No two caves are the same. Some are composed of vast open chambers with intricate, prehistoric wonders. Others, like many of the ones in Colorado, require a lot of belly-dragging, body-bending, and other physical contortions to navigate. Others still contain subterranean rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, prompting some underground explorers to take up diving as well.
“Caving is a lot like a grown-up’s jungle gym, to go out and play, to scurry around,” says Jon Schow, chair of Colorado Grotto, a club for the state’s dedicated cavers. “It’s amazingly beautiful, and there’s a fun, challenging aspect to it.” An IT specialist by trade, Schow’s got nine years of caving experience under his belt, and he’s a cave rescue instructor, too.
“Caving pushes you in different ways,” he says. “There can be spots where there’s a lot of exposure, where you’re standing on an edge, and you can see if you misstep, you could fall some distance. There could also be the opposite sort of challenge, where things get really small and really tight, and the challenge becomes: how small of a space are you comfortable pushing your body through?”
If your answer to that question is “Not a very small one at all, thank you,” that’s OK. On top of a bluff in Glenwood Springs, a little under three hours west of Denver off I-70, the stalactite- and stalagmite-studded Glenwood Caverns hosts tours of its underground world marked by massive, wide-open rooms lined with stunning rock formations. Cave tours are also offered at Cave of the Winds Mountain Park in Manitou Springs, where visitors can shimmy, climb, and crawl through narrow passages lit only by flashlight while exploring upwards of two miles of limestone caverns.
Heading down on a guided tour is night and day compared to descending into the dark, gaping maw of a mysterious underground lair. The former is a hobby known as “spelunking,” the latter is called “caving.” The terms are not interchangeable, regardless of what the dictionary tells you.
Schow breaks it down: “Cavers would consider ‘spelunker’ an insult,” he says. “It refers to somebody who’s gone into a cave but didn’t do any preparation work. They don’t have a helmet. They didn’t bring the right lights. They don’t know where they’re going. Or they didn’t bring any food.”
The difference between caving and spelunking is sort of like the difference between camping and backpacking, or between taking a cycling class and doing a century ride. Sure, at the core, you are either sleeping outside or pushing pedals on a type of bike, but one requires a ton of training, proper equipment, and a whole lotta know-how while the other is a nifty pastime. Which is cool, if that’s what you’re looking for. What I discovered while researching this article is that Colorado’s true cavers are looking for so much more.
During our talk, Schow filled me in on a little-known facet of caving culture: Because cavers prioritize cave preservation over adventure or curiosity, they may view some outsiders with suspicion, especially when one of those outsiders writes for a magazine. Cavers, whether they’re geological scientists or hobbyists, understand caves as ecosystems. They see caves as living organisms. Many of the characteristic formations found in visually stunning caves can take thousands, if not millions, of years to form. One light brush with a boot, even one plume of breath from human lungs, can destroy the formation—forever.
Schow says this could explain why no one—but him—responded to my calls. They’d rather keep mum than jeopardize the living cave networks.
Cavers are also vigilant against vandalism. Less respectful visitors may tag the cave’s walls with spray paint. Because many underground ecosystems are incredibly fragile, cleaning off the paint would do more harm than just leaving the graffiti in place. There are also issues with wanton partiers leaving behind trash, bottles, campfires, and other forms of human detritus that can spoil a cave’s integrity.
“Sometimes, when we’re heading to a cave, backpackers or other random people may ask to tag along with us,” Schow says. “Since we don’t know these people, we may veer off course and take these strangers to what’s called a ‘sacrificial cave.’ These caves already have graffiti or garbage, so it’s no loss if they mess things up.”
Caving communities are tight-knit groups of people with deep bonds of trust between one another—which is why grottos and caving clubs like his exist. Schow says no beginner should go caving on their own, especially the first time around. Amateurs need to be shown the ropes, literally, to protect both the caves and themselves.
If someone is interested in giving the sport a try, he says that the first thing they should do is get involved in the caving community.“Have people take you caving, so you can understand what’s involved, but also so you can get an idea of how to go caving, how to take care of the cave environment, and what sort of gear to bring,” he says. “They can also help you find a cave to visit.”
Schow acknowledges every individual has her or his own limits. That’s part of the excitement: seeing how far you can go, and knowing precisely when you’ll stop. “If someone’s interested in going,” he concludes, “visit a grotto. Meet the people. Get to know them, and go on a caving trip.”