Crisis in the Caves, 1979
On a hot July day in 1979, four men entered the elevator leading down into the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Park Technician Linda Phillips also boarded the elevator heading down to work in the caverns. Elevator operator Celia Valdez noticed that the four men wore long trench coats. She upon commenting about the hot weather, and their unusual dressing choice, two of the men pulled out their guns and took the two women hostage. When the elevator doors opened Valdez escaped at her first opportunity by running into a crowd, but for poor Phillips, her time as a hostage lasted over four hours.
Upon reaching the Lunchroom area, one of the armed men demanded the rangers evacuate the 200 civilians out of the cave. Holed up in the underground lunchroom, with hostage Phillips, their weapons, and a bottle of whiskey, they then demanded to talk to a reporter, to receive a million dollars, and to be flown to Brazil. They then proceeded on a shooting spree that only damaged park property, until reporter Ned Cantwell allowed himself to be taken as a hostage.
Meanwhile, an out of uniform ranger quietly lead a group of 100 visitors out of the cave via the Natural Entrance.
After a lengthy negotiation, and after they had run out whiskey, the men released their hostages and traded their demands for a million dollars and a plane ride to Brazil for reduced criminal charges against them. The four gunmen surrendered late in the evening, and thankfully without any innocents physically harmed.
This was the story that Ranger Donna told us as we gathered in the Lunchroom before we entered the Left-Hand Tunnel. Her husband was the out of uniform rangers that led the 100 visitors out to safety. With the squeal of metal, Ranger Donna opened the gate that would lead us to an ebony darkness. With lanterns, I felt like we’re tracing the cave the way the first explorers did. As we slowly traveled upon a well-worn dirt path, our ranger would stop and tell us a fact or story about the cave.
It’s not very long before we reach a section of cave with walls that look like they’ve been plastered over with concrete. This is where our Ranger Donna begins to describe that this was a set for the made-for-tv 1972 movie Gargoyles were filmed right there in Left-Hand Tunnel. Not surprisingly, Hitch as seen this “classic” horror TV movie of a bygone age. He described the movie as comically cheap, complete with a scantily clad 70s girl and rubbery Gargoyle prosthetics. After the tour, I went online and found a few clips of the movie. Amusingly enough, the film has a young Scott Glenn (Stick, from Netflix’s Dare Devil). Yes, the movie was as awful as I thought it would be.
One thing Left-Hand Tunnel has going for it is a fine collection of fossils. Looking carefully in the dim light I found the remains of creatures from 240 million years ago. For the avid geologist, there are ammonites, crinoids, snails, nautiloids, bivalves, brachiopods, and the occasional trilobite. Such things are super hard to spot for the untrained eye and especially in the dim light, but our ranger guide was kind to point them out to us.
Another unique feature in Left-Hand Tunnel are the cave pools. In the pools such as the ones found here, researchers discovered unusual microbes able to create metabolic energy from sulfur, manganese, and iron. Through the examination of multiple caves, more than 1,200 strains of microbes from pools, soils, corrosive residues, and sulfur deposits were isolated. There are even studies which indicate that some these microbes may have medicinal qualities that are beneficial to humans.
How to See Left-Hand Tunnel
The Left-Hand Tunnel tour was short but provided a unique background into history thanks to our Ranger. The tour is perfect for families with kids or the history buff looking for an easy time in the caves. Keep in mind that this tour is by candle light only and they don’t allow headlamps or flashlights while on the tour. So if you don’t like the dark and not seeing for long distances, you’ll probably want to skip this tour. But if you like history, stories, and a chance to roam a cave as the first explorers did, then book your spot early.
What to Bring:
- Closed Toe Shoes or Hiking Boots
- A Light Jacket or Sweater, it can get cold.
- Lots of questions for your ranger.
- Candle Lamp
- No food or water inside the cave
- No artificial light sources
- No bathrooms on the trail
- Minimum age is 6 years old
- Anyone under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
- Adult: $7.00
- Youth (Ages 6-15): $3.50
- Discounts for Senior and Access Pass holders.