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The Nation

Wild Cave Tours Are Not for the Cowardly

Adventure-seekers are guided through steep slopes and narrow tunnels. 'I just cannot believe that we went up that,' one marvels.

October 05, 2003|Caryn Rousseau | Associated Press Writer

INSIDE BLANCHARD SPRINGS CAVERN, Ark. — Thrill-seekers looking for their next challenge are finding it hundreds of feet underground, crawling off-trail through crevasses on wild cave tours.

A first-grade teacher who took on the Blanchard Springs Cavern in the Ozark Mountains battled her fears covered in slimy mud, clinging to the side of the cave's 105-foot-high Death Ledge.

"I just cannot believe that we went up that," Hallie Leicht says, looking up the side of the ravine. "That's where I was huffing and breathing heavy and when I got to the top I started praying."

"You were speaking to your maker?" her husband, Josh, teased.

"Well, I thought I was going to meet him soon," she said.

The Leichts dared to go beyond the paved and lighted paths that most tourists tread at the U.S. Forest Service cavern near the town of Fifty-Six, 100 miles north of Little Rock. The young couple from Conway were on their second honeymoon, celebrating their 10th anniversary.

The Blanchard Springs tour that attracted the Leichts is one of dozens offered at caves nationwide. Small groups are outfitted with miner's helmets, headlamps, heavy-duty gloves and kneepads for the muddy excursions, paying $20 to $80 for the four- to six-hour guided glimpses.

"The youth coming up want more adventure," said Bruce Herschend, who offers the tours on four caves his family owns in southwest Missouri near Branson. "People want to take home the bragging rights of, 'Look and see what I did.' It's just now becoming more and more popular to do it with the public at large."

Cool air often fogs glasses and humidity steams in the glow from the beams on the helmets, the only source of light underground.

"This isn't a tourist's trip," cave guide Paul McIntosh says solemnly before heading into the Blanchard Springs cave. "Your sense of length and depth will be way off in here. You don't have the everyday objects like houses and cars to compare things to."

The tours aren't for the cowardly or fainthearted. Cavers slide down steep slopes and crawl 1,000 feet on their hands and knees through narrow tunnels. Their helmets come just inches from formations millions of years in the making.

At one point, McIntosh warns cavers to space themselves 10 feet apart, saying that he doesn't know how thick the floor is and that it shouldn't be strained. The cavers look at each other nervously.

Tight fits border 100-foot drops. Someone knocks a rock loose, but the group never hears it hit bottom. Everyone is covered in mud.

The guides give specific instructions on conquering portions of the cave. Put your left foot here, push up with your right hand there, use your kneepad to climb that. Any false move or unheeded suggestion could result in a slip, fall or plummet down ravines.

Backpacks come off to slide through or up and down openings that would make the claustrophobic quiver. Cavers lean over 80-foot drops to brace themselves while sliding down one rock before crawling over another.

All the while, they're seeing views of a cave that few will ever observe. There are a pair of connected stalactites and stalagmites that tower 100 feet, called the Titans. Tiny rocks so razor sharp they could cut human skin line walls next to coral-like formations that scientists still can't explain.

Crystals shine from thin crevasses where millions of years ago rocks split and separated. Bats constantly swoop overhead and tiny white cave crickets crawl on cavers' boots.

Cavers see marks that some of the first explorers left in the 1950s. A small plywood plaque marks the spot where Boy Scouts spent the night in 1960. A note on it asks others to "please leave this."

There are constant instructions not to step in certain places or touch the formations. Oil from human skin can stop millions of years of water-based formation.

"If you leave a footprint where there hasn't been a footprint before," McIntosh said, "you could come back in a thousand years and it will still be there and look fresh."

McIntosh says he doesn't want to scare his groups, so if he feels they are too afraid or can't physically conquer certain portions of the tour, he'll take a detour. However, he does want them to feel that they've conquered something.

"Fear is a normal reaction to some of the things we do," he said. "I've taken 50-year-old men by the hand. If that's what they need, I'll do it. I watch faces and expressions, the timbre of their voices."

The same type of off-trail tours offered at the popular Mammoth Cave in Kentucky give visitors the experience of exploring, said Johnny Merideth, who has guided since 1996. His tours are restricted to participants whose chests measure no larger than 42 inches around.

"Some of the holes are small, where if I do not exhale I won't fit," Merideth said. "The vast majority of people who take the trip know what they're getting into. You're as up close and personal with the cave as you can possibly get."

Blanchard Springs started the tour in 2000 after visitors said they wanted to see more of the cave. Attendance rocketed 300% from June 2002 to June 2003. Of the eight miles of cave at Blanchard, just 1 1/2 miles is paved for tourists. Wild cavers experience another 1 1/2 miles.

Herschend said cave owners started the tours to attract more visitors and boost revenues, but insurance issues loom. Some companies take the tours to classify the risks.

"Some places [caves] will sign releases and some places won't," he said. "We are motivated for the thrill and the safety. Customers need to be careful."

Regardless, cavers all return filthy -- and relieved. At Blanchard they clutch dirty, torn gloves and sport mud-caked boots. Everyone has to change into clean shoes before they leave.

"How are you feeling?" Josh Leicht asks, smiling at his wife.

"Brave and strong," she answers. "I'm impressed with myself."

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