Underneath the rugged mountain surface of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico lies an incomparable realm of gigantic subterranean chambers and fantastic cave formations. Join park rangers for in-depth conversations that illuminate the diverse natural and cultural resources of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The podcast is produced by the Interpretation Division at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Interviews include National Park Service employees, volunteers, and partners.
JAMES GUNN: Good day folks. This is James Gunn, Park Guide here at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and I am bringing you the next episode of the Three Sources of Light podcast. Given that we are in the International Year of Caves and Karst, we wanted to highlight some of the amazing ways that you can experience caves and karst. There is perhaps no better or more exciting way than to talk about cave exploration. To do that I have brought in Kelli Housley, one of my fellow co-workers here at the park and a member of an all-woman exploration team who discovered the second deepest part of the cave. Kelli, before we launch into that story, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself.
KELLI HOUSLEY: Thank you, so yes, my name is Kelli Housley. I have worked at Carlsbad Caverns National Park since 2016. I have been with the National Park Service for a number of years prior to that. My background is in history, I majored in history in college, so I am a bit of a fan of history.
JG: For everyone back home, that is an understatement. Kelli is being humble because she is the history guru here at the park. If you have a question about the history of this place, you ask Kelli.
KH: Thank you. I've worked all across the country. I've worked at seven different national parks and prior to coming here I had not really done a lot of caving. I visited a lot of cave parks; Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Carlsbad Caverns before I worked here but I'd never done any of the wild cave tours. I had just kind of gone with park rangers, park guides, to visit some of the more wide open rooms. I'd always had this strange fascination with these wild cave tours. I was always curious how I would react when I was confronted with the tight spaces and the crawls and the challenges of that.
JG: So, is that what made you decide to come work at Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
KH: Partly yes, permanent jobs in the National Park Service are a little hard to come by and this was my first permanent position so that was part of it. But I was very fascinated with the underground world and wanted to get a chance to test my own limits, but also get a chance to explore somewhere new.
JG: How quickly once you got here did you start fulfilling that?
KH: When you start as a Park Guide at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, on your second day you have to do one of the crawling tours, either Spider Cave or Hall of the White Giant. Both of those tours start off with belly crawls and tight spaces. I was a little nervous initially, wondering if I would be claustrophobic going in there, but I learned pretty quickly that I was comfortable crawling through those tight spaces which was good because I was able to continue my career for over four and a half years now here at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
JG: Very nice, and you didn't have any problem with those first squeezes? Which is going to be a good thing for you listening at home as you will see in just a little bit. So, you got hired here in 2016 and this exploration took place in the spring of 2018. What were you doing in between those two times? Were you trying to groom yourself for doing cave exploration? What was going on?
KH: I wasn't necessarily aiming to do cave exploration, but I was trying to improve my own caving skills. I was exploring other places, learning more about wild caving and going into places that are a little harder to get to. I also learned single rope technique, or SRT, in 2016 to get me access to some of the vertical caves or areas of Carlsbad Cavern that are not accessible just by crawling, or climbing, or scrambling. SRT is a caving technique. Instead of in climbing when you've got a wall against you, often in caving you don't have anything around you, so you are completely relying on the rope itself to get you into and out of the cave. So, when you are ascending you have two ascending devices that will go up on the rope and not come down. You can put your full weight on them, and they will not come down. When you're descending, you've got a descending device that feeds the rope through so you can descend down that rope safely. I use the frogging technique. There are a few different techniques for caving vertically, but basically you sit in the harness and the chest ascender will take all of your weight and then you move your hand ascender up the rope with the foot loop that is attached. You stand up in that, which moves your chest ascender up and you just kind of rinse and repeat. So, you're sitting and standing as you ascend the rope. I was starting to explore more wild caves going to some of our back-country caves, going to some of the areas of Carlsbad Cavern that were only accessible with vertical caving skills. Of all five of us on the team, there was Ellen, Toni, Katie, and Leah, in addition to myself. We all had different skill levels. Some like Ellen and Toni had been caving for years, had done cave surveying, were very knowledgeable about the different aspects of caving, and had done caving in multiple different caves and areas of the country. There were others like Katie and Leah who had yet to learn SRT.
