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Lechuguilla Cave

Lechuguilla Cave is, as of 2006, the fifth longest cave known to exist in the world, and the deepest in the continental United States but it is most famous for its unusual geology, rare formations, and pristine condition.

It is located in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. Access to the cave is limited to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, and National Park Service management-related trips.

Exploration history

Lechuguilla Cave was known until 1986 as a small, fairly insignificant historic site in the park's backcountry. Small amounts of bat guano were mined from the entrance passages for a year under a mining claim filed in 1914. The historic cave contained a entrance pit known as Misery Hole, which led to of dry dead-end passages.

The cave was visited infrequently after mining activities ceased. However, in the 1950s cavers heard wind roaring up from the rubble-choked floor of the cave. Although there was no obvious route, different people concluded that cave passages lay below the rubble. A group of Colorado cavers gained permission from the National Park Service and began digging in 1984. The breakthrough, into large walking passages, occurred on May 26, 1986.

Since 1986, explorers have mapped of passages and have pushed the depth of the cave to , ranking Lechuguilla as the 5th longest cave in the world (4th longest in the United States) and the deepest limestone cave in the country. Cavers, drawn by the caves' pristine condition and rare beauty, come from around the world to explore and map its passages and geology.

Geology

Lechuguilla Cave offered even more than just its extreme size. Cavers were greeted by large amounts of gypsum and lemon-yellow sulfur deposits. A large variety of rare speleothems, some of which had never been seen anywhere in the world, included gypsum chandeliers, gypsum hairs and beards, soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons, cave pearls, subaqueous helictites, rusticles, U-loops and J-loops. Lechuguilla Cave surpassed its nearby sister, Carlsbad Caverns, in size, depth, and variety of speleothems, though no room has been discovered yet in Lechuguilla Cave which is larger than Carlsbad's Big Room.

Scientific exploration has been conducted as well. For the first time a Guadalupe Mountains cave extends deep enough that scientists may study five separate geologic formations from the inside. The profusion of gypsum and sulfur lends support to speleogenesis by sulfuric acid dissolution. The sulfuric acid is believed to be derived from hydrogen sulfide which migrated from nearby oil deposits. Thus, this cavern (as well as Carlsbad Caverns) apparently formed from the bottom up, in contrast to the normal top-down carbonic acid dissolution mechanism of cave formation.

Rare, chemolithoautotrophic bacteria are believed to occur in the cave. These bacteria feed on the sulfur, iron, and manganese minerals and may assist in enlarging the cave and determining the shapes of some unusual speleothems. Other studies indicate that some microbes may have medicinal qualities that are beneficial to humans.

Lechuguilla Cave lies beneath a park wilderness area. However, it appears that the cave's passages may extend out of the park into adjacent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. A major threat to the cave is proposed gas and oil drilling on BLM land. Any leakage of gas or fluids into the cave's passages could kill cave life or cause explosions.

Place names

The cave is named for the Agave lechuguilla, a plant found near its entrance.

