Air Date: Week of January 21, 2000
As more caves are being discovered and damaged by people who are inexperienced – or just plain careless – longtime cavers wonder if a long practiced code of secrecy can still help protect these underground treasures. Colorado Public Radio’s Laura Carlson reports.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Nature drew Colorado's landscape with rugged grandiosity, painting the horizon with endless plains and soaring peaks. But there's even more natural beauty below the surface. Amid the stony upthrust is a wonderland of caves. For years, the few people who knew about these underground treasures protected them with a code of secrecy, but now more and more caves are being discovered And, as a result, damaged by people who are inexperienced or just plain careless. Now cavers are debating whether secrecy can still work. Colorado Public Radio's Laura Carlson has our story.
CARLSON: July 4th, 1986. Ron Ryan and Tom Sherrill are supposed to be with their friends at a caver camp-out in northwestern Colorado. But the two men are mysteriously absent. They're miles away, fighting hypothermia, 90 feet down in a cave they discovered.
SHERRILL: My friend went up the waterfall, and he had about a two-inch pipe of water, actually, it's basically what it amounted to, pouring on you. And it was like 33-degree water. Well, we weren't dressed for it, and I knew, the second I got on the rope, I knew we were in trouble.
CARLSON: His hands stiff with cold, Tom Sherrill clung to his rope and eventually pulled himself out of the cave. It was frightening, but not enough to keep him away. Within two months, Mr. Sherrill had bought a wetsuit and more rope, so he could explore deeper.
SHERRILL: And then we went back and found really, really nice stuff. It was just incredible. World-class cave.
CARLSON: It was named "Ron-Tom" for its co-discoverers. And for years, it was a cherished secret among a small group of experienced cavers. Cindy Mosch was one of them. Now, she has agreed to take me there, as long as I promise not to reveal the location.
MOSCH: We are just about here. It's down over this little rise.
CARLSON: Even though we've been hiking for three hours, and most people would have no idea there's a cave nearby, Cindy Mosch is careful not to leave any clues. She calls this stealth caving, And says it's best not to even look like a caver.
MOSCH: I usually tuck my hardhat in my pack so it's not visible. So I'm not calling attention to the fact that there is a cave down here that I'm going to visit, if it's not already a known cave.
CARLSON: As we approach Ron-Tom, Ms. Mosch steps gingerly, being careful not to leave any footprints in the scattered patches of snow. She says this cave is even more special than most. The usual formations are there, but Ron-Tom is full of minerals that have stained the moist, fragile rock, turning it into a tapestry of blue, red, yellow, and black. In one spot, Ms. Mosch says the cavers found a cluster of delicate, slender formations they call soda straws.
(To Mosch): What was that experience like when you first entered the soda shoppe?
MOSCH: I just was in awe. It's just one of those beautiful, special places that you can actually hear the water droplets dripping into a shallow pool on the floor. And everything glistens and it's so translucent. You shine your light up, and it's like being in a jewelry store. Things just shine and sparkle.
CARLSON: The cavers made dozens of trips into Ron-Tom, each time finding new formations that looked like rose blossoms, pearls, and fried eggs. But eventually, the cavers found something they didn't want to see.
MOSCH: We know that there have been trips that have caused damage into the cave.
CARLSON: In fact, Cindy Mosch says one of her favorite formations has been broken. A dramatic stalactite that may have taken millions of years to form. She's not sure if someone bumped into it or pulled it down on purpose.
MOSCH: It just makes you feel like you're going to cry. On the trips I've been, even the guys, tears well up in their eyes. It's just -- or you become very angry.
CARLSON: The damage to Ron-Tom prompted cavers to change their minds about secrecy. They told the Forest Service about the cave, in hopes the agency would help keep people out. Now a small sign at the entrance warns of a $5,000 fine for entry. We honor it. But Ms. Mosch says others are probably still exploring, and damaging the cave. While it took 10 years for cavers to tell anyone about Ron-Tom, sometimes they give up the secret a lot sooner. Last summer, caver Tom Dotter told the Forest Service about a newly-discovered cave in hopes that would keep it from being damaged. Mr. Dotter took me down inside to show me why cavers are so protective. We start with a ten-foot drop into inky darkness.
DOTTER: Okay, well, we're coming down through the entrance. Just above your left shoulder and right above me, we have what's called speliathem [phonetic spelling]...
CARLSON: That's a caver term for all the unusual rock shapes you find underground.
DOTTER: That's what this ribbon is right above our head.
CARLSON: It's like a spinal cord, maybe.
DOTTER: Yeah, a little tiny one. It does, doesn't it? Has little knobbies on it every quarter inch or so, all the way down.
CARLSON: Mr. Dotter calls these "pretties." And he says they're a big reason he caught the caving bug. We keep going in search of more, wriggling on our bellies across the cool dirt floor. Suddenly, Tom Dotter drops out of sight.
(To Dotter) Is it steep down there?
DOTTER: There's a little bit of a drop-off, of about three feet. I'm standing on the floor.
But this journey comes to an abrupt end when Mr. Dotter hears something growling.
DOTTER: Whatever that critter is up there, he went ahead of us, And it's up in there, And basically just said, "I don't want to go any further, so why don't you go away?" (Laughs)
CARLSON: Before we head out, Mr. Dotter takes a minute to explain what it is about all this that pulls him in.
DOTTER: To go into a cave, especially a new cave, And to find one and explore and map and so on, is the only place that the average human can go to be an explorer. To go where someone has never been before, is in a cave. And I can't go find the North Pole, And I can't go to the bottom of the sea, but I can go someplace where no one has ever been.
CARLSON: But cavers say secrecy isn't always the best way to protect a cave. Even if no one talks about a discovery, Mr. Dotter says inexperienced cavers could stumble upon it and cause damage. On the other hand, he says revealing the location of a cave can attract even more people who don't know how to explore carefully.
DOTTER: So, it's kind of a hard choice, And depends on the individual cave, the location, And how delicate it is.
CARLSON: With this cave, Mr. Dotter was worried because a timber sale had been proposed nearby, And he wanted to make sure loggers wouldn't toss dead wood into the entrance. Bill Kight with White River National Forest says he's glad the cavers brought him here. After looking around, he says the proposed logging is far enough away it won't hurt the cave.
KIGHT: That was what was critical, was being able to come here and see what the situation was.
CARLSON: Mr. Kight has been a caver and understands how hard it is for cavers to give up their secrets. So, he's trying to earn their trust.
KIGHT: The Forest Service doesn't have to know about every cave. But we would like to know about the significant ones, so that we can work together to do a management plan that protects the cave and allows uses of the cave to continue.
CARLSON: But when cavers do cooperate with land managers, they're not always satisfied with the outcome. In the case of Ron-Tom, a management team, including cavers, agreed the cave should be gated with entry allowed for research only. But it's been two years and there's still no gate. Forest Service officials say they don't have the money. And that's a bitter disappointment for discoverer Tom Sherrill.
SHERRILL: I don't know what you can tell people to say look, if you don't get a gate on this it's going to be just damaged beyond, you know -- you're not going to need a gate. And to my way of thinking, that's probably beyond that now.
CARLSON: Mr. Sherrill says he has no plans to return to Ron-Tom. He wants to remember the cave the way it was back in 1986, when he and Ron Ryan played hooky from the caver's campout. Besides, Mr. Sherrill says he has a stash of other caves that are still secret, and he intends to keep it that way. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Carlson in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Newsletter [Click here]
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth