Caribou-Targhee and Darby Wind Cave

This is Nick, Anna’s husband, guest blogging again. Last Saturday George and I took a hike while the others had a down day. We had originally planned to do an overnighter on the back side of the Tetons but sadly Grand Teton NP only allows camping in designated, reserved sites (boo!) so we decided instead to hike to a cave on Caribou-Targhee National Forest which forms the western boundary of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

The South Darby Trail is 5 miles with 1800 feet of elevation gain on the way in. The trail tops out at just under 9000 feet, which means 25% less oxygen than sea level. Not that high, but for us non-acclimated folks it’s hard to breath when going up. We had brought a pack with us but we saw two groups of local folks heading up without packs so we decided at the last minute to leave it behind. I always bring a pack when heading into wilderness because you never know what you might end up doing. This trip would illustrate why and we would regret the decision to leave the pack behind more than once.

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George with his game face on (or not).

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The setting is incredible.

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First view of the cave waaaaay in the background.

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Almost there. Yes, that’s a waterfall coming from the cave mouth. If I were the poetical sort I’m sure I would be breathless with verse right now.

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Behind the waterfall, just below the cave entrance.

The Interwebs had led us to believe that the cave was basically a grand chamber with a couple of crawl spaces and that’s it. The reality was much more grand. There was a main cavern with ceilings reportedly as high as 200 feet. There were several places where water entered the cavern helping to create the river flowing out.

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The cave entrance. For a sense of scale, if you look closely you can just make out George in the lower right of the picture.

Apologies for the quality of the following pictures, but this is a real cave, unmolested by boardwalks, lights, signposts, or any of the other things that usually adorn the more touristy caverns.

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The main cavern. It was chilly enough to warrant a jacket. Our jackets were in the pack back at the car though, so we toughed it out. This was our first opportunity to regret not bringing the pack.

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Here’s the back of the main cavern about 200 feet in. You can see that it starts to narrow dramatically as does the available light.

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Not the best picture, but you see that tiny hole in the circle of light? That’s the crawl space to go deeper into the cavern.

On hands and knees I was scraping the top. At this point I felt a knot start to grow in my stomach at the thought of millions of pounds of rock overhead ready to come crashing down at the slightest provocation. George, however, is not the reflective sort and was manically rushing forward to see what new delights might be in store. Not wanting to be ‘that’ guy I swallowed hard, put it out of my head, and pressed forward.

Entering the crawl space the wind picked up dramatically and it was very cold. By the time we made it through our hands and legs were starting to get numb. Those gloves and sweat pants in the pack sure would have been nice. Regret number 2.

The crawl space opened out into a long tear in the heart of the mountain, narrow and jagged, with intriguing platforms unreachable overhead and a 9 foot drop about halfway through.

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The crevice.

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Climbing down the drop off (or up it maybe).

George’s head lamp was starting to run out of batteries. I traded him for my flashlight since his monkey like frame had him moving much more rapidly through and around the cave. As he moved off to explore, I just stood there for a minute watching the darkness draw closer like a living thing. Feeling the weight of the earth and rock overhead, sideways in the cave with chest an back touching rock, cold enough that the fog of my breath caught the last of the light fading around a bend, I had a brief moment of disorientation. Then, suddenly, I felt completely calm and almost at home. There was a peace in being so disconnected from the world outside. For a few brief minutes there was nothing in existence but my thoughts and they were flowing like water, smooth and gentle.

Then George came bouncing back around the corner breaking my reverie and encouraging me onward.

Moving on, we came to a belly crawl and were greeted by voices further down. Waiting, we soon spied a light heading our way, followed by an older gentleman and his teenage grandson. It turned out that he is a local and has been coming to the cave for decades. According to him the crawl space leads to a cliff that requires gear to climb down. Once at the bottom you can scale the other side to come to an underground lake fed by a waterfall. This is apparently the main source of the river outside.

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Belly crawl anyone?

Here, we decided to turn back. We had climbing gear, but as you probably guessed it was in the pack, in the car (regret number 3!!!). George and I were both freezing at this point and not looking forward to crawling over sharp rocks on bare knees only to be stopped at the other side.

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The long crawl back to the main cavern. It’s hard to tell form the camera angle, but I was scraping shoulders and on hands and knees through here.

The return was uneventful, if a bit melancholy at the missed opportunity. As we neared the cave mouth we could see that it was pouring rain. The weather had been perfect when we came, but it changes quickly in the mountains. Our rain jackets were in the car leading to regrets #5, 6, 7…well, you get the idea. It was a long walk down the mountain.

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A rather dramatic illustration of our return to light and the world above.

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Waiting out the storm.

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A last best view of the waterfall.

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Taking shelter during the descent.

Rain and hail followed us down the mountain but we finally arrived back at the truck, tired, soaked, and half frozen. We determined to never again go to any cave without our pack!

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