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Lechuguilla Cave: Exploring a Wondrous World Beneath the Guadalupe Mountains

lechuguilla_chandelier_ballroom-for-web
photograph by Dave Bunnell. The stunning Chandelier Ballroom – in Lechuguilla Cave at Carlsbad Caverns National Park – is composed of the largest known gypsum stalactites in the world.

Carlsbad Cavern is a global destination. Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world descend into the cavern's “Big Room” – to tour the immense labyrinth of otherworldly cave formations. And on summer evenings, there's the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of bats taking flight from the cave's entrance. 

But the cavern – namesake for the New Mexico national park – is just one of more than a hundred caves in this part of the Guadalupe Mountains. The story of Lechuguilla Cave, in the backcountry of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is a reminder of the deep mysteries of the Chihuahuan Desert. And it's proof that there are frontiers of discovery not only beyond our planet, but within it.

A passionate spelunker from his teenage years, Paul Burger has written two books on cave exploration.

“Pretty much I got hooked from trip number one,” Burger said, “and have been solidly into it ever since. That would have been 1985, so it's been a while.”

Burger spent 11 years in a caver's dream job – as a Carlsbad Caverns National Park staffer. He works at parks now in Alaska, but continues to map caves in the Guadalupes. He says he speaks as a cave explorer, not a park-service representative.

Most great caves – like Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, the planet's longest known cave system – are formed from the top down. Surface water works its way through limestone, creating sinkholes and underground rivers. But the caves of the Guadalupes are different. They're “hypogenic,” meaning the water that formed them came from below.

The caves formed between 7 and 12 million years ago. As rain fell on the Guadalupes – a more extensive range then – it percolated down into deep aquifers. There it mixed with another substance found beneath the Earth here: petroleum. The encounter created a potent sulfuric acid, with microbial life intensifying the process.

The result, Burger said, is “a lot of hollow ground” beneath the Guadalupes. It's just geological serendipity if these hollow spaces, these chasms and tunnels, have an opening at the surface.

For Carlsbad Cavern, that opening is a yawning chasm. But not all cave openings are so obvious.

The 70-foot-deep pit that marks the entrance to Lechuguilla Cave was known since at least 1903, when local ranchers mined guano there. And later, Carlsbad park staff noted that there was powerful airflow coming out of a pile of rubble at the bottom of the pit.

That airflow was barometric – wind rushed in or out depending on atmospheric pressure. It suggested there was a vast open space below.

Beginning in 1984, an engineer and caver named Dave Allured led an effort to penetrate the rubble. And on Memorial Day 1986, his crew succeeded. Their discovery was electrifying.

“They quickly explored the first 1000-plus feet till they hit the first real big pit in the cave,” Burger said, “which is Boulder Falls, which is an almost 200-foot-deep pit. The air is just ripping through there, so they knew they were on to something big. No one ever expected there would be a cave that extensive and that big that hadn't already been found in the Guads.”  

At 30 miles long, Carlsbad Cavern was assumed to be the most extensive cave in the Guadalupes. But cavers have now mapped more than 150 miles of meandering shafts and caverns in Lechuguilla Cave. And exploration continues.

And length isn't even the cave's true calling card. Lechuguilla Cave is widely considered the most beautiful cave in the world. The Chandelier Ballroom – with massive formations of delicate, crystalline gypsum – has become iconic. But there are pellucid waters and exquisite forms throughout.  

Exploring this hidden world is rigorous work, an intense physical and psychological challenge. Camps have been established within the cave, and cavers often spend six days together underground.

Burger made his first trip here in 1988. As a young caver, the tight squeezes and traverses, the descents into baffling abysses, tested his limits.

“One wrong move and you just tumble down into the darkness,” he said. “It really is underground mountaineering. Having that much technical work just to move through the cave was definitely intimidating.”

There have been injuries. In 1991, caver Emily Davis Mobley suffered a broken leg in Lechuguilla's remote depths. Her evacuation took four days, and required the help of 200 people.

But to map a “virgin cave,” Burger said, more than compensates for those rigors and risks. Burger himself was the first to enter a cave room he named “High Hopes.” To name its stunning features – and to see those names become part of the record – is deeply satisfying, he said.

“It's almost like discovering a continent,” Burger said, “and in this case you're not usurping Native names that should have been on there in the first place. You can kit yourself out for a few hundred dollars and explore the far ends of these caves, and you're doing original exploration that you can't image from above. It's one of the few true individual exploration opportunities that there are on the planet.”

Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers guided tours of remote Slaughter Cave, for visitors seeking an underground wilderness experience. But Lechuguilla Cave itself is not open to the public. It's a fragile resource – of global significance. When Carlsbad Caverns National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Lechuguilla Cave was a central reason.

And when it comes to caves here, it probably isn't the end of the story. Burger suspects there are caves yet to be discovered in this rugged, desert-mountain country along the Texas-New Mexico state line.

“All we can do is wander around the desert,” Burger said, “getting torn up by the rocks and vegetation and look into every nook and cranny and hope there's a cave there and not just a mountain lion or a rattlesnake.”

The Chihuahuan Desert is known for its vast spaces and mountain vistas. But it also conceals singular beauty within its depths.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.