Ryan on rope at Gunsight Cave

Spider Cave entrance

Slaughter Canyon Cave entrance

One of my goals at Carlsbad Caverns was to become an experienced caver, which proved to be more difficult than I had expected. My first caving trip challenged my fear of tight spaces, while learning to climb rope forced me to confront my fear of heights. Underground Ranger describes how I overcame these obstacles and went on to explore many of the deep vertical caves in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico—including Lechuguilla Cave, one of the most spectacular caves in the world, with its amazing gypsum chandeliers. I even became a member of the park’s technical rescue team and made a fifty-story rappel into one of the deepest underground pits in the United States.

The Guadalupe Mountains contain more than 300 horizontal and vertical limestone caves, and I was able to explore or visit about one-tenth of that number—thirty-three caves. My favorites included Ogle Cave, Cave of the Madonna, Hidden Cave, Virgin Cave, and Hell Below. I even helped survey Cave of the Bell for the US Forest Service. The upper photo at left shows my friend Ryan making the fifteen-story climb out of Gunsight Cave, one of several Guadalupe caves with exceptionally large entrances. Spider Cave, shown in the middle photo, has one of the smallest entrances, at about two feet square.

Most of the caves in and around the Guadalupe Mountains are on public lands administered by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Entry requires a written permit from the administering agency, available at its office in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Vertical caves require an ability to climb and descend ropes using technical equipment, and all caves are subject to periodic closure and other restrictions.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers guided tours through Spider Cave and Slaughter Canyon Cave. To learn more, visit the park's website at www.nps.gov/cave. Also, you can view interior photos of Spider Cave and Ogle Cave on the gallery page of this website.

If you'd like to learn more about caves and caving, a good place to start is the website of the National Speleological Society (NSS), http://caves.org.

The caving activities described in "Underground Ranger" are inherently dangerous, especially climbing. Please be cautious underground, and don't attempt vertical caving unless you've had technical training.