JG: How did you get selected for this?
KH: Because I'm small.
JG: To give you an idea of what Kelli means by that… she is all of five foot nothing and weighs about 110 pounds.
KH: Thanks. So, basically in the spring of 2018 there were some cave surveyors that had been mapping an area of the Mystery Room. This area, or this this room, did go pretty far down into the cave and had the potential to go possibly to the new deepest section of the cave. So, it had the potential to go down pretty far. These cave surveyors were essentially sizing up all of the women on staff. They were asking us, you know if we could sketch, and I can't draw anything so I would just say no. I know Katie responded with, “well yes I can draw” not knowing that they were asking about cave surveying. And some of them would just look at us and say, “you'd fit.” We didn't know at the time but there was a pinch, or a lead, in the Mystery Room that lead down even deeper that none of those cave surveyors could fit through. We came up with the idea. There were four of us that went on a road trip, myself, Toni, Katie, and Leah all went on a road trip in April and we came up with this idea that if we all got trained in single rope technique, if we weren't already, and we learned how to cave survey, all of us plus Ellen would be able to hopefully find the deepest part of the cave with a team of all women which we thought was a really cool idea and it could even make the guys jealous on staff.
JG: Okay, so you've gotten your experience, you've been trained on the various things you need, and now you all are getting ready to go start the exploration. What was that like? What is it like to go into a section of cave not knowing where you're going to wind up?
KH: Well it was very exciting. Just to get to the survey station where we were going to start it took us about an hour, just to go through the Mystery Room and scramble down boulders and everything, just to access that point when we got there the first day. The first survey trip was myself, Katie, Toni, and Ellen. Usually a cave survey team is three or four people, so we weren't always going on every single trip. When we got there, we found out the pinch that they wanted us to go through. Since the cave surveyors couldn't fit through it, they kind of did what was called a splay shot. They went from one survey station and just kind of figured out how far it was using a laser to figure out the distance, but they hadn't actually picked a survey point or anything like that. So, our first section was to survey this crawlway. We spent quite a lot of time doing so. That crawlway has a 90 degree turn in it. We were able to do the first part, Katie was kind of going, she was the first one, what we call point, and because that crawlway also went downhill, she wasn't able to get from the middle of the crawlway straight out into the room. So, she had to do another point down on the floor of that pinch, that crawlway. That was a little awkward. I learned very quickly you need to be very good at cave yoga when you are surveying. The first point that I was surveying with her, I was basically sitting there in a crunch for quite some time waiting for her to give me the information and make sure our data lined up. Then when we were down at the base of that pinch trying to get out into the room, I was essentially reading the equipment upside down because it was on the floor. I couldn't really look very easily so I was twisted in a very awkward position trying to read all our equipment.
JG: I find this very interesting, because when I think of cave exploration I think of, you know, going through something, finding a tiny little crack and figuring out just how you can get your body through it. But it sounds like you guys were surveying as you went, is this typical?
KH: Usually you want to be surveying as you're going, as you're exploring. Now the point person, the one that's in front, will sometimes be thinking several steps in advance, you want to try to minimize your survey stations. Sometimes that person will be heading out a little way just trying to scout for the next maybe two or three survey stations, just to have a plan. There are a number of reasons why you want to try to survey as you go. A really good reason is just cave conservation. You don't really want to impact the cave any more than you need to, if you're surveying as you're going you minimize the number of trips that you have to take to get through an area. You're already trying to follow the footsteps of everyone going through before you, you are trying to again minimize any potential damage to the cave. Another reason, imagine you are crawling down a tunnel and you get past a pinch and you see that it really doesn't go anywhere. There's nothing exciting past that point and it ends after about 30 feet (9 meters). It's a lot less enticing to survey that, when you could possibly find, as our goal was to find, the deepest part of the cave. It would be very easy to just leave that off the map. This way you've got as much of the cave as possible, trying to be as thorough as possible without leaving any potential unexplored areas on the map itself.
