High Adventure in Carlsbad Cavern

a person going down a dark passage on a rope
Mark Minton descending rope from Mabel's Room to Mystery Room.

NPS photo by Yvonne Droms.

Submitted by Mark Minton
for Inside Earth Newsletter, Fall 2020

Dwight Livingston has been leading a project to resurvey and completely explore the Mystery Room in Carlsbad Cavern for several years. The Mystery Room is a large room beyond the tourist trail west of the Queen’s Chamber. In fact, it is the westernmost passage in the entire cave. Even though the Mystery Room has been known for almost 100 years, it still has a few secrets to reveal.

The first week of March 2020, Bob Alderson, Yvonne Droms, Dwight Livingston and I explored high leads in the Mystery Room. We were joined the last couple of days by Nathan Canaris and Abigail Mack. The Park generously housed us in one of their research duplexes, conveniently located near the cave specialist offices. Our commute to the cave was only a short walk down to the Visitors Center, where the elevator whisked us directly into the center of the cave.

There are several places in the Mystery Room where one can see ledges and domes high up on the walls and ceiling, but they are well out of reach from the floor. As far as we knew, only one of those ledges had been partially explored, as evidenced by a cord that was left hanging from a solution hole, but there was no corresponding survey data and current park personnel had no knowledge of its origin. (We later found a report of the climb from May 15, 1993 buried in the files. That group surveyed only 71.5 feet at the climb and the notes are apparently lost.)

Ironically, we began our first trip by going down to the Lower Cave. By the vagaries of phreatic cave development, a circuitous route leads from there up to Mabel’s Room, above and overlooking the Mystery Room. That is where the mysterious cord had been left. We rigged a rope down to the Mystery Room (about 50 feet) so that we could access this climb more directly on future trips.

a person climb up a rope above cave formations
Dwight Livingston entering the Donut Hole.

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Droms.

We used the existing cord to pull a static rope up and through the solution hole, which we called the Donut Hole, 25 feet overhead. That gave us access to a major ledge visible from below that leads across a substantial section of the ceiling of the Mystery Room. We found an old survey flag up there, but it seemed to be associated with a smaller passage traversing back towards Mabel’s Room rather than out along the big ledge. We never got around to checking that lead; maybe next year.

The big ledge was steeply sloping with nice formations and a single set of footsteps. Shortly the right wall disappeared and the ledge became a bridge, open on both sides with drops of 60 feet or more to the floor below. (The floor of the Mystery Room slopes downward along the direction of the ledge, so the distance to the floor increases the farther out on the ledge one goes.) The bridge quickly narrowed to only a couple of feet wide and then ended at an exposed climb. Yvonne named this ledge-bridge the Calla Lily Loft based on an eroded stalagmite that resembled the flower.

At the end of the bridge Bob led an airy traverse up a narrow ledge along the left wall using stalagmites and columns as anchors for a safety rope. At the top was a small “room” with many holes through the floor and continuing leads. By then we were out of push rope, so we decided to go back to a small, well-decorated dome on the first part of the ledge and climb it. For aid we were using quarter-inch concrete screws that were quick to set with a small rotary hammer and impact wrench. They were removable and even reusable, and left very little trace. Bob belayed and I climbed the dome over the next couple of days. (One of our constraining factors was being limited to official Park hours, basically 9 AM to 5 PM.) Meanwhile, Dwight and Yvonne were surveying our finds as well as some mop-up in the Mystery Room proper.

a person in a cave looking at the cave formations

Photo courtesy of Dwight-Livingston.

The dome spiraled up and the top half was tricky, being slightly overhung with lots of formations and solution bridges too thin to take an anchor. The dome ended up being 65 feet high with a small passage at the top that didn’t go far, but was extremely well decorated. Among its hidden treasures were antler and snake-dancer helictites, translucent pool spar, and nailhead spar. That led Bob to name it the Saint’s Garden, because he felt blessed to be there.

So far we had been on rope essentially the entire time since leaving the floor of the Mystery Room. We were using rope at a prodigious pace, and that pattern would continue for most of the week. The ledges were full of holes and so sloping and exposed that it was not safe to traverse them unprotected, and we were also doing a lot of climbing. Most days we would run out of rope and need to bring in more for the next push.

