LaSunder Cave

A quick self-portrait in LaSunder Cave.
A quick self-portrait in LaSunder Cave.

Last weekend, I ran a trip to LaSunder Cave. It’s one of the caves managed by the Colorado Cave Survey (CCS) and has a rather restrictive access policy. There are generally speaking only 10 trips per year (2 for every NSS grotto in Colorado) with at most 5 cavers (trip leader included) per trip. Since I’d been in the cave a couple of years ago with Randy, I was qualified to lead a trip. Initially there were several interested parties, but as often happens, a few people backed out at the last minute. Nevertheless, we had a full trip with only me and Kristin having been to the cave before.

Originally I’d planned to camp out the night before, but I’ve been camping out as near to the phone as possible, awaiting news regarding my Grandma Gribble, who’s been admitted to the hospital. That being the case, I skipped the CCS meeting in Glenwood Springs and woke up at around 5:00 am on Sunday to drive out to the cave. I was planning to meet everyone else at the nearest parking area at 9:00 for a nice early start, but as I was driving towards the parking area I spotted a couple of familiar cars. I pulled over and chatted a bit with Jim, Kristin, and Mike about the night’s camping and the previous day’s meeting, but it quickly became apparent that I was keeping Jim from packing up his crap. I hopped back into the car and proceeded to the parking area where I met the fifth member of our trip, Dennis.

Since I had packed up all of my stuff the night before, I chatted with Dennis for a couple of minutes while we waited for the others to finish breaking camp. A few minutes later we were all assembled,  so I distributed all of the legal papers (hazard disclaimers and trip permits). After collecting a set of signatures, we set off to find the cave.

A sampling of the fine decorations in LaSunder. Look at the water droplets clinging to the formations.

Unlike some other caves in the area, LaSunder isn’t the easiest cave to find. In fact, when Jess and I visited the cave a couple of years ago with Randy, we’d missed the cave by a fair distance and spent an inordinate amount of time hiking across endless talus slopes in search of the entrance. That, combined with the pungent odor of a detoxing caver and searing summer heat, were almost enough to break our enthusiasm. To add to the legend, several of our friends had taken another recent trip to the cave where they had to add several miles to the hike in order to cross a rapid stream. They too got lost and all reported that the hike was murderous or worse. Taking all of that into consideration, Jess was certain that we’d have a hard time finding the cave and my leadership would be as welcome as Captain Bligh’s.

Thankfully, there was none of that. Although we did need to spend a few minutes scouting out a favorable creek crossing with the expert help of Kristin, we were able to walk almost directly up to the cave entrance. We crossed the creek by scooting across the slick trunk of a fallen tree. I still managed to get my right boot a little wet, by allowing it to dip too close to the creek on one awkward butt-hop, and Mike (who attempted to rock-hop his way across the creek) managed to plunge one foot straight into the creek. The rocks were all just as slippery as the tree. Regardless, the total hike time on the approach was well under 3 hours, and would have been much shorter if the last mile weren’t along heinous loose talus. Of course, short of mastering flight, there really isn’t any way to avoid that part of the hike. We spent a few minutes suiting up for the cave and discussing some rules for safely traversing the cave without damaging all of the beautiful formations.

Because there’s a big pack-rat midden you have to climb over/through near the entrance, several were sporting little dust masks. Jim, on the other hand, was packing a monster respirator. Talking to him with that thing on was a bit like conversing with Cave Vader. Personally, I opted against the dust mask. Previous uses had taught me that I can’t breathe underground with those things. This time I was wearing contacts, but previously, I’d fogged up my glasses so badly that I could neither breathe nor see. I’ll take my chances with the pack rat shit.

Much of the ceiling in LaSunder is forrested with these crystals. Some are a brilliant white while others a light brown. The abundance is just amazing.
Much of the ceiling in LaSunder is forested with these crystals. Some are a brilliant white while others are a light brown. The abundance is just amazing.

We saw one bat on our way through the front passages. Jim identified it as a little brown bat (Myotis Lucifugus). Since he’d been proclaiming his sheep dung expertise the entire trip, I was in no position to doubt him. I gave the key to Mike to try his hand at opening the gate, and after swapping out the batteries in my headlamp (much better) I arrived in time to see Kristin performing some interesting cave yoga while attempting to get the lock to open. She asked if I’d worked the gate before, but I hadn’t. After a few more minutes of vain effort, I assumed the position and shoved my hand deep into the abyss. After a bit of struggling, I too just couldn’t get the key to slot into the lock. I could feel where it needed to go, but my arm was just too short.

Jim hopped into the little hole next and gave it a try, but again we struck out. I was beginning to think we wouldn’t be able to get the gate open, so I stripped off the top of my caveralls (like coveralls on steroids) and pulled off my gloves for another attempt. Getting rid of all the extra fabric netted me a bit of extra reach and dexterity. After fumbling for a couple of minutes, I was finally able to get the lock open, but I couldn’t get it off the latch. Next up, Dennis. Finally we gained access to the inner sanctum.

In total we spent a little over 2 hours underground taking pictures and gasping at the splendid decoration within the cave. Since I’d been there before and knew what to expect, I brought the 35mm with some slide film (Fuji Velvia 100) and spent a bunch of time light painting with long exposures. The general idea is to mount the camera in a steady tripod and open the shutter for a long time. While taking the picture, you light up the cave by sweeping a light across the field of view. Since I don’t have an armada of slaves to trigger remote flashes, it’s really the only way to light up a large scene. The on-camera flash is just too weak for anything but moderate macro shooting of a single formation or two. Of course, I also brought along the little point-and-shoot digital camera for some instant gratification pictures.

One of the neatest formations in LaSunder. I call this the bottle brush because it looks rather like a bottle brush.
One of the neatest formations in LaSunder. I call this the bottle brush because it looks rather like a bottle brush.

By the time we got out of the cave, the weather was looking closer to rain, and the temps had dropped somewhat. Still it was quite pleasant. We all had to wait for Jim to enjoy his lunch (exactly 30 minutes) and get changed, but it wasn’t too bad. Mike passed along some whiskey, and that helped pass the time. It rained a bit on the way down, but the talus wasn’t too bad. I did my best surfer impression a few times, but aside from an elevated heart rate, nothing too serious happened on the way back to the trail.

Back on the trail, it was an easy hour and a half hike back to the cars, and with fresh shoes and socks in the car, crossing the creek the fast way was a no-brainer. We all shared a round of PBR and Tecate before piling into our respective cars and heading back to the Front Range. It was a fun trip, and I made it back to Lafayette just in time to watch the Steelers just barely hold off the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

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