We peered into the cave entrance. It was small, no
larger than a micro-wave oven. Clad in our polyester
garb, helmets, gloves, knee pads and cave essentials,
we turned the key and unlocked the gate. The bat-friendly
gate was an overly heavy bar that draped across the
rectangular tube leading into the cave. Moments later
all four of us had shimmied through the mouth of Emerald
A sliver of sun shot through the entrance,
making it hard to see deeper inside. I slid the bar
back into place and locked the gate. We all exchanged
glances and took deep breaths, ready to explore. Excited
to be somewhere new, Steve, in typical style, snorted
and said, “Ah, fresh cave!” We crawled
through a slot-like tunnel leaving the daylight and
the entrance room behind.
We were in search of Emerald Cave’s
Yellow Brick Road, a passage that leads to Oz: the
city of shields, a giant room dotted with cave shields.
An unusual octopus-like formation, shields are rare
in most caves but abundant here.
The cave grabbed our attention right
away. Fifteen feet from the entrance was a three-story-high
hallway. An exposed traverse like a narrow balcony
skirted 30 feet above the floor near the top of the
ceiling. Our eyes and brains were still adjusting
to total darkness as we moved deliberately along the
polished traverse. Once across, we traveled through
the first few rooms, naming formations and looking
behind us. Later, this would help us remember our
The cave was hot, about 70 degrees
F, and humid. It had the distinct earthy smell that
cavers love. We moved quickly and carefully, yet slowly
enough to appreciate the dramatic formations that
dripped from the ceiling and coated the walls. They
were white in color and sometimes sent sparkles shooting
into the darkness. We chided ourselves for not being
able to conjure up more intelligent vocabulary to
describe the beauty of the features and settled for
“cool,” “wow,” and “look!”
The words felt basic compared to the complexity of
the process that created them.
||Rappelling into the Big Room
Pit, a 60-foot descent.
We rounded the next corner, took one
look, and began uncoiling the rope. To our left was
a mud slope that dropped into a seemingly bottomless
pit. Ahead, a wet slab of rock disappeared into darkness.
Bridget descended the rope, traversed the floor of
the pit and climbed out the other side. She fixed
the end of her rope, creating a tensioned line over
the pit. We put on our harnesses, clipped into the
rope and ziplined across the chasm. Safely on the
other side, we regrouped, left our rope behind for
the return and kept crawling. Staying in the primary
passage, we chose to follow the telltale signs of
old caver tracks. Hours passed like minutes. We lost
any sense of time without clues from the sun.
Finally, Steve suggested a snack break.
We looked at our watches. Five hours had passed since
the entrance. We ate carefully over our cave bags.
Hampton, still curious, looked down the passage behind
him while we ate. He gave a yell, testing the size
of the echo. We all listened, knowing that a big echo
means big cave. “Can you feel air?” Bridget
Echoes and blowing air were enough
for us to pack up lunch and keep exploring. Already
deep below the surface, we dropped a second rope down
the tunnel that Hampton discovered. He descended first,
disappearing another 100 feet down. Seconds later,
a muffled “off rappel” encouraged the
rest of us to follow. Once off rope, we were again
traveling through huge rooms. We raced on, spurred
by the nervous anticipation of what we might find
ahead. We crawled, bouldered, slithered, shimmied,
grunted and stemmed our way through the passage. An
hour later, we climbed into a gigantic room. The ceiling
was 200 feet high and the room seemed as big as Grand
Central Station. One look around and we all knew that
we had found the Yellow Brick Road—this was
We lay down on our backs in awed silence.
There were dozens of shields dangling from the walls
above. The sides were coated with white, sparkling
flowstone. Up close, thousands of straw-like calcite
needles twisted and gnarled, defying gravity. It was
the perfect cave landscape. Hours of exploring would
have been worth a moment of this, but we took an hour
of moments soaking in every micro feature with our
senses, engraving this picture in our minds. And then,
it was time to go.
Coming out of a cave is a joyous sensation.
As you leave the guts of the earth, the sliver of
light at the entrance beckons you back. Being without
light gives new value to color, light, contrast, definition
and your sense of smell. The outside world seems richer.
There is a famous quote about why people climb mountains.
In that quote, it describes how getting to the summit
of a peak allows you to understand better what is
below you and makes you appreciate where you came
from. Unlike caves, you can see the mountains without
actually visiting or climbing them. So, why go underground?
Caving will make you wonder, with every step, what
might possibly exist below you. But the catch is that
you’ll never know what lies beneath—unless
you take the chance to explore one of the wildest
Betsy Treadway, a NOLS instructor
since 1998, is a program supervisor at NOLS Southwest
in Tucson, Ariz. She also finds time to take NOLS
students into the “guts of the earth”
on the caving sections of Semesters in the Southwest.