by Rob Samuelsen
Arizona has complex geology! Based on an ancient bed of sedimentary limestone, upheaval, volcanic action, pressure, and erosion it has resulted in basalt, gneiss, mica, granite, copper, gold, silver, … and caves! Certainly, Colossal Cave and Kartchner Caverns come to mind, but spelunkers know that where there is one cave, there are likely others. In fact, 90 percent of all caves are found in limestone.
It is the spelunker’s dream to discover a new cave! In the late 60s, Arkenstone cave and its endemic species were discovered near Colossal Cave. In 1974, when Tufts and Tenen discovered Kartchner Caverns, it was exciting times! More recently (2002), explorers entered a new underground wonderland in Pima County said to be more spectacular than Kartchner – La Tetera cave! There will be more discoveries because Arizona has limestone!
Idiomatic nomenclature such as “Fat Man’s Misery” or “Tall Man’s Torment” takes on a whole new meaning for people with Nordic physiques in wild (non-commercial) caves. Caving is inherently adventurous, especially for the big and tall. It’s the combination of hiking, bouldering, rock climbing, crawling, rappelling, and swimming, but in the “yang” of our circadian rhythm. Complete darkness is disorienting, no matter what the activity. In 2009, Utah’s Nutty Putty cave was closed after John Edward Jones died and was interred therein because extraction wasn’t possible. Caves are not to be taken lightly!
Cave 302, a small limestone cave on Mt. Wrightson’s eastern flank, is neither new nor spectacular, but it is relatively unknown and feels like it’s hiding something. Its hidden belly crawl entrance intersects a fault line embellished by small deposits and an intermittent stream. Following the sloping watercourse are several rooms separated by “sinks” and barely passable bypass squeeze points. “Sinks” are sluices blocked by gravel thereby allowing water to flow. Think French drain. Water is the magic of cave formation; so when a sink blocks further passage, there are most likely yet-to-be-discovered rooms beyond.
The main passage ends in a larger fault line crack and includes some interesting helictites – Mother Nature’s speleothem mystery to humanity. Their crazy formations defy all scientific explanation creating wondrous calcite flowers of beauty. This terminating room is 30 feet tall with some breakdown and living formations. Caving is a modern sport enabled by portable light. As I sat there in Duracell’s glow, I pondered how few other people have ever sat where I was sitting.
Recently in a different cave, I was dumbstruck by others’ apparent lack of respect for the subterranean. No one else besides me (and my group) had helmets, three sources of light, boots, etc., nor did they remove two bags of garbage from the cave. My helmet is scarred from head-jolting impacts and my coveralls are permanently soiled, but I take precautions and I leave no trace. I grew up spelunking in some of the 4,000 wild caves in southern Indiana. Cave 302 reminded me of my earlier dreams of discovery. The adventure is great and the hidden beauty notable.