When Experts Descended 700 Feet Into An Unexplored Cave, They Were Met With An Otherworldly Sight

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It’s October 2019, and a group led by Max Wisshak make their way along an unexplored cave passageway. They’re in New Mexico’s Lechuguilla Cave, discovered in 1986 and located in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In the years since Lechuguilla’s discovery, cavers have surveyed many miles of the underground labyrinth. But what Wisshak and his colleagues now find in this previously unseen section surprises and delights them.

Image: Max Wisshak

To explore this uncharted section of Lechuguilla Cave, the team had first to cross the lyrically named Lake of Liquid Sky. This had initially been discovered in 1993, but until October 2019, no researchers had been allowed to traverse the water feature. Nonetheless, Wisshak and his team were given permission to wade through the lake while taking every step not to pollute the pristine liquids.

Image: Max Wisshak

So the team of explorers made their way through this unknown territory and came across some extraordinary sights on their week-long underground expedition. We’ll come back to what Wisshak and his team discovered shortly. But first let’s learn a little more about both the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in general and the Lechuguilla Cave in particular.

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The National Park is set in the Chihuahuan Desert in the southernmost part of New Mexico. It’s a location overlooked by the soaring Guadalupe Mountains, which are part of the Sacramento range. The 70-square-mile park contains more than 80 caves, one of which is the Carlsbad Cavern itself. The stunning geological formations in the park’s caves were formed some 250 million years ago – when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

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Back during that ancient era, the lands around the park were covered by a shallow sea surrounded by a massive, living reef that extended for 100 miles. Outcrops of this entity, the Capitan Reef, are still visible today in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, with some sections towering up to 1,000 feet. The Guadalupe Park lies not far from Carlsbad Caverns, in neighboring Texas.

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This shallow sea gradually evaporated and became so saline that it could no longer support life. As a result, the reef organisms died out and eventually transformed into limestone covered by softer gypsum deposits. Over time, geological processes gouged out huge underground caves. And now, inside them sit stalagmites, stalactites and grand formations of gypsum resembling massive chandeliers.

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Evidence provided by pictographs and cooking pits found close to the mouth of the Carlsbad Cavern indicates that Native American peoples, such as the Mescalero Apaches and the Zuni Pueblo, were familiar with the cave. This knowledge may date back many centuries, in fact. However, it seems that this awareness was then lost until the late 19th century, when white settlers in the region rediscovered Carlsbad.

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These settlers partially explored the Carlsbad Cavern in search of bat dung, which they used as fertilizer. One adventurous newcomer, a cowboy called James Larkin White, claimed to have discovered Carlsbad in 1898 when he was still a teenager. Others disregarded his assertions, however, and the facts of the matter are still unclear.

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In any case, White is said to have stumbled upon the cave while out tending to his herd of steers one evening. Looking into the sky, he believed he saw smoke from what he imagined to be a blaze. That might spell danger, of course, so the young cowboy rode towards the plume of smoke to assess the situation. It was only as he neared the site that he realized what it really was.

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What White had actually seen were enormous clouds of bats, so many in fact that from a distance they looked like smoke. It was a massive colony of the animals and they were flying out of the mouth of the Carlsbad Cavern. Entranced by this spectacular natural display, White watched until night fell and he could see no more.

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Obviously a man with an entrepreneurial streak, having found the Carlsbad Cavern, White went as far as to arrange visits to the site. He illuminated the subterranean lair with smoking lamps and invited the curious to accompany him on guided trips. The intrepid tourists descended almost 200 feet into the cave aboard the very same containers that had been used to haul out the bat dung.

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A photographer called Ray V. Davis brought some of the Carlsbad Cavern’s most breathtaking chambers, such as the Big Room and the Scenic Rooms, to a wider audience with pictures published in The New York Times in 1923. In the same year, Robert Holley of the U.S. government’s General Land Office led the earliest scientific expedition within the cave. White acted as a guide for Holley’s team.

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It was also in 1923 that the Carlsbad Cave National Monument was founded, and seven years later it became a National Park. It’s little wonder that this stunning natural feature was recognized in such a way. Carlsbad Cavern extends for 30 miles, with around one-tenth of its span accessible to tourists. In fact, the cave is almost certainly even larger, since parts of it remain uncharted.

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The Cavern has three principal levels, with the lowest plunging down more than 1,000 feet into the Earth’s innards. The magnificent chamber known as the Big Room is around 2,000 feet long and in excess of 1,000 feet across in some parts. The chamber’s roof rises up to 250 feet above the cave’s floor. Other stunning features in the Big Room include a 60-foot stalagmite called the Giant Dome, and the Bottomless Pit, a hollow that descends 700 feet.

