A Conspiracy of Silence

Will Earth's most fragile unexplored ecosystems survive the age of adventure?

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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.”

60,000 Bucks Under the Sea

Bored with flying Russian MiGs over Moscow? Now you can buy a ticket into the abyss.

Deep-diving submersibles have been around for decades, but their limited availability and hefty operating costs have kept them largely off-limits to all but oceanographers and Hollywood directors. Times change, though. In the past two years, the Isle of Man—based Deep Ocean Expeditions has taken a software executive, a construction mogul, a pair of undertakers, and 38 others down below 7,800 feet. On one trip, clients visited hydrothermal vents off the Azores; on another, they buzzed the Titanic aboard the same Russian sub used to film James Cameron's eponymous epic. “The pressure is about two tons per square inch—that's a lot of weight on a square inch,” says Don Walsh, a veteran deep-sea explorer, consultant for Deep Ocean Expeditions, and one of only two people ever to reach the deepest point on earth—a lonely 36,161-foot drop inside the Marianas Trench known as the Challenger Deep.

For tourists, there's just one side effect: sticker shock. Titanic admission is, for example, $35,500 per seat. So, this summer, in an effort to get Jules Verne wanna-bes into the briny deep without leaving them feeling totally soaked, deep-sea outfitters are offering a menu of cheaper options in the 1,000- to 3,000-foot depth range. This month, for instance, Zegrahm DeepSea Voyages is charging about $4,000 to whisk passengers down into British Columbia's Strait of Georgia for face-to-face encounters with 25-foot-long giant Pacific octupi. And later this year, sub designer Graham Hawkes will offer trips to unexplored canyons off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, aboard Aviator 2, a two-person undersea craft. Tuition for his five-dive flight school runs $9,800.

But one expedition, planned for August 2001, hopes to trounce them all. Deep Ocean and Connecticut-based polar outfitters Quark Expeditions intend to lug a submersible north in a Russian icebreaker, drop the craft though the polar cap, and descend to the geographic North Pole. Most believe Robert Peary conquered the Pole in 1909. Nope. Fourteen thousand feet below lies a spot on the seafloor that no one has ever seen. Deep Ocean founder Mike McDowell will make the descent with former U.S. Navy submarine commander Alfred McLaren and Anatoly Sagalevitch, head of Russia's manned submersibles program. Tourists will be next in line. “It may just be mud and clay,” admits McDowell. Fork over $60,000, and you can find out for yourself.

The Quest for a Painless, Pure Drink of Water

Viruses are a vexing issue for campers, but UV light might brighten the picture

Giardia. Cryptosporidium. E. coli. These organisms spell potential disaster to the seasoned adventurer, who would never dunk his Nalgene into a river for fear of encountering them. But that same backwoods veteran might shrug off the risk of viruses, which, according to popular wisdom, aren't often encountered in North American stream water.

That's plain foolhardy, according to Wilderness Medicine Institute director Buck Tilton. “Treat water for viruses everywhere,” he orders. He's not paranoid, notes Kellogg Schwab, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Schwab says Norwalk-Like viruses, a family of often waterborne pathogens, is responsible for an estimated 23 million cases of short-term diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting in the United States each year.

Such misery played through the minds of the virus-savvy back in January, when Seattle-based Cascade Designs announced it was pulling from stores all purifiers containing its ViralGuard cartridge. While a water filter traps bacteria and other microorganisms, a purifier typically uses a disinfectant—in Cascade's case, iodine beads—to kill the much smaller viruses that could otherwise slip through. But for reasons that remain unclear—Cascade inherited the purifier from SweetWater, a firm it acquired in January 1998—the ViralGuard failed Cascade's own quality-control tests. “We started seeing that [it] wasn't performing…in certain conditions,” says company microbiologist Lisa Lange. Cascade stopped short of a formal recall and opted instead to remove the product from the shelves and release a bulletin alerting consumers to the trouble (so far, the company says it has received no reports of illnesses from ViralGuard owners). Owners of the two other iodine-based purifiers on the market needn't panic: Both Pur and Exstream claim their units use stronger doses of iodine than Cascade's. If you own a ViralGuard, or use a filter rather than a purifier, Cascade suggests you pretreat water with fresh household bleach: Three drops per liter (six if the water's cloudy, cold, or tea-colored), wait five minutes, and filter.

Cascade's Lange hasn't yet decided which viricide will replace the ViralGuard, except to say it likely won't be iodine-based. She might follow the lead of purifier maker General Ecology and pursue an extremely small-pore filter to impede the viruses mechanically—though users would pay for such a setup with elbow grease.Another option, reverse osmosis—a system of forcing water through a very fine membrane (as opposed to a fiber-based filter)—is effective but expensive, and the required tiny pores of such a system could easily clog with sediment. And while ozone injection kills viruses, the smallest portable ozone device on the market fits neatly inside a 27-foot trailer.

