permission from Jeff Nelson, the ski and rodeo supervisor at Howelsen, for its expedition.

"We are intending to survey, document and study this cave, which has seen remarkably little investigation, despite its public awareness," he said. "With Jeff's assistance, we have secured permission to safely enter this cave and conduct our investigation."

According to Rhinehart, the Sulphur Cave is the first cave in Colorado to be documented in print, making the cave historically significant as well.

"As a historian, it's an interest to me," said Rhinehart, who said his research has determined that the first mention of the cave was in "Travels in the Great Western Prairie," which was published in 1843. "Decades before people were going to Cave of the Winds and Glenwood Caverns, they were putting the Sulphur Cave on their must-see list before Colorado was even a state."

The team's exploration continued throughout the day as the various scientists each descended into the cave wide-eyed, looking to satisfy their inquiries.

Donald Davis, a Denver caver and naturalist, looked for archeological artifacts, while microbiologist Dr. Norman Pace looked to compare the Sulphur Cave with deep-sea geological formations.

Rhinehart said the dirty, smelly day might seem like a bore to many, but for those who love caves, it was like a vacation.

"As cavers, we are interested in exploring caves and learning more about the caves of Colorado," he said. "As scientists, we are interested in getting into the geology and biology wonders of the state."

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