A cave of secrets beneath the desert

Part of the most popular tour at Carlsbad Caverns, the King's Palace is home to massive amounts of cave formations of all shapes and sizes.
PHOTO: NPS Photo/Peter Jones

As Carlsbad Caverns' cave specialist, Rod Horrocks helps to create a living laboratory for researchers, including Nasa scientists who search for life on other planets.

A towering stone pillar emerged in my headlamp like a petrified cake dripping icing. Above it, another speleothem tapered downward, a swollen drop of water glinting at its tip.

I was 750ft beneath New Mexico's Chihuahua Desert with ranger Rod Horrocks, the cave management specialist at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

We were exploring Left Hand Tunnel - one of the park's undeveloped caves, accessed only by scientists and permitted tours.

"Put on your gloves and follow me," Horrocks said as he disappeared into a narrow side passage.

After carefully crawling over a sturdy lattice of bone-like formations, I saw him pointing to a series of pearly, tomato-sized spheres in varying stages of inflation clinging to the wall. "These are hydromagnesite balloons," he explained.

"They're fairly rare." Concentrated magnesium left by water coats the wall, leaving a thin skin, and gases from chemical reactions trapped underneath gently inflate them.

The impossibly delicate balloons underscore that Carlsbad is a living cave system still in a state of formation after 250 million years.

Horrocks has been a cave management specialist with the US National Parks Service for the last 24 years, and traces his passion for caving back to a Missouri rock quarry he visited with his father when he was seven.

"We were looking at rocks when these two teenagers emerged from a hole and said they had been exploring a cave that goes all the way through the mountain," Horrocks said.

"I wanted to go in, but Dad wisely said no. So I went to the library and read every book I could get on caves. I was hooked."

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