Sandwiched belly-down between faux rock and a hard place, Cave Dave shifts into a kind of dry side crawl, one arm outstretched and the other at his side. The move angles his shoulders into a position that's more conducive to shimmying through doggy-door-sized openings and into claustrophobic clefts such as the Fissure of Doom, which isn't kidding about that name.
"We had the Colorado Springs Heavy Rescue guys in here and, before they saw it, I think they were a little skeptical about the name, like, 'Is it really that cool?' They were quite impressed," said Dave Jackson, the 34-year-old creator of this simulated cave system inside, behind and beneath the climbing gym at CityRock in Colorado Springs. The installation - the only one of its kind in the world - opened in early July.
"It kind of reminds me of that movie 'The People Under the Stairs,'" gym manager Ian Richards said. "You don't realize there are people under you while you're up there climbing."
And when you're down below, inch-worming through CaveSim's 225 feet of artificial rock corridors, it's easy enough to forget you're only ever an exit hatch away from the surface.
"We built it to look like water-carved limestone passages, and there's water noise on a loop to mask some of the sounds of the gym. There's lots of little details to make it more realistic," said Jackson, whose creation - designed in partnership with his geologist wife, Tracy - took just more than three years to build on site at the downtown gym. "There's nothing in here that's meant to be scary for people. We're really trying to teach people to like caves and cave exploration, so we don't want to freak them out."
If a caver gets clumsy, though, he or she can expect a bit of a start.
CaveSim is first and foremost a high-tech teaching machine, so passages are adorned with facsimiles of the formations and other things a caver might encounter underground, such as stalactites, soda straws and spun-sugar-delicate helictites. Unlike the real-world versions, however, these are durable and equipped with sensors that trigger a buzzer and lights if a traveler makes contact or gets too close. (And for the record, there are no Pokemon here.)
"Each sensor is like a mini computer running code I write that's discerning was this bumped by a person or did the wall shake? If you bump into a formation, it's recorded," said Jackson, who has a patent on the software that tracks a caver's damage score for a single run or over a series of visits. "The most important thing you can do when you're crawling through there is not bump the formations."
'A hard concept to explain'
Jackson's subterranean classroom came to light after the MIT-educated electrical engineer and his wife participated in a rescue training event at Glenwood Caverns' Fairy Cave in Garfield County. During an underground mud rescue exercise, damage was done to a ceiling formation known as a "cave cloud."
"It's kind of like baklava, only it's rock. It's super fragile," Jackson said. "On the way home, I was thinking, 'I'm an electrical engineer. I build things. I know how to solve this problem.'"
He began in 2008 by creating the electrical components and writing the software, and then moved on to building the structure - a steel and wood frame topped with durable climbing wall texture. Transporting the modular sections, which weighed up to 100 pounds and took more than eight hours to assemble, soon grew tiresome. A Kickstarter campaign that drew support from the nationwide caving community helped pay for the 24-foot trailer where the prototype now lives.
"It's 60 feet of cave passage and I've taken that all around the country, to conventions and as general outreach, to teach the community to care about the caves in their area," Jackson said. "I just open the doors and people crawl in."
The idea for a permanent installation came to him one day when he was climbing at CityRock and realized the wealth of space going to waste beneath and behind the walls. When he first pitched the idea to the gym's owners, though, they were skeptical - and a little confused.
"It's a hard concept to explain. They thought we were selling them a video game. They didn't understand that this was a physical thing you actually crawl through," said Jackson, who invited them to check out the prototype on wheels. "They came and took a tour, and their kids came and crawled through it and got hooked."
Second course planned
In addition to the two fully realized CaveSim courses, since founding the Manitou Springs-based company Jackson has created broken formations for those working in the cave restoration field and helped a California man transform his bathroom into an underground oasis, complete with waterfall shower.
"There's enthusiasm from cavers using it recreationally and for education. There's enthusiasm for it to be used for cave rescue training. At CityRock, we've got a 40-foot pit that's not a straight shot, where you can practice rope work in a realistic caving environment," said Jackson, who is planning a second, more difficult course at the gym boasting "a harder loop . all tortuous passage and confusing."
Final flourishes on Phase 1, such as air conditioning to keep the passage at a cave-cool temperature, will be complete by the official grand opening this fall. In the meantime, the space is open to the public and already earning a solid fan base among both experienced cavers and those who are new to the sport.
For 12-year-old Kirra Suba, aka "Mouse," CaveSim has been educational as well as therapeutic in helping her manage the symptoms of Tourette syndrome.
"She has spent a long time with tics, and when she's here she is in control of herself and calm, at peace and in her own zone. Having things like this cave is great for her," said her mom, Teresa Dupuis. "It's little tiny spaces, so it's a challenge for her that takes patience and being specific about her movements. At the same time, it's how do you do something fast and careful?"
Inclinations that might be frowned upon up above become enviable skills down below. That's what Suba likes about it.
"One thing that got me into caving was fitting into the cubbies at CityRock," Suba said.
"When the caving came, I was like 'Yay, I won't get in trouble for fitting into a box.'"