Close to the Edge

My first real expedition was to Close to the Edge Cave in Canada's Dezaiko Range. It was in equal amounts exhilarating and terrifying!


There was at best a vague plan. It was a true dirtbag trip

The trip seemed simple enough when Neeld Messler proposed it. Drive north from Boulder in a Subaru full of rope, caving equipment, and freeze-dried food. Park at the end of a logging road in the Dezaiko Range of British Columbia and carry our supplies to the top of a mountain where friends had previously tried to explore a 836-foot-deep hole in the mountain. What could possibly go wrong?

Neeld was fresh from trips to the Ndoke with my mentor, National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols. I’d just been in Huatla for Outside Magazine. We were both feeling strong, confident. There was at best a vague plan. It was a true dirtbag trip, drive till exhausted, pull over on the side of the road, sleep in the ditch, repeat. I distinctly remember waking up at dawn somewhere in Montana with a llama staring at me.

Close to the Edge Entrance Drop

Customs officers in Canada were highly suspicious of the amount of stuff shoved into that car but ultimately let us through. The drive up the spine of the Canadian Rockies past Banff and Jasper showed me the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen.


Mountians near Banf, British Columbia.

We eventually found the right road. We drove to the end, and began shuttling load after load to the top of the mountain. It was brutal work. There was no trail up to the cave entrance. The mountain was incredibly steep.

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After days of hauling loads we decided to take a break and drive into Prince George for additional supplies. A series of voicemail messages from my friend Jim Hewett traced his decision to try and join us.

He was leaving Chattanooga.

He had gotten to St Louis.

He was in Montana.

His car had broken down.

He was on a bus.

He was crossing the border.

Was I getting these messages?

Could we pick him up?

In the days before cell phones, the trip was a huge leap of faith on Jim’s part.

Jim stepped off the bus at Prince George with the biggest backpack I have ever seen. We ate, congratulated ourselves on actually meeting up, and drove back to the end of the road.


Jim Hewett carries a load of gear up to Close to the Edge Cave.

A few years before, a helicopter supporting an expedition to the Dezaiko Range had spotted a massive hole in a cliff face. Follow-up trips had confirmed that this was a very deep 800-foot shaft with another offset 125-foot drop at the bottom. At the bottom of that drop, there was a crack with a constant, strong breeze pouring out. For cavers, a crack strongly blowing air smells like glory.

Neeld’s exploration plan, now our plan, was to descend the shafts and use a battery-powered drill to enlarge the crack, shimmy through, and explore whatever was on the other side. Canadian cavers had tried something like this before. They had packed explosives into the crack and set them off with limited results.


Jim Hewett hangs above the Close to the Edge entrance pit.

The cave is in a daunting location in a cliff face hundreds of feet off the valley floor. The entrance drop itself is a black abyss. We’d packed a rope more than long enough to reach the bottom of the pits but we hadn’t counted on there still being ice on the cave wall at the top. A huge refrigerator-sized chunk hung there, seemingly immovable.

Is this what being dead is like?


Close to the Edge Entrance

Neeld fixed bolts to the cave wall then reattached the rope over the edge and away from the pack rats who made the entrance their home. 500 feet down a significant ledge interrupted the shaft. He rebolted the rope here as well to prevent rubbing. A previous expedition had done the same thing, yet their bolt hanger was bent strangely flat.

Once Neeld reached the bottom and I had come down we signaled for Jim to begin the long rappel. He was just past the major ledge when the whole chamber seemed like it was shaking with a roar of a jet engine. Neeld and I ran for cover. Something huge was clearly falling down the shaft. The force of whatever was falling extinguished our carbide lights. Looking up through the blue gloom of the shaft I couldn’t see Jim on the rope.

When I called up, “Jim, are you okay?” he yelled back, “it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it!”

Just after he crossed the ledge at 500 feet the ice in the entrance gave way striking the ledge that was now above him. He told me that he was covered in a shower of icy slush that extinguished his headlamp and made him wonder “is this what being dead is like?”

Well, no one died and over the next days made exhausting trips up and down that shaft, ferrying rope, bolts, batteries. Neeld expanded the crack so that it could just fit a very determined explorer. Canadian cavers brought us food and beer from the valley. We were also joined by Tom Miller for the first push through the enlarged crack.


Neeld Messler in the enlarged crack.

It's hard to overstate how tight that crack was and how difficult it was to navigate. The slot angles down at 45 degrees and is chest constriction tight. The way through is sliding in, feet first then shimmying down arms up to fit. At the tightest point, breathe out, slide a little, breathe in. It can take ½ an hour to traverse this 20 feet of passage. It also comes out at the top of a significant pit.

I had entered the passage with one arm down by my side and one up. At the tightest point my head was wedged looking up the slot and I saw a rock tumble down the chute, nothing to be done, no way to turn my head. In the cold of the alpine cave, the impact of the rock breaking my nose didn’t really hurt. The warmth of the blood flowing down my face felt oddly good.


Stephen Alvarez in Close to the Edge Cave. 

We pushed downward 2 more drops on that trip. Exhausting does not begin to explain the experience. Climbing the rope out of the cave we go 2 at a time, one person climbing above the other. I remember going soundly to sleep clipped into the rope waiting for Jim -who was climbing above me- to cross a rebelay.


Neeld Messler crosses a rebelay deep in the cave.

After a day of rest, we went back to push the cave to the bottom. Down the big drop, down past the crack, down, down, down a long, sloping passage with ice-cold water running across the floor. We surveyed as we went. When Neeld finally said the passage was too tight I mostly felt relief.

Honestly, I don’t recall much about the trip out. We pulled our ropes, and carried them to the base of the big pit. This time I am pretty sure I slept while climbing.

The trips ferrying our gear down the mountain were a blur as was the drive back to the border. I guess we put Jim back on a bus in Prince George. I got on one somewhere near Billings to make the trip back to Boulder.

The thing I do remember clearly is calling my father from a pay phone to check my survey calculations (dad is a mathematician). He confirmed that we had explored what was then the second deepest cave in Canada. Once I got back to Boulder, I slept for 2 days straight.


Jim Hewett in the bottom of Close to the Edge Cave.

It was more than a year later that Tom Miller called. He wanted to invite me on an expedition to the Chiquibul Cave System in Belize. He also wanted to let me know that another team had gone back to Close to the Edge. It seems we had missed a passage and they had explored the cave even deeper.

That is how exploration goes.

In 2001 a Candian team pushed the cave to a sump at -472 meters. At that depth it now stands as the 4th deepest cave in Canada.

To see all the Close to the Edge photos check out this gallery.


Stephen Alvarez, Jim Hewett and Neeld Messler after the Close to the Edge expedition.

Stephen Alvarez

February, 2024