At the ruins of the old Glacier House Teahouse, there are lockable bins to store backpacks and other equipment being left behind. For caving, sturdy leather hiking boots are mandatory. We gear up in our coveralls, rock helmets, headlamps, gloves and knee pads to make a visit to the nearby smooth walls of ancient, near-surface, cave development where the cave ceiling collapsed thousands of years ago.
This is near the location where we will exit the Nakimu Caves four hours later. The next step is another one kilometre (0.6 mile) hike with 200 metres (656 ft) of descent on primitive, rugged and sketchy trail through dense underbrush to the gated and locked main entrance. We will work hard to regain this elevation inside Nakimu Caves.
At the gated entrance there is a noticeable, cool breeze coming from inside Nakimu Caves. The internal temperature of the cave is near 5 degrees C (41° F) year round. As we enter single file, the first manoeuvre is a short drop over a ledge on wire caving ladder into a passage below. Droplets of water on rock surfaces catch the light from our lamps and create the illusion of diamond encrusted walls and ceilings. The trip includes a number of fascinating features through tunnels and chambers. Many must be negotiated on hands and knees. There are narrow openings requiring tight-fit contortion to get to the next section. There are a few large galleries several metres high. Walls give evidence of the powerful interaction with water over thousands of years. Stone surfaces we are scrambling over are rippled like the bottom of a sandy beach. A substantial amount of rock has fallen from the ceiling over thousands of years.
One of the predominant features of Nakimu Caves is prolific deposits of moonmilk ‘growing’ on the caves walls and ceilings. Moonmilk is a creamy-white deposit resembling tiny cauliflowers. It is thought moonmilk is formed in absolute darkness by a bacterium capable of producing crystals of calcium carbonate. No-one seems to be sure. The deposits are soft like cream cheese and there is a nearly overwhelming urge to touch the accessible deposits. A small scar may take hundreds of years to ‘heal’. We look but do not touch. I take a photo of a huge moonmilk deposit several metres above me on the walls and ceiling.
There are a couple of places where the river running through the cave can be seen from precarious viewpoints. The water is fast, furious and loud as it roars too far below for a picture. It would not be a good place to slip and fall.
Near the end of our four-hour tour inside Nakimu Caves, we are perhaps 60 metres below the surface. The second to last scramble is up a waterfall. It is a unique experience to me. At the top of this scramble is a sensational underground grotto where Cougar Creek enters Nakimu Caves. Reverberating sound from another powerful waterfall accompanies afternoon bright sun streaming through the mist. It is a very challenging, photographic paradise. There is a single, 30 metre, steep pitch, wet-rock scramble remaining. I stand at the bottom but I have nothing left, absolutely nothing.
And here I stand, willing to pay anyone good money to shoot me. It is not in my nature to ask for help.
I must have looked as pathetic as I felt. Stefan swings around in front of me and scrambles ahead. From the top he yells commands at me. Go right. Go left. Go under. Go over. There is neither room nor need for discussion. I do as I am told while he analyses, identifies and communicates the easiest and most efficient route. My rubber palmed gloves are sticking well even though they are virtually destroyed and will never cave again. Behind me, a young couple are grabbing my ankles and boots to stabilize my feet on the wet, slippery rock. At the time, I am just the weakest part of a newly formed team. In retrospect, my appreciation for their assistance is substantial. I was in trouble. What I have given was being returned. It is Kharma. I do not know the names of the young man and woman helping my feet stick but I will always be profoundly thankful for their unsolicited assistance with minimum impact to my stubborn independence.
I do not mention it in my previous Balu Pass post but I am fairly certain I set the Guinness record for the world’s slowest ascent out of Cougar Brook Valley to the summit of Balu Pass. Our guide, Eric Dafoe, stuck with me to the bitter-sweet end, after 13 hours of intense, physical endeavour. I extend my humble thanks to him. He shares my passion for the mountains and compassion for the welfare of those who are willing to accept the challenge and go where they have never gone before at new levels of personal achievement.
In the latter years of my life, I have introduced many people to their first wilderness experience. It is very important to me to find the perfect experience for each individual, based on conditioning and ability. I know my passion for the mountains is not for everyone. I talk to people about the comparison of climbing mountains with life in general. There are peaks and valleys, good days and bad, pain and euphoria. It has been my observation, over many years, that to conquer one is helpful in the other. The process assists in staying young and fit. More importantly, it helps to sustain that wide-eyed inner child which I believe is so important to the overall enjoyment of life. The alternative is to grow old. There are stories to tell. The most important ability is to maintain a sense of humour at all times. Forgive me, I wax philosophical.