Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We're in the Lava Tubes!

After filling out a caving permit at the Malpais National Monument visitor center, we are headed out for a day in the lava tubes. These tunnels are formed when a volcano erupts and the flowing lava cools into a tube. This national monument has a 17-mile-long lava tube system--one of the longest in the United States, and we're going in search of them today. Our first stop is the Xenolith cave, and we are surprised to see how deep the cave entrance is. Standing on the edge looking down into the tunnel entrance far below, it looks like Denisa is going to have to do some tough climbing to get down.

Who knew that it would take so much effort just to get to the entrance? Most of the commercialized caves we have toured in the past had a nice cement pathway leading down to the entry. It looks like we are walking on the wild side with our cave exploration today.

In the picture below, Denisa is modeling the latest in caving apparel. In our orientation before we got our permit, the ranger gave us a list of suggested items to have with us. We found the leather gloves and bicycle helmets were invaluable before the day was over. It's hard to see in the picture below, but Denisa was also very glad to have her head flashlight in these dark caves.

We finally made it to the entry, but not without climbing over many of those bread-box-sized boulders in the way.

The only thing harder than scrambling over large boulders in the entry, is scrambling over large boulders inside the cave in the dark. As part of our permit process, we were told to bring three sources of light per person. That's because it is very dark inside these tunnels, and there's no way to find your way out if your single flashlight burns out.

This cave has some drops and tight places. We were glad to have a ladder to help us get through this 8-foot drop gracefully.

Xenolith cave is also called the intestine cave. When we got to the tight quarters that one must squeeze through in order to get to the small intestines, we decided it was a good place to turn around. Claustrophobia is worse in the dark when you can't see if the tight space will ever get larger. You might notice the red reflector beside Mark's shoulder. Even though this cave is rated "extremely difficult," it has handy reflectors for novices. You follow the red ones to lead you going in.

Likewise, you looks for the white reflectors as you head back towards the entry. Either direction, you are climbing over those darn washing-machine-size boulders.

Xenolith Cave is found on the four-mile El Calderon Trail inside Malpais National Monument. The hike also took us by the the caldera that birthed that lava tunnel. The steam vent that spewed that lava was in the middle of this bowl-shaped valley near this mountain top.

We are getting more familiar with terms like caldera, vents and cinder cones. The last term is a cone-shaped hill formed from the lava that went straight up, hardened into pea-sized rocks while in the air, and then came straight down into this pile. There were actually two eruptions--the first one spewed more black lava, while the second had iron-colored red lava. Mark is that little dot standing on the top of that red lava cinder cone.

Standing on top of that red cinder cone, and looking over that peaceful valley, it's hard to imagine the violent explosion that reshaped this landscape 115,000 years ago.

Our permit allows us entrance into four different caves. The other three are in another section of the park. We'll drive another 15 miles (of which eight are on bumpy dirt forest service roads) to get to the Big Tubes section of Malpais National Monument. After a half-mile walk over a sharp and lumpy lava trail, we arrived at Big Skylight Cave.

Again, it was a tough climb down from the trail into the entrance of the cave.

It's hard to miss this entrance, as it is grand in size. It's also well-lit from both sides so we can actually see into the cave.

This will be Denisa's favorite cave of the day because the first section is so well lit by that giant skylight over her head.

The picture below looks like there are two bright openings into the cave. But the one on the left is just the cave wall being spot-lighted from the sunshine coming in through the sky light at the top.

With all the light, it is easier to get a picture of what the inside of the cave looks like. Once again, those big boulders make it slow-going to move deeper into the cave.

We climbed over boulders until we got to the dark back wall of the inner recesses of the Skylight Cave. Then we climbed back over the same boulders towards the skylight and the exit. There are no helpful reflectors in this cave, and it is easy to get turned around in the complete darkness.

This tunnel used to be longer, but the top has collapsed in this section. The only thing left of the cave roof here is a narrow bridge where Mark is standing.

Now that we are above ground, we hiked back to see the Skylight from the top. It's definitely cooler from below.

Not too far away, is the opening to the Giant Ice Cave. Denisa hates to complain, but that entrance was down another steep wall, then over car-sized-boulders for more than 100 yards. (Does it seem like the boulders are getting bigger as the day is progressing?) This is a work-out!

Once inside the entrance, the ceiling was a beautiful color lit up by the afternoon sunlight. This picture illustrates the size of the rocks we must scramble over to get to the back of the cave. This is like no hike we have ever done before. It's a good thing it is around 42 degrees inside the caves, as we are using lots of energy to make our way through these tunnels.

But we were intent on finding the ice in the Giant Ice Cave. We got to the back wall, and Mark climbed down where we could see water.

Sure enough, even this time of year we could find ice along the back wall. During the winter, cavers can see the seasonal ice columns that grow to be several feet high in the center of the tunnel.

By the time we scrambled all the way out and over that long entry of the Ice Cave, Denisa was pooped! The rocks had grown into motor-home-sized boulders. It doesn't happen often, but she was ready to call it quits. But Mark can't leave a project unfinished, and we still had one more cave on our permit. So Denisa let him go down into the Four Window Cave by himself.
Instead of one big skylight, this cave has four smaller ones. It was hard to take a picture with all four in it, but Mark did it.

It's even harder to take a picture of the inside of a dark cave, but he had to try. After three caves where she had to scramble over large boulders, this one's floor was almost completely smooth! Mark went deep into the Four Windows Cave because the smooth floor made it so easy. After taking this picture, he turned off his flashlights and got a good sample of what total darkness looks like.

As he came back into the sunlight in the entrance of the cave, he could see Denisa barely peeking over the edge. Boy, will she be disappointed that she missed out on the only cave that was easy to walk in!

We had a great day exploring the lava tubes, even if it was a very tiring day. We learned that the best way to take a picture inside a very dark cave is for the photographer to hold a flashlight and illuminate the area around the subject being photographed.

The results from the subject holding his own flashlight under his chin, probably aren't as good. However, the picture is probably more fitting for this Halloween season--Scary!

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