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32

Plumbing
the Depths

Montanas cavers
(dont call them
spelunkers) endure
cold, muck and
darkness as they
explore the wonder
of our hidden places

BY PHIL KNIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELLIOT STAHL

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
Joseph Campbell

ontanas soaring mountains,

sparkling rivers,
clear skies and vast valleys make the state a
beacon for those who seek vistas and vastness.
But James Cummins knows Montana has a
deeper, darker side. He plumbs it.
Sometimes caving is cold, muddy and exhausting, Cummins
said. And, Sometimes its like walking around in a museum of
natural wonders.
But he never knows until he gets there, so, for him, the thrill
comes in seeing whats around the next bend. To satisfy that
curiosity, he spends hours and days delving into the underpinnings of Montanas rumpled landscape.
With more than 50 caves over 200 feet deep, Montana is a
mecca for cavers like Cummins, a member of the Northern Rocky
Mountain Grotto of the National Speleological Society. And the
states caves run the gamut. Lewis and Clark Caverns, a Montana
State Park, is well lit and accessible to anyone who can walk,
while Lost Creek Siphon near Big Timber requires rappelling
down vertical pits through underground cascades with names
such as Hurricane Falls. Bighorn Cave (at 16 miles, Montanas
longest) and the ice caves in the Pryor Mountains have gates
built over the entrance, requiring cavers to contact the US Forest
Service or the Bureau of Land Management to obtain a key,
which limits use by those without experience and proper gear.
But with at least 350 caves in Montana, theres plenty of exploring for adventurous cavers.

Above: The view from the mouth of Tears the Turtle Cave, at 1,629 feet
the deepest limestone cave in the United States. Just getting to the cave
requires a 22-mile hike in to the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness
Area. Then the hard work begins.
Opposite page: Jason Ballensky squeezes through a tight, muddy passage
in the Tickle Me Turtle Cave in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

The greatest concentration of Montana caves is in the states


remotest regionthe rugged limestone mountains of the Bob
Marshall Wilderness Area. There, Cummins, Hans Bodenhamer,
Jason Ballensky, Ian Chechet and other members of the Grotto
have been pushing the limits of cave exploration and have
recently found the deepest known limestone cave in the country.
Cavingonly greenhorns call it spelunkingis a strange

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY

33

sport with highly dedicated participants.


As Chechet told me, As cavers, were not
going to be Red Bull-sponsored, but we
still get a huge thrill from being on the
edge of new exploration. Caving is often
difficult, dark, and dirty, and it involves a
certain amount of suffering. Cavers speak
of keyhole passages, pits, sinks, rope
drops, bridging sequences and squeezes.
Vertical passages require rappelling down
a static (non-stretch) rope followed by
strenuous climbs back up the same ropes
using clamps known as jumars. Caving
is not a spectator sport, except maybe on
YouTube, and can be dangerous.
Its certainly not hard to get in trouble
in a cave. Two men had to be rescued from
Montanas Ophir Cave in August 2014
when they couldnt ascend their ropes
from the bottom of the cave. In June 2009
a man died when he fell 50 feet into the
same cave while taking photographs.
But once you get a taste of it, caving
will haunt you: the roar of underground
rivers; the impenetrable blackness if you
dare to turn off your lights; the struggle
against mounting panic as you squeeze
through a tight passage; the camaraderie
of teamwork in an unforgiving environment; the vast relief when you emerge
from the cave mouth, squinting and grinning in the sunlight.
For the truly hardcore, caving means
treading where no human has gone before.
New discovery is the holy grail of caving,
and Montana, with its immense reefs of
ancient limestone, is a hotbed of it.

ost caves form in

limestone, sedimentary
rock composed of the
compressed shells of
ancient marine life. The
thick limestone reefs in the Bob Marshall
Wilderness and in Glacier Park were
formed during the Cambrian era more
than three hundred million years ago and
are riddled with caves. The Silvertip cave
system alone extends for fifteen miles

34

Above: Some of Montanas big caves require multiple rappels. Hans Bodenhamer tackles one of
them in the Tickle Me Turtle cave.
Left: Jason Ballensky installs climbing bolts, critical safety devices, in Double Date Cave.

