Can You Handle the Horsethief Cave?
Last year I briefly introduced you to one of my favorite recreational activities. Getting deep underground and caving is a great way to escape, and find some peace and quiet in an otherwise hectic world. There are a few caves that just about anyone can get into, such as Montana’s own Lewis and Clark Caverns, or the world famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. But many caves, especially those that do not have electric lights strung throughout them, paved walkways, and handrails will require special skills, abilities, and gear. Caves that are more dangerous, and those that are highly decorated, require the caver to adhere to certain ethical standards. One such cave is the Horsethief Cave.
The Horsethief Cave is situated in the northern part of Wyoming literally just a few feet away from Montana in the Bighorn Mountains. This underground retreat is part of an extensive cave system that also incorporates Montana’s own Bighorn Cave, the entrance to which is just a couple hundred yards north. Previous generations bent on exploring everything they could in this mountain region have long known about the cave. But it wasn’t until 1970 when it was discovered to be more than about 700 feet of a dusty passage crawl. A local to the area named Denise was at what was then thought to be the back of the cave when she felt some wind blowing past the rocks (this “wind” is actually due to changes in the atmospheric pressure from one part of the cave to another). Moving aside a few rocks, she slid through about 100 feet of passage that at times is so small your back is grazing the ceiling while your chest is pressed against the ground. Denise’s Crawl, as the squeeze was later named, opened up into a cave that contains thousands upon thousands of feet of known passage; much more is yet to be discovered.
Your adventure will start with a rugged trip into the mountains from Lovell. While it has been rumored that a sedan can make it up the road, there is little chance you can get there without a four-wheel drive vehicle. Your base camp: an old miner’s cabin that has been maintained by cavers over the years and is affectionately named “Armpit.” Armpit has become a sort of a legacy. People from around the world savor a night in the dirty cabin that has no running water and no electricity. Yet being in the middle of nowhere it is a welcome relief from the elements. After a night of sharing caving stories and reading those written on the walls, it is just a short drive down the road to the entrance to the cave. Hopefully you remembered that you need a permit and a key to get in, or your experience will be very short lived. The entrance pit is huge, and one can easily walk inside until you reach the initial register. Here you must sign in with your destination goal so if you do not come out rescuers will know where to look. You put on your dust mask and start through several hundred feet of dusty crawling, much on your belly in army crawl style.
When you finally get through the initial crawl you will drop down the Gypsum Wall. A 12 foot drop (don’t worry, there is a permanent rope to aid you) will land you into the rest of the cave, most of which is much less dusty as the first crawl. Ditching the dust mask (pick it up later, littering anything in the cave is a huge violation of caver ethics) many people head straight to the Mind Bender Pools. These pristine underground pools have all sorts of speleothems growing around. It is the perfect place for a photo shoot. From there the trip can take many different directions. One could head deep into the cave and find the Pleistocene era bones, or seek out new passage in one of the many side chutes that have yet to be explored. How much you choose to do in the cave is really up to how long you can handle being underground.
I don’t need to warn you just how dangerous caving is; many people are injured or killed every year around the world. And it is precisely for that reason that I will forego my usual directions on how to get there. If you want to explore the Horsethief Cave, you will need to first have some caving experience. You will then need to go with someone who has been to this cave before. The good news is you can meet some fellow cavers at one of the pub night meetings with the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto. There is usually one meeting each month where you can head over to Tiny’s Tavern and learn all about the caving culture in Montana. Join us on March 13th at 6:30 for a pint and to discuss your next big adventure. To keep up with the caving activity all across Montana, you can subscribe to the NRMG updates by entering your email in the subscribe area on the right hand side of their website.
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