Cave cleaners need soft touch, strong stomach

Glenwood Caverns cave administrator Lorie Sheader of Glenwood Springs uses a brush and tweezers to clean dirt and lint from the delicate formations in the new section of the cave.

With spring cleaning season here, imagine if the rooms you were trying to make sparkle were dark, underground and full of stalagmites and stalactites.

Now imagine what could be left behind when 78,000 people have visited those rooms over the last year.

Lint. Hair. Even skin cells — ugh.

Sunflower seeds. Sunglasses. Once even a sandal, believe it or not.

Welcome to the job of cleaning up Glenwood Caverns in preparation for another summer season.

Even while staying on defined passageways and boardwalks, thousands of visitors can leave evidence of their presence behind. So once a year, employees and volunteer cavers do what are called dry and wet cleanings of the publicly visited areas.

If not for these efforts, “the cave would not look really good. You wouldn’t see the colors, the pretty colors that you see, and it would just look like when you look under the bed and you pick something up and it’s all covered with dust bunnies,” said Kathy Miller of Silt, natural attractions supervisor of Glenwood Caverns.

To prevent that, Glenwood Caverns invites cavers to come spend a weekend there, doing lint duty on Saturday in exchange for meals and the chance to explore wilder portions of the caves the following day.

Miller said the volunteers set up scaffolding to reach delicate formations in the cave’s lower public portion. Wearing rubber gloves, “they literally pick the lint off the formations and spray it with distilled water,” she said.

Lint shed from clothing is enough of a concern that Kartchner Caverns in Arizona mists visitors and their clothing before they enter the cave, Glenwood Caverns owner Steve Beckley said.

At Glenwood Caverns, a boardwalk in the sensitive lower area has kick plates designed to keep lint, hair, dust and other detritus on the boardwalk, where it can be removed and kept off the formations. Fortunately, also, there’s less airflow in this area to blow such stuff around.

One challenge crews work on continually is mold growth on the boardwalk. Miller said applying rubbing alcohol helps control mold despite the moist environment in the caves. Beckley said organic substances such as lint and hair on formations could be attacked by mold, one of the things cleaning is intended to prevent.

Miller also uses a diluted hydrogen peroxide to combat algae. Algae thrives on light and is common at cave entrances, but she doesn’t like to let it spread to artificially lit areas farther inside the caves.

The lower caves have such fragile formations that crews do no wet-cleaning there. But higher up, in an area with more air flow and dust deposition, they use a water hose to good effect on those formations that can stand up to the treatment. Miller said she avoids powdery areas, such as gypsum-based moonmilk formations. But as she demonstrates elsewhere, the stream of water reveals color otherwise shrouded by dirt.

The upper caves got dirtier yet due to the excavation involved in putting in a new tour section, and employee Lorie Sheader has been busy brushing off formations to restore them before the tour’s May 11 opening.

It can all be laborious work, and in some regards a bit stomach-turning. Miller said she was doing dry cleaning once with someone who kept saying “think of all the skin cells.”

“I’m like, ‘Shush, shush, I don’t even want to think about that,’” she said.

Crews have pulled as much as 10 pounds of lint (and hair and skin cells) from the caves in a single cleaning.

A rule against bringing food and drink into the caves hasn’t kept items such as sunflower seeds and even individual-serving-size containers of margarine from being left behind in the caves, inadvertently or otherwise, for Miller and others to find. Sunglasses may fall from atop heads or out of pockets. Miller has discovered mold-covered chewing tobacco that had been spit off the path.

“I found a flip-flop underneath the stairs and I’m like, ‘Someone walked out the cave without their shoe on? … Really, you should have asked us because we would have looked for it,’” she said.

Playing cave housekeeper is just part of the larger effort of keeping Glenwood Caverns pristine. Airtight doors are designed to keep the caves moist so formations can continue to grow, and a mist system is in place to add moisture in dry years.

The opening of the new section includes efforts to replace formations that had been accidentally broken as cavers squeezed through passages long ago. The cavers’ ethic requires broken pieces to be set aside near their onetime location for possible later repair. Now, workers are using an epoxy mixed with ground-up limestone to fix the formations. Once put back in place, calcite-laden water will flow over them and cover up the fractures, Miller said.

“In 10 years you have a new layer; it kind of heals itself and becomes sturdy. And then the formation continues to form,” she said.

If such cave surgery is rewarding, the cave cleaning “is sort of yucky work,” Mille said.

Her request to visitors?

“Please listen to your guides when they tell you not to bring food in. And don’t spit sunflower seeds over the edge.”


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