My friend Dan has been spelunking many times over the past few years, and asked if I'd like to join him Thanksgiving weekend for the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth National Park. He had done it a few times before, and his nephew (whose older brother had gone with Dan before) was now 16, the minimum age. I jumped at the opportunity. I went caving once, near Oracle, AZ when I was 17, and remember it being very fun.
The Wild Cave Tour is the top-of-the-line tour offered at Mammoth. It is 6 hours long with a description that might frighten some away:
You must be prepared for free-climbing cave walls; lengthy crawls through areas as tight as 9 inches high; walking in a crouched position; hand and knee crawls over jagged rocks and dirt; crawling through wet areas; twisting into and out of tight crawlway openings. •6-6½ hours, 5 miles. Elevation change: 300’. Chest or hip measurement must not exceed 42 inches; if you are larger, you cannot physically pass through the crawlspaces. High-top, over-the-ankle lace-up boots, with lug or deeply treaded soles, are required. Difficulty: Very Strenuous.
This was going to be a blast.
We each packed a sandwich, some granola bars, and water, arriving at the Visitor Center with plenty of time to look around. I ate my sandwich before we even left. When the tour started we took a bus to some barracks, where we geared up - full length coveralls, fanny pack, bandana, helmet, and light. The bus then took us to the entrance.
It's a constant 54°F inside Mammoth Cave. Shorts and a t-shirt were recommended to wear under the coveralls. I'm glad I listened, because there was plenty of opportunity to sweat buckets on this tour.
A few of the highlights-
Bare Hole. So named because legend has it a guy went through wearing only shorts and came out naked. TIGHT. Struggled a bit to get through.
Hell Hole. The most aptly descriptive name ever. For anything. 180+ feet of 2-3 feet wide, 9-12 inches high. This may have been the toughest 180 feet I have ever traveled in my life. Picture crawling under your coffee table. Now picture doing it under 60 of them. On rock. It's so bad the guides didn't even go through with us :). They had us go in and then comfortably walked down to the exit.
All in all it was a great experience, albeit a very physically demanding and exhausting one. Your knees take an absolute beating, even with the kneepads. But it's an experience I'd do again, no doubt. I slept great that night and was only sore for a day or two. A few of the bruises I got took over a week to go away, however! :) The WIld Cave Tour is $48. More information can be found here.
Here's the whole gallery. Clicking on any picture will enlarge it.