Caving: Exploring Underground Wonders
While the technical term for caving is spelunking, you will never hear cavers call themselves spelunkers. Those who explore the caves for recreation, or even to survey and map new caves and passages, prefer the term caver. The sport of caving is pretty self explanatory. After locating a cave, a group of people will put on protective clothing which includes coveralls, knee pads, gloves, and a helmet. They will also don a headlamp and carry a caving pack which includes a backup light, flagging tape to mark the way, food, and something to drink. Once properly geared up, the caver will seek to explore as much new (or new to them) passage in the cave as possible before getting too tired. The truly ambitious will find the new passages, and seek to map and survey them so future explorers can have a guide to go on.
With all the sandstone around Billings it does not seem like there is anywhere that would make good caving. This is true if you stay in the immediate area, but driving just a short distance to the Pryor and Big Horn Mountains will put you smack in the middle of the Madison Limestone formations. This highly dense limestone is some of the best quality in the country. Limestone is dissolved by rainwater, and over the years caverns have been carved throughout the mountains. The Pryors and Big Horn Mountains are home to some of the largest caves in the Rocky Mountain area. But they are not the only place in Montana to find caves, anywhere a limestone deposit is found, there is almost certainly a cave nearby. Many areas in the Beartooth Mountains host caves; as well as the Little and Big Belt Mountains, and many more. Most people know about the Lewis and Clark Caverns just outside of Three Forks. Located in the Tobacco Roots this is one of the most highly decorated caves in the area.
Most caving involves a series of tight crawls on hands and knees, and squeezes where a person needs to lie down flat and inch their way through. Often vertical areas punctuate the caves necessitating ropes and other specialized gear. Because of the physical danger and strain on the body one might ask, “why would anyone want to take part?” The simple answer is for the sheer thrill of exploring a beautiful underground cavern that most people will never see. Pushing a line deep into the cave offers the chance of going in a room that nobody has ever been in before, and possibly finding formations that took millions of years to “grow.”
If you want to go caving there are plenty of day trips from the Billings area that offer unique and wonderful caves. But caving is dangerous. Without the right gear and expertise it is easy to get turned around and lost inside the caves. Someone new to the sport may have trouble even accessing the caves. Many of the larger caves, such as the Bighorn and Horse Thief caves are protected and you will need an experienced guide to acquire the key to access them. Along with caving experience comes etiquette rules. Caves are very fragile ecosystems, without proper care they can and, in many cases, have been destroyed by vandalism (intentional and otherwise). If you are interested in exploring one of the little known wonders of Montana, come to Caving Club. It is held on the last Wednesday of every month. On February 29th they will be meeting at Dino Lab located at 1518 1st Ave N. Ste. 2 at 6:30pm. Come by to learn more about this exciting adventurous sport!