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CODY, Wyo. - Caving humor is a bit dark.

Being buried alive is a laughing matter (You know what they say about cave-ins? You can't get buried deeper cheaper!). Falling jokes are a big hit (Where does the word "spelunk" come from? It's the sound a caver makes when she finds the end of her rope). Claustrophobics are kidded about getting stuck; varmintphobes are teased about vampire bats and rabid pack rats.

Bryan McKenzie tries a couple of these jokes on us as we enter Spirit Mountain Caverns, a limestone cave system on Cody's Cedar Mountain. He gets nervous laughter in return. Some of us have never been caving before. Others, like Bryan, are troglodytes.

The great thing about Spirit Mountain is that it's a friendly cave, open to beginners and experts alike.

"Spirit Mountain is a good play cave," McKenzie said. "You can run around and explore. It's a challenge, and it can get technical, but you don't really need ropes."

McKenzie has crawled through Spirit Mountain Cave 10 times in the last three years. He likes showing off the cave and watching how people react. There are some heart-thumping moves: a spread-eagle walk over a 20-foot chasm, some squeezes too tight for nodding and a couple of long drops. He also likes watching the thrill of first-time wonder at the jewel-encrusted walls of multicolored minerals, a virtual jungle gym of rocks and an inner-mountain life unseen by those staring at the mountain from town.

Even though the entrance to the cave is 6,300 feet above sea level, the wind doesn't blow. Winter, spring, summer, fall, the Spirit Mountain Caverns forecast is always the same - 55 degrees and dark.

The cave draws about 100 people a month during Cody's May-September tourist season, and fewer in the fall and winter, said Stephanie Sironen, outdoor recreation planner at the BLM Cody Field Office. People can go in groups of three or more and must get a key from the BLM to enter the caverns. They also fill out a permit form and sign the register.

The Part Time Grotto, a group of Bighorn Basin cavers, has done significant work in keeping the cave safe for visitors, she said.

"We have a great volunteer cave community around here," Sironen said. "They do graffiti removal, stabilize the walkways, flag routes to protect the caves and conduct cave search and rescue classes."

Fortunately, no one has ever gotten irretrievably lost in Spirit Mountain - although according to local lore, one inexperienced party was lost for 12 hours in the caves in 1924 after running out of matches and candles. That's why the BLM insists that people take three sources of light with them, Sironen said.

Also, there was a problem in the past with hydrogen sulfide in the lower caverns, she added.

"The workers ran into some H2S in the cave's lower levels when they ran the irrigation water through the mountain," Sironen said. Since then, the lower caves have been blocked off. "We took monitors in last summer and there was no detection."

As history tells it, the spirits of Spirit Mountain Caverns were not the ghosts of traumatized cavers.

The name instead was coined by the American Indians who saw steam escaping from the mountain. The area has a geothermal past, with geyser cones around the base of the mountain and a hot spring in the Shoshone River near its base.

But Spirit Mountain is the last of a trilogy of names the cave has sported in the past 100 years.

It started off as Frost Cave, named after Ned Frost, who found the cave by accident in 1908.

"He was letting his dogs run one day on the backside of Carter Mountain. They caught wind of a mountain lion and got ahead of him," said Janet Frost Bucknell, Frost's granddaughter.

"He saw the mountain lion disappear, then the dogs disappeared into a hole in the mountain. Frost followed them inside. He whistled the dogs back, lit some matches, looked around and said, 'Huh.' "

The next day Frost returned with ropes and a crew of explorers from Cody. Frost ended up leading William "Buffalo Bill" Cody to the cave soon afterward. The name was changed a year later by virtue of a proclamation made by President William Taft. Taft declared the cave a treasure of "sparkling crystals and beautiful stalactites" and renamed it Shoshone Caverns National Monument in 1909.

That name lasted as long as the designation did, until 1954, when the National Park Service withdrew monument status. The commercial operators who leased the cave from the city of Cody changed the name again to Spirit Mountain Caverns.

The operators installed stairs and ran electricity to the cave. At one point, they were planning to build a tram to transport visitors, avoiding the long, twisty road to the entrance.

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But the Spirit Mountain moneymaker never got off the ground, and the cave lapsed into silence in 1966, frequented by vandals carrying canisters of spray paint. The BLM took over the cave in 1978 and installed a locked gate in 1984.

"A lot of graffiti occurred during those limbo periods," Sironen said.

Names are written in carbide and carved into the limestone formations. It's mostly just names of people wanting to show others they had been there amid that peculiar cavern beauty, not realizing they were degrading it for those who followed.

Spirit Mountain Cave was once rumored to be the deepest cave in the nation, falling 1,000 feet to the Shoshone River. Billings explorer Fredrick Nelson mapped eight levels to the caves in 1955; today, most people can get to three.

"No one gets lost - at least not for too long," McKenzie said. "You would really have to work at it."

All told, visitors can climb about a mile with a total vertical gradient of 288 feet. Most of this is downhill, but there are several spots where climbers have to "chimney" back up. Within the cave confines, there are drum and chime formations, natural bridges and multicolored gypsum crystals.

BLM gives visitors a cave map and several sheets outlining the conservation practices and the permit application.

Spirit Mountain Cave is covered under the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988, which means that precautions must be taken to preserve the fragile cave ecology.

For more information, contact the BLM at 578-5900. "Caves of Wyoming" by Chris Hill is also a good resource. And before you set out, brush up on your cave humor. It will help you see the light.

Allison Batdorff can be reached at (307) 527-7250 or at abatdorff@billingsgazette.com

Spirit Mountain Cave's human history

1908: Ned Frost and his dogs disappear into the side of Spirit (Cedar) Mountain while tracking a mountain lion, discovering the Frost Cave.

1909: With the prodding of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, President William Taft declares the cave a National Monument of "sparkling crystals and beautiful stalactites."

It is renamed Shoshone Caverns National Monument.

1935: City of Cody officials begin lobbying to develop the cave as a commercial tourist attraction. Large caverns are discovered near the river during the construction of the Heart Mountain Irrigation Project.

1954: The National Park Review Panel rescinds the "monument designation" and the cave is handed over to the city of Cody.

1957: Wyoming Gov. Milward Simpson presides over the grand opening ceremony of "Spirit Mountain Caverns." Heralded as the "Western Carlsbad," development speculation promises that visitors will one day walk through Cedar Mountain, with shuttles waiting for them when they emerge from the other side.

The City of Cody leases it to several commercial operators for improvement and it becomes "developed" with a staircase and 3,400 feet of electric wiring.

1966: The city closes the cave.

1978: The Bureau of Land Management takes over Spirit Mountain Cave.

1984: A gate is placed outside the cave to prevent more vandalism from occurring. Now on a permit system, visitors to the cave can get the key from the BLM field office in Cody.

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