Last April, Bevan Ernst, a government biologist, and a team from British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change were soaring over Wells Gray Provincial Park in a helicopter, conducting a routine caribou census, when they spotted the entrance to a cave near the base of a mountain slope—an entrance so large that it could just about swallow a football field. It was possibly the largest cave ever discovered in Canada. With its ominous opening, Ernst promptly nicknamed the cave “Sarlacc Pit,” a reference to a subterranean creature that appears in the Star Wars film Return of the Jedi.
Although the name is temporary—consultations are currently taking place with First Nations over whether they have a name for the area—the cave is very permanent. “It was completely unexpected to find a cave of this scale in this location,” wrote Lee Hollis in an email. Hollis, the owner and operator of Cody Cave Tours near Kootenay Lake, B.C., where he guides groups through Cody Caves Provincial Park, has 31 years of experience caving across Europe, North America, and Asia, and was the first person to make a formal descent into the cave in September with a team of researchers.
“Sarlacc Pit is huge,” Hollis wrote, “and by far the biggest entrance pit I’ve seen dimensionally. The pit is 100 metres across, 60 metres wide, and at the far wall approximately 130 metres deep.” A waterfall fed by glacial meltwater plunges into the pit at an astonishing rate, helping to form the cave. While the exact length and depth of the cave are still unknown, Hollis estimates that it is at least 2.1 km in length and 500 metres deep, as the cave connects to an underground river.
These numbers, and the cave itself, are significant because “its dimensions make it the largest known surface pit in Canada, geologically in an area where you wouldn’t expect to find caves, particularly of this scale,” Hollis wrote. Due to the peculiar location of the cave, the find is also significant because of the types of rocks present. “The area has large layered quantities of all three base rock types, of which igneous (granite), sedimentary (limestone), and metamorphic (marble) are present,” Hollis wrote. “Sampling these materials from different parts of the cave will help build the complex picture of how and when the cave formed.”
Hollis explained that the reason the cave was only recently discovered is because it’s in a remote location “at the base of a glacier, in a shaded area underneath an avalanche chute. So, it’s probably been filled with snow and ice until recent years.” This means that as global warming melts ice and snow in some of these remote areas, it’s possible that more caves will be uncovered.
Hollis will be directly involved in planning and then leading the underground exploration of the cave in 2019 and 2020. “It’s a world class cave in many aspects, and spelunkers from around the world are keen to hear further findings.”