I stayed in Canmore, Alta. for a few days during the first half of May 2015. Tourism-wise, it was an in-between period for the town and the Canadian Rockies overall, I learned. While there were deals to take advantage of (hotels in particular), there weren’t too many tourist attractions actually open. I discovered Canmore Cave Tours, which operates all year, by searching “things to do in Canmore” via Google. 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 main Canadian Rockies tourist attractions I’ve experienced (I’ve done most), this was the best.
The two main tours offered at Rat’s Nest Cave are, at the time of this writing, the Explorer Tour and the Adventure Tour, priced (before GST) for adults at $125 and $155, respectively. The latter includes more time exploring underground, a rappel, and a trip through the Laundry Chute tunnel. 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 (an L-shaped tunnel I’ll discuss later in this post) was fun to traverse.
We started the day by getting our provided attire (coveralls, helmets, etc.) 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 that day), three couples, and yours truly. Rental cameras durable for caving were available at the office.
We eventually drove (in our own separate cars) about five minutes away to the base of Grotto Mountain (map above). We hiked up a trail for roughly 30-45 minutes, stopping every so now and then to hear facts about the area from the guide. 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 partially tented spot near the padlocked cave entrance. Since no one is supposed to urinate inside the cave, a few people on the tour relieved themselves 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 combo under the coveralls, but I probably didn’t even need the sweater, in hindsight. That said, I get hot extremely easily, so most people should probably stick to at least a sweater and t-shirt up top. Also, I can do anything wearing jeans; most people doing a trip like this would probably be better wearing something more flexible.
To get into the cave, we had to crawl up a relatively smooth and subsequently slippery small hill (partially pictured under the rope in the photo of the entrance, and the photo at the very bottom). The entrance is home to bushy-tailed woodrats. Shortly before entering the cave, we saw one stare at us on the fence about 20 feet away and then run away. The guide said that the animals stay away from people, and I did not see any more after that. What I did see were daddy longlegs — dozens, maybe hundreds of the them along the ceiling and upper parts of the walls. It was a little creepy to walk by them, though the spiders stayed at the entrance and didn’t crawl on anyone.
When we journeyed through steep portions of the cave where we could potentially fall 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 had brought into the cave over the years.
We got to the rappel portion early on during the trip. The guide said that the drop was about 18 metres/60 feet (it was too dark; I couldn’t tell). 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), but I found the descent relatively easy. The wall was bumpy, and finding the proper footing was somewhat difficult yet not impossible. 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 (there was a lot of rope), but the waiting part was a little boring. I spent that time getting to know the other participants, learning that they were all from Alberta.
The next highlight was our first trip through an extremely tight tunnel. It was opened by someone years prior, the guide said. At about a dozen feet long, it led to a small chamber; so began the most nerve-racking part of the trip. At some point during the crawl through the tunnel, my posterior got stuck between the ceiling and floor. I felt my heart rate increase and a sense of panic waiting to manifest. It took what felt like minutes in my mind (it was only a few seconds, really) 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.
(I should note that I was about 5’11” and 230 lbs at the time. The guide told me that people bigger than me have 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, at least in theory. For me, the key was to stay calm and realize that I could always wiggle myself out backwards if need be. The tight tunnels, I should stress, are optional.)
The ‘stuck butt’ incident made me rethink attempting the pièce de résistance: the Laundry Chute. The tunnel is L-shaped and pegged as being 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. Even though it was a straight drop at times, the tunnel was so tight that the descent was slow. (I can confirm that it did live up to its wedgie-inducing reputation.) At the bottom, I had to maneuver my legs into a crevice to straighten out my body for the horizontal portion; a two-point turn, essentially. Oddly, I found the Laundry Chute easier to pass than the prior one.
The rest of the tour included a steep, rope-assisted slide down to another room (above), and more exploration. Near the end, we got to see the gorgeous grotto (below). At one point, we all turned off our lights for a few minutes to take in the utter darkness (and sounds of dripping water).
Although you could bring a camera with you, only something small, such as a cellphone or GoPro, was practical. The guide had no problem using my cellphone to take photos of me when asked, but it would have been nice if there was an option from Canmore Cave Tours to have the guide take photos with a better camera suited for the darkness of the cave. I thought that there were so many opportunities for cool photos (the photo below, namely). While my photos turned out okay (shot on a Nexus 6, if you were curious), I wouldn’t have minded paying a reasonable amount for better ones.
On our way out, there was an optional trip through another tight tunnel (that’s me, below, exiting it into the small chamber). This was probably the most difficult one to go through. It was so tight, I felt my sternum press against the top of the tunnel as I wiggled onward. I couldn’t even army crawl at certain points.
Finally, I went on an optional ride down a small slide of sorts carved into a cave wall that you must first climb up without a rope, which was challenging.
I should mention that one person in the group suffered a minor injury. As she was trying to sit down in a small chamber we explored, she said 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. I was never scared, but going caving for the first time elicited unavoidable red flags in my mind akin to leaning off of a bungee jump platform. I enjoy playing with my comfort levels and seeing how far I can go, so this trip was for me. While there were a couple of parts that I felt could have been improved, this was a fulfilling experience that I’m happy to take with me back into the open world. The Adventure Tour provided just that: adventure.