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Then there’s the section of the Carlsbad Cavern called the Bat Cave, which has nothing to do with Bruce Wayne’s campaign against Gotham City’s bad guys. Instead, it’s where those bats that led Jim White to the Carlsbad back in 1896 live. Around one million of them roost there and dramatically flock out at dusk throughout the summer months. Visitors can even witness this awe-inspiring evening flight from a specially constructed amphitheater at the cave’s mouth, which was opened in the 1960s.

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Other caves within the National Park also boast some extraordinary natural formations. The Slaughter Canyon Cave houses the Monarch, a massive stone column that reaches up almost 90 feet. The cave we’re interested in, Lechuguilla, found in the north of the park, also has its fair share of awe-inspiring features. And as previously mentioned, that’s where Max Wisshak and his team made an extraordinary discovery in October 2019.

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Lechuguilla remained largely unheralded before the mid-1980s. Before that, back in 1914, someone put in a claim to excavate guano – that valuable byproduct of large numbers of bats – from the cave. But the mining seems to have ceased after only a single year, and the cavern was then largely left to its own devices. Indeed, it was apparently viewed as a rather mundane site stuck in a remote part of the National Park.

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What exploration there was of the Lechuguilla revealed only a 90-foot pit at the entrance, which led to some caves that extended a few hundred feet before abruptly ending in piles of rock. The first sign that Lechuguilla was much more exciting than first appearances suggested occurred in the 1950s. Some curious cavers came across a strange phenomenon at Lechuguilla.

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As these cavers surveyed the limits of Lechuguilla, they heard a thunderous blast of what could only be a rushing wind. Despite the fact that they could see no way through the heaps of rocks that covered the bottom of the entrance pit, the explorers came to an inescapable realization: there must be more of the cave concealed by rubble. That was the only feasible explanation for the resounding blast of wind.

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After that epiphany about the properties of Lechuguilla, though, the cave was left alone again for another three decades. It wasn’t until 1984 that some explorers from Colorado applied to be allowed to work their way through the rocks piled up in Lechuguilla to see what they could find. And the National Park Service gave the operation its blessing.

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It was another couple of years before the cavers’ efforts bore fruit. Then, in the summer of 1986 a momentous development occurred. The cavers succeeded in clearing enough rocky debris away to gain access to entirely new passageways. At last, a proper exploration of Lechuguilla could get under way. Over the years, more than 150 miles of cave passages and chambers would be revealed, the deepest of which descended 1,604 feet.

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The known extent of Lechuguilla puts it among the largest caverns anywhere on Earth. When it comes to the U.S., the cave is the second-deepest and the fourth-longest of any known limestone formations. Consequently, it’s attracted speleologists – explorers of caves – from far and wide. And as Wisshak and his colleagues can attest, there are still new wonders to be found there.

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But it’s not just the extent of Lechuguilla’s underground chambers that makes it such an outstanding site. It’s also the extraordinary subterranean beauty that’s been discovered over the years concealed in its dark depths. Indeed, on its normally matter-of-fact website, the National Park Service waxes lyrical about the stunning natural wonders of Lechuguilla Cave – as well it might.

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“A fantastic array of rare [cave features], some of which had never been seen anywhere in the world, included 20-foot gypsum chandeliers, 20-inch gypsum hairs and beards, 18-foot soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons, cave pearls, subaqueous helictites, rusticles, u-loops and j-loops,” the unnamed National Parks’ writer enthuses.

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What’s more, in the 2009 BBC T.V. documentary series Planet Earth an episode about the world’s caves featured Lechuguilla. Veteran presenter David Attenborough was clearly blown away by the site’s wonders. And he’s a man who’s witnessed first-hand the marvels of nature in every corner of the world. Attenborough said, “The Chandelier Ballroom was the ultimate discovery.”

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“With its 20-foot long crystals, it’s the most bizarre cave chamber in the world,” Attenborough continued. At that point, the great man fell silent as the camera lovingly traced the bizarre crystal formations that bedeck this incredible Lechuguilla chamber. Once he found his voice again, Attenborough remarked on the bizarre extremophile bacteria that find their home on the walls of the cave.

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Indeed, that’s the other outstanding feature of Lechuguilla Cave: its extraordinary scientific properties, which intrigue and amaze speleologists such as Wisshak. The structure of Lechuguilla makes it unique among the caves of the Guadalupe Mountains. Within it, researchers can study no fewer than five different geological types, as well as the weird bacteria that dwell in the cave.