beneath the Continental Divide, and it


includes Blood Cave, named for its irontinted flowstone.
Colliding continents and massive
mountain-building events formed the
bizarre Lewis Overthrust, an immense
slab of limestone that slid over the top of
younger rock layers, putting older rock
above younger rock.
Limestone is readily dissolved by
water, and that process forms carbonic
acid, which then dissolves more stone.
This produces calcium bicarbonate, which
decorates caves with iconic features such
as stalactites, stalagmites, columns and
flowstone, known collectively as speleothems. Gypsum can also produce delicate,
beautiful crystals in caves.
Hans Bodenhamer started exploring the limestone labyrinth of the Bob
Marshall Wilderness decades ago. Hes
been in at least 1,500 caves around the
country, a quarter of them unknown
before his visit. Nowadays Bodenhamer

is an Earth Science teacher at Bigfork


High School and leader of the Bigfork
High School Cave Club. He introduces
students to the mysteries of the underground and involves them directly in
mapping and conserving Montana caves.
Most recently, the club made a mapping
trip to the Little Ice Cave in the Pryor
Mountains in south-central Montana.
My own introduction to caving was
in the Mill Creek Crystal Cave in the
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness back in
the 1980s. Its a fantastic cave with a very
friendly, wide-open passage at the cave
mouth, but it quickly gets real.
Neophyte cavers all, the five of us
had no safety gear and some had only
one source of light. From the airy cave
mouth wed walked, crawled, shimmied,
and groveled into ever-tighter passages,
including one we dubbed the Hell Hole,
unsure if we could even find our way out.
To our amazement we spotted daylight
after a couple of hours underground and

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35

Cavers are protective about cave locations, and for good reason. Many
caves, including Lewis and Clark Caverns, have been vandalized by
people breaking off mineral formations, lighting fires in the caves,
dumping trash, stealing fossils and artifacts, and leaving graffiti.
emerged through a waterfall into the entrance sinkhole, having
unwittingly completed a loop.
Cummins and Bodenhamer have spent seven years mapping
Crystal Cave to a length of nearly 2 miles, and there is more yet to
map and explore. Mapping a cave like this is best done in winter
when less water runs through it. This requires a 6-mile approach
on skis or snowshoes just to reach the entrance. My summer trips
into the cave sound like picnics in comparison.
According to Cummins, to reach the most inaccessible part of
Crystal Cave requires a 300-foot crawl. This may be the most
remote place Ive been, because a rescue from beyond the crawl
would be almost impossible, he said.
Jason Ballensky has been caving for 17 years in the Bob
Marshall, discovering and mapping miles of new cave passages.
Caving often requires you to keep pushing even in the worst of

situations, Ballensky says. There are no emergency exits. Caving


continually requires you to keep calm and make smart choices.
Some of my scariest memories of caving were the times I was
unable to keep fear and exhaustion from affecting my decisions.
Ballensky names Lick Creek Cave in the Little Belt Mountains
as a great place for beginning cavers. You have to negotiate some
down climbs using a rope on wet, slick surfaces. Youll need a
helmet and three sources of light. The cave is 38 degrees, so you
will also need some warm clothes that you dont mind getting
muddy. Lick Creek Cave holds Montanas largest cave room, big
enough to park a 747.
Caves in Montana are often colder than caves elsewhere,
which usually maintain a steady temperature in the 50s. Like
Lick Creek, most caves in the Bob Marshall are in the upper 30s,
with plenty of mud and water. Tears of the Turtle, the Cave that
Summer Forgot and others hold permanent
ice at their entrances.
Colder caves of course require thicker
clothing and take more of a toll on cavers,
One of Montanas most remote, wild
and surprising new places to experience
who struggle to stay warm. Essential
equipment and clothing includes climbing
harnesses, helmets, headlamps and extra
light sources, expedition-weight, singlepiece long underwear, neoprene and rubber
gloves, neoprene socks, insulated rubber
boots, a heavy-duty fleece top, fleece balaclava and an oversuit of the material that
is used to make body bags. Some cavers
even wear wet or dry suits under coveralls.
All this gear is heavy, so cavers in the Bob
Marshall hire horse packers to haul their
loads to base camp.
But the lure of the depths is worth the
work and suffering. For Ballensky and
Cummins, Tears of the Turtle is the deepest cave they have explored. We found the
Campground
cave in 2006, but it took us eight years to
l $10 per night
l Trailer and tent sites
find the current bottom, says Ballensky.
($15 with electricity)
l Interpretive trail
There were numerous hidden passages,
l Open year-round
l Geocaching activities
tricky route finding, sticky mud and very
l Toilets, water, fire rings, picnic
l Exceptional birding and 600-plus
tight keyholes. And Ballensky thinks the
tables, shade pavilions
bison roaming area
cave might be even deeper yet. This summer

BUFFALO CAMP

Map, directions and full list of amenities at americanprairie.org

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Shawn Thomas and James Hunter


navigate a passage in Double Date Cave,
one of the many wet, muddy caverns in
the limestone reefs of the Bob Marshall
Wilderness.

