I stayed in Canmore, Alta., for a few days during the first half of May 2015. I was told by several people in the industry that, tourism-wise, it was an in-between period for the town and the Canadian Rockies overall. While there were deals to take advantage of (hotels, in particular), there weren’t too many tourist attractions actually open. I learned about Canmore Cave Tours which, at the time of this writing, operates year-round, while searching “things to do in Canmore” online. The uniqueness of the activity and significant online praise caught my eye, so I booked a tour. I’m glad I did because, of the tourist attractions I’ve experienced in the Canadian Rockies, this was the most worthwhile.
The two main tours at Rat’s Nest Cave available that day were the Explorer Tour and the Adventure Tour, priced (before GST) for adults at $125 and $155, respectively. The latter included more time exploring underground, a rappel, and a trip through a tunnel known as the Laundry Chute. I chose the Adventure Tour because I thought that the extras were worth the added cost — and they were. I felt that the tour spent the right amount of time inside the cave, rappelling in the dark was a novel experience, and the Laundry Chute was fun to traverse.
We started the day getting our provided attire (coveralls, helmets, and such) at Canmore Cave Tours’ office at 10:15 a.m. The group consisted of one guide (another guide also came along to audit the other one that day), three couples, and yours truly. Rental cameras durable for caving were available at the office.
We eventually drove (in our own cars) about five minutes away to the base of Grotto Mountain (map above). We hiked up a trail for roughly between 30 and 45 minutes, stopping every so now and then for the guide to tell us facts about the area. The hike was no Grouse Grind, but I found it to be the most physically demanding part of the entire tour.
We put on our caving attire in a partly tented spot near the padlocked cave entrance (pictured above). People aren’t supposed to urinate inside the cave, so a few people in the group relieved their bladders in the surrounding forest. According to the guide, the cave’s temperature inside is 5 C/41 F all year. I was slightly worried that I would feel cold with only my jeans, t-shirt, and sweater-jacket under the coveralls, but I probably didn’t even need the jacket, in hindsight. That said, I get hot extremely easily, so most people should probably stick to at least a t-shirt and a sweater up top. Also, I can do anything wearing jeans; most people going on a trip like this would probably be better off wearing something more flexible.
To get into the cave, we had to crawl up a smooth and slippery small hill (partly pictured under the rope in the photo at the very bottom). The entrance is home to bushy-tailed woodrats, the guide said. Shortly before entering the cave, we saw one stare at us on the cage about 20 feet away and then run away. The guide said that these animals stay away from people, and I did not see any more of them after that. What I did see were daddy longlegs — dozens, maybe hundreds of them along the upper parts of a slanted wall inside the entrance. It felt a little creepy to kind of slide by them while leaning nearby on the opposite slanted wall, though the spiders stayed at the entrance and didn’t crawl on anyone (to my knowledge).
When we journeyed through steep portions of the cave where we faced a greater risk of falling off, we had to attach two ropes to a rope system along the walls. After the first major descent, the guides showed us a collection of what they said were animal bones that the woodrats brought into the cave over the years.
We got to the rappel portion early on. The guide said that the drop was about 18 metres/60 feet. The guide connected me to two ropes: one that I controlled, another controlled by her. I don’t think I had ever rappelled before (maybe once in high school). The wall was bumpy, and finding the proper footing was somewhat difficult, but I found the descent relatively easy to handle. Not being able to see where I was supposed to land was first worrisome before becoming quasi-liberating. From the rappel’s start-up to the last person (the guide) touching ground, the process took about an hour. I have no idea if they could have sped up the process much, but waiting for everyone to complete this part was pretty boring. I spent that time getting to know the other participants; they were all from Alberta, I learned.
The next highlight was our first trip through an extremely tight tunnel. It was opened by someone years prior, the guide said. It was about a dozen feet long. It led to a small chamber. So began the most nerve-racking part of the trip. At one point during the crawl through the tunnel, my posterior got stuck between the ceiling and the floor. I felt my heart rate increase and a sense of panic ready to emerge. It took what felt like minutes in my mind (only a few seconds in reality) to wiggle free… and then I had to do it again to get back out, getting stuck again. At least one person who attempted the crawl stopped at that unforgiving point and backed out.
That was one of the best experiences on the trip.
At the time, I was about 5’11” and 230 pounds. The guide told me that people bigger than me had been able to travel through every tunnel on the trip. This first tight tunnel and the very last one we did were challenging but not impossible for my frame. Of course, the larger you are, the more difficult these kind of tunnels will be, I imagine. For me, the key was to stay calm and realize that I could always wiggle myself out backwards if need be. The tight tunnels were optional.
The ‘stuck butt’ incident made me rethink attempting the pièce de résistance: the Laundry Chute. The L-shaped tunnel was said to be an extreme squeeze. I was assured that I could do it, so I let go of my inhibitions, then wiggled down. We started at the top of the tunnel, going down feet first until we reached the bottom. Despite going straight down at parts, the tunnel was so tight that the descent was slow. (I can confirm that it did live up to its reputation of inducing wedgies.) At the bottom, I had to maneuver my legs into a crevice to straighten out my body for the horizontal crawl; a two-point turn, essentially. Oddly, I found the Laundry Chute easier to pass through than the aforementioned first tight tunnel.
Later, there was a steep, rope-assisted slide down to another room (pictured above). Near the end of the journey, we saw the grotto (pictured below). At one point, we turned off all of our lights for a few minutes to take in the utter darkness (and the sounds of dripping water).
Although you could bring a camera with you, only something small, such as a cellphone or a GoPro camera, was practical. The guide had no problem using my cellphone to take photos of me when I asked. There were several opportunities for cool photos. (All of mine in this post were shot on a Nexus 6.)
On our way out, there was another optional trip through another tight tunnel (that’s me, below, exiting it into a small chamber). This was probably the most difficult one to go through. It was so tight, I felt my sternum area press against the top of the tunnel as I wiggled onward. It wasn’t wide enough at certain points to even manage an army crawl.
Finally, I went on an optional ride down a small slide of sorts carved into a cave wall that required a challenging initial climb sans rope.
Earlier, one person in the group said she suffered a minor injury. As she was trying to sit down in a small chamber we explored, she said she sprained her thumb. It was an isolated incident, and the guide aided her. I felt safe throughout the entire trip, though scrapes and bruises were a given.
Going on this tour was another round of not listening to my brain. Caving for the first time elicited red flags in my mind akin to the ones that sprouted when I leaned off of a bungee-jump platform a few days prior. I enjoy playing with my comfort levels and seeing how far I can go, and this trip was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.