That leaves one possible surprise disinfectant that is neither chemical nor mechanical: ultraviolet light. This summer, a Maine company called Hydro-Photon will release the Steri-Pen, a kind of UV swizzle stick powered by four AA batteries. Plunk it in a 12-ounce glass of water and a microcontroller zaps the H2O for about 40 seconds. Then drink up. The device reportedly puts out enough UV juice to kill viruses as well as all other swimming pathogens. Turbid water reduces its effectiveness, though, and with its limited 12-ounce capacity and $195 price tag, the company imagines it'll appeal more to international travelers than backpackers.

So where does that leave us? Well, to hear microbiologist Schwab tell it, up you-know-what creek. “Anywhere anyone is defecating in the woods, you're at risk for viruses,” he warns. “There are a lot of areas out there where drinking the water isn't a problem, but you just don't know. And sometimes the price for not knowing can be painful.”

Tiffany and Jason Campbell

Rising Stars

33 and 28, respectively.

Years married:

Years living in a 27-foot trailer:

Latest claims to fame:
In January he climbed Necessary Evil, an astonishing 5.14c route at the Virgin River Gorge, in Arizona. A week before, she'd redpointed a nearby 5.13d dubbed Hell Comes to Frogtown.

His experience:
“I felt as though I was watching myself from a camera behind my head.” 

“One time, I missed the hold, fell, and came three feet from hitting the ground.” 

Why, two years ago, Jason entrusted his life to a box of flimsy plant-hangers:
A local had removed the bolts and hangers from a Wild Iris, Wyoming, route in an effort to prevent Jason from climbing it first. Short on gear and unable to get a helping hand from the local climbing shop, he sought protection in a hardware store—and tackled the route. 

The price Tiffany pays for her physique:
“Girls will squeeze my arm, saying, 'I want to touch your biceps!'”

Why she's publicly dissed the American Sport Climbing Federation's management of the U.S. Climbing Team:
“They have used our names to raise their funds but we have never seen one penny.”

Why the federation has dissed her:
“Quite honestly,” says board member Jim Waugh, “the ASCF can hardly pay for anything right now.” 

Jason's goal for June:
Kryptonite, near Rifle, Colorado—the only U.S. rock climb rated (tentatively) 5.14d. 

The 7 p.m. Show, a 5.14a at Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado.

Greening the Screen

How eco-friendly sitcoms got that way

Sentient viewers of prime-time tv may have picked up on an intriguing trend lately. An electric car conspicuously parked outside the Friends coffeehouse. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully chasing a landfill monster that's terrorizing a subdivision on The X-Files. And in a Simpsons episode, Homer, mistaken for a celebrity activist and tied to a tree, protesting alongside Woody Harrelson and Ed Begley Jr.

Such go-green messages don't slip into scripts by accident. But unlike the “Just Say No” dialogue on ER last season, which turned out to be the product of a backdoor deal with the White House, most of the save-the-planet plugs sprinkled across television these days are the spin wizardry of the Environmental Media Association, a four-person nonprofit company based in Los Angeles. With a Rolodex of more than 10,000 industry contacts—including board members Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, and John Travolta—the EMA is greening Hollywood one script at a time.

The group has come to be the entertainment industry's most powerful programming lobby by eschewing public guilt and shame tactics and embracing flattery, humor, and good old-fashioned glad-handing. Take, for example, a February meeting with Marsh McCall, Kevin Slattery, Tom Maxwell, and Don Woodard, the executive producers of NBC's comedy Just Shoot Me. After she “did the schmooze first,” EMA executive director Debbie Levin says she gave her eco-aware spiel. “I had an idea that Nina, a fashion editor on the show, hears for the first time that global warming exists,” Levin recalls. “She comes into the office and panics that there won't be a four-season fashion year anymore.They said, 'Oh my God! That's so funny. We've got to figure out how to do that.'”

Beyond such backstage tête-à-têtes, the EMA calls press conferences, sends out bulk mail, and hosts the EMA Awards, an annual gala that each December generates the group's entire $350,000 operating budget. And later this month, it's launching a “Greening of Hollywood” campaign to applaud craftsmen who have made efforts to reduce backstage waste. Clearly, these enviros know how to work a room. “They speak Hollywood, as the best special-interest groups do,” says David Finnigan, who covers marketing for The Hollywood Reporter. “Everyone in Hollywood likes to get an award.”

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