Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lava Tube Caves at Lava Beds National Monument

In Which Colleen Geeks Out About Clouds

On the early drive up to the lava beds, Colleen saw a cloud on a mountain. OH MY GOD IT'S A CLOUD ON A MOUNTAIN! Colleen was really excited, so she should just explain directly: 
In my defense it was a lenticular cloud and I'd NEVER SEEN ONE BEFORE, it's not my fault Steve can't appreciate one cloud formation to the next. We weren't that close to Mount Shasta though so you have to look at the cloud formation hovering on his peak in the photo.

About 2 hours into the drive, we noticed something: God was speaking to us.

This sky looked incredible. It looked blurry in a way that I've never seen clouds (in real life). It looked exactly like when, in a movie, god starts speaking, and the sky pulses with each syllable. When I've seen it in movies, it looked like fake Photoshop. Seeing something obviously fake happen in real life was pretty strange (and hard to capture when you borrow a camera you don't really understand the settings on, but trust us, there were crazy sun beams everywhere).


Volcanic Rocks and Lava Tubes 101

Welcome to rock school. This rock is obsidian. It's solid and heavy, like rock should be.


There's another rock, called pumice, which is the exact same material, just less dense. The analogy that really helped was Pepsi. The liquid Pepsi is dense (obsidian). When you shake it up, the foam you get (pumice) is still the same chemical composition, with added air. This makes the second one pretty light. Also, I'm wicked strong.


To understand the lava tube caves we were exploring it's important to note that the Medicine Lake volcano that spawned these tubes is so low and wide that it is visually indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. Medicine Lake volcano last erupted around 11,000 years ago and it's resulting lava tubes left an estimated 400 caves in the area, 200 of which have been located, 100 of which have been described and even fewer have been mapped.


Lava tubes form with a particular type of lava, pahoehoe (PAH hoy hoy). Pahoehoe lava behaves like water as long as it remains hot. When exposed to the atmosphere it quickly becomes a strong, solid, insultating rock known as basalt. In essence, the lava caves form initially by hardening of the outer surface of the lava and inside the "acting like water" lava continues to quickly drain, leaving behind a cave created from the outer layer of the lava tube.

Mush Pot Cave


I am underground in this picture. That's why I'm so proud. That being said, this was the first cave, and was paved on the inside. Cool to see caves, but definitely a "starter" cave. (Note the lava stalacites or "lavacicles" above Steve's head.)

Mush Pot is a great beginner's cave with a paved walkway, illuminated path and a bit of ducking due to low ceilings.

It gave us both the sense of what we thought we could handle, and fulfilled all of Steve's expectations of what we were coming to Lava Beds NM to explore, so we decided to attempt an intermediate cave next.


Golden Dome Cave

Golden Dome was the first "real" cave we explored. Climbing down a ladder into the earth, we started exploring.

Colleen and I had bought a map, but apparently no one else did, so I ended up the guide, with Colleen herding our group at the rear.

This cave was named for the gold sparkles created by the combination of mold and water that accumulates on the roof.


Don't let the flashlights and camera flash fool you. There was no light or sound except from us down there. Spooky.

More lavacicles!

The floor of most of the cave was covered in cauliflower a'a, which is basically the transition between pahoehoe lava, a'a, and deposited rocks from stalactites that makes up a solid floor (as opposed to "clinker" floors which are composed of loose fragments). It made for difficult walking, so when we could, we stuck to the smooth "streams" along the sides.
Steve leads the way with his reflective water pack.

We came to a low portion of the cave, and were glad we had brought gloves and knee pads. Kneeling on the spiky ground would have been impossible without them.

This is why it sucked when one of Colleen's pads broke almost immediately.
I came back and traded with her so she could kneel, and I squatted my way around. 
(My husband is so helpful!)

We crawled a bit further, but this low ceiling continued for as far as we could see, but since we were the only ones with knee pads, we risked abandoning our group with no map if we continued on without them - next time.

