Colorado caver leads expedition in new section of renowned New Mexico cavern
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A team of explorers lead by Colorado caver Derek Bristol have discovered an entirely new maze of passages, pits and large rooms in Lechugilla Cave, part of an extensive ave system in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
In early May climbed more than 410 feet into a high dome in Lechuguilla Cave. Near the top, lead climber James Hunter discovered the extension of the cave and named the new area Oz.
One large room is 600 feet long, 100 to 150 feet wide, and 75 to 150 feet tall. It’s now called Munchkin Land.
Carlsbad Caverns is known worldwide for its large rooms, unusual minerals, massive and fragile cave formations, and importance in scientific study. This discovery heralds new areas for physical and scientific exploration.
The known cave system already encompasses more than 130 miles of passages. The National Park Service limits entry into the cave to protect its delicate environment and scientific importance. Only about 100 people per year, most of them explorers and scientists, are allowed inside.
Ten cavers from Colorado, South Dakota, New Mexico, California, and Arizona participated in the eight-day underground expedition that made these discoveries, the greatest amount of distance added to the survey in one day since 1989.
Using lasers, Bristol’s team measured the distance from floor to the final rope anchor of the dome they climbed as 510 feet, making it the deepest pit (natural, direct, vertical expanse) known in the park.
“To understand the sheer size of this space, imagine that a 51-story tower could fit inside,” said NPS cave technician Stan Allison.
Called the Kansas Twister, the dome was discovered in 2007 as having the potential for further exploration, but a team in 2010 failed to climb beyond 80 feet because the rock walls were too unstable.
Cave explorers, like ocean and space going voyagers before them, feel a strong pull from the unknown and have a desire to be where no one has gone before, so Bristol’s team arrived prepared for to overcome that challenge. For comparison, the Kansas Twister is about half the height of the Chrysler Building in New York City or the John Hancock Building in Chicago. Or for those who have visited the Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern, the Kansas Twister is about twice the height of the Spirit Room Dome, 255 feet high.
Most of this newly found section of Lechuguilla Cave is in a layer of rock called the Yates Formation, which is made up of deep red, orange, and yellow colored rock but has fewer stalactites and stalagmites.
Other exploration teams will continue mapping this year, but the next trip to “Oz” will be in 2013. Geologists or microbiologists may seek permits to study or sample in the uniquely pristine environment. The untouched nature of Lechuguilla Cave has proved highly significant for research, as was shown in a paper published recently that proved resistance to antibiotics is an ancient, not a new, phenomenon.
While recreational tours of Lechuguilla Cave are not allowed, a variety of cave tours, for a range of abilities, and educational programs are available to the public. We encourage everyone to discover more about park resources as well as the recreational opportunities, by visiting the park’s website at: www.nps.gov/cave.