Caves sport underground adventure

By Ian Simmons

Special to the Arizona Daily Wildcat

Looking down into the all-enveloping darkness of the cave, I felt a quick pang of anxiety. But with the click of a flashlight, the fear turned to a sense of wonder and excitement that comes with exploring a new world.

Many caves and fissures under the Santa Rita and Catalina mountain ranges are not well known to the public. But "spelunking," or cave exploration, is not an endeavor to be undertaken without a trial run.

Colossal Cave, located 17 miles from downtown Tucson, offers a look into what can be experienced below the desert.

Colossal Cave was once occupied by the Hohokam Indians who mysteriously vanished from this area hundreds of years ago. It was "discovered" by white explorers in 1923.

Frank "Pop" Schmidt was the first to actively explore the caverns and map their existing structures back in the 1930s, said Larrimore. "If you went on a tour with Frank, you could expect a two to five day trip into the caverns."

Usually the spelunkers didn't learn this until they were deep into the cave, she added.

Colossal Cave is a "dry" cave, meaning that none of the formations are growing right now. Also, the cave remains at a constant temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kevin Justice, a local art historian, has let his hobby of cave exploration become a passion that has him traveling to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico to satisfy his underground obsession.

"There are local caves that anybody can use, such as Pepper Sauce out near Oracle, but those are the ones that are trashed since they are used as a place to party," Justice said.

Justice recommended other caves in the area, such as Cave of the Bells or Onyx Cave in the Santa Rita Mountains. Both caves are gated and require checking in with the Forest Service.

Cave exploration at Justice's level demands experience in rappelling as well as a full compliment of wall climbing gear carabiners, nuts, bolts and lots of rope.

For caving initiates Justice recommends good hiking boots, a helmet with a lantern, backup lighting, extra batteries and an experienced guide.

"I find the physical aspect of exploring caves rewarding, but seeing the crystals and formations through the eyes of an artist gives the trips extra meaning," Justice said.

Escabrosa Grotto, the local chapter of the National Speleological Society, holds a meeting on the second Friday of each month to plan trips in the area and surrounding sites.

Meetings are held at the First Presbyterian Church, 6565 E. Broadway.

For more information about Colossal Cave tours call 647-7275.

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