From the road, it’s less than a 30-minute hike to the entrance to Rat’s Nest and the start of a caving adventure that will get your heart rate soaring. Close to Banff, Alberta, in the quirky town of Canmore, with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop and an enthusiastic guide leading you through the woods, you’ll don red coveralls, safety gear and a headlamp before heading underground to face your fears.
It’s normal to feel apprehensive. In fact, nervousness just means that you’re paying attention and are less likely to get hurt. A briefing before the activity begins makes sure everyone knows the potential dangers and how to stay safe.
Once at the entrance to the cave, you’ll gear up and begin the descent through the cool four kilometres of wild natural cave. There aren't any facilities here or accommodations. Nope, not even handrails—it’s a physical activity where you’ll be expected to manoeuvre through tight spaces following your dedicated guide.
Max Koether from Canmore Cave Tours feels that the cave is his true home. A self-proclaimed “mega nerd,” Max has been caving since he was six years old. Today, he leads tours down inside Rat’s Nest, an undeveloped cave underneath Grotto Mountain. In fact, there is nowhere he would rather be than hanging inside a cave, wrapped up like a baked potato.
Despite his light and humorous disposition, Max takes caving very seriously—and safety even more so. During the descent, one of our group suffered a superficial injury to his finger and Max quickly treated the wound while simultaneously managing to calm everyone down and continue the journey. The youngest caver to explore this area was just 10 years old, while the oldest was 84. Max said that regardless of experience or the difficulty of the route, most people do experience some fear when underground, and that’s part of the appeal. By challenging yourself and doing things that make you feel uncomfortable, you inevitably grow and develop as a person.
One section requires you to slide on your back down an incline with no way to see the bottom. Your mind must imagine the distance needed to travel, and this can cause some panic. But once your feet are planted back on the stone, you feel elated at your accomplishment. Once in the belly of the cave, Max has visitors turn their headlamps off and sit in the overwhelming darkness, so thick it seems to crawl across you.
Packages range from extreme wilderness experiences to more gentle introductions to the slides, wiggles and crawls deep underground that make caving such a versatile and thrilling sport.
For Max, caving is almost a spiritual experience. During the tour he muses about how humans have historically used caves and his personal history exploring caves with his parents as a child.
When it’s time to return to the surface you’ll do so blinking against the light, your muscles gratefully sore, and a new-found appreciation for the freedom of the outside. There's so much to explore—right beneath our feet.