the explorers plan to pack in inflatable


snowshoes to navigate the quicksand that
has blocked further descent in the cave.
Difficult as it is, getting to the bottom
is only half the job.
When you are at the bottom of the
cave, you know that a great deal of effort
is required to exit, said Ballensky. Itll
take at least five hours squeezing uphill
through tight, muddy passages that are
continually sucking the warmth out of
you. Youll also have to climb ropes using
gear that is slimed with mud. After you
exit, youve got the 2-mile hike to return to
camp, during which you traverse a steep,
loose, ankle-twisting slope in the dark.
Camp itself is 22 miles from the trailhead. Even once back at the trailhead,
you still have 70 miles of gravel road to
bounce along before reaching civilization.
Climbing in and out of a cave such as
Tears of the Turtle takes about 16 hours.
Most cavers try to avoid sleeping underground because of all the extra gear they
would need and the additional impact they
would have on the cave.
In 2014 a team including Ballensky
and Cummins pushed Tears of the Turtle
Cave to 1,629 feet deep, surpassing the
nearby Virgil the Turtles Greathouse Cave
(1,586 feet), making Tears the deepest
limestone cave in the United States (a lava
tube in Hawaii is deeper). Both are part
of the Swiss-cheese limestone constituting
Turtlehead Mountain in the remote backcountry of the Bob Marshall.
Tears of the Turtle requires 44 rope
drops (rappels) after the 22-mile hike to
the entrance. Much more difficult to navigate than Virgils, Tears requires cavers
to push through tight keyhole passages
and bridge above quicksand, applying
pressure from hands, feet and back to two
cave walls at the same time.
Cummins, the Bigfork High School
Cave Club, and other cavers seek not
only to explore Montana caves and
push beyond known depths, but also to
map the complex underground. Using
compasses, measuring tapes and GIS

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More on Caving
Caves of Montana: www.cavesofmontana.org
Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto: www.nrmg.org
Bigfork High School Cave Club:
www.bigforkhighschoolcaveclub.weebly.com

technology, these deep-earth cartographers create detailed


maps in 3D, showing the twists and turns of the labyrinths they
explore.
In the summer of 2015, a team of 14 cavers re-mapped parts
of the remote Silvertip Cave system in the Bob Marshall, charting 3.8 miles of cave. A rigging crew went first, replacing bolts
and hanging ropes for the mapping crew that followed.
The maps are made partly to satisfy the curiosity of cavers,
and also to share with the U.S. Forest Service via a cooperativeuse agreement with the statewide Grotto. However, these maps
are rarely made public to prevent overuse and vandalism of
caves and to avoid accidents involving inexperienced cavers.

espite the harsh conditions and lack of light,

life
exists in caves. Amphipods (small crustaceans such
as sand fleas) and isopods (think wood lice) have
evolved in the cold and darkness. Wood rats build
huge middens in caves, some of them thousands
of years old; and bears, mountain lions, and wolverinespicture
meeting Gulo gulo in a tight cave passageall make use of caves.
Montana caves host hibernating and roosting colonies of little
brown bats, big brown bats, long-eared myotis, and Townsends
big-eared bats.
Bats across North America are in extreme danger from
White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungal infection that kills
entire colonies of hibernating bats. As of 2012, WNS had killed
at least 5.7 million North American bats since the disease was
discovered in 2006. Three species of bats found in Montana are
currently affected in other places by WNS, and the disease is
slowly spreading toward the state. Its been found in Wisconsin
and Iowa and has no known cure.
In the eastern and central US, most wild caves are closed
to the public, because cavers are suspected of spreading WNS
through their visits. If and when it takes hold in Montana, WNS
may end recreational caving in the state.
Concerned both with the fate of bats and the future of their
sport, cavers are trying to get ahead of the curve and do their
part to protect Montana bat populations. James Cummins helps
survey bat populations, in part by capturing bats and swabbing

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Caving is not without its perils for both enthusiasts and their equipment.
Tears of the Turtle Cave took its toll on this caving suit.

their noses to look for evidence of the deadly fungus.


If WNS reaches the Northern Rockies or the Black Hills of
South Dakota, it is likely that all wild caves on federal and state
land in Montana will be declared closed, Cummins told me.
This would spell trouble for cavers and probably for the caves
themselves. Caves on public land in the eastern U.S. have been
declared closed, and entering them is illegal. This has kept lawabiding, responsible cavers from visiting them. The trouble is
that the agencies arent patrolling the entrances and vandalism
and illegal entry goes unreported.
Cavers are protective about cave locations, and for good
reason. Many caves, including Lewis and Clark Caverns, have
been vandalized by people breaking off mineral formations,
lighting fires in the caves, dumping trash, stealing fossils and
artifacts, and leaving graffiti. Caves are extremely fragile environments that form over millions of years. Only in recent years
has the outside world intruded. The mineral formations in caves
are particularly sensitive to disturbance.
Still, caving opens up new worlds and wonders. As you
ramble about Montana, think of what may lie beneath your feet.
And if you do go caving, try to leave little trace of your presence. As with any outdoor experience, tell someone where you
are going and when you will be back. And start out with experienced cavers before venturing in on your own.
One thing is certain. Montanas cave systems still hold many
secrets. Under the Big Sky, new frontiers await, but to find them,
you may have look deeper than ever.

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