Banff National Park Below… (or at least close to it)

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Banff is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It’s yet another reminder of how much beauty there is in the world, and how lucky I have been to be able to visit some of those places. One of the nice things about Banff is how easy it is to visit. It is a convenient 90 minute drive away from Calgary on a major highway, and so many of the places you would want to visit are easily accessible (with even more remote and wild beauty for those willing to hike some miles away from their car). It’s one of those places where I was consistently awestruck, even just driving down the road (thankfully there are many pull out places to stop and take in the beautiful nature).

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But beautiful nature doesn’t only exist above the surface at Banff, but also below it. Ever since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated with caves and underground caverns and rivers. It was always interesting and mysterious what lay beneath the surface and what sort of hidden treasures (and dangers) awaited. When possible, I love to visit caves, and over the years have visited some very interesting ones. Probably the best caving place I ever visited (pound for pound in terms of maximizing your cave loving buck) was the town of Waitomo in New Zealand. I was able to visit normal dry caves and take in the rock formations in one cave, take an underground boat cruise to see some glowworms in another cave, and even do some cave tubing, rappelling and some spelunking in other caves. For those who enjoy caving, but on the more tourist level, it is a great place to visit.

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So when I was looking through my guidebook to see what other activities were available beyond hiking, my eye caught on a cave expedition tour. Now-full disclosure- the cave is not within the bounds of Banff National Park, but it is accessible from the town of Canmore, which is only about a 20 minute drive back down the highway from Banff town. It’s easily done on a day trip from Banff, which is what I did. After looking through their tour offerings, I decided to go bold and do the Canmore Cave Adventure tour, which is a tour that lasts about six hours, four of them underground. It’s the most extensive tour they offer, though they also offer a shorter Explorer tour that visits the same cave, but not as much.

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Now, in hindsight, I likely should have either selected the easier tour, or waited until the last day or two of my vacation to go. But as it was, I did the tour the second full day of my vacation, which proved to be a bit of a challenge for me. I know I am not in as nearly good shape as I was several years ago when I visited New Zealand. I knew there was an advertised 40 minute hike uphill to get to the cave entrance, and I knew it was four hours underground scrambling over rock formation and squeezing through holes. But what I didn’t really appreciate until a few days in to my vacation, was the altitude.

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Even though I knew Banff National Park was in the Canadian Rockies, I didn’t really stop to think about the typical altitude of the town and surrounding area, which is roughly around 5,000 feet (not counting the altitude from hiking). That’s not enough to feel just walking around, but it is enough to feel when doing strenuous exercise, particularly if you aren’t in the best of shape, like me. So I have to admit that part of me wanted to turn back and go home, but I didn’t because I had no way of getting back to my car at the tour office. I really did struggle on the 40 minute hike to the cave, since it was all uphill. Sure, we took plenty of breaks, but it didn’t escape my notice that I was the only one who really needed one. At the time, I was wondering why I seemed to be out of breath so much, because even though I am not in the greatest of shape, I thought I was in better shape than my huffing and puffing would suggest. It was only later when I checked the altitude level of Banff and it dawned on me, that my body was simply becoming adjusted to exercise at higher altitudes.

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After a short break to water up and gear up at the cave entrance, we entered the cave. Since I am clumsy and not sure footed, I was very careful in my walking and often times would slide down the rocks on my butt. It is super easy and fun to slide down the rocks, not really thinking about what I would need to ascend (which I would realize later). After our initial short descent, we then had the opportunity to do a 60 foot rappel down the cavern. I wasn’t really scared or anything, because I have rappelled many times before, and I know the ropes hold. But even still, it was a bit unnerving at times, because the cavern wall was very slippery and uneven, and I ended up getting tangled a bit in the ropes before making my way to the cavern floor.

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The rest of the tour was just exploring different areas where our guide took us (and later,
avoiding the groups who came later on the Cave Explorer tour). It was fun to see the different rock formations, though I was still feeling a bit embarrassed, because I was the slowest and least fit of the group. For the most part, that didn’t really mean much, though there were a few tight squeeze areas I simply couldn’t fit through. I tried my best, but I started balking when I felt like I was getting stuck.  So I didn’t force my way into areas if it wasn’t relatively easy for me.

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After giving my positive feedback from the guide that I felt I could do it, he took us through the Laundry Chute, which is a very tight, rock tunnel that changes direction, is a super tight squeeze for some, and can only go one way. Meaning, once you start down the Laundry Chute, you couldn’t change your mind and return. You could only go forward. There was a spot that was super tight, and for a brief moment, I had visions of getting stuck there and having to be rescued. That fear was compounded by the fact that I was having trouble just getting enough air (again due to the altitude, and my lack of acclimation and fitness at that point). I am not normally claustrophobic, but something about being trapped in a cave tube when I couldn’t get enough air was deeply unsettling to me. Thankfully however I was able to slide through it and continue the tour.

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The final part of the tour was exiting the same way we came, which was an interesting
challenge. What was a fun slide down the rock getting into the cave proved to be a slippery and frustrating climb up the slick rock. At this point, I was tired, dirty, thirsty, and just wanted it to be over with. But I mustered some inner strength (plus the nice boost my guide and another dude gave me) to crawl up the rock via the rope. After that it was just a matter of taking off the gear, getting lots of water, and walking down to the cars (which was obviously easier than hiking up the trail).

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Overall, I am glad I did it, even though in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have chosen that particular cave tour, because it was a bit out of my fitness level. Now, the good news is that if I can do it, you probably can too. Plus I was very lucky to have a super helpful, kind and encouraging guide with the name of Max. He was definitely a positive force for me, without being annoying or cheerleady. I still love me some caves, but I probably should improve my fitness level before I do another spelunking tour. But it does make a nice day trip and change of pace from hiking if you are visiting the Banff National Park.

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To relax after all that exhausting caving, I spent a couple hours unwinding in the hot pools at Banff Upper Hot Springs. My tired body loved the warm heat, and my eyes loved the gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains.

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