JG: I think that would be what would hold me up as far as doing a cave survey goes. I'm not the type that likes to sit and slowly inch my way forward. I like to go.
KH: Yeah, it's a very slow process.
JG: Okay, so you are surveying this passage and, you were telling me earlier, that you all got to name some new rooms. So how does that come about? How does one get to name a cave room?
KH: So that first day we were sitting there, I think we might have been taking a break or something, but I was asking Ellen how new names come about because we were basically calling this the Mystery Room survey. But to me, because we had that really tight opening, I wasn't sure what constituted a new room. So, I asked her, and she said well usually if they don't share the same ceiling it's a different room. I said, “Isn't this technically a new room then? Isn't this separate from the Mystery Room?” She thought for a second and said, “Well yeah actually this would be different.” We started naming some of these spaces. There were a lot of bat mummies and bat bones in this room and we were reminded of the Egyptian tombs, like the pyramids, so Toni suggested tomb of something… Because there were so many bats down there, and we had this story among our friend group that bats can also be known as sky bears, because why not, it became Tomb of the Sky Bears. That was what we named that space. That same day, that first survey trip, as we were exiting, I jokingly called the pinch the Twisted Sister Tunnel because it had that 90 degree turn in it and that's actually how we got our name.
JG: It sounds pretty tedious, doing this cave survey stuff, but I imagine there has to be more to it than just that. So, what else did you find as you were exploring this area?
KH: Just in the room itself we found a lot of really delicate formations. The whole room was not fully decorated or anything like that, but there were these very delicate small tiny selenite needles on the floor that we had to be careful to avoid. There were gypsum flowers on the walls, there were also selenite needles that you could see moving as you breathed. In the back part of the room there was gypsum dust all over the floor. There was aragonite needles and frostwork and just beautiful little treasures hidden in different corners of this space. The second trip into this room I was just with Toni and Ellen, and we were essentially mapping as much as we possibly could. We didn't finish by any means, so the third trip was Ellen, Toni, and Leah. They ended up going down a really slick slope. It was really muddy, but it had these beautiful white formations all around you, so you had to be careful on what you reached out to grab as you're trying not to slip and slide down this slope. They were exploring even further down, and Toni saw a hole. Since Leah was point, she says, “Oh yeah you can go through that.” Leah and Katie both when they first started here were not comfortable with those tight spaces and so Leah's first instinct was, “Are you kidding me?” She did it, she did go into that hole. She overcame that fear. She said when she went into that space it was so tight that she could only move and wiggle forward when she exhaled, whenever she inhaled, she would feel stuck. They ended up measuring this little tiny hobbit hole as she called it and we found out later that it was not the deepest point of the cave, but it was about 13 feet (4 meters) higher than the current deepest point of Carlsbad Cavern. The current deepest point is known as Lake of the Clouds. This has been known about since 1930. Again, not knowing as they were surveying, they weren't really sure if this was going to be the deepest point or not, Toni was thinking “Okay, if this is going to be the deepest, we should stick with Lake of…” Because that area, that passageway to get to this deep point, was full of mud, they came out caked with it on their shoes and on their pants, Toni came up with Lake of Muddy Misery. We like alliteration. The next trip we thought we were going to be finishing up. It was myself, Leah, Katie and Ellen again. So, we went into a pinch that was even tighter than the Twisted Sister. I was originally point and I was trying to go through, and the bottom was really grabby. It grabbed onto your shirt and you felt like you couldn't scoot forward. I learned very quickly that I feel very uncomfortable and nervous when I cannot move my head, so it took me a little while as I was slowly inching my way forward. I was also thinking that it might get tighter, so I was a little nervous and I ended up backing out just to kind of take a breather. Then Katie was sitting there and said, “well I'll try it.” This is a person that had a panic attack when she first did her crawling tour through Spider Cave on her second day. But she decided to go through. Again, it was very grabby, we ended up with a lot of holes in our clothing as we were attempting to get through there. But as we were watching her, she's going through the pinch and we see that she is gone and we were thinking, “Oh shoot now we have to survey this.” She and Leah ended up getting past this pinch and they found a room on the other side. Katie was the first one to ever enter that room, so she got naming rights. Sticking with alliteration she called it Wriggler’s Relief. I jokingly called that pinch, that tighter one, Ladies Lament because as we were all attempting to, or going through that pinch, all of us said words that I don't think are appropriate for this podcast. That was the only area that we surveyed on that trip, so we did have to go back a fifth time to kind of wrap up any of the loose ends.