Entrance section

  • Apricot Pit - When Roy Glaser led the first return trip to the cave in August 1987, Donald G. Davis was unable to attend because he was drying apricots on his farm in Western Colorado. Rick Bridges found it almost unimaginable that drying apricots could take precedence over exploring a new cave in the Guadalupe Mountains. As a friendly jab at Donald, Bridges suggested that the first major feature discovered on the expedition be so named as to remind Donald that he wasn’t there for its discovery. The name “Apricot Pit” was given to the obvious pit that ends the E-survey. It is still the gateway to the entire eastern branch of the cave.
  • Boulder Falls - This major pit in the cave was first descended by Roy Glaser and is approximately deep. The name comes from the large amount of loose rock that was around the lip of the pit. Almost every descent for the first year of exploration knocked large amounts of loose rubble into the pit. The supply of loose rock appeared to be endless, but after three years the pit had mostly stabilized.
  • C-61 - This is the sixty-first station in the C-survey. It is a noteworthy location as a common resting spot and as the gateway to the Rift. Most modern-day trips into the cave reach C-61 in about one hour.
  • EF-Junction - The junction where the F-survey branches off of the E-survey. It was a common lunch spot in the early exploration of the cave, but is now considered to be only 1 1/2 hours from the entrance. All three of the main arms of the cave split off within of this junction.
  • Fawn Hall - Fawn Hall was the secretary to Oliver North during the Iran-Contra scandal. She testified before Congress that she had been ordered to shred hundreds of documents before the FBI could arrive to confiscate them. The room Fawn Hall is a pun on her name. Cavers also found it hilariously funny that this room is located in the “North” Rift.
  • Flowstone Slope - This remarkably uncreative name refers to a slope of flowstone in the entrance passage just above Lake Lechuguilla. It is noteworthy only because a handline has been placed here to aid in crossing the slope.
  • Glacier Bay - This room is named for the appearance of the large gypsum blocks that dominate the center of the room. Two thirds of the volume of this room is occupied by massive gypsum deposits on the floor. Where the deposits end, cliffs are formed along with large blocks of gypsum that have broken off the face and landed at the foot of the cliffs. When viewed from the lower end of the room, the gypsum cliffs appear to be the face of a large glacier complete with blocks of ice that have calved away. This scene of nature mimicking itself prompted the name Glacier Bay. The original name given by Dave Allured, the Inferno Room, has all but been forgotten.
  • The Great White Way - This steeply sloping passage is the main entry into the western branch of the cave. Its name stems from its pure white crystalline walls.
  • Lake Lechuguilla - This was the first significant body of water found in the cave and was therefore named after the cave itself. When first discovered, this lake was across and over deep. The level has steadily decreased over time, and now the lake is barely across and deep. The reason for this loss of water is unknown.
  • Liberty Bell - This bell-shaped canopy is located at the top of the Flowstone Slope near the entrance to the Wooden Lettuce Passage. A large crack in the formation reminded the first explorers of the Liberty Bell.
  • North Rift - This generally refers to the section of the Rift that lies north of its intersection with the main entrance corridor at survey station C-61. The name is also used to refer to the entire area that branches off the North Rift which is approximately of passage. The North Rift area is generally low crawling passage with few places to stand upright. Because of this, the North Rift has the reputation of being a difficult area to explore, and generally undesirable. A sarcastic caver has placed flagging tape at C-61 with an arrow and the words “To the plush, luxurious, and swank North Rift.”
  • The Overpass - The original route to the back parts of the cave, via the lower Rift, traveled up and down several hills or “passes.” When this shortcut was discovered above the previous route it became known as the Overpass. This word has a double meaning: the new route is much faster than the old lower Rift route, so the shortcut is similar to a modern highway overpass. The new route also travels “over” the old “passes” of the lower Rift. The Overpass was an important discovery because it reduced a four-hour trip through the lower Rift to only twenty minutes.
  • The Rift - This fissure is a major feature in the entrance section of the cave. The fissure is approximately tall, long, and averages 2 to wide. It was a major obstacle to early explorers and is still the only route to the back sections of the cave. The origin of the name is from the imposing nature of this fissure.
  • Rim City - Named for the large number of gypsum rim formations along the floor and walls of this corridor.
  • Snow White's Passage - An extension of the passage from EF-Junction south, this is one of the longest horizontal walkways in the cave. Named, presumably, after the fairy tale, though the passage is not particularly whiter than others.
  • Sugarlands - The floor and walls of this area consist of white powdery gypsum covered with a crust of gypsum mixed with dirt. This gives the appearance of a crust of brown sugar covering a bed of white sugar.
  • Windy City - This is a narrowing of the passage which forces the air to flow past with increased velocity. A long piece of flagging tape hangs from the ceiling to indicate airflow. On high-wind days the tape hangs at an angle of 45° from vertical.
  • Wooden Lettuce Passage - This is a side passage that branches off the entrance passage at the top of the flowstone slope. An climb across delicate formations leads to the well-decorated passage. Due to the survey as you go policy of exploration, Ron Kerbo coined the name because Dave “wouldn’t-let-us” explore the area without surveying it.