Steve crouches to escape the confined space without knee pads

Finished this cave. Back to the surface to find the next.

Sunshine Cave

This cave was much shorter. It gets its name from two spots where minor collapse opened to the surface, so sunlight streams into the cave. The first of these openings was pretty small, but the sunlight lit up the wall to show some defined solid lava rock, and Colleen nerded out.


This pit was only about 8 feet deep, but with only a headlamp it was hard to tell if that was the bottom, or just a corner in the hole.

Look at the designs in the rock above me. Every one of those lines of color followed a crack in the rock. The water leeching through that crack calcified the rock creating some cool designs. The minimal rain that Lava Beds National Monument experiences drains exclusively through the porous rock and into below ground reservoirs.

Here is the second break in the cave. Coming from the tunnel out to this open part, you could feel the temperature rise and the humidity drop. It was amazing how, just a hundred feet down the tunnel, the air was so isolated and could have it's own climate.


After the second break, stairs brought us down to the rest of the cave.

At the end of the cave was an opening we could crawl up, and the ceiling was covered in the "gold dome" mold. This small area was the only place at the end of the cave that a person could stand upright. Our photo worked phenomenally as you can see the golden mold behind us but it appears almost like starlight.

Spiders. SPIDERS. 
(Colleen of course loved them and  had to take a photo of them)

Time to head out and find the next cave.


Sentinel Cave

Sentinel is a long cave with two entrances, so more like a tunnel. By this point we had met up with other people from our group, one of which is a legit geologist (instead of the "I heard about this on Discovery Channel" geologist like the rest of us). He carried with him a black light that could light up certain mineral deposits to identify the composition of the rock.

Sentinel had more pits and drop-offs that the rest of the caves so far, hence the bridges, stairs, and railings. We found a Sarlacc pit that looked like it went pretty far down. The railings kept us away from it, but even if they hadn't, the bat guano all over the pit would have.
Most of the way through the tunnel, we turned off our lights. The darkness was complete, as it had been the other times we tried it. I played with the "night-vision friendly" mode of my headlamp, where it turns on two smaller red lights instead of a white one. This was even spookier, as I could see around me, but not more than 2 or 3 feet. It was just like a horror film where there's nothing in front of the person, then the monster or ghost steps out of the shadows 2 feet from their face.

In the back of our minds, while standing on a bridge in complete darkness, was this caving blog we read together back in second year university. It's a long read but if you feel so inclined it's possibly the most terrifying story we have ever encountered.

Skull Cave

Skull Cave gets it's name because there were many animal (and some human) skulls down by it's frozen lake when it was first discovered. The animals were attracted by the frozen water to drink in an area that gets very little rain fall, but either fell or could not make it back up the pit that lead to the lake.


It was by far the largest cave in height and width we explored. You could easily build a 3 or 4 story building in there, safely protected from the zombie apocalypse, complete with natural air conditioning and year round water source.



The sunlight reached in quite far, and as we started to go down the stairs, it got colder and colder.

This cave never really closed in like the other ones, it just terminated at a floor that always stayed cool enough to have ice.

When this cave was first discovered, the ice at the bottom was so pristine that you could see several feet through it to the rock floor. It was such a sight to behold that people could come down and skate on it by candlelight. Unfortunately, over the years, enough soot and grit has been brought down and ground into the ice that it's kind of grungy. It's also starting to melt, so a barrier was put up to keep people from walking directly on the ice.

This picture shows the "skating rink" area (the cavern goes much further back). After we looked around a bit, we headed up to start the drive home.

Of course, it's not a Steve and Colleen road trip without pulling off the road to take a photo of something spectacular like the sun setting behind Mount Shasta.

We arrived back to camp after dark and people around the campfire were impressed with our Canadian driving skills in which double lane highways with on coming traffic and deer did not horrify us. We were told that being Canadian automatically makes us "hardcore" and we were deemed adventurous people.

Bah ha ha ha.

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