JG: How do you know when you're done with a cave survey? Walking around the Big Room myself, there are always areas I'm looking at thinking there might be potential for exploration. But of course, we don't have unlimited time or unlimited resources. So, how do you know when it is time to stop?
KH: So, you're right. There are a lot of places in the cave, especially a cave that is almost 40 miles (64 kilometers) in mapped mileage like Carlsbad Cavern where you don't know if you're ever done. When it came to Tomb of the Sky Bears, we were just looking at one particular space in one particular room, so essentially anything after that Twisted Sister Tunnel. Basically, what we were looking for is any tunnel or any squeeze or any lead that we could possibly fit ourselves into. Once we exhausted that, then we would be done. The last trip that we took, trip number five, we were essentially just trying to tie up the survey. So, on a previous trip a light connection had been made at the bottom of this hill. Toni was shining her light and both Ellen and Leah could see it from above. They knew that tunnel connected to where they were. We just needed that information for the map and for the cartographer who would input this data. So, we were going back primarily for that reason just to kind of tie up the loose ends. We went through a tunnel and we did go through some spaces that had not been explored. There was a really heavily decorated tunnel that we squeezed our way into. When we were all four crowded into this space, we did notice that there was a tunnel off to the side, so there was another lead. Now this lead was vertical rather than horizontal and it was very tiny. I think was a question among all of us whether we would even fit, but what we noticed was that there were these really delicate formations part way through this tunnel and so we knew if we headed through we would be damaging those formations. They also had the potential to damage us as well, if they didn't fully break off. We had to make the decision to just end the survey with that. We did take photos of it and we were going to, you know, discuss this with the person in charge of Carlsbad Cavern, in this case the person in charge of Cave Resources, but I think we all knew that we were not going to pursue that lead.
JG: What was that conversation like? When you were having it in the cave?
KH: I think we were all curious where it might lead to. I don't think we were very certain that we could have fit in that tunnel, there was a little bit of a curve to it as well and we couldn't tell if it had even gone any further. There was a potential that it could have opened up into another room. There was also a potential that it just ended right at the bottom. When it came down to it, it was a question of, is it worth it to continue surveying. Essentially, should we break the cave to continue mapping the cave? I think that is always a hard question for any cave surveyor. You want to know what's still out there, you want to try to map as much as you possibly can, but at what cost? Earlier that day we had been surveying and one of us had accidentally knocked a formation off. It was a pretty good-sized stalactite, and it was quite upsetting to her because you know, I think she was realizing that that was thousands of years of cave growth that was just destroyed in an instant. Now that was an accident, but if we had decided to go through that tunnel it would have been very much a decision on our part to break those formations. It's never an easy question and I think all of us are still kind of curious what might remain down there but it is quite a challenging thing when you're actually on the ground trying to make that decision, should we stop or should we break these formations to continue.
JG: I know one of the questions we get pretty commonly from visitors here at the park is what about drones? Or robots? Or cameras? Or something that you could have used to explore that a little bit?
