|Caving began to gain a foothold in Canada in the mid-1960s. (Photo: Francois-Xavier de Ruydts)
Far beneath Alberta’s Castleguard
Mountain, cave diver Martin Groves swims
farther and farther into a pitch-black unexplored
passageway. The beams of four powerful flashlights
lashed to his helmet provide the only
glimpse of his surroundings. After dropping for 19 metres,
the flooded sump levels out, and Groves glides through
a gently rising break between layers of limestone, a seam
that’s two metres high and about 10 metres wide. Scalloped
walls indicate that strong currents once surged here, but
today, the water is still and clear. Groves’ fins kick up a fine
dusting of sediment. The 39-year-old veteran caver from
Wales methodically unspools white line from a reel, connecting
it with strips of inner tube to rocks on the bottom
of the sump. This line is helping him survey the new
passage; it’s also a lifeline leading out.
On his chest, Groves wears a homemade rebreather, an
advanced piece of diving gear that scrubs CO2 from exhaled
air, then reinjects oxygen so that the gas can be inhaled again.
Unlike scuba, or “open circuit,” equipment, where every
breath is vented, a rebreather allows divers to remain underwater
for an extraordinary length of time. (Groves’ lightweight
system can operate for four hours; some bulkier units
can last much longer.) Chemical reactions inside the
rebreather warm the recycled air and, by extension, the diver
— a significant advantage in Castleguard’s frigid waters.
After covering 845 metres in more than an hour underwater,
Groves spots “the magical mirror image of air” above.
His heart races, and moments later, he surfaces into
a muddy, lake-filled chamber. He is through the sump.
The shoreline that Groves crawls onto has never seen
human footprints before. His lights reveal a subway-like tunnel, at least three metres in diameter, disappearing into
the darkness. Groves, normally a reserved man, a high
school math teacher at home, can’t resist the urge to howl.
A throaty echo reverberates back, indicating significant
It’s April 2010, and this isn’t an ordinary cave that Groves
is “pushing” (adding distance to). With 21 kilometres of
surveyed passages, Castleguard is already Canada’s longest
cave. Stretching under the Columbia Icefield in Jasper
National Park, Castleguard is internationally renowned for
its remote alpine location, its phreatic tubes (perfectly round
passages) and its sapphire plugs of intruded glacial ice. Unlike
most cave networks, which tend to spider out, Castleguard’s
main trail extends in a relatively straight line, more or less
parallel to the sump. A journey to its terminus is comparable,
in challenge and commitment, to an ascent of El Capitan’s
legendary Nose route, in California, says veteran caver Greg
Horne, a resource management/public safety specialist with
Parks Canada in Jasper. Even in systems such as Kentucky’s
Mammoth Cave, which has more than 620 kilometres of
explored passages, an exit is never as far.
Groves begins to remove his dive kit, then pauses. Alone,
beyond a flooded sump, in a remote cave, he might as well
be on another planet. If he gets into trouble here, rescue is
all but impossible.
During the 70-minute dive to reach this chamber,
Groves’ right hand went numb, the result of a faulty dry
glove, and one of his two oxygen meters was giving strange
results. (Divers using rebreathers must vigilantly monitor
oxygen levels to avoid toxicity.) Taking off his dry suit
without help would not only be difficult but also risk damaging
a zipper or gasket. A leak in this 4°C water could pose
a serious, potentially fatal problem.
On the other hand, wonders Groves, when will he get this
opportunity again? This is his third expedition to Castleguard,
and getting here required massive support: seven British cavers
and 20 members of the Alberta Speleological Society had
dragged his heavy diving gear up the Saskatchewan Glacier
in sleds, rappelled down the initial eight-metre drop into the
cave, then crawled for a few hours through cramped, icy passages
to reach the sump. An extensive cave network could
continue beyond the sump, speculates Groves, and perhaps
prove even longer than the known Castleguard system. The
heart of caving lies in the discovery and exploration of new
passageways — an addiction that’s luring him onward.
Then “a cold calculating logic took grip,” says Groves.
