There’s a kind of darkness that your eyes will never adjust to. No matter how long you wait for your eyes to adjust, you will never be able to see your hand in front of your face. This kind of darkness is extremely rare in a world filled with light, but there is one place where you can find it: deep in a cave. Now imagine clipping yourself into rocks and climbing down into a cave with only the light of your headlamp to guide the way. Now add to that darkness small crevices in rocks that you will have to squeeze through, and you’ve got yourself one heck of an adventure. If you are heading to the Banff area and looking for a truly different experience, then it’s time to go under the mountains instead of on top of them and explore the Canmore Caves.
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What is Rat’s Nest Cave
The main caving experience available to you near Banff is located in the Rat’s Nest Cave system. This cave system is still being explored so it is unknown just how large it actually is. In fact, there were tools in the bottom of the cave where they were actively mapping and exploring a newly found tunnel system. This isn’t uncommon in the caving world. In fact, it is estimated that only 1% of the world’s caves have been totally explored. Completely mapping a cave is a long, difficult, and arduous process which means that most areas of most caves still remain unexplored and unmapped.
Rat’s Nest Cave is only about 2 miles long which doesn’t sound like much in hiking terms, but in caving terms, it could take anywhere from weeks to months to explore it all. The cave also has a “grotto” area that includes an area where extreme divers can try their hand at cave diving (one of the most dangerous kinds of adventures in my opinion). Our guide told us that only 7 people had attempted to cave dive there in the last 50 years.
Rat’s Nest Cave is not a show cave like Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave. Those caves have lights and paths and are easy to navigate. Rat’s Nest Cave has no lights inside the cave and no boardwalks.
Where is Rat’s Nest Cave
Rat’s Nest Cave is located in Canmore which is about 20 minutes from the town of Banff. To get to the cave, you will park at the Grotto Mountain trailhead and hike up about a mile. It is important to note that Grotto Mountain is owned by a mining company, and therefore you can only go into the cave with a guided tour with Canmore Caves Tours as they have an agreement with the company to safely take people into the cave. If you try to go without a guided tour, you will be charged with trespassing. Plus, it is incredibly dangerous to go into a cave like this alone.
Before Going Underground
Your caving experience will start in the Canmore Cave Tours office in Canmore where they will brief you on what the experience is like and get you fitted for the proper gear. After the briefing, you will follow the guide in your car to the base of Grotto Mountain where you will hike for about a mile up to the start of the cave. I highly recommend bringing water with you and maybe a hiking pole if you have bad knees. It’s a moderate ascent and hiking poles help for the hike down.
Once you reach the entrance of the cave, you will gear up and prepare to enter the cave. This involves putting on knee pads (although I wish I had elbow pads too), harness and rope, coveralls, gloves, and a helmet.
No matter what the temperature is outside the cave, it remains around 40 degrees Fahrenheit or 4 degrees Celcius year-round inside the cave. If you are visiting Banff in winter, this is a great activity to escape the cold for a bit. Because of this temperature, some people opt to wear a jacket under their coveralls. However, I chose not to add any layers under my coveralls because of all of the climbing that we would be doing, and I was happy with my choice. In my 2.5 hours inside the cave, I was never cold.
The Underground Experience
For reference, I chose to do the shorter, less intense “Explorer tour” because I was nursing a back injury at the time. If I ever go back, I will absolutely opt for the more adventurous tour, because if you have followed this blog for any amount of time, you will quickly realize that I love adventure. This tour description is what you will experience on the “easier” tour so keep that in mind when booking.
In order to access the cave, you have to use a rope to climb up a slippery, but short rockface. This is a good introduction to what you will be experiencing in the cave itself because you will be utilizing ropes to descend into the cave as well as to climb back out. While this tour does not have any repelling (the adventure tour does though!), the ropes are essential to keep you from slipping. As soon as you enter the cave, you will clip your harness to the ropes so that you don’t slide off the rock to the bone graveyard below. Yes, you heard that right, bone graveyard. There is a dropoff at the entrance of the cave that is filled with the bones of animals past that have wandered into the cave and fallen to their death. It’s creepy and definitely enough to make you want to follow your guide’s safety instructions.
Your first descent is the most difficult descent that you will make. You have to clip into a rope and descend down a slippery rock face, mostly using your arms and the rope to aid balance. You will have to clip and unclip to different ropes as you descend, but once you reach the bottom, you are truly inside the cave. At the base of the initial descent, there are bones on the ground and lined up against the wall so they refer to it as the “bone room.”
Next, you will have to go through one of the mandatory “squeezes.” Most squeezes, or incredibly tight crevices that you have to squeeze through, are optional. Most of the tour is “trial by choice,” and the guide will talk you through what the squeeze will be like so that you can choose whether or not you want to experience it. Some of the squeezes aren’t optional though as they are the only way to continue further down into the gave.
The first of these tighter spaces involves climbing down a ladder in a hole to get to a lower area of the cave. The space is tight, but nothing like what is to come.