Western branch

  • ABCs Room - Although claimed to be named because the discoverers were following the ABCs of surveying, it did not go unnoticed that it was also the first letter of each of the discoverers’ first names: Art, Bill, Carol, and Steve. This room marks the beginning of the Western Borehole.
  • Barsoom - This balcony lies above Pellucidar. The name Barsoom also comes from the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and was his name for Mars.
  • Chandelier Graveyard - The large crystalline gypsum stalagmites in this area reminded cavers of gypsum chandeliers in the Chandelier Ballroom that had fallen to the floor. They whimsically surmised that this room was where gypsum chandeliers go when they die. The term Chandelier Graveyard now refers to the entire maze located above the Western Borehole.
  • Cornflakes Climb - This awkward ten-foot climb leaves from a calcite raft area similar to the Deep Seas Room. The cavers that discovered this area were obviously in a different frame of mind when they heard the sound of breaking calcite rafts and decided that it sounded like walking on corn flakes.
  • Deep Seas Room - At the time of its discovery, this room was suspected to be as deep as or deeper than the current low spot in Deep Secrets. The floor of this room is completely covered with calcite rafts and broken mammillary crust shells. The walls and ceilings of this large room are entirely covered with mammillary crusts giving the impression of having been flooded, deep under the sea.The far end of the room is now the location of Deep Seas Camp, one of the most heavily visited locations in the cave.
  • Deep Secrets - This large room starts at the base of The Great White Way and ends in a formation area. The name comes from the fact that Rick Bridges was using this location for a quick tryst, with someone other than his current girl friend, while the other members of his survey team were sent to "scout out the way ahead".
  • Fortress of Chaos - This room is named for the large, irregular breakdown that litters the floor.
  • Hard Daze Night Hall - The largest room in Lechuguilla Cave. A pun on the popular Beatles song, this room was also named because it was a long, hard day's caving to get there, and it was discovered in the middle the night when the explorers were in a daze from near-exhaustion.
  • Huapache Highway - This name is given to a segment of the Western Borehole just before the Oasis Pool. The name comes from the Huapache monocline, a geologic flexure that elevates the limestone not far west of Lechuguilla Cave.
  • Lake Louise - The claim is that this room was named after the well-known lake in the Canadian Rockies. It was actually named for Louise Whitehead who discovered the White Christmas Tree Room, in which Lake Louise lies. This lake is one of the water sources for Deep Seas Camp.
  • Leaning Tower of Lechuguilla — This prominent twenty-foot tall tower stands in the middle of the Western Borehole. The peculiar lean of this popcorn-covered stalagmite reminded explorers of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Peter Jones broke his ankle near here in 1993. Not wanting to duplicate the large-scale rescue effort required for Emily Davis Mobley, he decided to self-rescue with the help of his teammates. It took two days for Peter to crawl the almost two miles (3 km) back to the entrance.
  • Little Lake Lechuguilla - This was the second significant body of water found in the cave and was particularly important due to its location along a trade route. At the time of discovery, this lake was much smaller than its namesake, but while Lake Lechuguilla has shrunk in size, Little Lake Lechuguilla has maintained its volume. It is now an important water stop on the way to the Western Borehole.
  • Oasis Pool Room - This area is also known as just “The Oasis.” This is one of the most beautiful rooms in the cave, and is often featured in photographs of Lechuguilla Cave. The name comes from the fact that this pool lies at the far end of the Western Borehole, which has no water along its entire length. The attractive formations also lend credibility to the notion that this is an oasis in an underground desert.
  • Manifest Destiny - A room-like enlargement part way along the Western Borehole. A play on a slogan used to justify the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century.
  • Pellucidar - Pellucidar was a subterranean world in several stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It first appeared in “At the Earth's Core” in 1914. This area was discovered and named by Steven Sims after an arduous free ascent up what is now a fixed rope climb, and became well-known as the site of the of subaqueous helictites discovered by Donald G. Davis. The room is accessed via a climb out of the Fortress of Chaos.
  • Reason Room - This chamber was named as a setup for a pun. The only reason for the name was so that the next room could be named Beyond Reason. The Reason Room has made a name in history as the site where Emily Davis Mobley broke her leg in April of 1991, prompting a four-day rescue effort.
  • The Three Amigos - A set of three gypsum stalagmites along the main trail through the Western Borehole. The formations are approximately six feet tall and stand six feet apart. The phrase comes from the 1986 movie of the same name starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase.
  • Western Borehole - The word borehole is generally attributed to any passage of large dimension that travels in a straight line. The original name of the passage, by Steven Sims, was Winterlands, due to the profuse gypsum crusts and aragonite formations. The Great Western Borehole was coined by Rick Bridges when this large passage was found to be headed almost due west. Over time, the name became shortened to Western Borehole. This passage is more than 1 1/4 miles long and averages wide. Modern use of the name refers both to the borehole itself and the many miles of passage that branch off.
  • White Christmas Tree Room - This room has dozens of one-foot to two-foot tall calcite raft cones. The cones have been covered with a white layer of calcite that cements them together and gives the appearance of dozens of miniature Christmas trees.