“It’s critical to maintain a very defensive attitude when caving.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a sport for
adrenaline junkies.” To safely explore and map the
unknown system ahead, he’d need a partner.
Groves takes one last long look at the beckoning void,
then pulls on his mask and sinks underwater. The unexplored
cave settles into silence. But even as he fins back to
his support team, Groves begins planning a return.
Very few opportunities for genuine exploration
remain anywhere on the planet, and in Canada, alongside
oceans, caves arguably represent the last great frontier. “We
have vast areas of potential and very limited manpower,” says
Chas Yonge, the operator of Canmore Caverns in Alberta’s
Rockies and a seasoned member of Canada’s tight-knit caving
community. “In Britain, it’s not uncommon to see a couple
thousand cavers descend on a single region each weekend.
Until recently, you’d be lucky to find 10 really active cavers
in all of Alberta. Bit by bit, that’s starting to change.”
Four months after Groves’ dive added length to Castleguard,
Canada’s deepest cave was dethroned by a new contender.
The long-standing depth record — 536 metres, held by
Arctomys Cave in Mount Robson Provincial Park, B.C. —
was shattered by a find in southeastern British Columbia's
Flathead wilderness. These were just two breakthroughs in a
series of significant discoveries that Yonge and others describe
as the “dawn of a new golden age in Canadian caving.”
The journey down what is now Canada’s deepest cave
began in 2002, when members of the Alberta Speleological
Society spent the summer poking around the limestone
deposits south of Fernie, B.C. Most leads yielded nothing.
“It was frustrating,” recalls Gavin Elsley, a Welsh caver who
had just moved to Canada at the time. “A lot of driving,
a lot of hiking, and nothing to show for it.”
As frosts approached and the larch-peppered hillsides of the Flathead River valley turned yellow, cavers explored a recently
discovered promising entrance on Mount Doupe, although
they managed to penetrate only 100 metres before winter
snows clogged the way. Still, they sensed they were onto
something big. “The cave just kept huffing and puffing,” says
Elsley. “Blowing out air in the morning, then sucking it back
in each evening.” On a hot day, so much cold air blasted out
the entrance that someone standing 20 metres away would
get chilled. The cavers named their discovery Heavy Breather.
All caves breathe, but large drafts indicate one of two
things: significant volume (changes in barometric pressure
force air in and out) or a second entrance (cold air sinking
out the bottom entrance or warm air venting from the top).
As soon as the snow melted the next spring, club members
began returning to Heavy Breather every weekend to survey
and explore. By summer’s end, they had pushed the cave to
an impressive depth of 350 metres.
It was the potential for something big that lured one
Calgary caver back repeatedly in the winter of 2003-2004.
Travelling by snowmobile to the remote region, Jason
Morgan was often forced to dig out the entrance (a task that occasionally proved impossible). In 16 solo explorations, he
pushed Heavy Breather to a depth of 500 metres — an epic
effort that made it Canada’s second deepest cave. But then
progress stalled; the cave appeared to have bottomed out.
Meanwhile, a nearby cave — 150 metres higher on the
same mountainside — was showing promise. Discovered
in 2003 and named Pachidream (because an elephant could
fit in its immense entrance), the cave was quickly pushed
to a depth of 330 metres. If the caves could somehow be
joined and Pachidream’s additional 150 metres tacked on
to Heavy Breather (see map on page 46), the new system
would be the deepest in North America, outside Mexico.
Surveying new passageways is an integral part of caving’s
well-established ethical code. “Scooping booty,” or racing ahead without meticulous note-taking, is frowned upon (see
How to map a cave, above). The data collected are so accurate that
during multi-year projects, such as the Heavy Breather/
Pachidream survey, each season’s results must be adjusted
for changing magnetic declination (the angle between true
north and magnetic north), otherwise looping passageways
won’t line up. In this case, three-dimensional line plots
showed that the two caves were aligned on the same tear
fault. (Small tear faults run perpendicular to massive
regional thrust faults in the southern Rockies and accommodate
localized strain.) The race was on.