After climbing down the ladder, you are now in the area of the cave where true darkness exists. At this point in the tour, our guide, Brent, told us all to turn off our headlamps to experience true darkness. We waited for a bit in pure blackness, but our eyes never adjusted. I put my hand inches from my face and couldn’t even see an outline. It was interesting to imagine what would happen if the batteries in our headlamps all died. There is absolutely nothing you can do in that kind of darkness.
After experiencing the complete darkness, we continued on to the only mandatory “squeeze” which involved climbing on our hands and knees through a small hole in the cave wall to the next room. You have the option to go headfirst or feet first through the squeeze, but there is a drop right after you go through. If you go feet first, you won’t be able to see where you are going. If you go headfirst, you won’t be able to back out easily if you get stuck or panic. I chose to go headfirst and slipped through the squeeze. The immediate drop had me in a planking/push-up position as I dragged my body through the hole. It was a great “introductory” squeeze to prepare you for the rest of the tour. (Hint: The squeezes get tighter).
These squeezes are possible for most able-bodied humans. For this particular tour, you must be over the age of 10 and able to climb a rope with the aid of your legs. If you are a person of size, I would consult with the Canmore Caves tour company before booking the tour to ensure that you can participate.
After that initial squeeze, all squeezes were optional. Of course, I opted for all of them. I was surprised at just how difficult caving could be. I was often on my stomach, slithering like a snake through a crevice so tight that I couldn’t even get up off my stomach. In one of the squeezes, I couldn’t even use my arms to pull me through, I mostly had to kick the ground behind me with my toes and inch through the tight crevice.
Some squeezes had names to the moves you had to do to get through them. One was nicknamed the James Bond Beached Whale because you have to launch yourself on your stomach onto a rock where you James Bond roll to the side to get off the rock and into the next room.
This type of tour is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t for people who are afraid of the dark or can’t climb a rope, and it is DEFINITELY not for people who don’t like small spaces. I usually have no problems with tight spaces, but our last squeeze was so tight that even I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck there long. The inability to stand up or even get on your hands and knees to get you out of a situation if something happened can be scary. You can’t back up. You can’t stand up. You can’t do anything but keep moving forward while being unable to lift your head enough to see in front of you. But that is what makes it such an incredible adventure.
If you are looking for an adventure that most people would say “um heck no” to, then I highly recommend this Canmore Caves tour.
It is important to note that you are never in any real danger as the guide is there to help walk you through any tough situations. The tour is truly an incredible adventure that is unlike any tour I’ve ever done. It’s a great intro to caving that shows you what it is like navigating the underground world.
What To Pack for the Canmore Caves Tour
It is important to note that you cannot bring a backpack of any kind into the cave. It is also important to note that you will not be able to use the bathroom in the cave so keep that in mind when hydrating before this event. The last chance to use the restroom is in the woods at the entrance of the cave. With that being said, you will leave your backpack in a tent outside the cave entrance that can hold any items for you while you are in the cave. Make sure to leave your keys behind in the backpack because if they fall out in the cave, you are out of luck.
The list of what you need to bring for the Canmore Caves Tour is short:
- Waterproof Boots- It can be very wet down in the cave so you will appreciate having waterproof boots to avoid getting your feet wet. If you don’t have waterproof boots, any shoes with good grip and ankle support will be fine
- Flexible Clothing– This varies from person to person. You will need to be able to lift your legs up high to climb and shimmy on the ground in your clothes, so make sure that they are loose or flexible enough to allow for this. I wore leggings and a flannel, and it worked just fine.
- No Real Camera- Don’t bring a real camera down into the cave with you, it is far too dark to capture anything
- Water– While you can’t bring water into the cave with you, by the end of the tour, you will be thirsty and ready to drink. It is important to bring water on the hike with you and leave it with your pack outside so that you have something to drink before your hike down.
- Snacks– If you can fit a snack in your pocket, you can bring it! Just make sure to pack out all trash and leave no trace. Eric and I didn’t bring snacks and regretted it because we were starving by the end. We didn’t realize how physically demanding the tour would be and we were really hungry by the time we go back to our car.
- Cellphone– I chose to bring my phone with me into the cave so that I could get photos for this post. I will say that if your phone does not have a “night mode” it will struggle to take any decent photos. If your phone doesn’t have night mode, I would leave it behind. Eric has an Iphone SE which doesn’t have night mode and none of his photos turned out.
Tour Options for Rat’s Nest Cave
There are two Canmore Caves tour options for exploring Rat’s Nest Cave.
The Explorer Tour
This tour is 4 hours long and takes you through the basic overview of the cave. It is great for people who want a half-day adventure or don’t want to experience repelling or more intense caving experiences. This is the tour that I described above, and I highly recommend it. As someone who loves adventure, I would have opted for the longer tour if I wasn’t nursing an injury. Both are awesome options, it just depends on how much physical activity you are prepared for. You must be 10 years old to go on this tour.
The Adventure Tour
The adventure tour is a 6-hour tour that takes you through more intense squeezes and includes repelling. This tour is for people who are more physically fit and have a true thirst for adventure. You must be 12 years old to go on this tour.
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