Summit Cave sits high in an intermountain wilderness, nearly a vertical mile above wind-raked scabland and half a day's drive from the din of Las Vegas's slot machines. It takes the better part of a morning to climb to the entrance, a steep, two-hour hump up slopes of stunted juniper and piñon that concludes with an exposed, scree-covered traverse across a 35-degree gully. Even if you knew your way up here, you could easily stand a few feet from the 60-foot-deep pit leading to the cave's first chamber and never know it was there. I've been brought here by a university geologist because—and only because—I have sworn not to reveal the cave's location (in fact, its name has been changed for this story). I also promised not to identify my guide, since he is one of perhaps six people in the world who know about this place. Having sworn my oath, we hitch a rope to a well-rooted shrub, don harnesses, and, in the gathering fog of a blustery March afternoon, rappel over the ice-crusted lip into utter darkness.
As caves go, Summit is not the biggest, deepest, or most geologically diverse in the country, but it is still considered significant because its half-mile of passages are lavishly decorated with stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone, columns, and other bizarre formations known in caving parlance as speleothems. Once safely on the cave floor, we carefully follow a route laid out by the beams of our headlamps to a unique collection of helectites, small calcite curlicues, some possibly as old as 50,000 years, which we find in a back passage sprouting in alabaster clusters from watery seams along the walls. "If this cave were well-known, there's a good chance these would be destroyed," my guide says, aiming his camera and speaking with hushed reverence in this sanctum. "When you see them in pristine condition, you begin to understand why we keep places like this secret."
Such discretion is understandable. Subterranean ecology is so fragile that a mere fingerprint—rife with bacteria and oils—can end millennia of speleothemic growth. That's why strict secrecy has become one of the primary conservation strategies among cavers. "I'd rather be kicked in the nuts than disseminate information to someone I don't know who might destroy that which has taken the earth so long to create," one caver proclaimed recently on an Internet discussion group hosted by the National Speleological Society. Up until the late 1970s, the NSS routinely published coordinates and even directions to cave portals. Such openness is now verboten.
Modern cave exploration in the United States began in earnest in the late 1940s, but only in recent decades have advances in climbing equipment, combined with a burgeoning interest in outdoor adventure, enabled speleo-crazy amateurs to delve into subterra incognita. The NSS now boasts 12,000 dues-paying members, and membership in "grottoes"—local caving clubs from California to the Carolinas—is swelling. But the growth has happened grudgingly. Cavers avoid any activity, such as enlisting sponsors, that would draw public attention to their activities. Too many have seen the heartbreaking consequences. "I've been on restoration trips where we've had to pin damaged formations back together like pieces of bone," says NSS vice-president Ray Keeler.
Vandalism is a daunting enough problem for cavers, but a greater issue one day may be simply getting underground in the first place. In the East, where more of the land tends to be private property, disgruntled landowners have dynamited, plugged, or gated portals. In the West, where many caves are on public land, the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management will either gate caves, restrict access with permits, or both. The agencies enforce the 1988 Federal Cave Resources Protection Act, which does little to protect caves other than sending those caught removing speleothems to jail for up to a year. That threat hasn't saved scores of trashed caves, though, so the conspiracy of silence continues."If someone were to inquire about new caves in Arizona," says Bob Buecher, a veteran Tucson-based caver, "I'd look them right in the eye and say, 'Aren't any that I know of.'"
A testament to the endurance of cave confidentiality can be found in Arizona's Whetstone Mountains. There, in 1974, amateur cavers Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen found a new entrance to a previously discovered cave that "emitted a warm breeze and smelled like guano."The pair eventually pushed through two and a half miles of virgin rooms choked with massive, otherwordly speleothems, including a 60-foot column (the state's largest) and the world's second-longest "soda straw"—a 25,000-year-old formation that hangs 21 feet down from the ceiling like a strand of fossilized spaghetti. (The longest is in Australia.)
The discovery kicked off four years of covert trips to what is now Kartchner Caverns. Tufts and Tenen would walk different routes to the sinkhole to avoid cutting a footpath, and had a lawyer draw up a nondisclosure agreement that they asked their slowly expanding circle of confidants to sign, including Tenen's wife and the Kartchner family, who owned the land on which the cave is located. "We raised paranoia to a high art," says Tenen proudly.
They also came up with a bold idea to save the cave: commercialize it in such a manner that it would be preserved in its original condition—that is, as a "living" cave. The plan took them all the way to the office of Arizona's then-Governor Bruce Babbitt (who was also sworn to secrecy). The most ambitious park project in the state's history culminated last November when the $30 million Kartchner Caverns State Park debuted—including a 23,000-square-foot exhibit center, a renovated walk-in cave entrance with steel airlocks, and precisely calibrated mist-spraying nozzles that keep Kartchner's humidity at a constant 99 percent.
Aside from being a kind of speleological Disneyland, complete with gift shop and 100-seat movie theater, the park is an elaborate experiment designed to see if sensitive underground environments can handle high numbers of visitors; roughly 500 grade-schoolers, octogenarians, and other tourists parade through Kartchner daily. Some cavers have celebrated Kartchner as a diversion for a curious public, one that educates even as it steers attention away from vulnerable noncommercial caves. But others say Kartchner was developed with imperfect science, and that the high volume of human traffic is already deteriorating the cave. When Arizona State Parks staff ecologist Matt Chew published such views in a February Boston Globe editorial, he was promptly fired. (Though an attorney representing the state agency declined to comment, court documents allege Chew "used his position for personal gain" and "sought to bring discredit and embarrassment to the State." At press time, Chew was suing the state to get his job back.)
Whatever the outcome, the controversial Kartchner experiment will be watched carefully as caving is reluctantly yanked into an ever-brighter limelight: An IMAX caving movie is in the works, and recently discovered passages in New Mexico's Lechuguilla Cave lead experts to believe the system may be the largest in the world. With this kind of buzz, the code of silence protecting the nation's hundreds of rumored secret caves is likely to seal even tighter. "This is an activity where, with $200 worth of equipment, an average person can still discover a virgin passage," says Dave Jagnow, conservation chairman for the NSS. "If you were to discover that, you'd be pretty careful who you shared it with, too."