KH: Yeah. That's a good question. Just to explore that area, we obviously didn't know that lead was there, so it would have required yet another trip into Tomb of the Sky Bears. So even more human impact to these spaces. I think just to get to that lead took about an hour and a half of scrambling through really dirty and sandy passages and mud and through delicate formations, trying to carry extra, and at times expensive, equipment. It is hard to fully justify that. In addition, trying to go through and survey as you go essentially when you're sending a drone in, or a camera, or whatever you're just trying to get that peek. It's kind of what we were discussing earlier. Saying okay, if we just went into this tunnel and then found it didn't go anywhere, we're not going to add it to the map and it's kind of a similar thing with the camera as well. In addition I think that humans are a lot better at controlling our own bodies compared to when we're like piloting something, so that potential for breaking formations could still be there, again if we weren't really in control of that drone or whatever else we were flying into that space.
JG: I guess that makes me think right off the bat of you talking about the gypsum dust in the Tomb of the Sky Bears which probably would have been disturbed by a drone’s rotors flying over that area. It's always one of those fragile things that you just don't know what you're going to encounter.
KH: Yeah absolutely. There was also, you know, really delicate pieces on the ceiling as well and most of the time we didn't notice them in that room until we were almost right on top of them. Having a drone, if you're very focused on one particular direction, you could easily miss something that would be very small and delicate on the ceiling.
JG: Well it sounds like you all had some amazing trips down into the cave. What kind of lasting legacy has this left with you?
KH: I think for all of us it gave us a new sense of self, a new sense of awareness. I know I see the cave in a completely new light. I'm always walking around wondering what secrets might still be unknown, what might be hiding around the corner, what the cave might be hiding in its shadows, or what might be lurking in the shadows. It was incredibly empowering to be part of an all-woman team exploring the depths of the cave. I think we learned a lot about ourselves along the way too. We overcame quite a lot of fears, but we were also very encouraging and supportive of each other. We were all growing as we were exploring the cave and expanding our own confidence in our own self-assuredness. As we were exploring and getting an opportunity to see such a special place. That has developed into lifelong friendships. We're all across the country right now, but we still communicate regularly. We video chat, we have traveled across the country to visit each other. Leah in particular wants everyone to know that we have twisted sister friendship bracelets as well. A few Christmases ago Katie got us all these beautiful bracelets to remind us of our time.
JG: Yeah, I've seen you wearing that, I've always wondered what the back story was to it.
KH: Yeah, I wear it regularly. Sometimes I even wear it while caving.
JG: I think your story highlights one of the things that has always struck me about caves. When you are going into a cave, whether it be exploring some unknown passage for the first time or even just walking around the Big Room here at the park, you're experiencing a new world. Through experiencing and exploring these new worlds, inevitably you wind up learning a little bit about yourself. Understanding more about you. To me, I think that's one of the coolest things about caves. As we bring this full circle and tie it back into this International Year of Caves and Karst, that is one of the things that this is celebrating. It's not just about what caves do for us and it's not just about how cool they are. It is about the opportunities for self-exploration that caves really provide like just about no other place on earth. Thank you very much Kelli for joining me today. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us and hopefully some of you out there will hear it and be inspired to join your local grotto and go out and do some exploring on your own. Maybe just to challenge yourself a little bit to see how far you can push yourself, especially when you've got the support of friends around you.
GABE MONTEMAYOR: Hello listeners. Thank you for listening to Three Sources of Light. This podcast is produced by the Interpretation and Education Division at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Episodes are researched, developed, and hosted by Park Guides Anthony Mazzucco and James Gunn. Today you also heard the voice of Kelli Housley. All audio engineering, music, and sound effects are made in house by Park Guide Gabe Montemayor. This episode was recorded in April of 2021. For more information about Carlsbad Caverns National Park please visit our National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/cave. Thanks for listening.
Caves are one of the few locations on Earth where expeditions can still reveal previously unexplored places. The resulting maps are proof of existence, and help geologists and park rangers learn more about these unique subterranean environments. In 2018, five female park rangers discovered the second deepest room inside Carlsbad Cavern. Listen to one member of that crew talk about her experiences, emotions, and work that was accomplished along the way.