Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Sierra Underground: Wild Caves, a precious and easily damaged environment

I spent the day in the Sierra Nevada foothills checking out a couple of wild caves with a few students. The Sierra is justly famous for spectacular alpine scenery; the underground scenery is a tad less well-known. Just the same, the region has some spectacular caves, including a half dozen that are open for commercial tourism. Others are hidden away in the brushy hillsides and are a great deal harder to reach and explore, and that is the way it should be.

Wild caves are a precious resource, and are easily damaged. The damage is permanent. Accessible caves have been completely stripped of their speleothems (cave decorations like stalactites and stalagmites) and filled with garbage and graffiti.
I was in the inner sanctum of a particularly beautiful cavern, and thankfully many of the stalactites remained unbroken. I've been in this cave several times, so instead of exploring the far corners, I sat and tried different approaches to capturing images of the thickest accumulation of stalactites near the entrance. It's a tricky process, especially for a novice like myself. Flash pictures don't cut it because there are few shadows to provide depth. I caught three images I was happy with by opening the shutter for 20 seconds and having my fellow explorers move their light sources over the target speleothems.
The exploring of wild caves is not for everyone. You have to get used to crawling through tight spaces, and getting covered in mud. It can be exhausting work. Caves can be unsafe, with unstable rocks, steep dropoffs and bad air. Hurt yourself in a cave and it is difficult to get you to medical help. Go in without sufficient light sources, a knowledgeable guide, and improper equipment, and you could end up lost in the dark. Caves do not generally offer landmarks for finding your way out.

Our cave today required squeezing upwards through narrow opening with a projecting rock that meant one had to push up and turn sideways at the same time.
This was after negotiating the collapsed rocks that provided entrance to the bottom of the sinkhole that contained the cave entrance...
Yeah, Geotripper was tired afterwards...then there was the mile long hike up the mountain to the vehicles. It was a good day.
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