Back down on the Calla Lily Loft, we continued exploring the “room” Bob had climbed to beyond the narrow part of the bridge. It overlooked the north wall of the Mystery Room where another one of our objectives lay. Another climbing lead also beckoned, but we decided to first pursue the level we were on. Just beyond the “room” another major hole opened into the Mystery Room below. In the distance I spied what looked like old 1-inch nylon webbing tied off in one of the smaller holes, but decided it must just be fallen stalactites. After all, we had seen no evidence of anyone having been this far out on the ledge. I led the final traverse and tied off the rope on the far side.

When I looked more closely at the curious hole, I was astonished to see that there really was old webbing tied off there! It was backing up a single quarter-inch, split-shank Rawl bolt. Someone had apparently rigged a rappel into the Mystery Room without leaving tracks, or had bolt-climbed up to that spot. Again, Park staff had no knowledge of when or by whom this had been done. Scooped again! (Eventually, I learned that Tom Rohrer had done that climb, probably in the 1960s, although he couldn’t remember any details.)

The ledge passage continued only a short distance farther before ending at a dry pool festooned with shelfstone and pool fingers, about 160 feet west of the Donut Hole where we started. This final section of the Calla Lily Loft was particularly well decorated with all manner of formations, including snake dancer and antler helictites and massive flowstone. We removed the old webbing and bolt head (at the request of Park personnel) and rigged a rope on modern stainless bolts for the drop to the Mystery Room. This became our standard exit route because it was faster than retracing all of the traverses and drops the way we had come. However it was a longer drop (around 90 feet, due to the floor below sloping downward), so we continued to use the original route to get to our leads each morning because more people could be moving at the same time. The drop was spectacular, though, opening out into the Mystery Room over massive flowstone, and landing in a forest of aragonite bushes near the north wall. Fortunately we were able to land near an already established path.

Near our landing spot is a large stalagmite with several names inscribed on it, including Jim White, dated 1926. That is the earliest date I’ve been able to find with respect to the Mystery Room. It is a testament to those early explorers that they got that far, considering the relatively crude nature of their equipment and the fact that all routes to the Mystery Room require some level of climbing and vertical exposure.

With the Calla Lily Loft effectively ended, we next pursued the bolt climb we had passed by in the “room” at the top of Bob’s exposed traverse. It was overhung, and we couldn’t get back far enough to tell if it was any more than an alcove. Bob led this climb while I belayed, and it quickly opened into walking passage! This looked much more like real cave than the Saint’s Garden climb.

a person climbing up a cave passage
Bob Alderson on his second bolt climb.

Photo courtesy of Mark Minton.

Not far into this passage is a small room to one side with a curious waterline completely encircling the walls. The odd thing is that this waterline was a notch incised into the wall a couple of inches, rather than extending outward as a stain or shelf. The room, dubbed Etch-A-Sketch by Dwight, also sports nailhead spar near the floor at the entrance and dogtooth spar in the ceiling at the back. We had never seen anything like it before, but according to Donald Davis similar features are known in nearby Lechuguilla Cave. One explanation is that water that was particularly acidic at the surface remained at a stable depth for a considerable period of time. The acidity presumably came from atmospheric oxidation of sulfur in hypogenic water, and this would occur most intensely at the surface of the pool.

A dirt slope continued upwards past Etch-A-Sketch to a calcite ice-covered pool. The pool was completely “iced” over save for a small hole about an inch in diameter through which one could see deeper blue water. There was also a very well preserved dead bat partially encased in the calcite. A high fissure cut across the ceiling and another climb beckoned. Bob led that one as well and found well-decorated walking passage at the top. This produced three leads: a room with another bolt climb up flowstone, a deep pit, and a traverse across said pit to what looked like continuing large passage. A curiously shaped rock in the floor of the first room looked remarkably like a sea turtle.

