The terrifying wonder of abseiling into Rat’s Nest Cave in the Canadian Rockies

“What have I gotten myself into?”

It’s a thought that I’m sure many other travel writers can relate to. It’s summed up in the photo above; that strange addition to an itinerary that you’re assured is part of the unique local experience.

“Today is my birthday. Why am I on my hands and knees recreating my birth?”

Now this one I feel is unique to my experiences.

Last year I had the opportunity to traverse the mountains of Canmore, about 45 minutes (88 kms) west of Calgary, in the famed Canadian Rockies. The area is well known from travellers to the nearby ski resort Banff, often serving as a stop off along the way. As many locals told me, it’s also the place people come to live after they’re ready for something new, after living/working in Banff. Like any ski resort on the West Coast of Canada, this generally means you’ll find a lot of Australians around. Indeed, Canmore is no exception.

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Though it’s not a traditional ski resort, Canmore does offer plenty of activities for any visitor to the area, without having to compete with the sort of visitor numbers that you’ll find nearby in Banff. One of these experiences is operated by Canmore Cave Tours, who take their customers on daily expeditions into Rat’s Nest Cave in Grotto Mountain – a national heritage site and one of the caves that litter the surrounding Canadian Rockies. Over my years of travelling, Cave exploration is one area of adventure I haven’t been immediately drawn to. But plenty of others are. And it’s no surprise why, it ticks off as many boxes as any extreme sport:

  • It can be dangerous (a “Danger! Do not enter!” sign near the entry of our caves, alongside a locked gate, was a kind reminder)
  • It’s physically challenging
  • A good way to battle a fear of tight spaces / claustrophobia
  • The learning curve is steep, separating the professionals from the amateurs
  • Those who do it professionally have the genuine opportunity to “be the first” to discover something new
  • There are different levels of, let’s say intensity, from those who descend into precarious underwater caves, to those who strap themselves in and hope for the best, abseiling into the darkness. And of course you are always crawling through, hoping you don’t get stuck.

Replace things like “tight spaces” with “heights” and you could have a similar list for things like bungee jumping and sky diving. But it’s this added sense of discovery that seems to attract many to this life. After all, what is there left to discover in this world? Judging by some of the tour operator’s still unfinished maps of the deepest parts of the cave, it seems like there’s plenty even in this location.

Canmore Cave Tours only take their daring customers in to a small 600m section of the massive cave structure – with 4km of trails comfortably mapped out – but many who work for the tour operators seem to explore the rest of the caves on their own time. Never one to turn down a good story, our guide was kind enough to share plenty of amazing caving stories from his own and told experiences. Only some of them involved death or getting stuck in a cave.

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“Don’t worry, you guys will be fine,” our guide assured us, “if you feel any rumbling though, that’s just some nearby explosions from a mine”, as we hiked for 30 minutes (about 2km) up the mountain to the cave’s entrance. Something that for some may be as physically demanding as the caving itself. We were doing this in the dead of Summer, the Sun beating down on us as we hiked. But they operate in the winter as well; so each season will bring with it its own challenges. But one thing that never changes are the caves themselves. They remain the same temperature – a cosy 5 degrees Celsius – all year round.

Once you arrive at the entrance, it’s time to suit up. You cover your sweaty self with a sweater, and a jumpsuit, and sweatpants – whatever you feel is necessary. You don a fetching helmet and squeeze your crotch into the safety gear. Though they offer less “extreme” and shorter experiences without the need, the 6 hour tour we were on today included abseiling. Yes, abseiling 20m into the deep darkness of a cave. You sure wouldn’t want to be first in… But it was my birthday. So of course I was.

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Dripping with sweat from my brief encounter with the heat while I was wearing the recommended level of layers, the comfortable and still coolness of the cave was welcome. It didn’t take long to hit you, once you’d crawled up an incline, attached yourself to a guiding line, and waited for the rest of your group to join you; all the while passing the precarious “DANGER!” sign perched nearby.

I wasn’t worried. Why would I be worried? What could possibly go wrong other than death? Or falling and breaking my leg? Or getting stuck in a tight crevasse and having to get covered in Vaseline until I lost enough body weight to remove myself? And let’s just not try to think of 127 Hours amidst all this. “Nah… I’ll be fine. Of course I’ll go first.”

First down the repel and all you could hear other than the instructors voice was a distant but repetitive dripping from the cave’s abundant stalactites. The darkness seems to indicate your repel goes on forever – 20m doesn’t sound like a long way down, but when you can’t see where you end, it certainly feels like it. It’s as exhilarating as it is a physically demanding enterprise, and there is a sense of relief when you hit the ground, helping lead the rest of the team down behind you. Now some 2 1/2 hours into the 6 hour experience, it also starts to sink in that you still have a long way to go…

At its deepest point, you end up 17 stories below the point you entered, crawling through spaces in the rocks that look like a cat would struggle to manoeuvre. When you do reach that point, my favourite moment occurs – surrounded by an underground lake (popular for the cave divers to explore – but certainly and thankfully out of our reach today), with stalagmites and stalactites all around you, the guide switches off the light and we’re left in pure darkness, given a moment to appreciate the incredible stillness of the space we’re encountering.

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It was a sight as beautiful in light as it was in its natural darkness. Somehow the water still found a way to glisten even though no light was visible. We’d later be challenged trying to crawl through the caves without any light source. It’s true pitch darkness – something your eyes can never adjust to in any way. If you’re looking to experience what it’s like to be blind – this may be the experience for you.

Every aspect of caving is something other wordly – it feels like you’re exploring another planet. Nothing smells or feels like anything you can do anywhere else, in any other setting. Though you may be wondering what you got yourself into, it’s hard not to find the experience an overwhelmingly rewarding one.

And this isn’t just about what you get to do, but also what you learn along the way. Being a part of a small tour group, you learn plenty of fun facts from your guide – like how water from extinct glaciers helped form the cave, and you can see where the techtonic plates meet while you’re in the cave – a very noticeable gap lining the walls. No, there’s nothing unnerving about that at all. We also learn that 3.5 million years ago this whole area was a tropical corral reef, which is why the limestone quarries that surround the cave are full of Dead Sea critters – which in fact help form the limestone itself. If you want to learn more about the experience, and the surrounding terrain, you’ll just have to take up the experience yourself.

Canmore Cave Tours operate year round, with different levels of experiences available. The experience I undertook was the “Adventure Tour” which costs CA$155. A slightly cheaper “Explorer Tour” is available which takes out the abseiling and is an hour and a half shorter, at CA$125. More details can be found at: http://www.canmorecavetours.com/

This experience was provided by Tourism Canmore-Kananaskis with the support of Travel Alberta and Destination Canada. Air Canada helped get me there, with daily flights from the East Coast of Australia connecting you to the nearby city of Calgary via Vancouver. It’s a short drive from there. While in Canmore, the writer stayed at the Grande Rockies Hotel

Photos provided by Canmore Cave Tours, except the headline photo, which is of the author, who in all seriousness was happy to be there. He thinks.