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We’ll get to Wisshak’s 2019 expedition and his groundbreaking finds in a moment, but it’s worth a quick digression to hear about another explorer who came to Lechuguilla before him. Journalist Michael Taylor journeyed through the passages with a team in 2002 for the popular PBS science show Nova. And Taylor described the hardships of cave exploration in vivid detail.

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“We lay 1,200 feet, more or less, beneath the desert, down countless rope pitches and miles of tortuous passage from the single entrance to Lechuguilla Cave,” he wrote on the PBS website. “The cave’s constant humidity, which had kept us sweating for hours as we made our difficult way down, now leached away warmth. We stank of the day’s work, our funk blending with Lech’s peculiar soil-and-metal odor.”

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“My bare arms and legs…were caked with soil, sweat, and blood from inevitable encounters with sharp rocks, along with gritty bits of white aragonite that we had acquired while squeezing through a tight formation-lined tube,” Taylor continued. You get the idea: exploring Lechuguilla’s depths is no picnic.

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Taylor also described how the geology of Lechuguilla had confirmed what had previously been a controversial theory about cave formation. Conventional thinking had been that the caves were formed by groundwater running downwards. But another theory said that limestone caves could be formed by “strong chemical reactions between ancient groundwater and hydrogen sulfide rising from a deep subterranean source.”

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Evidence collected underground in the Lechuguilla Cave showed that the theory of water rising from below and setting off reactions that formed the caves was indeed correct. Hydrogen sulfide had turned to sulfuric acid, and this in turn had eaten into the limestone “like gasoline poured into a Styrofoam cup.” As Taylor asserted, “This cave had clearly built itself from the bottom up, rather than the top down.”

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It’s time we got back to Wisshak and his October 2019 expedition, which he described in the January 2020 edition of NSS News, the National Speleological Society’s magazine. The members of Wisshak’s team were Andy Armstrong, Hazel Barton, James Hunter, Beth Cortright, and Shawn Thomas. Before their expedition, the researchers had to complete a detailed plan that was assessed and approved by the Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s Cave Resources Office.

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To reach the part of the cave they wanted to survey, the team first had to traverse the Lake of Liquid Sky. The Cave Resources Office allowed them to do this only if none of the researchers came into skin contact with the water. They achieved this by donning safety suits that are normally worn by nuclear-reactor workers.

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After they’d crossed the 50-foot expanse of water, which is 5 feet deep in parts, the team was in new territory. Although the lake had been first discovered as long ago as 1993, no explorers had been allowed to cross it since then. At the far side of the water, the researchers entered “350 feet of spacious and highly decorated passage.”

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Once past the lake, the scientists used cutting-edge DistoX technology – alongside classical note-taking and sketching – to make highly detailed maps of the cave’s interior. This handheld equipment is a paperless system that allows surveyors to record data collected underground. It’s a gadget that makes subterranean surveying in difficult conditions a lot easier.

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Once over the lake, the team came across a selection of rare minerals. These included exquisite bluish and yellowish barite crystals, a rare discovery that particularly enthused Wisshak, who plans to release detailed information about the minerals. What’s more, the crystals gave this unexplored passage its name: Barite Boulevard. And this stretch yielded another extraordinary discovery, one that would attract the attention of the non-scientific world.

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As The Kansas City Star described it in June 2020, the team had come across a “pool surrounded by white frosted rock, and filled with an odd-looking liquid that resembles thick lime yogurt.” Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources, Rodney Horrocks, said, “This pool has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years and had never seen light before that day.”

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Wisshak corrected a few details in The Kansas City Star report. Although the photograph of the pool appeared to show “thick lime yoghurt,” in fact the water was “crystal clear” but transformed by a trick of the light. And the pool’s “white frosted rock?” More of those rare barite crystals that Wisshak is so enthused by. Writing on Facebook, the scientist went on to explain the significance of sites like this one. He said, “Such untouched pools are scientifically important because water samples are relatively free of contaminants and the microbial organisms that may live in those pools are only those that belong there.”

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This pristine pool is a few inches in depth and about one by two feet. The water in it was originally rain that’s passed through the limestone before collecting there. Wisshak pointed out that “a newly discovered pool in Lechuguilla Cave is about as pristine as it gets.” And the team could be well satisfied with their work. In eight days they’d surveyed 4,000 feet of previously uncharted passages, bringing the total of explored tunnels in Lechuguilla over the 150-mile mark.

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