Quick Solo Trip Fail!
Gypsum maze cave with long bellycrawling sections and swimming through nasty pools of sludge. Also, hand sanitizer burns your asshole.
When I mentioned that I was going to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, two different cavers told me to check out Parks Ranch Campground and the cave there, Parks Ranch Cave. One of them even told me that you need a wetsuit. Ha! I used to cave in the upper and lower Guads all the time in the 1990s, and I have never needed a wetsuit in any New Mexico cave…until now. Oh how I wish I had a drysuit for certain sections of Parks Ranch Cave.
Parks Ranch is public-use BLM land near Carlsbad Caverns, directly off US Highway 62 about 5 miles (8 km) southwest of Whites City. It’s a primitive campground, so no bathrooms, water, or electricity.
After you turn off US 62 onto the dirt road, go about 100 feet (30 m) then make a sharp left. Follow the road another 400 feet (120 m), then make a sharp right. There are various camping areas along this road, but eventually you will get a location with two large areas enclosed by chain link fences and several low cable fences separating parking and tent camping areas.
The chain link fences enclose some of the entrances to Parks Ranch Cave.
Parks Ranch Cave is a maze cave with 11 entrances. It’s the second longest gypsum cave in the USA at about 4 miles long.
The cave is a mix of walking down winding paths, hands-and-knees crawling, bellycrawling, and even some swimming. Yes, swimming. The map does note water at a few places. I was dubious…until I saw the nasty cesspools myself.
If you don’t know how to read a cave map, an important feature on this map is the circles with the numbers inside, which indicate the height of that cave passage. E.g., ② means the passage is 2 feet high. That’s a low bellycrawl. Also, on this map, the two dashed squares on the left side correspond to fenced areas on the surface.
Looking at the map, I decided to do the small loop starting at the smaller fenced area. Just go in, go to the right, then take every left turn. Eventually, I’ll be back at the same entrance. Sweet! Should be an easy trip. Maybe an hour or two.
Oh, I was so wrong.
My route didn’t start off bad, but pretty quickly it became a 2-foot-high bellycrawl on your toes and forearms. Bellycrawling, more bellycrawling, more bellycrawling, and no end in sight. At some point I was wishing for a place to just sit upright.
Finally, I got to an intersection and had standing passage. I moved quickly through that but then came across a pool of water near “The Zoo” on the map that filled the passage. That was a shock. I thought my caver friend was joking about the wetsuit. However, it didn’t look too bad—clear water, maybe six feet long. Unfortunately, the passage was low, so I’d have to crawl through it. But I just need to get around that corner, and I should be out, albeit just a tiny bit wet.
Oh, the Stench
As soon as I crawled up to the water, my hand sank through the brown surface mud and into this nasty, black, decomposing organic matter. The smell of rotting material filled the air. As I moved into the water, the sludge on the bottom stirred and spread through the water. The more material I disturbed, the more stench filled the air.
My arms were sinking into the water and sludge. My knees and feet sank in. I could feel the sludge seeping into my gloves and shoes, under my sleeves, into my pants. It was grainy. I could feel the grains between my knees and pants as I crawled forward; I could feel the grains in the waistband of my pants and underwear as I moved. Meanwhile, the stench of decay wafted through my nostrils. But I persevered and crawled the 6 feet to the corner.
That’s when I saw that the pool didn’t end at the corner. I’m already wet. I’m already covered in this sludge. Might as well keep going.
I was basically floating through the water at this point with the sludge circulating throughout the water. After 15 feet, I got to another corner. The water went as far as I could see in the low passage, maybe another 30 feet. I’m so wet and disgustingly filthy at this point that there’s really no point in turning around. I push forward.
Finally, I got to the end of the nasty water and crawled out, leaving a trail of dark gray water behind me. The cave became winding, walking passage. Soon a narrow crack appeared in the floor. It snaked back and forth, usually less than 1 foot wide but dropping down 20 feet. If you dropped anything here, you’d lose it down this crack.
Eventually I got to a 90 degree turn to the right. The passage continued straight below the floor level through a tiny crack. I’m supposed to be taking all lefts for this loop, but I laid down and looked into this crack. Nah, that can’t be the way. I went to the right.
Soon I’m at more water with decomposing organic material. Ugh.
Surely by this time I had to be close to the end of my loop. I either go through this water then out or I go all the way back through the other nasty water that I’ve already disturbed and through that long, low bellycrawl. I decided to press on. It’s not like I could any filthier after the previous sludgy swim.
Not far into the water, the ceiling gets so low that I have to take off my helmet and put part of my face in the sludgy water to get under it. Shit is getting real now. At the same time, the floor is getting lower—just beyond the reach of my arms—so I’m having a hard time keeping myself above the water. The ceiling rises very slightly again, and I keep going, helmet underwater in one hand, headlamp muted by the murky water, then popping up as I move forward, then underwater again and dark.
I keep pushing on only to discover that the passage is sumped. Now if you know me, you know that sumps don’t usually deter me (yes, there’s a story—actually multiple stories). But in this case, I decided, “Fuck this. I’m bailing.” Unfortunately, the passage was too narrow to turn around, so I had to swim backwards, blindly pushing my pack and camera case with my feet and hoping they don’t get stuck and block my only way out. I get to passage wide enough to turn around, then back through all the water filled with sludge that I disturbed, face in the water again at that low air space, and finally out of the water.
