Sunday, September 2, 2007
Dave Shively's outdoors column appears Sundays in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Contact him at 871-4253 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Steamboat Springs Mike Frazier was caving in Williams Canyon 10 years ago when the ceiling collapsed. The 25 feet of cavern below instantly filled and buried him up to his waist in rubble.
In 2004, he was rappelling down a pit in Oaxaca, Mexico. Halfway down, he reached for a wrench and knocked his pack, including ascending devices, into the abyss. So he kept going to the end of his 150-foot rope as walls disappeared, only to realize the floor was another 200 feet down.
"I could see 20 feet to the end of the rope, but no walls, no ceiling, just in this void, spinning like a spider," he said.
Luckily, the Colorado Springs arborist, a self-described tree surgeon, rigged a pair of rope hitches from his tree-trimming technique arsenal to shimmy up.
So how could Frazier, one of the saltiest underground pioneers in the world, be afraid of a little cave at Howelsen Hill?
Frazier was part of the recent team of scientists who studied the Sulphur Cave, which Rick Rhinehart said is the first cave in Colorado to be documented in print but that has never been properly surveyed. Rhinehart should know - he wrote the book on "Colorado Caves."
The problem is toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide that degas from the cave's interior stream. But pumping in fresh air with a blower and armed with supplemental oxygen, Frazier and Fort Collins' Randy Macan ventured about 200 feet in before Frazier reached an 8-inch "chest compressor" crack. He's squirmed through a 7.5-inch box, and this was about the same squeeze. Perhaps there's more cave, but he just couldn't "psychologically fit." What if he got stuck, running out of breathable oxygen, with no one else willing to venture in behind for rescue?
"Maybe I make it, maybe I die," Frazier said. "You're laying on your side with rock in front, rock in back, worming around the curves like a snake on your side, up to your neck in mineral sludge."
Sounds cool. That is, except for the "bad air" part for us oxygen lovers.
The Sulphur Cave's unique ecosystem places it among the globe's five pristine alien steam rooms that support snottites - a dripping ooze that CU microbiologist Dr. Norm Pace called "a bio-film of microbes that eat hydrogen sulfide."
Sure, the findings are interesting, but caving tales left me more interested in the 598 other known Colorado caves with better air than Howelsen's inhabitable Petri dish.
Frazier frames these underground "puzzles that never get done" as the final frontier, since space and deep sea exploration require a bigger budget than batteries. The guy discovered the deepest granite cave in the world in Pikes Peak not long after he picked up caving. Closer to home, two vast entry-level caves (Fulford Cave south of Eagle and Spring Cave east of Meeker) are options to sample spelunk.
When a cave in a hill with a century of heavy use doesn't get mapped until this week, it's apparent that what's under the surface has barely been scratched.