With the clock loudly ticking down to our caving in Canmore adventure in the Rocky Mountains near the picture postcard town of Canmore, the conversation in our house took a serious tone.
“I’m not sure I like the idea of being underground in some dark, cold cave for more than four hours. Can’t we do the shorter tour?”
“But if we do the shorter caving adventure we won’t get to do the six story rappel into a deep cave.”
“And that would be a bad thing?”
” We won’t get to do the laundry chute either.”
“The laundry chute?”
“Yes the spot where you squeeze through a tight cave that is as about as wide as a laundry chute. Apparently it goes on for some distance.”
We had reached an anxiety ridden impasse. Then as we often do, the mediator tool was brought forth.
“Will we regret if we don’t try it?”
It was a pull up your big girl and boy pants and we agreed to march into Rat’s Nest Cave.
Thus we kept our booking, albeit with a fair bit of trepidation as to how we would react to the complete darkness, save for our headlamps, in 4 kms. (2.5 miles) of caves under Grotto Mountain near Canmore and Banff in Alberta, Canada.
As to who was on what side of the conversation we will leave that for you to guess.
Caving sounds scary to me. Is it safe?
Frankly it sounded a bit scary to us as well. We were reassured meeting Max, our guide, who began caving as a child with his parents. Talk about having a cool Mom and Dad! Max, and all the guides at Canmore Cave Tours, are required to have extensive caving experience, cave rescue training and first aid.
Each caver is equipped with a helmet, headlamp, knee pads, gloves overalls (highly attractive but more practical for cave crawling), a climbing harness and a ‘cow tail’ with carabiners to hook onto ropes in steeper sections of the caves. There are no handrails, no indoor lights and no walkways. The cave remains in it’s natural state.
What is caving in Canmore like?
It turns out that besides the adventure of exploring the caverns in the dark with only one’s headlamp for illumination (which is surely a lot of adventure in itself for those of us who are not nocturnal), the guide provides a natural history tour.
The honey comb maze of caves has been used by both humans and animals for thousands of years. Although the cave was discovered in 1858, it was not used by modern cavers until the 1950’s. Canmore Cave Tours has been operating guided tours for the past 30 years.
Called Rat’s Nest Cave, after the massive nest that pack rats have built at the entrance, we were assured should we drop our keys they would likely show up a week later in the nest where the wee fellows gather up most anything.
How do I choose which caving tour is right for me?
The shorter Explorer tour spends two hours underground. For those who want to try out caving in Canmore but are not sure they want all of the adrenaline of rappelling and going through longer squeezes (narrow passages in the cave) this would be a good starting dose of adventure.
The Adventure Caving tour is 4 hours underground and definitely full of adrenaline opportunities including the 60 foot rappel (thankfully it is a round trip and another path bypasses that section on the way up), the Laundry Chute squeeze and the depths of the Grotto (a large room like cave where the source of the water that created the cave springs from).
The Adventure tour caving in Canmore has also been awarded the distinction of being a Canadian Signature Experience.
For both tours there are squeezes or small spaces to crawl through. Most of these are optional as the guide can find a larger portion of the cave as another route if you prefer. The smallest required space you will have to go through will be the size of a large manhole.
Going through the tight cave spaces I felt somewhat like a walrus as there was much sliding, crawling, squeezing and climbing to be done. At no point did I feel graceful in my endeavors.
Our group was small with Dave, myself and Kim, a young and enthusiastic adventurer. As Max offered up extras on the tour such as crawling into squeezes or sliding down into a new area being excavated, we went for all of it.
We even turned out our headlamps to experience the complete blackness and silence of being underground. Announcing we were in a safe location, Max then suggested we crawl for a bit on hands and knees. Having absolutely no light whatsoever, one’s eyes never adjust.
I will add that someone, mentioning no names, kept grabbing my leg and giggling behind me. He may have the patience of a saint but this husband of mine is like adventuring with a six year old.
Max reported it was very rare for everyone in a group to try every ‘opportunity’. We have been called many things, ‘as mad as a box of frogs’, being one of our favorites. We will proudly add ‘rare’ to the list.
What do I need to bring?
Bring your adventurous spirit and a good set of hiking boots or shoes. This is no place for sandals or heels. On the Canmore Cave Tours website there is a diagram with a big red X though a pair of stilettos. As beautiful as I think a red pair might go with those coveralls I would definitely agree. This is a no stiletto adventure.
Be sure to wear weather appropriate outerwear. The tours go year round and the temperature inside the cave is 5C (41F). You will want a warm layer for under your coveralls in the cave.You will be supplied with everything else that you need including a bottle of water for the hike up and an energy bar.
Can anyone go caving in Canmore?
Caving is a strenuous activity and you must have a reasonable level of fitness. The hike into the cave is about 30 minutes and it is uphill. You will be carrying your gear (helmet, coveralls, headlamps, harness, cowtail and gloves) in a backpack supplied by Canmore Cave Tours. In my case they gave my gear to Dave to carry. Possibly thinking I looked like a weakling or they were just being kind (to me, not so much Dave).
To do the shorter Explorer tour the minimum age is 10, the longer Adventurer tour the minimum age is12. To learn more about caving in Canmore and to book online go here.
The honest truth about caving
It is rare that both of us are apprehensive about an activity. Usually one can convince the other all will be well. However in the case of caving we both had sweaty hands at the prospect wondering if we would find the cave cozy or claustrophobic.
We came out of the cave exhausted and elated and declared it one of the most amazing adventures we had ever done. Definitely markedly different than anything we could think of having tackled before. Certainly Max guiding us, teaching us, reassuring us made a massive difference in our enjoyment. However as above if you are severely claustrophobic and not in reasonably good shape, this caving adventure will be challenging.
When going into the cave you can only bring what you can keep in your pockets. Do not bring a ‘good ‘ camera. The fine silt that is in the cave is stirred up with movement and will get into any moving parts of a camera. The photos in this post are from our point and shoot and smart phone.
Below is a short video montage of moments caving in Canmore that Dave took with our GoPro camera. Turn up the volume and bear in mind the only light comes from the headlamps of the participants and the guide. Be sure to watch the last bit where I showcase my incredible coordination, my walrus imitation and demonstrate why a helmet is always a good idea.
Will you be adding caving in Canmore to your adventure list?