Huge new cave discovered in Canada gets Star Wars monster moniker

In the era of Google Maps, one might be tempted to believe that there are no undiscovered corners of the earth.

But a cave with an opening that can accommodate the Statue of Liberty – and a roaring river running through it – has been discovered in a remote area of Canada, about 280 miles north-east of Vancouver.

"As far as North America goes, this is a honking-big cave," said John Pollack, a career caver and governor of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which last week announced the cave's existence.

"It's one of the biggest in Canada," he said, "and certainly one of the most spectacular."

The cave was actually discovered in early spring when a group of biologists and researchers conducting a mountain caribou census first noticed what looked like a black hole on the snow-covered slope.

The helicopter pilot sent photos to Catherine Hickson, a geologist who worked for decades on the Geological Survey of Canada and conducted her PhD research in the park. Ms Hickson quietly assembled a team of experts, including Mr Pollack, and raised about $5,000 Canadian (including some of her own money) to make a site visit.

"You get this chance once every decade or two," Mr Pollack said. "It was time to get on the road."

But first, they had to wait for the winter snow to melt.

On September 9, a five-person team took a 50-minute helicopter ride from Clearwater, Canada, to the northeast corner of the park, a rugged area that has almost never seen humans.

The exact location of the cave has not been divulged, partly to discourage Instagram tourists and amateur climbers.

In a statement, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, which oversees the park, said it was "completing the engagement with local indigenous communities to determine if there is cultural significance or any protection measures that need to be considered in managing this remote and special natural feature."

Until the indigenous communities are consulted, the cave is being called "Sarlacc's Pit" because of its resemblance to the desert creature in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

"You know it's big when you're standing there," said Lee Hollis, a spelunker and member of the expedition team. "But it's hard to tell just looking at the photo."

The opening of the pit, called a swallet, is unusually large: spanning about 100 metres in length and 60m across.

Using a laser beam, the team measured the depth at about 140m. But they believe it to be much deeper.

The cave's other distinguishing feature is a gushing river formed by melting glaciers above. It exits the cave about 2 kilometres away through another opening, called a resurgence.

"Caves are hard to measure because they're so irregular," said Mr Pollack, who has been surveying them since the late 1960s.

"There's an art to it," he said. "You're not just collecting data; you're filling in the blanks."

Mr Hollis was the person on the September expedition who descended into the cave. He carried about 50 pounds of gear, including a hulking battery-powered hammer drill to set bolts into the rock and about 500 feet of rope.

"In my 30-plus years of caving, this is by far the biggest pit that I've had the privilege to descend," he said.

According to Ms Hickson, the cave is most likely tens of thousands of years old, and the rocks are hundreds of millions of years old.

They're what's known as "stripe karst," which means layers of marble, schist and quartzite that, over millenniums of pressure and heat, have fused together to form a stripelike pattern.

Mr Hollis descended about 280 feet into the maw of the cave as the cascade roared. Because the cave is in a shaded area, the bottom of the pit was full of last winter's snow, creating a misty haze.

The September expedition took about 10 hours. The team is planning to make at least two more forays between now and 2020.

"As a geologist, there aren't necessarily a lot of things we do that excite people," said Ms Hickson.

But there is a mystery here, she said.

"Caving is all about the exploration of the unknown."

The New York Times

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