Eastern branch

  • Another Room - The discoverers of this chamber found it to be a thirty-foot by fifty-foot room with a twenty-foot ceiling. Although notable in most other caves, these rooms are plentiful in the Mega Maze area of Lechuguilla. When asked what he had found, the leader replied “just another room.”
  • Aragonitemare - Bryan Becker was the first to attempt this climb which was exposed, difficult, and full of razor-sharp aragonite crystals. All of the original participants thought "Aragonitemare" was a very appropriate name. Today it is the only access to the Far East area of the cave.
  • China Shop - This is one of the first rooms found at the top of the Aragonitemare. It is well decorated and so delicate that the first explorers heard only the tinkling of aragonite being crushed underfoot as they passed through. Originally named the China Closet, the name was later changed to China Shop in reference to the colloquial phrase “like a bull in a china shop.”
  • The Emperor's Throne Room - In the corner of this room is a six-foot tall white stalagmite surrounded by blood-red flowstone. This often-photographed formation is called the Emperor of Lechuguilla, and lends its name to the surrounding room.
  • Giant Chiclets Room - This room is littered with large boulders which have been covered with a layer of white calcite. The calcite serves to round the corners of the boulders and make them appear like overgrown versions of Chiclets.
  • Ghost Town - A huge room, located in the upper level of the Eastern Branch, so called because its central feature is a group of smoothly-corroded stalagmites suggesting white-draped spirits.
  • Ghostbusters Hall - A room beyond Ghost Town, named after the 1984 movie Ghostbusters.
  • Grand Guadalupe Junction - The hub where three routes join in a spacious void.
  • The Great Beyond - The first really large room found beyond Nirvana. Named in hopes that it would be the start of a Great Eastern Borehole. It wasn't.
  • Lake of the Blue Giants - The giants are six large submerged stalagmites. The depth of the lake gives them an emerald-blue appearance. Dave Bunnell dived here with scuba gear in 1989 but found the lake to end at a depth of ninety feet.
  • Lake of the White Roses - This is the deepest point in Lechuguilla Cave and is named for the calcite folia on the walls that vaguely resemble white rose petals. This lake was dived by Peter Bolt in 1992 to a depth of .
  • Lost Pecos River - North from Grand Guadalupe Junction, a small stream cascades from a flowstone wall into a lake which is the water source for the normal Far East campsite. Named for the main river course in Eddy County, where Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located.
  • Mega Maze - This term is used to describe the general area at the base of Apricot Pit. The region consists of many large rooms connected by walking passages. Both the size and the complexity of the area lent the name Mega Maze.
  • Moby Dick Room - This room contains a large breakdown block that vaguely resembles a whale. On a recent resurvey trip, this rock was discovered to actually be two rocks.
  • Nirvana - This room was considered to be one of the best decorated rooms in the cave at the time of its discovery. The first explorers were convinced they had reached a place of serenity free from the distractions of the external world, hence the name Nirvana.
  • The Outback - This reference stems from the Australian Outback, the remote central desert section of that country. Lechuguilla's Outback is a ten- to twelve-hour journey from the entrance, and is austere and poorly decorated.
  • The Ruby Chamber - A large room, antechamber to the deepest region of Lechuguilla. Named for pockets of iron-oxide-crusted calcite spar crystals.
  • The Rusticles - These oddly shaped stalactites are stained shades of brown and black. Donald G. Davis was the first to notice the resemblance between these formations and the rusticles that were found on the recently discovered wreck of the RMS Titanic. The Rusticles is also generally used to refer the entire passage that contains them, including the nearby Rusticles Camp.
  • Silver Bullet Passage - This passage was named for a gray-colored stalagmite that had fallen over and been re-cemented to the floor. The thought was probably suggested by a series of Coors Lite commercials in the late 1980s that centered about a silver bullet theme.
  • Stud Lake - A playful reference to Neeld Messler, who was the first person to swim the length of the lake and attempt a climb at the far end. Cavers swim naked in lakes to avoid contaminating them with cave debris from their clothes. Dave Bunnell did a solo scuba dive here in 1989, finding an air-filled room and about of submerged passage before reaching an end.

