Canmore is a rapidly growing town located within spectacular mountain scenery on the TransCanada Highway # 1, 106 KM (66 miles)west of Calgary and 22 KM (12 miles) east of the Town of Banff in Banff National Park.
Four of us meet early in the morning at a grocery store in Canmore. Our guide for the day’s adventure leads us on a short drive, east of Canmore, to a nondescript parking area on the north side of Hwy. 1A, at the NW base of formidable Grotto Mountain. The summit of Grotto Mountain, at 2,706 metres (8,878 ft), is accessible by good trail from the nearby Alpine Club of Canada clubhouse. The final approach to the summit is a fascinating and easy ridge scramble with an awesome and very unique view to the north. It is a full day endeavour. This climb was the final mission Ken and I completed prior to my Grand Canyon crossing with my son, Bill, in September of 2000. However, I digress.
Our cave tour guide is Jane, a personable, young Australian woman with extensive caving experience. Other participants are a young lady from Edmonton, Alberta, an attorney from Las Vegas, Nevada, my friend and hiking partner, Mélanie, and myself. At the parking area we divvy up our supplied caving gear from the Canmore Caverns van. This consists of coveralls, climbing harness, knee pads, rubber-palmed wool gloves, rock helmets and powerful head lamps. The gated and locked Rat’s Nest Cave entrance is accessible only with a guide or by permission. The wilderness cave and a square mile surrounding the entrance were designated as a Provincial Historic Site in 1987.
The short, 25 minute, moderate-grade hike up into the huge canyon bowl is punctuated with fabulous mountain vistas and Jane’s brief descriptions of surrounding geological features. We need to appear fit, and hike smartly, to earn the reward. The cave’s temperature is consistent year round near 5 degrees C (41 deg F). It is not necessary to layer up because the cave tour is a reasonably intense physical exercise. We don our caving gear over clothing, then enter the cave through the gate.
We begin our tour after an orientation at the brink above Bone Bed Pit, and an explanation of the fascinating history of the wilderness cave’s origin. Within a few metres the only light is provided by our headlamps.
Soon we arrive at the reward we earned when we demonstrated good physical conditioning on the hike up. We are offered the privilege to perform a 60 foot underground rappel in total darkness. There is an alternate route down for those so inclined. I recommend the rappel. The rope used would hold a Buick and Jane provides a top belay in addition to our own rappelling gear. Risk is negligible and it will be an exciting growth experience if it is your first rappel. I position myself, as the second most experienced, to go first and assist at the bottom, but Mélanie, with a smooth move, sneaks around me and takes the lead position. She will assist at the bottom. It is wise to avoid the dance of joy at the bottom because there is another significant drop to the immediate left. Safe ground is on the right.
For the next four hours, our loop circuit takes us through tunnels and caverns with fascinating and colourful rock formations created by thousands of years of water leaching through limestone formations.
One of many highlights is the squeeze through the Laundry Chute. At the bottom of the Laundry Chute is a 90 degree turn which leads to a 45 degree slide down a rock slab into a horizontal shaft. I take a brief detour into the long narrow tube called Hose-Pipe Passage. There are a variety of optional tight squeezes. Some lead to new caverns. Many sections are through huge caverns where we can walk upright. The route contains several easy scrambles. Occasionally it is necessary to crawl on hands and knees in damp, muddy terrain. Getting dirty is part of the fun. It is a large complex with many alternatives for exploration. I have been told I sometimes grin like a Cheshire Cat when I am having a really good time. Ridiculous!
The turning point is at the spectacular and lofty Grand Staircase. Crystal clear pools of water at the bottom lead to other channels and caverns underwater which can be explored only by well equipped and experienced cave divers.
Perhaps the most compromising portion of the day is the trek back down to the car on very tired legs. Careful footsteps prevent a turned ankle or a fall. It is a grand, adventuresome day of learning and discovery.
Spelunkers may wish to gather additional information from the excellent book, ‘Caves of the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains’ by Jon Rollins, Rocky Mountain Books.
Canmore Cave Tours offers an excellent, safe experience. To participate in this tour, you need to be in reasonably decent shape. It is a very physical day. Highly recommended. This fascinating wilderness cave tour is an adventure you will remember for a long time.
Photo copyright and credits are shared between Mélanie and myself. The entire photo set is below. Click on any image to enlarge and return to the post with the browser back button.