First ascents, such as Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summiting Mount Everest, tend to capture popular imagination. But not many people get known for their first descents. So photographer Stephen Eginoire recognizes just how rare it is that he gets to be the first human being to step into caves unseen by human eyes or trod by human feet in Grand Canyon National Park.
“The Grand Canyon’s definitely not known for its caves, even in the world of caving,” Eginoire (Art, ’04) says. “That’s a total wilderness frontier that’s still being explored. It's pretty special when you break into new terrain like that.”
Eginoire has been a professional photographer for more than a decade. He was head photographer at The Durango Telegraph from 2008 until 2014, when he moved to Tucson. He since moved back to Durango and continues working as a freelance photographer, specializing in hard-to-reach places. And he has been a spelunker just as long, since a friend first took him to Groaning Cave in Colorado and he got hooked.
Now, he’s part of an expedition team, consisting of about nine people – geologists, biologists, adventurers, and every one a world-class caver – who receive a special permit from the National Park Service to explore, map, and catalogue the unknown cave systems in Grand Canyon National Park.
When you imagine the Grand Canyon, like most people, you probably imagine the sweeping red-rock gorges carved into the landscape by the Colorado River. After all, it’s that vista that earned the canyon National Park status in 1919. As the river erodes the land, it reveals subterranean rock layers, as well as anything contained within them – such as these caves.
“The caves predate the canyon by millions of years,” Eginoire says, “and the only reason we know they’re there is because the river downcut through these rock layers and revealed the entrances.”
Even once an entrance is exposed, it’s not always obvious there’s a cave within. Eginoire says that unless you’re looking for caves, you wouldn’t even notice these doorways into the rock as anything special. They look like all the hundreds of other simple nooks and crannies you find in any rock face. Plus, the caves are inaccessible without significant rock-climbing expertise.
But once the expedition team enters the caves, they’re entering terrain untouched and unseen by human beings. And Eginoire’s photography reveals the geologic and paleontological wonders within – treasures rare even in the world of caving.
“The things that you find inside the caves are things you don’t find anywhere else in the park,” he says. “Some of these have zero percent humidity. So they are these time capsules where things are preserved inside, because they don’t decay. There are caves that have mummified ground sloths in them that still have fur. And mummified bats everywhere. Mummified foxes, ringtails, you name it. They’re all down there, and they’ve just collected over the millennia. That in itself is a pretty cool resource.
“Plus, there are cave formations, minerals, that occur down there like they don’t anywhere else in the world,” he adds. “There are gypsum formations down there that are unseen anywhere else. It looks like it’s being squirted out of cracks, like a tube of toothpaste.”
Eginoire’s photos are as exclusive as they are stunning. These Grand Canyon caves are highly restricted. He explains that access is essentially limited to those with a research permit, of which there’s only a small handful issued by the national park each year in order to document and understand the park’s resources. The park has multiple reasons for these protections, including preserving the caves and their embedded knowledge for research, as well as the physical challenges in reaching them.
Eginoire’s expedition team has been researching the caves for several years. Each member is an accomplished caver and climber. Their distinct disciplines bring artistic and scientific expertise to the caving endeavor, which helps the park better understand the resources and wonders contained within it. And handing over that data is a fair trade for these explorers, whose passion and purpose are caving and who otherwise would never be allowed to experience these caves – it is illegal to enter these fragile systems without a permit.
The delicacy of the caves, and the exclusivity of the permitting process, means that proving your technical skills is essential for being invited on an expedition. Eginoire’s photography might give him an edge for joining a team, but climbing and caving are necessary skills. “The Grand Canyon is hardcore,” he says. “Just getting to the cave will destroy people.”
That’s why the team leader, a freelance researcher named Jason Ballensky, designs his teams with their caving resumes in mind. And the research is a long-term endeavor; for several years now, Ballensky’s team has been focused on a cave system within the Grand Canyon known as the Double Bopper.
As the crow flies, the Double Bopper system is about one mile long, from one side of a mesa to the other. But within that space, the team has mapped nearly forty miles of caves. Last year, they even connected Double Bopper to its partner cave, named Gryffindor, once part of the same cave system but now severed on the other side by a fault line.
When the team first enters a new cave, everyone – including Eginoire – focuses first on mapping and documenting everything in the cave. He may take some pictures at this point, purely for documentation. Only later will he come back and set up for the most powerful photography.
Even after years of exploring the Double Bopper system, the awe of being the first person in a place awes him. “You’re going into areas in the cave that have never seen a human being,” he says. “It’s incredible.
“It’s also a double-edged sword,” he acknowledges. “Once you enter virgin terrain like that, that place is changed forever. Even if you leave the most minimal amount of impact. Some areas, there’s nowhere to walk without leaving a footprint. The dust in there has settled for millions of years. All of a sudden, you come in there, a human being, and Boosh! you lay a footprint.”
“I love the art of it,” he says. “I want to be able to capture the feel of what it's like in some of these caves. I'll go through and spend an hour at least in some areas just trying to get the perfect shot.”
And the perfect shot is about more than the photographs. Eginoire understands that his art contributes to a greater comprehension of the less-know parts of our planet.
“This is an important resource in the Grand Canyon that hasn’t really been well understood, let alone explored,” he says. “And it's not like there’s caves everywhere in the Grand Canyon, but there are certain areas that have incredible, spectacular caves. They have just been overlooked.”
All photos courtesy of Stephen Eginoire, http://www.stepheneginoire.com.