Southwest branch

  • Atlantis - The far end of this room has a pool with numerous stalagmites at the bottom. The first explorers thought the stalagmites looked like a miniature submerged city. The most famous submerged city is the fabled lost city of Atlantis, and so the room was named.
  • Big Sky Country - The phrase “big sky country” is a nickname for the state of Montana in reference to its wide open spaces and low population density. The size of this room, with its unusually high ceiling, made the same phrase appropriate here. The upper end of the room is the location of Big Sky Camp, one of only two camps established in the southern branch of the cave.
  • Castrovalva - Ron DeLano was the first person to cross the main lake and explore the passage on the far side. He named these lakes after an episode of the TV series Doctor Who, where the Doctor visits a planet named Castrovalva that was serene and restful. The largest lake is often referred to as Lake Castrovalva, and one of the smaller ones is called Lake Margaret.
  • Chandelier Ballroom - This is one of the best-known chambers in Lechuguilla Cave. It was named for the world-class gypsum crystal “chandeliers” that grow from the ceiling. Many of the chandeliers are more than twenty feet long. Previous examples of these crystal displays in other caves rarely exceeded six feet in length. Subsequent to this discovery, many one- and two-foot crystals were found in other rooms of the cave. These are often referred to as “nightlights.” The complex of passages surrounding the ballroom is called the Chandelier Maze.
  • Chicken Little Room - The floor of this room is strewn with broken rock and loose sand, giving the appearance of a recent ceiling collapse. The name comes from Chicken Little, who panics when hit on the head with an object and believes that the sky is falling.
  • Conniption Pit - This is a pun on the phrase “conniption fit”.
  • Darktown - A chamber beyond Land of Awes, in which dark-crusted walls are backdrops for almost-invisible gypsum hairs up to perhaps twenty feet long. From the old song The Darktown Strutters Ball (1917).
  • Gulf of California - This small pool is long and skinny, reminding the California cavers who discovered it of the Gulf of California.
  • High Hopes Climb - This ascent is the only route to the High Hopes area of the cave. The discoverers named it because they had high hopes that the climb would lead to a significant new area. It did. The term High Hopes is commonly applied to the climb itself, the room at the top of the climb, and the region of the cave accessed by the climb.
  • Lake Chandalar - This was named for another Canadian lake shortly after Lake Lebarge was named. This lake is more photogenic than nearby Lake Lebarge. This funnel-shaped pool is twenty feet across with deep blue water rimmed with orange flowstone.
  • Lake Lebarge - This was named after Lake Laberge in Canada, which is mentioned in the Robert W. Service poem The Cremation of Sam McGee. This was prompted when the discoverers remembered a caver’s version of the poem that goes “The caver’s lights have seen strange sights…” Although the first parties were forced to strip down and cross the lake, later explorers found a clever route around the perimeter of the lake using slightly submerged footholds.
  • Land of Awes - A reference to The Wizard of Oz.
  • Land of the Lost - Named after the 1970s TV series. The name is particularly appropriate since the main room has at least seven passages that lead away in different directions.
  • Lebarge Borehole - This sixty-foot diameter passage starts at Lake Lebarge and heads deeper into the cave. Although it remains this size for only six hundred feet, it is the only access into the southern branch of the cave.
  • Little Shop of Horrors - A small room reached by a technical climb up a nasty fissure in the Prickly Ice Cube Room area. The team members were horrified when they learned they had passed up a chance to be on the Grand Guadalupe Junction breakthrough in the Far East to do this climb instead.
  • Pearlsian Gulf - This phrase is a concatenation of the words Persian Gulf, in reference to the many pools found here; and “pearl,” in reference to the large collection of cave pearls found in these pools.
