gfish, shadowblue, xmurf, adularia and I went into Ape Cave. This is the entrance. Please note the grues what lurk in the night.
Once this was a canyon, steep-walled, cut by some patient stream, pouring its way down the side of Mt. Saint Helens. During an eruption two thousand years ago, the canyon filled with lava. The very top level of the lava cooled, formed a crust over the canyon, but this new-forged rock insulated the rest of the lava, let it stay liquid, so it poured on down the length of the canyon, into the Lewis River, leaving behind it only the pieces that had cooled: the ceiling, the walls, the floors.
The cave is four miles long, the longest lava tube on this continent.
Cooled lava. Glass, like the slag we find at the bottom of our furnace. If you could get light in there, it would be dazzling - there are spots where it's more transparent and less, and you can watch your shadows move unevenly inside the walls.
My night vision is very, very good. I do not remember another time I have been anywhere so profoundly dark as here.
Stalactites! When the molten lava was rushing out of the tunnel, the air above it was hot enough to remelt the top crust, so that it dripped, all stalactitey.
There were bats, too, and a mouse. The smallest bat I've ever seen, with a body about as long as the last joint of my thumb. Click, click, click.
The entrance to the tunnels comes in at the middle. The lower half of the tunnel is a very easy hike, flat. At the very end the tunnel narrows away to nothing, five feet tall, three feet tall, one foot tall.
Months ago, when Mount Saint Helens began erupting again, we waited and watched and read, and on the day the scientists said was mostly likely for an eruption, we drove down, and stood on the ridge and watched. There was no eruption, not that day, but it was a strange thing to see the mountain shake - you could see dust rise where it trumbled, could feel it a little, like dizziness or a distant drum beat.
Mountains are not supposed to move. But this one was alive, and I could not forget, in the lava caves, that I wandered in the coils of some sleeping dragon.
So when we got the end of the upper cave, I crouched and kept going, and crawled and kept going, and eventually lay on my stomach and slithered, forwards into the dragon's coils. My teammates were more sensible, but I wanted to lay with my cheek to the stone and lay out my arms against the glass and feel the mountain hum around me.
It's still erupting, eighteen feet of lava a day. This is something you cannot forget, on your belly in the depths of a lava tunnel, in total darkness.
I felt like a ghost. No shadow, only a strange half-real thing, a shadow with depth that I might see in the glass pressing into my back, if I had enough light.
Then I slitheredcrawledkneltcrouched my way back to the others. But I dream about the mountain a lot now.
The upper cavern is a lot harder. You have to climb over rockfalls and squeeze sideways around cave formations and crawl and leap and balance. And there's an eight foot tall waterfall of frozen lava you have to scale. It is very lovely, like all the bright ripples you can see on the bottom of a pool coalesced into shing black stone, but none of my pictures really turned out, so have this mediore one. :)
I scrambled in an undignified fashion, and xmurf hauled me up. Hooray for teammates!
Yep, that's lava. :) Gloop gloop gloop.
In places there's a white fungus on the rocks. It grows in total darkness - its only source of nutrition is a few minerals dissolved in the water that trickles into cracks in the cave - no dirt no light no decay. This picture shows literally hundreds of years worth of fungus. There are places where people bumped it fifty years ago and the fungus has only barely begun softening the lines.
This is hard to see - it's a very large, echoing chamber, with a vaulted ceiling like a cathedral-- except it's ribs, silver-ivory marked against the black glass. Living mountain.
Near the end of the upper tunnel, the roof has fallen in, and there is a skylight. It's amazing how bright - enough to hurt the eyes - the moonless starry night looks from the depths of the mountain's coils. There is a pool of water here, and sword ferns, and deep green moss.
Basalt, very colorful, very shiny. One of those times where you download the images and go 'huh, so that's what it looked like in there, not that I had any clue at the time'.
When we finally make our way out of the upper tunnel, we collapse on the grass and take off our hats and lean into the warmth of eachother and stare up at the stars, so many of them that it's hard to find familiar constellations in the great pale wash of the milky way. I played infinity games with the sky, and never came to the end of them.
It was incredible. Must buy equipment! Must explore more caves!
See also: adularia's post and gfish's post.