Colorado’s Fulford Cave

The weekend of June 16, 2006 a number of us traveled to the Fulford area in Eagle County for a trip to Fulford Cave.  On that trip we met Clay Evans, the outdoor editor for the Boulder Daily Camera and ended up visiting the alpine cave together with him.  Not long after we discovered that he documented the trip into an article and we played a prominent role in the story.  It turns out that conversations with newsmen are not off record.  Everything is fair game and on the record, although often paraphrased from the reporter’s memory.  What follows is Clay’s published article about the visit to Colorado’s Fulford Cave.

Down there in darkness
Fulford is a fun, fascinating intro to Colorado caving
By Clay Evans, Get Out Editor
June 23, 2006

When we — me, my stepson, Dane Campbell, and his friend Alex Tennant of Niwot — arrived at Fulford Cave Campground Friday evening, we made quick work of setting camp so we could make the steep, three-quarter-mile slog up the aspen-covered slopes and descend into Fulford Cave for a taste of what was to come the next day.

Day and night lose their meaning in a cave, where it’s always pitch-black. And no matter what the temperature is outside, the inside of Fulford remains a constant, chilly, damp 45 degrees or so.

We relished our too-brief hour inside the cave. The boys had never been to a large, undeveloped cave, and I hadn’t been to Fulford since the mid-1980s. Climbing down the “culvert” entrance — dug out by a miner many years ago, this corrugated pipe and welded ladder is the safest, easiest way to enter, though there are other entrances that require ropes — my body recalled the exhilaration of entering the cave for the first time, when I, too, was 12.

Caving is a unique “outdoor” experience. You spend hours in darkness and damp, using skills from navigation and orienteering to rock climbing and simple observation. And if you have a poor sense of direction — or even a pretty well-developed one — you’ll be astonished at how easy it is to get turned around when all you can see is what shows up within the circle of your headlamp.

When we emerged after a quick look at rooms near the entrance, the last orange light from sunset was fading in the west.

The next morning, following breakfast, we met up with a group from the Front Range Grotto caving club at the entrance: Rick Speaect , 42, of Aurora; his daughter, Talon, 13; Jenn Scott, 33, of Aurora; Max Khaytsus , 36, of Aurora; and Wendy Steward , 24, of Arvada.

To my surprise, I’d been in Fulford more than anyone else in the group — probably 10 times since that first Boy Scout trip. But I had forgotten many of the cave’s secrets, and it was nice to have four certified cave rescuers — Speaect, Talon, Scott and Khaytsus — along.

Maps of Fulford are available, and generally accurate, though distances can be somewhat off. It’s a popular cave, but it’s mind-blowing to see people heading up for a lark, dressed in flip-flops and shorts, without helmets and sometimes armed with no more light than a cigarette lighter. It’s always fun to do a “blackout” by having everyone turn off their lights, but it’s also unnerving to think about what would happen if you lost your light sources. Fulford is dark, full of deep pits and slippery, and there’s no way you could find your way out.

Serious cavers (“spelunker” is for amateurs; Khaytsus says a “spelunker is someone with a beer in one hand, a lighter in the other, and ‘spelunk’ is the sound they make when they fall”) advise turning around every 10 or 20 feet to study where you’ve just been, for later reference. You really don’t want to get lost.

Bottom line: Caves are serious business. You need, at minimum, a helmet and at least three sources of light, and ropes are advised in case of emergency (or cool, hard-to-reach features).

We headed in past a spectacular ice pillar and skated across some ice patches, then dropped to a wet, steep shelf above the Lower Room. Our trio had stopped there the night before, realizing it would be tricky to get back up without equipment, so we were grateful to have some climbing gear provided by Speaect, which enabled us to go lower.

Once down, our group of eight poked in and out of various rooms and crevices; I didn’t find Gollum, but discovered a pack rat nest and marveled that creatures could live in such a hostile (dark!) environment.

Once up and out of the Lower Room — the kids had an interesting scramble, with help from ropes, webbing and encouraging adults — we found the JFK Room. This room often eluded us when we were teenagers; in Fulford, or any cave, you really have to keep your eyes peeled to find some passages.

The JFK Room narrows out at each end, but if you’re willing to squeeze into the smaller passages, there are some relatively pristine formations made of what, in Fulford terms, is called “Moon Milk” — a whitewash-like mineral coating.

We proceeded through what’s known as The Big Meander, a room with a small “canyon” through which you can walk, then headed up to the Devil’s Washboard, a craggy, cramped tube that drops you to Fulford’s always-running stream. (The stream is something of an enigma; dye-tracing the water, which emerges at a beaver pond near the campground, has led some cavers to believe that many more undiscovered passages exist in the cave.)

From there, we went in search of the biggest room, the Breakdown Room. But we missed the very subtle entrance and headed instead back along the stream toward the Register Room. Here the climbing got more sketchy, and the younger cavers, led by self-described “mother hen” Scott (thanks, Jenn!), decided to retrace their steps and see the sun again. By then we’d been underground for more than three hours.

Speaect, Steward and I went on and found — led by other cavers’ lights above — the twisty, tight climb up into the Breakdown Room. Once inside, we tried to find a “short cut” exit back to the entrance room that Speaect remembered from his only other Fulford expedition. But first we explored the Breakdown Room — its sloping floor is covered with enormous slabs of granite that (yikes!) dropped at some point from high above — and the much more gentle Moonmilk Corridor, through which you can actually walk standing up.

We wanted to continue on to the Cathedral, the Attic and other rooms, but didn’t want to make the others wait, so we started our search for the escape hatch Speaect remembered as a tight squeeze leading to an 8- to 10-foot drop near the culvert entrance.

I volunteered to check out three possibilities. The first ended in a long, narrow, down-sloping tube, the end of which I could not see. Without knowing what was down there — the feature is called the Hidden Pit on the map — I decided I didn’t want to have to climb back out.

The next hole actually triggered my high-threshold claustrophobia. There’s nothing quite like being crammed in a rocky hole and realizing you’re going to have to back out like a badger.

The third hole was oh-so-close. We could see a way to get down, but it was slippery and sloping, and required a 15-foot shinny down a pole someone had placed near the entry room. We could have done it, but rather than risk a 25-foot tumble, we turned around and retraced our steps. Exploring is what caving is all about, but you have to be safe and smart

By this time, we’d been paying enough attention that we had our bearings, and the trip out was quick and uneventful. We saw on the way out that the Hidden Pit was, indeed, the exit Speaect remembered. Next time, we’ll be armed with our new knowledge.

Once outside, we were glad we turned around when we did. The rest of the group was just contemplating whether to go in after us after five hours of subterranean thrills.

We were all tired, happy and — as always at Fulford — absolutely covered with mud. The sun was high and warm, and my only regret was that we had to head back to Boulder that night. But now my 30-year-old memory has been jogged, and I can’t wait to go back … and go deeper still.

The full story originally appeared on the Boulder Daily Camera website at http://www.dailycamera.com/bdc/get_out/article/0,1713,BDC_8836_4792292,00.html.  The article is no longer there.

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