Cave Elevator Excitement“You must be in great shape!” Every ranger who has worked at Carlsbad Caverns National Park between November 2015 and May 2016 heard that comment hundreds of times. The reason? The primary and secondary elevators were out of service. Everyone who went into the cave—visitors, rangers, concessionaires, contractors—walked down and walked up and out. This was the reality of all park employees because of the unique challenges cave infrastructure presents. Caves are a foreign environment to any type of technology, and what is infrastructure, but technology in the background that allows our lives to run smoothly.
By Lacey Thomas
By Lacey Thomas
Carlsbad Caverns has a long history of bringing technology in the cave for everyday use. Upon becoming a national monument in 1923, “improvements” were immediately set in motion. Wooden stairs were placed in the natural entrance to facilitate movement in the cave. The first electric lights were installed in 1927. By the time the cave became a national park in 1930, visitors were already seeing more easily seeing the cave in less time than any time in the cave’s history. 1931 brought about the biggest innovation yet: a top-of-the-line elevator shaft was blasted, and elevator service began in 1932. Since it cost an extra 50 cents to ride the elevator, it didn’t have high usage until after the Depression loosened its grip on the country. By the 1950s cave visitation had grown so much a second shaft was blasted, and a pair of larger elevators began operating in 1955. During the 1970s all four elevators were overhauled.
National park visitation has had a steady increase post-WWII. Billions of recreational visits have increased pressure on park facilities nationwide, and Carlsbad Caverns is no exception. In our Centennial year just under half a million visitors entered the cave. The vast majority accessed the elevators at some point during their visit. This high usage requires constant monitoring and upkeep for visitor safety. The elevators are what you’d find in a standard office building or hotel. Since they weren’t designed for the humid and wet cave, the precision mechanical pieces are subject to conditions most elevators are not. Also unlike most elevators covering a large distance, there are only two “floors,” the visitor center and cavern. In most buildings if an emergency occurs and the elevator car stops in the shaft, passengers are very close to a landing and fairly easily rescued. If one of the cave’s elevators was to stop mid-shaft, it would be a complex rescue because the 754 foot (229 meters) shaft is solid rock.
In order to make sure such a rescue doesn’t need to occur, we regularly conduct maintenance on our elevators. Each morning our mechanics run a check on the elevators before we allow visitors to ride in them. In addition to the daily checks there are weekly, monthly, annual, and five year inspections. We want to provide you, our visitors, with the safest most enjoyable trip to the park we possibly can. Unfortunately we must take the elevators out of service to do checks and maintenance. hat means there are times when the only access into and out of the cave is the walk through the natural entrance. Some visitors find the walk to be outside their physical abilities or comfort zone, and since the walk is steep and considered strenuous, the park tries to limit the elevators being out of service as much as possible.
If you happen to visit the park when the elevators are out of service, please know we’re doing everything we can to keep them in safe working order. If you aren’t riding in the elevators, neither are the rangers. We don’t ask our visitors to do something we won’t do ourselves. Sometimes in spite of the best efforts, the elevators go out of service. That’s what happened from November 2015 through May 2016. Some large issues developed, and for safety reasons no one was cleared to use the elevators. Ongoing maintenance is scheduled in the near future to prevent that from happening again. If all else fails, as you’re hiking out know you’re following in the footsteps of those first intrepid cave visitors who had no other option. History lives on in you.