For the chance to explore the Canadian Rockies like you never have before, go caving, also known as spelunking or potholing, at the Rat’s Nest Cave about 6 km (3.7 miles) east of Canmore, Alberta, Canada during the Spirit in the Mountain event. Canmore is located at the gateway to Banff National Park. It is just west of Calgary, about 104.3 km (64.8 miles) or approximately 1 hour 10 minutes. If you are coming from the town of Banff, Canmore is about 26.3 km east (16.3 miles) or approximately 24 minutes.
About the Cave
Located under the south-facing slope of Grotto Mountain, the wild, undeveloped cave stretches 4 km (2.5 miles) in length of explored passage (and is likely 4 times more of unexplored passage) with a depth of 245 metres (803.8 feet). It is the 14th longest cave in Canada and the 5th deepest in Alberta (22nd deepest in Canada) as per Caving Canada.
The Rat’s Nest Cave is 5°C (41°F) year-round. This means if it is very hot outside, very cold, or rainy, checking out the cave is a great alternative as tours are offered year round. The Rat’s Nest Cave was dissolved out of limestone deposited about 350 million years ago. The first reference to the cave was possibly in 1858 by the Palliser Expedition. Modern cavers were said to be active in the Rat’s Nest Cave from the 1950’s onwards, although there is evidence that suggest animal and human presence for as far back as 3,000 years.
In 1987 the Rat’s Nest Cave and about 2.6 square km (1 square mile) surrounding the entrance was designated a Provincial Historic Site. Thus, the entrance is gated and locked and is only accessible with a guide from Canmore Cave Tours or by permission (if you have proper caving certifications). This helps to keep the cave in pristine condition. There is, however, unobstructed access for small animals such as woodrats, bats, and shrews. The cave was given its named after the bushy-tailed woodrat, also known as a packrat, as when the cave was discovered the entrance was filled with packrat nests. Woodrats are often called packrats as they like to collect an abundance of objects and various things.
The cave is known as a wild cave as it is still in its natural state. This means there is no interior lighting, no handrails, and no walkways. The Rat’s Nest Cave contains geological and paleontological features and formations which include stalactites, stalagmites, animal bones, fossils, and pictographs.
Types of Tours
Canmore Cave Tours offers a variety of tours ranging from for those with no experience to those with substantial experience. First is the Explorer Tour, which requires moderate hiking, crawling, climbing, and sliding. There is no rappelling and the tour is around 4.5 hours long, with about 2 hours underground. You must be at least 10 years old or over.
The Adventure Tour, which has been recognized as a Canadian Signature experience, involves moderate hiking, crawling, sliding, rappelling and (optional) squeezing. The tour lasts about 6 hours, with approximately 4 hours spent underground. You must be 12 years or over to take part.
The Gargantua Cave and Cleft Cave Tour is a multi-day, multi-cave back country experience suitable only for those with a high level of fitness.
Team building events are offered for corporate groups, which range from an informal fun day of caving to a leadership and teamwork development program. Furthermore, there are caving courses (both horizontal and vertical caving) for new and experienced cavers to develop and maintain necessary skills required for caving.
Additionally, there is a Discovery Tour which is a 2-3 hour interpretive hike that takes you to the entrance of the Rat’s Nest Cave, but you don’t actually go caving.
However, the most unique is the Spirit in the Mountain Tour which takes place just before Christmas. This was the tour that I chose as it was an opportunity to attend a concert, approximately 40 minutes long, and hear Christmas carols sung live by the Valley Winds Music Association choir (VWMA) 10 stories, or 30 metres (98.4 feet), underground in a cave. The performance took place to a seated audience in the grand gallery. This is a large vaulted room with amazing acoustics, and the largest part of the Rat’s Nest Cave. A couple of the songs had to be adapted for the location, which made it truly an amazing, once in a lifetime experience! The idea for the event came as a way to participate in the Canmore Christmas Festival and was such a huge hit that it will now take place annually. This year, the Spirit in the Mountain event will take place on December 16, 17, and 19, 2016.
Similar to the Explorer Tour, the Spirit in the Mountain Tour requires moderate hiking and in the cave there is walking, sliding, crawling and climbing over and through rock formations, but no rappelling. You must be at least 10 years old to go on the tour which is about 4.5 hours long, with about 2 hours spent underground. Reservations are required for this tour and all Canmore Cave Tours.
A new tour that has been added this year is Halloween in the Rockies. This tour offers you the chance to watch The Descent – a “riveting, claustrophobic horror film” after descending over 10 stories underground in the cave. Other holiday themed tours may also be added next year.
We met at the cave tour office for the Spirit in the Mountain event just before 6 pm. There we were debriefed, given safety instructions, signed a waiver, and then suited up in coveralls (to protect our clothes from getting dirty), kneepads, a harness and safety lanyard, gloves, a helmet with headlamp, and ice cleats, which went on top of our winter hiking boots. We also wore warm, comfortable clothes, jackets, and snowpants. In addition, we were given a backpack to be used to carry things up to the cave (water, energy bar, extra layers), but it had to be left outside the cave. You can only take with you in the cave what can fit in your pockets, in order to be more agile and fit through smaller spaces. Therefore, if you wish to take pictures you should bring a small pocket-size automatic, use the camera on your cellphone, or rent one from Canmore Cave Tours. The cave is not a place you would want to bring a large camera as it could get ruined or broken quite easily.
Once we suited up in our caving gear, we took a short van ride (about 5 minutes) to the base of Grotto Mountain. On other tours you find your own transportation there as there is usually only one group accessing the cave at a time (with a possibility of some overlap). In this case there were multiple groups going through the cave at staggered intervals so everyone could see the concert together in the grand gallery, but you don’t feel rushed during your exploration before or after the performance.
We hiked/scrambled up the mountain on the snow-packed trail to the cave entrance in the moonlight, with the help of our headlamps and our guide Max, who grew up caving. All of the guides at Canmore Cave Tours have extensive caving experience and are professionally trained and certified, as safety is very important when caving. It was beautiful to see the mountain covered in snow and lit by the moon and our headlamps. The hike is normally about 30-45 minutes, but with the snowy/icy paths and darkness it took us a bit longer as it was a bit slippery in places. You should be in good physical fitness for both the hike and cave tour.
Once we got up to the cave entrance and entered the cave it was quite daunting, but that was the hardest part and spelunking got much easier after that. As we descended deeper into the cave we got used to the environment and the techniques required to explore the cave and it became much more comfortable. Caving is a chance to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. We went through twisting passages through different size chambers before arriving in the grand gallery for the musical performance, which completely lived up to and surpassed our expectations.
There were a couple of optional squeezes in the cave, which are not recommended if you are severely claustrophobic. Throughout the tour we learnt about natural history and geology, how the caves were created and the geological make-up of the area. The atmosphere and mood throughout the evening was incredible. There were many wonderful surprises throughout the Spirit in the Mountain Tour, which made the evening even more of an adventure. It was a very unique, exciting, and special way to celebrate Christmas! What better way to explore a cave then on the Spirit in the Mountain Tour? It is a very magical and surreal experience that will get you into the festive spirit of Christmas!
Map of Canmore
What is your favourite unique festival/event? Why?
This was a complimentary tour courtesy of Canmore Cave Tours. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.