America's Deepest Cave
May 6, 2007 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Another World In the New Mexico desert sits an unremarkable sinkhole. At the bottom of the 90-foot pit, a piece of stainless steel culvert juts up, sealed by an airlock. If you can get the National Park Service to unlock the door, you've reached the Holy Grail of American caving, Lechuguilla Cave.
posted by Kirth Gerson (39 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The cave was discovered in 1986 when cavers intrigued by the strong wind blowing up through the rock debris at the bottom of the pit dug through to a deeper drop. This is the only entrance to an incredibly complex, more-than-100-mile-long, 1600-foot-deep maze of twisting passages, pits, and chambers large and small. Its allure to cavers is not just due to its size (Mammoth Cave is much longer); Lechuguilla features an amazing array of unusual formations and scenery of unearthly beauty. Like nearby Carlsbad Caverns, Lechuguilla is believed to have formed by acid vapors percolating up from deep in the earth, rather than by the more common method of acid-bearing groundwater.

The cave has been the subject of several television documentaries, has had books written about it, including at least one mystery novel. Even NASA is interested in it, because of its microbes. Unfortunately, unless you're a scientist or NPS employee, the closest to being there you'll probably get is buying this.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:22 PM on May 6, 2007

The 3D photos are particularly neat.
posted by boots at 4:30 PM on May 6, 2007

the 3d pictures are really cool, except now I'm going to be crosseyed for the rest of the day. Wish I could take them back to my 16 year old self for a D&D game.
posted by lastobelus at 4:30 PM on May 6, 2007

Cavers, drawn by virgin passage...
Who amongst us cannot say, etc.
Excellent post Kirth Gerson.
posted by Abiezer at 4:45 PM on May 6, 2007

The problem with the 3D photos (and it's actually a good thing, if you have a proper viewer) is that it involves uncrossing your eyes, looking at a point far behind your monitor. It's like one of those magic3-D pictures. If you're crossing your eyes to look at those pictures, you're going to see all the depth inversed (rocks near you will appear to be far, and rocks far in the distance will appear nearby).
posted by Bugbread at 4:54 PM on May 6, 2007

The problem with the 3D photos (and it's actually a good thing, if you have a proper viewer) is that it involves uncrossing your eyes,

Yeah, I was thinking that. If you cross your eyes the show up as "3d" but with farther things appearing nearer. And, unless your monitor's resolution is high enough so that the centers of the images are as distant as the centers of your eyes, it won't work (unless you can make your eyes point in opposite directions, something I've never been able to do :P)
posted by delmoi at 5:02 PM on May 6, 2007

Kirth, very cool. Thanks much for the post!
posted by maxwelton at 5:06 PM on May 6, 2007

Dammit, Kirth I'd been bookmarking Lechugilla pages for a week, but hadn't bothered to put the post together, yet.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:07 PM on May 6, 2007

what is that?
posted by growabrain at 5:08 PM on May 6, 2007

On the 3-D photos, I was able to get they to work in the proper perspective by using a 9 x 12" manila envelope to separate them (short side against the monitor) and putting my face right up to the other end of the envelope (in other words, ensuring that each eye had an image to view but neither could see more than one). Then relax a bit and let your eyes do the focusing.
posted by maxwelton at 5:09 PM on May 6, 2007

they = them, me = teh dumb
posted by maxwelton at 5:09 PM on May 6, 2007

This is the one from the Planet Earth "Caves" episode. They actually carried a boom crane in to film one part, which is just crazy.
posted by smackfu at 5:10 PM on May 6, 2007

delmoi writes "And, unless your monitor's resolution is high enough so that the centers of the images are as distant as the centers of your eyes, it won't work (unless you can make your eyes point in opposite directions, something I've never been able to do :P)"

Thank you. I'm on the end of a night shift, and it was bugging me that, even though I knew I had to focus past the screen, I just couldn't get enough overlap. If I were more awake, I would have realized the reason why, but as it is I just kept trying in vain. You've saved my remaining vision for the day.
posted by Bugbread at 5:11 PM on May 6, 2007

maxwelton: I tried the "folder between eyes" trick, but it just didn't work. A quick check of the separation shows that, because of the low-res of this laptop, the image centers are about 1 cm further apart than my eyes, so it's as close to biological impossibility as can be. On a CRT or higher-res laptop, it shouldn't be a problem.
posted by Bugbread at 5:13 PM on May 6, 2007

Unfortunately, unless you're a scientist or NPS employee...

It' not that difficult, if you happen to know someone at LEARN, or the park, to get on a trip. I've never been, but I've never tried. You do have to be a good and trusted caver, know how to survey, and be prepared to not brush your hair or change clothes for a week, and to pee in a bottle, and crap in a bag, and carry your waste back out with you, and...

Well, it's an arduous cave, from what I understand, but it's not impossible to get in. If you know the right people.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:15 PM on May 6, 2007

DR, I felt a disturbance, and knew you were close to posting, so it had to be now, or you'd do it first. I actually thought about including some of the bickering about the way LEARN has limited access, but I decided to let those dogs lie.

growabrain asked
what is that?

They're called cave pearls.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:34 PM on May 6, 2007

Abiezer, you're naughty.

Amazing caves.
posted by nickyskye at 5:38 PM on May 6, 2007

Ah-hah. THAT must be where Shelob lives, and the government knows it!
posted by po at 5:56 PM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I was in grad school in the early 90s in Atlanta, I was friends with some of the original explorers of Lechuguilla. Their stories were freakin' amazing; I've never been able to eat a burrito without thinking of them. Nice to see a followup.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:10 PM on May 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

Very interesting post, and beautiful pics. Thanks!
posted by amyms at 7:18 PM on May 6, 2007

fandango_matt: "We were brought here for a purpose. For a reason. All of us. Each one of us was brought here for a reason."