  • Powdered Donut Room - The floor of this room is over one foot deep in powdery rock flour reminiscent of the powdered sugar often sprinkled on doughnuts.
  • Prickly Ice Cube Room - This large chamber is floored with gypsum breakdown blocks that have dozens of small spires dissolved into their surfaces. The breakdown blocks look just like the name of the room: prickly ice cubes.
  • Seesaw Canyon - This fissure was named after the children’s playground toy because of the way it leads steeply up and then back down again.
  • Sewing Room - This room is filled with delicate gypsum crystals of dimensions similar to common sewing needles, except that some are up to two feet long.
  • Shangri-La - This large walking passage leaves from the top of the High Hopes climb, and was considered a suitable reward for a successful ascent. The word Shangri-La comes from the fictional Tibetan land of eternal youth in the novel The Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
  • Shoestring Traverse - The cavers who first crossed this traverse did so with very little gear. They concluded that they had achieved the impossible with little more than a shoestring and a prayer.
  • Sulfur Shores - Where a team, pushing deeper than had yet been reached, found a window on the water table in a narrow, folia-lined crevice. It was Lechuguilla's deepest known point for some time. Some there thought they smelled hydrogen sulfide, which is believed to have been a major agent in developing the cave. It has yet to be confirmed, however, that any water in the cave today contains this compound.
  • Yellow Brick Road - This long stoopway follows a yellowish coralloid and flowstone floor in a white-walled passage. This area is best known for the incredible number and variety of gypsum flowers found here.
  • Tinseltown Maze - This maze starts abruptly at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. All of the rocks are covered with a plate-form of calcite that reflects light like mica flakes do. This sparkly appearance inspired the name for this area. The first explorers found their way through this disorienting maze by following the airflow.
  • Tower Place - This room is named for its abundance of stalagmites and columns that vary from 20 to tall--the largest ones in the cave. Southern cavers discovered and named it after an upscale high-rise restaurant and shopping complex in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Ultra Primo - The name for this well-decorated room comes from slang meaning first-class or first-rate.
  • Vesuvius - The southwestern most end of the Southwestern Branch, and one of the most decorated areas in Lechuguilla Cave. At its entrance is a big, splitting bulge in old flowstone, as if something is trying to erupt there. The swelling is probably caused by a buried boulder surrounded by drying, shrinking clay under the flowstone.
  • The Voids - When this area was first entered in 1988, cavers found a large fissure where they could see neither the bottom nor the far side. They were unable to descend because there were no places to anchor a rope: the chamber has a soft dirt floor with no rocks. This fissure was called the Void. Subsequent exploration of the area discovered ways across this fissure and found several more like it. Over time the name became plural - The Voids - to refer to this region of the cave.
  • YO Acres - On the long drive from Colorado to Carlsbad Caverns there is a turnoff near Roswell, New Mexico labeled “YO Acres.” This is in reference to the YO (read “why-oh”) Ranch. Cavers commonly pronounce it as “yoh” -- an interjection to get someone’s attention. The name on this familiar sign was attached to this room.

Filming

Lechuguilla Cave was shown in the BBC documentary series Planet Earth. The fourth episode, entitled "Caves", aired on April 22, 2007 and documented a team of scientists and filmmakers exploring Lechuguilla cave including the remarkable Chandelier Ballroom where exquisite crystals are found. It took the team two years to get permission to film the cave and local authorities are unlikely to allow another film crew to enter in the foreseeable future.

References

External links

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