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Underground wonderland

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Diana Northup got hooked on caving when she went into her first cave and fell into water over her head.

“I was a freshman at West Virginia University and a member of the University Outings Club,” she said. “I didn’t do anything exciting as a kid, so I thought going into caves, even falling into water, was pretty cool. I discovered things live in utter darkness, which I found fascinating.”

For Ron Lipinski, who started caving when he was a college student in Illinois, the thrill of exploration continues to draw him underground.

“It’s sort of a poor man’s space exploration,” he said. “You can go where no man has gone before.”

Now, Northup, 69, and Lipinski, 68, both Ph.Ds, Northup in biology and Lipinski in nuclear engineering, are active members of the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project (FSCSP), a nonprofit organization whose mission, carried out in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, is to conduct and promote the exploration, public education, scientific research and environmentally sound management of  Fort Stanton Cave in Lincoln County.

Northup and Lipinski will speak about their experiences in Fort Stanton Cave from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the DynaTheater at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

Lipinski, who retired from Sandia National Laboratories after 38 years of working on nuclear reactor safety, high-energy lasers and other projects there, is vice chairman of  FSCSP. His presentation will focus on Snowy River, Fort Stanton Cave’s 11.01-mile white calcite formation, the longest such in the world.

“You don’t find that in other caves,” he said. “We know for a fact that (Snowy River) continues but we don’t know yet how far it goes.”

Northup is a visiting associate professor in biology at the University of New Mexico and a professor emerita in UNM’s College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences. She will talk about her study of microbiology in Fort Stanton Cave, work that could have implications in the search for life on other planets.

“People think of a cave as just a hole in a ground,” she said. “But it’s alive.”

A marathon underground

Scientific evidence suggest that Fort Stanton Cave has had air-filled passages for about a half million years. Even so, humans have apparently been aware of it for only a few centuries. There is some indication that Native Americans discovered the cave before the first European settlers found it.

Lipinski said U.S. soldiers from nearby Fort Stanton went into the cave in the mid-1850s and that in 1877, Lt. Charles C. Morrison of the U.S. Sixth Cavalry mapped 2.2 miles of the cave as part of the Wheeler Survey of U.S. properties west of the 100th meridian. Snowy River was only discovered in 2001.

Ron Lipinski, Kevin Strong and Jennifer Foote pause at the Rainbow Wall in the Lincoln Caverns section of Fort Stanton Cave. (Courtesy of Pete Lindsley)

The story of Fort Stanton Cave, from pre-European times up until the present and including a glimpse into the future, is told in “12 Miles From Daylight” ($54.95), a coffee-table-format book produced by FSCSP. The 306-page book, which includes many maps, graphs and photos, is available through the project’s website, The book also will be available for purchase during Wednesday’s museum event, and contributors, including Lipinski, will sign copies.

Lipinski’s involvement with Fort Stanton Cave dates back to his first visit there in the early 1980s. He has been active with FSCSP since 2008 and is the lead developer of Caver Quest, a 3-D interactive simulation of the cave that can be accessed through the project’s website.

“My personal exploration has been split between the main cave and Snowy River,” Lipinski said. “Besides Snowy River, what makes Fort Stanton special is that the farthest extent of the cave is 12 miles from the entrance. A round-trip is 24 miles long, like a marathon underground.”

He said the highest point in the cave is Saguaro Dome, 200 feet up from the floor and above but not directly overhead of Snowy River.

“It’s pretty magnificent,” he said. “Lights just barely make out 200 feet.”

Other places in the cave are not quite so roomy.

“When you travel south on Snowy River, once you get to the two-mile mark, you have to crawl on your belly, rolling your pack ahead of you, for a couple of thousand feet,” he said. “I enjoy it. But some people react claustrophopically and don’t become cavers. In caving, you have to be absolutely confident that every action you take is reversible. You don’t jump off a cliff if you are not absolutely certain you can climb back up again.”

Do not disturb

Because the Snowy River portion of the cave floods, it’s been a few years since project members have been able to explore the calcite formation.

“It just dried out in September,” Lipinski said. “We are hoping in April or May to launch our first trip there in three years.”

Since bats hibernate in Fort Stanton Cave during the winter and disturbing them during that time could be harmful, FSCSP members’ access to the cave is limited to a period between April and October. Public access to the cave is prohibited at present to avoid contaminating the bats with white-nose syndrome, a disease that affects hibernating bats and has killed millions of them in North America during the last 10 years. FSCSP members adhere to a strict decontamination protocol before entering and on exiting the cave.

“We only get into the cave three or four times a year and for about 10 hours each time,” Lipinski said. “So we are talking about 40 hours a year.”

Like Lipinski and other FSCSP explorers and researchers, Northup makes her time in Fort Stanton Cave count. She has been studying microbes, life forms visible only with the aid of microscopes, in the cave since the early 2000s.

“One of the things I’m working on is microbes masquerading as minerals,” she said. “Most people will look at the walls in a cave and say the deposits there are all minerals. But when you scan them with electron microscopes you start finding out they are full of microbes.”

Work started by Northup and being taken to higher levels now by UNM graduate student Jason Kimble breaks down the chemistry, analyzing the DNA of microbes in the Fort Stanton Cave.

“We take all the different ways of looking at microbes, plus some new ways we are developing, so we can say these are your best bets for looking for life on other planets,” Northup said. “So if we go to some place like Mars and have robots looking at (cave) walls to detect life, we can say here are some morphology (form and structures of organisms) you want to make sure you don’t miss, that your Rover identifies as a likely target.”

As devoted as she is to studying the science of Fort Stanton Cave, Northup, like Lipinski, is enchanted by the sheer, physical wonder of the place. When she’s in the cave, there’s a part of her that is still that college freshman who got pumped up about underground exploration when she plunged into a deep pool in a West Virginia cavern.

“As you go into Fort Stanton Cave, there is a place called the Bridal Chamber,” she said. “The ceiling looks like a starry sky because colonies of bacteria cover the whole ceiling, droplets of water cling to the bacteria and when your light hits that water it reflects back at you. It’s like being in another world.”

Like being where no man has gone before.

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