The cave looks inviting.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:19 PM on May 6, 2007

I've had a hard-on for exploring this cave ever since I went to Carlsbad Caverns.
posted by jeblis at 9:31 PM on May 6, 2007

Best cave I ever visited was Crystal Cave in Missouri. The old fellow in the picture owns the property, and personally gives tours. When we visited (must have been about 1989 or so) he took his dog along.

How cool is that, to have a personal tour of a huge cave, given by a guy and his dog?
posted by ilsa at 9:47 PM on May 6, 2007

After seeing The Descent, caves will forever be psychotic chambers of pitch-black horror. It doesn't help that in the third picture in the "Lechuguilla Cave" link, the Earth itself appears to be trying to grab that unsuspecting man with its pale, stony limbs.

Excellent post though.
posted by billypilgrim at 10:24 PM on May 6, 2007

This post is completely awesome. Thank you.
posted by perilous at 10:41 PM on May 6, 2007

OK apparently none of you have watched The Descent. Be afraid!
posted by WerewolvesRancheros at 7:44 AM on May 7, 2007

I don't know, WWR - it sounds more likely I'd be afraid if I had watched the movie.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:09 AM on May 7, 2007

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
posted by LordSludge at 8:18 AM on May 7, 2007

Which is, I believe a quote from Adventure, a product of the fertile brain of Willie Crowther. Crowther was an avid caver who was active in the exploration of the aforementioned Mammoth Cave.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:53 AM on May 7, 2007

Amazing post. I've been fascinated with caves ever since I was a kid.

The colors are just.... surreal.

posted by Space Kitty at 9:06 AM on May 7, 2007

Easy way to view the 3D images:

Open up another browser window with the same 3D image. Shorten the width of that window so the left image is near the left. Place that same window to the right of the first window. Cross your eyes slightly and merge the right image of the first window with the left image of the second window.
posted by Bort at 9:30 AM on May 7, 2007

Brilliantly simple solution, Bort--thanks!
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:41 AM on May 7, 2007

This reminds me of a Nat'l Geographic show about some gigantic cave in South America. The entrance is at the bottom of a huge pit that you have to rappel down. I can't remember what it's called but I seem to recall there being an airlock type entrance as well. Am I just crazy and is it just Lechuguilla?

Certain parts of the cave have areas that can only be reached by swimming underwater. Apparently you also have to strip naked before going through it.

Can anyone clear up this old memory?
posted by daHIFI at 9:47 AM on May 7, 2007

Ah, it must have been a bigger episode on caving in general. The rappelling cave entrance is the Cave of Swallows, so big that a hot air balloon navigated into the cave. Base jumpers have jumped into the cave; it would take a person 12 seconds to fall all the way down.
posted by daHIFI at 9:54 AM on May 7, 2007

This post is awesome. I love caves, and aquifers. I was very disappointed that the "Fresh Water" episode of Planet Earth said in the description in my cable guide that it would have a part about aquifers, but did not. I will be sure to search my DVR for the caves one.
posted by misskaz at 10:27 AM on May 7, 2007

daHIFI, the naked swimming descriptions do match what my friends said about exploring Lechuguilla, but it likely applies to other caves, as well.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:56 AM on May 7, 2007

daHIFI - Your balloon cave is Sótano de las Golondrinas, where some crazy Gringos go to do stuff they can't do at home.

Your balloon sort of deflates when compared to this, though:
by CHEN LIANG, China Daily staff, 12/13/1999
It might be mankind’s first effort at flying planes through a natural cavern. And a smooth exit might land the pilot in the Guinness Book of World Records. But Hungarian Peter Basenyei did the stunt with ease. At 2:33 pm Saturday, the
ace pilot, who just won the bronze medal at the 1999 Zhangjiajie FAI World Aviation Grand Prix, flew through a cavern here named “Heavenly Door” while turning his Extra 300S plane upside down.
“It is really exciting and impressive,” he said after landing at the Zhangjiajie Lotus Airport. “When I was there, I found the cave was bigger than I thought and so I decided to fly my plane upside down,” he said. “It was a little windy today and I did have some hesitation at one moment. I knew I had to be careful. But I just wanted to do it the harder way because I am confident in myself.”
Inspired by his gallant creativity, 10 other stunt pilots pierced the cave safely and artistically with their planes. They made big loops around the cave. They spun and rolled. Four planes of the Czech Republic’s “Sky Box” team went through the cave in an orderly vertical row.
But at 1,261 metres above sea level and set on top of steep cliffs, the mountain cavern did challenge the pilots’ flying skills. An unsteady air stream and whirlpool, which results from the temperatures varying with height from time to time, posed the biggest risks.
However, the cave is 127.37 metres tall and 279.42 metres long with a minimum width of 28.03 metres. These measurements provide enough room. With modern flying skills, said Swiss-born Jacques Saillard, chief engineer of the grand prix, planes with seven to eight metres and a wingspan of at least eight metres can master this cavern.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:08 AM on May 7, 2007

Please pardon my broken link. It was supposed to be like this: Sótano de las Golondrinas
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:56 AM on May 7, 2007

Ironic that the airlock was paid for with $79,000 from the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program.
posted by Mitheral at 6:22 PM on May 7, 2007

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