Newcomers Abigail Mack and Nathan Canaris joined us for our last couple of days. They helped Dwight survey while Bob, Yvonne and I pursued the other leads. First Bob descended the deep pit that dropped out of the uppermost passage he had climbed to. He descended past several ledges and emerged into the Mystery Room from a dome that Dwight had previously Disto’d at 220 feet tall. Unfortunately, Bob’s rope was too short, so he had to switch over and climb back up. Nevertheless, this eliminated another lead seen from below. I’m glad we didn’t have to climb it from the bottom up!

a person belaying a climber in a cave
Yvonne Droms belaying Mark Minton at climb above sea-turtle rock.

Photo courtesy of Bob Alderson.

Next we pursued the flowstone bolt climb in the room with the sea-turtle rock. I climbed with Yvonne on belay. It went up 40 or so feet to a blind alcove with nice formations including worm-like helictites and dogtooth spar but no possibility of continuation. This was the highest point we reached in our explorations, roughly 200 feet above the floor of the Mystery Room at that location.

On our final day we did the traverse around the deep pit where Bob had been short-roped. I led the climb with Yvonne on belay while Bob and Park intern Aria Mildice continued the survey, Dwight caught up on sketching in the Mystery Room, and Abigail and Nathan derigged the original route along the Calla Lily Loft. The traverse was straightforward, although a bit intimidating since it was 200 feet to the floor. Once I was across, we rigged a rope in a wide J-hang for access, which was more efficient than everyone following an uphill traverse on a sheer wall. Bob cleaned the route, leaving little evidence of the climb.

The room at the top of the climb was profusely decorated with pure white popcorn, stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, nailhead and dogtooth spar, and aragonite bushes. Some of the larger formations showed considerable aerial surface corrosion, as is common in the Mystery Room in general. Excitingly, the passage continued heading west and there was airflow. We used flagging tape to mark off a single-file path into the tall, narrow canyon ahead.

The passage beyond the traverse went up and down and continued to be very well decorated. Some of the climbs were tricky, so we rigged a safety rope with Aria leading the way and Bob, Yvonne and me surveying. We came to a tight drop of approximately 60 feet in two steps. The lower section was extremely tight and grabby, so only Aria and Bob went to the bottom. Even the dogtooth spar there had aragonite and popcorn growing on top of it. Aria named it the Sharps Container.

Continuing west from the Sharps Container the passage climbed again but ended in formation fill. The airflow was coming from a very tight passage heading back east toward the big drop we had traversed over. It got too tight even for Aria, but no doubt connects to one of the many holes and alcoves Bob had seen on his way down the pit a couple of days before.

a person walking along a ledge in a cave
Dwight Livingston climbing back to bridge from traverse.

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Droms.

We were out of passage and out of time, so we wrapped up the survey and headed out. We left a couple of key climbs rigged, but otherwise derigged as we went. We were fortunate to be able to stay late that day since Aria had a key; otherwise we would not have been able to finish. We descended the new north wall drop and said our goodbyes to the Mystery Room, arriving back at our field house at 8 PM.

The only lead on our list that we did not have time to pursue was a wide ledge on the north wall of the Mystery Room. The new rope that we rigged from the end of Calla Lily Loft down to the floor of the Mystery Room passes very near this ledge and it should be possible to lasso a large stalagmite and traverse over rather than conduct a bolt climb from below. From our vantage point it looked like there was indeed passage leading off from the ledge. That will be a goal for next year.

I named our new area in the ceiling of the Mystery Room “High Adventure” based on a comment Dwight had made. Most of the passage is very well decorated, and there are ubiquitous bat bones and mummies. For much of this trip we were continuously on rope, either on exposed traverses or climbing drops. Frequently each new rope was tied off to the last. We went through a lot of rope, all of which was generously provided by the Park along with stainless steel anchors. We kept daily logs for each piece of rope detailing where and how it was rigged.

This was a very successful expedition and we cleared up a lot of question marks on the map. We surveyed nearly 900 feet of very well decorated passage, most of which was virgin. It did not extend the footprint of the Mystery Room horizontally, but it dramatically expanded the profile by adding around 200 vertical feet of relief. We look forward to a return in 2021 for more High Adventure.

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Part of a series of articles titled Inside Earth – NPS Cave & Karst News – Fall 2020.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park