Caving has been called the perfect blend of “fear and intrigue, ” says Dave Jackson, who owns the Manitou Springs-based CaveSim LLC along with his wife, Tracy.
I’ll give him that. For a few years, I’ve had plenty of intrigue about crawling through local cave systems like those found in Williams Canyon. To have the opportunity to see mostly unexplored areas and intricate rock formations below ground is enticing. Of course, as someone who doesn’t do well in tight, enclosed places, I also have a lot of fear about it.
Enter CaveSim, the crawl-through electronic cave simulator designed and built beneath CityRock by Jackson. As the only of its kind in the world, CaveSim offers a space for individuals like me to test their mettle, but that’s not all it does. With 225 feet of passages and more than 50 artificial cave formations, it’s the perfect place for newbie cavers to learn how to safely and softly approach caving, and for rescue personnel like those with Colorado Springs Fire Department to train for emergency response.
The rescue side of caving led Jackson to the idea of CaveSim when he participated in a two-day rescue training program in 2008 in Glenwood Springs. “The first day was ‘classroom’ in a horse pasture,” Jackson says with a laugh. “We had a giant pile of picnic tables that was set up, and we had a guy strapped in a stretcher, and we threaded him through the picnic tables. … There was this orange tape that was supposed to be stalactites, and people are brushing that out of the way, even the cavers. So obviously we weren’t learning.”
On the second day, the program went underground. Some people weren’t being careful, and cave formations were damaged, Jackson says. On the multi-hour drive home, Jackson thought, OK, I went to MIT for electrical engineering. I can fix this problem.
He began work, first developing an electronic sensing system from scratch. The system ties to simulated formations such as stalactites and stalagmites that are placed within a larger structure. When a caver bumps a formation, a sensor detects the hit and a buzzer sounds. A computer keeps track of the caver’s progress.
Now, about a decade later, Jackson says 25,000 or more people have crawled through the 60-foot CaveSim mobile unit that the Jacksons transport all over the country. Additionally, they’ve been ramping up their offerings. In 2018 they hit nearly 60 days of programming, much of it spent on cave conservation education. Programs focus primarily on four areas: conservation of fragile cave formations; conservation of the critters that live in caves, such as bats, salamanders and crickets; groundwater and the impact of above-ground activity on our water system; and conserving artifacts found in caves. For schools, the Jacksons have also developed STEM labs and other educational activities that can be tied into teachers’ lessons, whether math-, science- or technology-based.
Jackson is also proud of recent contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. National Park Service to teach cave safety in certain areas. “Kids have caves around, and they need to know the right way to go exploring, to figure out what their limits are in a safe environment,” he says.
It’s the same reason I finally decide to test the CaveSim at CityRock. Earlier this summer, my husband and I head over first thing on a Saturday morning. We put on helmets, lights and kneepads, and watch the required intro video. CityRock employee Laura Jones starts the computer to track our “hits” and opens the door to let us in. I enter first and maneuver into the first hall, a space about 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide. As my husband scrambles in beside me, I panic. Hard. My heart races. My hands sweat. My vision wobbles. “I need you to move. Now,” I remember exclaiming at him, and I crawl right back out.
Jones opens the door for me and as I try to calm my breathing, she reassuringly tells me this sort of thing happens fairly often. Jackson says about one in 1,000 ask to be let out of CaveSim. So not only have they developed a sense of what people can handle, but they’ve figured out ways to help.
“With kids, we’ll do what we call a sandwich. So if Johnny is afraid, then we’ll put Tim and Mary—one in front, one behind—and we’ll make a little sandwich,” Jackson says. “If you’re a little bit intimidated by the dark, you have somebody in front of you guiding, and then there’s a little back pressure too.”
He offers to guide me through again, but I can feel my heart begin to thump. Maybe someday, I think. For now, a sandwich at CityRock’s Ute & Yeti sounds like a better option.