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Underground Adventure: Caving in Canmore

April 15, 2016
By Afton Aikens

I never win anything, so it was a bit of a shock when I won a tour for two at a networking event that happened to be on my birthday.

The event was at the Canmore Cave Tours office. I had written about their tours before in Where Canadian Rockies and knew they had a great reputation, but frankly I wasn’t fond of the idea of crawling around in a cave. Ironically enough, a few minutes before I won the tour I’d been talking to the owner about my apprehension. He chuckled when my name was drawn.

Although I was uneasy about the tour, in my mind since I’d won there was no way I wouldn’t go—it was a reason to challenge myself, and I’m happy I did.

Canmore Cave Tour

“Everything is awesome when you’re down in a cave!” (Diana sang this little motivational song to help us out)

My partner Cody and I went on the longer six-hour tour (four hours underground—go big or go home), and the time flew. We were with a group of six others ranging from kids (the minimum age for this tour is 12) to adults and small to tall. You can do this tour year-round, as the cave is always 5°C.

Our guide Diana prepped us at the Canmore Cave Tours office at 10 a.m. on that Sunday morning. Everyone was still pretty quiet (possibly due to it being 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning).

We embarked on a hike to Rat’s Nest Cave, which sprawls under Grotto Mountain on the northeast side of Canmore. Four km of the cave have been explored, but Diana told us the cave likely runs at least 20 km.

Canmore Cave Tour

Diana outside Rat’s Nest Cave

On the way up, Diana gave us some background on the area’s geology (did you know the Rocky Mountains began forming underwater and are made of limestone?) and pointed out some fossils.

After about 30 minutes of easy to moderate hiking uphill (there was a little ice on the trail), we reached the cave entrance and Diana helped us get outfitted to go exploring. We’d be rappelling 18 m (six storeys) down into the cave so we had harnesses; we also had coveralls, kneepads, gloves, a helmet and headlamp.

Tip: if you’re used to grazing on snacks throughout the day like I am, bring a granola bar in the zippered pocket of your coveralls (but be sure to pack out the wrapper).

We were ready to enter the cave. It’s gated as it’s on private land, and for safety reasons. Diana opened the gate and I admit, as soon as I crawled up and into the (mostly) darkness I thought, why am I doing this? Things got interesting—and fun—after that, though.

Canmore Cave Tour

Descending into Rat’s Nest Cave

We clipped into a rope and shimmied (still standing) down into the true cave opening. While the entrance past the gate was regularly used as a hikers’ shelter, the cave was unknown until 1972 when two hikers began prodding a rat’s nest and realized there was no rock wall behind it.

Headlamps illuminating the cave, we could see we were in a spacious “room” and could stand up (to my delight). The rock surrounding us was smooth and almost shiny. There were a few daddy long legs on the walls, but those were the only critters we saw inside. The quiet subsided conversing, encouraging and joking with each other.

Canmore Cave Tour

Rappelling down into the cave

It was time for the rappel. I was glad it was at the beginning as I’d wanted to get it over with. Cody was the first of our group to descend into the darkness, and I went second. Anyone who has rappelled down a climbing wall should have no trouble with this. It was exhilarating—actually one of my favourite parts of the tour, other than seeing daylight again—although admittedly at one point my feet lost contact with the wall and I swayed from side to side in my harness. Try to avoid this!

Once we were in the belly of the cave, the next few hours were spent walking, sliding, crawling and climbing over and through rock formations (at one point we did this with our headlamps turned off, in total darkness).

There are a few optional “squeezes” to try. I only went through with one, although in hindsight I would try more if I went on the tour again (which I would happily do). Cody went through all of the squeezes. You truly would be surprised what small spaces you can fit through.

Canmore Cave Tour

Cody trying one of the “squeezes”

As we continued on, Diana pointed out what looked like white chalk on the cave walls called “moonmilk”, a bacteria that lives in the cave and eats the sulfur and sulfates out of the rock. She also showed us soda straws—tiny stalactites that grow one cm every 100 years. The calcite formations glistened in the light of our headlamps.

After some climbing, we reached our exit point called “the box”, which is about the size of a manhole cover and is manmade with a few steps to assist with the exit.

We were still talking and laughing on our way down the trail back to the parking lot. Everyone had worked up an appetite and conversation revolved mostly around dinner. We stopped at La Belle Patate nearby with a few others from our tour group and indulged in poutine and burgers while looking at photos of where we’d just been.

Although reaching the top of mountains, not exploring underneath them, is often what comes to mind when you think of Canmore, everyone should try this tour as it’s genuinely interesting, fun and safe.

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