My nose is inches from rock and my coverall-clad butt has just collected another layer of cave dust. I’m doing my best not to think about how I’m inside a mountain, shimmying through the final metres of the “Laundry Chute.” That’s the thing about touring Rat’s Nest Cave near Canmore — it’s too crazy to think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it. You’ve just got to trust you can do it.
It’s Max Koether’s job to convince you that you can. Since age 6, Koether has spent thousands of hours crawling around Rat’s Nest Cave. “There’s no more great visual metaphor for overcoming obstacles that you make for yourself than choosing to go through a hole that looks impossible,” Koether says. “You know you can’t do it and then you do it.”
On our half-hour hike up Grotto Mountain to the cave entrance, we see a herd of bighorn sheep, animal tracks and fossils from when Alberta was covered in a lush ocean reef, way before the dinosaurs even showed up.
To get to Rat's Nest Cave you have to hike up Grotto Canyon where you might see bighorn sheep, and you'll definitely see evidence of Alberta's ancient past.
It’s never that the cave is easier than people thought. It’s that people can do more than they thought they could do.
Before we haul ourselves up the steep incline to the cave entrance, we suit up into harnesses for the ropes, plus kneepads, gloves, coveralls and a helmet with headlamp. And then it’s hands, knees and ropes for the next four hours. We half-climb, half-slide down to a spacious chamber home to a pile of 3,000-year-old animal bones.
Koether’s instructions for the 20-metre (65-foot) rappel ahead are reassuring. He has a way of making everything in here sound totally doable, including suspending my body over a gaping chasm. Step by vertical step, I rappel. Mostly, I move smoothly, only careening into the wall once. I didn’t even rip my pants, like the guy who came down after me.
Next, we meet our first squeeze. “Squeeze” is the euphemistic description for a small hole you’re going to try to get through. This one is so newly discovered it doesn’t have a name yet, Koether says. There are lots of discoveries ongoing in this cave. It’s part of what keeps Koether fascinated with it.
Rappelling into the darkness of Rat's Nest Cave is a bit scary at first, but mostly it's a cool and surreal experience.
“There is this certain part of the human spirit that flutters and comes alive at the idea of discovery,” he says. “Where else in the modern world do you get to find something completely new?”
Getting through this squeeze isn’t just about shoving your head through a hole. It’s full-body slithering. Equally weird and awesome.
Koether offers us a little something special: How about we spelunk in the dark? Everyone agrees —some of us timidly. What’s next might be the darkest darkness a human can experience on Earth. We share some “can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this” laughter as we slowly push and pull ourselves along a relatively flat section. Time and space pause in those minutes as I grope at rock and occasionally the shoe of the person in front of me. When we click our headlights back on, we’ve moved about 12 metres (40 feet) and the terrain looks far more tame than it seemed in the dark. It’s surreal.
Getting through slots in the cave may look impossible but with a little encouragement from your guide, you'll be surprised that you can do it.
One more short descent later and we’ve arrived at the twin pools of water in the Grotto, the deepest point on the tour. The pools are surrounded by stalagmites, one of many things in the cave worthy of studying. We eventually have to leave, pulling ourselves up ropes and limestone back to the surface. Back in in daylight, it’s hard to believe what we’d all just accomplished. Koether’s seen it all before.
“It’s never that the cave is easier than people thought. It’s that people can do more than they thought they could do.”
The bones of ancient animals are found throughout the cave, as well as pictographs and fossils. On the tour, you'll find out just how these artifacts ended up there.