Notes from the Underground: A Photographer on Public Access to Caves

Photo: Josh Hydeman

When Portland photographer Josh Hydeman first began rappelling into caves a few years ago, his worldview shifted. Rather than encountering a clammy Pandora’s Box of creepy crawlies, he descended past towering glacial columns into ice cathedrals capable of refracting camera flashes into mind-bending lightscapes.

“The general public has never seen a wild cave,” Hydeman says. “They don’t know they’re beautiful, and so they don’t care about them.” As a purveyor of beauty and a skilled mountaineer, Hydeman has made it his mission to illuminate caves and spark interest in what lies beneath—all in an effort to protect what’s not readily apparent.

Mt. Hood, Oregon. January 2015
Come winter, snow builds and this cave transforms into something white and unrecognizable. In 2012, a mapping expedition confirmed it as the longest glacier cave in the contiguous U.S. at 7,166.9 feet. (For Hydeman, this means lugging bags of camera gear and camping equipment up and over even more steep ice.) Unfortunately, ice isn’t coming back as dependably these days—at last check, the cave only measured 1,000 feet.

Photo: Josh Hydeman
Visiting wild caves like this bat-inhabited limestone in Carlsbad Caverns has made Hydeman think critically about the consequences of his work. In order to spread the word about caves, he has to introduce them to people who might unintentionally hurt them. “It's hard to communicate that caves are sensitive because most people's ideas of caves are that they're just these muddy holes in the ground, right?” he says. “But then they see the photos and start thinking about going, and asking me (via social media) where the caves are.”
“This cave has no graffiti. Wanna know why? It’s in a national monument so it’s more protected” than caves elsewhere, Hydeman says. He photographed this cave at the request of National Park Service staff.
One of Hydeman’s favorite caves resides deep within Oregon’s Mount Hood. It surges with energy during the summer melt, cacophonous with waterfalls and falling rocks. Photographing it means knowing how to navigate the rockfall safely and being very, very patient. “My camera was in a plastic bag—I mean, it’s raining in this cave nonstop,” Hydeman says. “It was ‘wipe your lens, take a shot, wipe your lens, take a shot. The strobe flash got completely soaked. And since it’s loud as hell, it’s really hard to communicate with your model.”
It’s not just the ice changes over time—multiple eruptions and lava flows can alter underground pathways, too. This lava tube—which Hydeman notes for its tree root-speckled ceiling—became a lava levee after a secondary flow painted over the ground. Going with doubling theme, Hydeman had his model set off one flash in the 2,500-foot tunnel, walk a bit, and set off another flash, allowing him to capture both moments in one exposure.
Pressure to document ice grows as the ice itself shrinks, and reaching it isn’t easy work. The trail to this cave is a hard mountaineering route and people get lost and injured regularly, Hydeman says. Once Hydeman and his team reached the cave, Hydeman set an alarm, got up early, and waited for sunrise.
“The limestone caves in New Mexico were significantly warmer and much brighter [than other caves I’ve been to], with the rock reflecting color much more,” Hydeman says. About 250 million years ago, the cave was part of a coral reef, but today it’s home to several types of birds. Hydeman watched hundreds of cave swallows swoop throughout the cavern for a whole day earlier this year. Getting this shot meant rappelling 200 feet in.
The hike into this cave was nerve-wracking, but Hydeman could tell on the approach that the cave was special. In order to amplify what he sees for viewers, Hydeman works with an array of professional equipment. This night shot of Eric Guth, an explorer on National Geographic’s Linblad Expedition, required exposing the stars, setting up flashes off camera, and rigging strobes to light up the ice. It also required coordinating everyone’s movements meticulously so as not to disturb the footprint-free snow—or the fragile cave features below it.
In addition to rift and glacier caves, Hydeman often ends up in lava tubes, which occur when hot rock goes haywire. Instead of returning from whence it came, the lava runs downhill and hardens at the top while the bottom of the flow runs hot, eventually subsiding and creating a tunnel. In this particular cave, the tunnel bottom was slicked over with an uncharacteristic foot of water.
Last summer, Hydeman and his friend, Brian Zachary, stumbled across a series of five stacked lava tubes in this cave in Southern Washington. They rappelled to the bottom, where, according to locals, a group of kids once became trapped after their rappel rope failed and had to climb up a 15-foot overhang to escape. Stories like these make Hydeman nervous: “That's the reason why I don't want to share the locations of caves.”
Keeping mum about cave locations is meant to keep caves safe from humans. And it’s not just a matter of ethics—cavers can’t legally disclose locations to the public without clearance from the Secretary of the Interior. In June 2014, Hydeman visited this place, the most fragile environment he’s ever been to. “It’s not easy to get to, and it’s in the middle of nowhere,” is all Hydeman will say about its location. Isolation means critical conservation: the cave’s floor is covered with an 8,000-year-old lava flow, on top of which sit speleothems—stalagmites so brittle that “if you were to blow on them, they might fall over,” Hydeman says.
Cavers’ worries aren’t unfounded. The cave in this photo, decorated in petroglyphs, has generated controversy between the caving and climbing communities for decades. Climbers want to bolt the walls, but cavers worry that doing so could destroy the petroglyphs. But graffiti has remained the biggest issue, Hydeman says. “In 2013, it just got stormed. People graffiti’d all over it,” he said. By the time Hydeman took this photo, a local club had cleaned off a good portion of the graffiti.
While attending the International Workshop on Ice Caves in August 2014, Hydeman explored a rift cave with perennial ice in Eastern Idaho. But, he says, by the time he got there it was an ice cube of its former self. Hydeman saw five-year-old photos of a soaring frozen waterfall beneath a 40-foot rappel inside the cave. “That frozen feature is entirely gone now,” he says. “It’s because of climate change, and that’s not even up for discussion anymore. I feel pictures are important because it’s like putting your hand in the river—the next photographer will get something different, and (soon) these caves won’t have enough ice.”
Hydeman visited another Bend cave that same night, which also happened to be vandalized. “It was once completely blocked by ice,” Hydeman says. The model at the mouth of the cave is wearing a professional caving headlamp clocking in at 1,200 lumens, blasting beams that seem to reach farther into the sky than we can see. For comparison, a competitively bright running headlamp like the Petzl Tikka RXP runs 215 lumens. “Mine’s 1,800 lumens,” Hydeman adds.
As he’s grown as a photographer, it’s not just the impact of others that worries Hyderman. “There is a cave that is beautiful and I've photographed it a lot, and the floor is very brittle and covered with lava tube formations,” Hydeman says. “Even though I have never broken a formation, I feel like every time I'm in the cave I do impact it. I do bring people through and I do hear a little bit of crunching. It's minor, but it's not necessary that I visit that cave. So I feel like to me now, that cave is off-limits.”
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