Trip leader: Jennifer Foote
Attending: David, Connor, and Eshani
Fort Stanton Cave, located on BLM land near the fort of the same name, is one of the largest caves in New Mexico. It used to be a standard beginners cave for the New Mexico Tech Caving Club. While the recently discovered and well decorated sections of the cave have always been closed to the general public, the Main Cave and Hell Hole sections used to be accessible via a free and easily available permit. The cave provided a good combination of large passage, crawl ways, slippery slopes, and mud. Sometimes the northern parts of Main passage had pools deep enough to swim in!
Shown here is the tourist map that was provided along with a cave permit. While there are several inaccuries, and it does not show any of the recently discovered sections of the cave, it does give a good idea of the historic cave. And, despite this brochure calling it "optional," on NMT Caving Club trips knee pads, gloves, and water are required. The other side of this map has some interesting history of the cave and can be found here.
While the distance to the southern portions of the cave looks short, it is a long trip due to the rough terrain and large amount of crawling. Fast cavers can go from the entry to the far side of Hell Hole in well under 2 hours, but many people take over 3-4. Any trip to the back of the cave ends up taking most of the day.
The cave was recently closed to all public entry due to WNS concerns. Now access to the cave is only by special permit for approved purposes such as research, exploration, and restoration. this put an end to beginners trips in the cave. Shown here, Knutt Peterson, BLM Cave Specialist, is monitoring while a survey party prepares for a trip to improve the survey of Hell Hole.
On the same day, Jen was leading her restoration trip to Trophy Room. We came along to help, both to help restore the cave and to introduce new cavers to the system. This was Connor and Eshani's first time in Fort Stanton Cave.
The entry to Fort Stanton Cave is a large sinkhole. It leads to a passage that goes in several directions: The Bat Cave, Hell Hole #2, and The Main Passage. The bat cave has long been closed for the protection of the bats. Hell Hole #2 lives up to its name and few people want to go there. We went through the main gate and down the main passage. From there we crawled through Crystal Crawl, walked through Decoration Passage, and then crawled through Hell Hole to get to the Trophy Room area.
While the prior public access provided an extremely valuable caving opportunity to thousands of people, it came with a price: the damage caused by the irresponsible spelunkers that entered the cave. For whatever reason, they climbed all over the formations in Trophy Room, coating the colorful cave velvet with mud. The senselessness of this is remarkable. It is as though they went out of their way to walk all over everything; most of what they trampled is clearly not on a path to anything. They even attempted the crime of removing a stalagmite. Thankfully they were unable to break it off, but the damage done is still tragic.
Restoration is hard work. Water had to be carried through all of the crawls to Trophy Room. Then a combination of spray bottles, brushes, and sponges is used to scrub the mud off. Extreme care must be taken to prevent further damage. Often a toothbrush is necessary to gently access the nooks and cranies of convoluted formations. The sponges are used to soak up the mud water - but you must resist the temptation to scrub with them as the rock will tear material off the sponge, contaminating the cave. Unlike the outside world, foreign materials have a huge impact on the fragile cave environment.
The difference before and after cleaning is remarkable. It would be more remarkable if I had done a better job of taking the same photo before and after. Something to remember next time.
While it is hard to see in the photos, a thin layer of mud was lithified into the formation. Some of the damage done is permanent. (Click on the photo to zoom in)
After hours of cleaning the group made the long trip out. Most everyone was tired and ready for supper.
Eshani was still happy, no doubt having enjoyed being able to walk through passage that the rest of us had to crawl through.
After exiting Fort Stanton Cave we normally decon gear using the BLM's ACME 5000 decon system as I want the NMT gear to be promptly cleaned and deconed after every trip. However, there hot water heater had frozen over the winter, necessitating repairs. So we kept the gear sealed in plastic bags until we could decon it the next day using the NMT Caving Club decon unit.