I went back to the place where I took a right, and pulled out my phone (safe from the water and sludge in a waterproof container) and looked at the map.
Turns out that the little crack is the route that I need to take. The map shows the right turn I made was a dead end filled with water. Ugh. If only I had looked at the map the first time I was here, but I didn’t want to contaminate my phone with my sludgy hands. Now I kinda had to.
The worst part? I wasn’t even halfway around the loop yet.
As I’m sitting in this passage, I can still smell the rotting stench of the sludgy water. It’s permeated my clothes and covered my body. I can only imagine the bizarre fungi and bacteria growing on me now.
I look at that crack. It’s tight. It’s angled down, then looks like it curves back up, but I can’t see what it does beyond. With it sloping down, I didn’t want to go head first in case I got stuck. I tried feet first on my side. Didn’t work. I turned over and tried feet first on my other side. I made better progress that way, but I couldn’t tell what I needed to do with my feet and legs at the curve up.
Also, I the crack was so tight that I wasn’t even sure my camera could fit through it. Even if it could, I’d have to make one trip pushing or pulling my cave bag through, then another pushing or pulling my camera case through. And I’m solo, so if I get stuck, I’m screwed. It would be hours before my surface contact notifies anyone. Hours more for a rescue team to get here. Hours more to find me. Hours more to find some way to get me unstuck. Likely 24–48 hours to be rescued if I get stuck only a thousand feet from the entrance.
For non-cavers reading this, yes, it really does take that long. Normal emergency responders are not trained or equipped for cave rescues. Once they find someone who is trained, they have to find the cave (easy in this case). Then they have to find you in the cave (in this case, somewhere in 4 miles of cave). Once they find you, how do they get you unstuck when you’re blocking the passage? Furthermore, if you’re stuck for a long time, circulation is impeded. Your fluids tend to collect, and your body swells, which makes you even more stuck. That poor circulation can lead to blood clots. Then when you’re finally unstuck, the clots are released into the bloodstream. The clots get to the heart, lungs, or brain, and then you go from talking and feeling fine to dead in a matter of seconds. Suppose you don’t die (or even if you do), how are the rescuers going to get you out of the cave? Remember the water? That long bellycrawl? How do you get through those when you’re injured or unconscious?
All that flashes through my head while I’m looking at this tight squeeze. I’ve already been in here for 3 hours and I’m not even halfway on a trip that I was thinking would take maybe an hour.
Screw all this. I decided to bail.
Unfortunately, that means that I have to go back through that first long pool that is now swirling with all the rotting black muck that I disturbed. And I’ll need to do that long, long bellycrawl. But I do it: through the sludge, through the crawl. After about an hour and a half, I finally emerge on the surface, alive and uninjured.
But it’s not entirely over. I’m still covered in this sludge that has penetrated through my clothes. I can feel the grainy sludge inside my shoes, my pants, my shirt, even inside my underwear. I’m dripping gray water everywhere I go.
Fortunately, I had just installed a water tank on my truck literally hours before I left for this trip. I could even pressurize it and have a warm shower. Unfortunately, that meant I had to get out my pump from under the back seat, plug it into an electrical socket hidden under my tent walls, attach it to the tank, dig around under my bed for the bag with all the water tank hoses and attachments, get my soap and shampoo from inside my overnight bag…all while covered in this sludge.
My only neighbors at the campsite appeared to be gone for day, so I stripped down and hung all my contaminated clothes and cave gear on the chain link fence to spray off later. I carefully dug around for all the required shower accessories, pressurized the tank, and sprayed myself with the heavenly clean water. And soap. So much soap.
I was sparing with the water. I didn’t have enough for the long shower that I desperately wanted to take. Even so, the pressure in the tank quickly depleted and I was left with a gravity-fed trickle. I could have re-pressurized it, but I decided that I had rinsed off enough of the grainy sludge to sit in the driver’s seat of my car (safely covered in huge trash bag, of course). I drove my truck next to the chain link fence to spray off my gear. However, it’s so arid out there that my clothes and cave gear were already dry. Filthy, but dry.
I shoved everything into a huge trash bag for a thorough pressure washing at home, then I drove the 5 miles to the RV campground at Whites City and gladly paid $3 to use their shower facilities. I cannot emphasize what a bargain that $3 shower was. I would have gladly paid whatever they wanted. I basked in their hot water, scrubbing and rinsing from head to toe, then repeating over and over.
After the shower, I bathed in hand sanitizer, which I carry in gallon-sized containers thanks to my germaphobia. I hoped to kill off the remnants of the sludge’s odiferous microorganisms that were surely still coating my body. I slathered every nook and cranny of my body with sanitizer.
A word of warning: use sanitizer sparingly near certain orifices. It burns. Like wiping your ass with lava. But then I thought of swimming through that grainy, sludgy water filled with hungry bacteria and fungus, so I slathered on another layer of sanitizing lava. Burn, baby, burn!