With a heavy clunk, Phyllis removes a metal bar that gates a cave entrance in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico. It’s a small entrance, with an upward grade and not much room to spare when a body wiggles through. At the age of 77, Phyllis Bonneau is an unlikely character to push forward into this dark hole. With a few grunts and the sound of knee and elbow pads grating across limestone, she emerges through the hole: A cave system, miles in length, sprawls before us in the blackness.
I’m with my buddies Scott, Liam, and Bryce on a week-long, wild caves adventure. The four of us have been caving together for over a decade, and Scott has 30 years of experience exploring and working in caves around the world. But to gain access to this particular cave, we need more than a key to the gate. We need Phyllis. Phyllis is a volunteer approved by the US Forest Service to lead cave trips in this area, a requirement to assure the safety of cavers and the protection of incredibly fragile cave ecosystems.
We crawl through a dusty passage dragging our loaded bags, our lights bounce across textured walls and hanging daggers of rock. Mystery lurks in dark pockets and obscure chasms. It’s tiring to scramble and lug our heavy gear through the first several hundred feet, so we take a break. “I'll tell you a story now that we’re past the entrance”, says Phyllis. “Once when I crawled through that gate I was met with a hissing and rattling sound, and I see right in front of my face a huge bullsnake!” We laugh, relieved that hasn’t been our experience.
Phyllis was 53 when she discovered an interest in caves. She was gifted a ticket to a wild cave tour at Carlsbad Caverns. Her kids had left the nest, and she was eager to try something new. The sport and sensation of exploring underground wilderness appealed to her and she jumped into this new caving hobby with passionate enthusiasm. It didn’t hurt that her home is in New Mexico where there is a concentration of hundreds of huge and highly decorated limestone caverns embedded in the rugged Guadalupe Mountains. Hundreds of thousands of years in the making across mind-spinning geologic chapters, the caves of this region are renowned for their incredible calcite formations, which challenge our best understanding of how rock can take shape.
These caves have seen a lot of visitors crawl through them over the past 100 years. Most cavers come with good intentions of minimizing their impact through leave no trace practices. Unfortunately, a handful of people have been less well-intentioned, and very destructive. The combined human traffic has left a heavy impression on these caves: Mud from feet, hands and clothing cover cave walls, broken stalactites and stalagmites lay scattered on the ground, and delicate calcite formations have been crushed under passing feet and bodies. Phyllis has more than good intentions, she's actively working to repair the damage.
She hoists up a harness around her waist and checks the double-backed straps and carabiner locks. To access an area of restoration work, we need to rappel down a 90 foot pit. We will also have to ascend our way up and out of it on the same rope. It’s an intimidating prospect for us middle-aged, reasonably-fit guys, but with full confidence and a bright smile Phyllis weaves the rope through her rappel rack and lowers herself confidently into the black abyss.
Phyllis volunteers with the High Guads Restoration Project, an initiative with the National Speleological Society to monitor, restore, and create designated travel routes in these caves. That means gently washing and brushing dirt and footprints from formations, marking routes with flagging, and if possible, physically reconnecting broken formations. There is little water in the cave and existing pools are delicate, so volunteers haul in dozens of 2-liter bottles of clean water two miles to the cave entrance, through the tight crawls, and down the vertical drop. It’s physically exhausting and tedious work, the results of which are only seen by a handful of people a year who visit this part of the cave.
We’ve been underground for a few hours now and stop to rest. Our packs contain everything we’d need to survive several days in case of an emergency, including extra lights and batteries, food, water, clothing layers, and our climbing gear. We’re also prepared to pack out absolutely everything we bring, including our own human waste. Leave no trace means exactly that.
Phyllis pulls out a can of cold raviolis for a snack and looks on skeptically as we unfold a tarp and prepare to boil water for some Mountain House meals. She’s into a piece of jerky by the time we pass around a warm pouch of Mountain House and offer her a steamy bite. Freeze-dried meals are a strange and new concept for Phyllis, but she takes a bite and her eyes light up with delight. “Oh, this is GOOD!” she exclaims with surprise, and we all laugh as she digs into the pouch on the second pass around. Caving is generally a pretty uncomfortable activity, and simple comforts like a hot meal hold great reverence in the dark and the dirt. I bet Phyllis looks at those cans of ravioli with a bit more reluctance from here out.
There are few frontiers left on Earth which are untrammeled by humans, but caves are largely still one of them. And while surface landscapes are subject to daily forces of change and erosion and have become relatively resilient, caves are static environments, and one misstep or act of negligence can undo ten thousand years of geologic art. Phyllis cares intensely about these places. Not just because caves have become a recreational playground in her retirement years, but because she wants others to experience them in their most pristine and exquisite form. In her midlife, she rediscovered a sense of wonder from cave exploration, and she’s working hard to protect and renew these profound geologic treasure troves so that those following in her gentle footprints will have the same opportunity.
John Waller is the founder of Uncage the Soul Productions, a Portland-based video production company renowned for genuine heart, stunning visual art, and a unique way of capturing the wonder that is around us and compelling the wonder that is within us.