Dangerous Caves

by Evan McKinney – Author of High Iron to Fairbanks, Building the Historic Alaska Railroad
photos by Steve Kilp and Evan McKinney

CAVERNA PELIGROSA was carved in the flat boulder above the cave opening. “Spanish for dangerous cave,” Steve said as we stood in a circular depression in the sparsely vegetated high desert amid a jumble of brown boulders that had been exposed when the earth below had long ago subsided. We stared at the black abyss created by the same collapse.

“Where does it lead?” I wondered. “What secrets lie below? Was I brave or foolish enough to crawl in and look?” To avoid the question of going underground, I asked, “Why in Spanish, and why so neatly lettered out here in the remote Arizona desert?”

Evan at the entrance to a new cave.

Even amateur explorers love a mystery, so we speculated. We knew indigenous peoples had inhabited the area for thousands of years. They had left their calling cards: projectile points and stone tools, lithic scatters, roasting pits, pottery, baskets, and other items essential to their survival. But their written messages were in mysterious petroglyphs and pictographs, not Spanish lettering.

The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition had passed through the area in late 1776 on their way back to Santa Fe after a failed attempt to find a route to the Monterey Mission. But they were attempting to get back to Santa Fe before winter, so likely didn’t waste time putting caution signs on cave entrances.

When John Wesley Powell first explored the Grand Canyon in 1869, William Dunn and the Howland brothers had abandoned the expedition and climbed out of the canyon. Directly south of where we stood, Dunn scratched his name on a rock near the 

top of Mount Dellenbaugh along with a crude arrow pointing to the north, but then disappeared somewhere in the blank landscape.

Mormon pioneers were grazing cattle and sheep in the high desert by then. Signs of herders’ camps are found throughout the area, often on high ground offering sweeping views of the surrounding grazing lands. Did a Spanish-speaking herder carve the sign, or a more recent visitor? And why did they call this cave dangerous? We decided to leave the question unanswered, err on the side of caution, and stay above ground – advice we’d forget before the day was out.

Early that morning, we’d left our homes in Mesquite, on Nevada’s eastern border, to drive across the northwest corner of Arizona to St. George, Utah. From there, we’d driven south on unpaved roads, deep into the vast country.

Steve was a volunteer for the federal agencies responsible for managing this vast public domain, an area so immense and unpopulated that it is only beginning to reveal its many secrets. He was now helping locate and catalog cave sites in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, a million acres of high desert with no paved roads.

We stopped by the Caverna Peligrosa to see an example of what we were looking for. Visiting an actual cave was inspiring, for while hiking through this remoteness is rewarding in itself, the possibility of making further discoveries provides yet another level of motivation.

We had a long list of possible cave sites to examine, along with the Global Positioning System coordinates of each site. Our mission was to determine if there were cave openings at any of those sites. We would drive as far as we could on established roadways, and then walk the rest of the way to each site.

This day’s project was to check a grouping of approximately eight potential cave sites. The hiking was neither difficult nor easy, as the terrain was walkable but had no established trails. As we hiked, Steve explained that caves are often found in association with sinkholes, where subsurface erosion, typically in limestone, caused the land above to collapse into the void. Limestone is composed of ancient marine organisms, so this mile-high desert was once a sea. “The earth has obviously changed dramatically over time,” I thought.

By early afternoon, we had visited all but one of the sites. We had seen miles of mesmerizing country, countless cacti, a jack rabbit or two, several sinkholes, but no caves. A short drive down yet another desert trail, there was one final site to investigate and one more hike. After a mile or so of walking, we approached the location our satellite-driven electronic devices pointed to and saw nothing but more sparsely vegetated terrain amid a backdrop of striking distant vistas. A brief search of the area led us to an obvious depression in the otherwise stark landscape. The sink was not dramatic, nor were the surrounding tumbled-boulder walls, but there was clearly a depression in the earth’s surface, so we set out to search for caves.

We moved to opposite sides of the sink, and I soon spotted a small opening where the cluster of massive boulders didn’t quite join. In my mind’s eye, cave openings are large, perhaps with Fred Flintstone waving from the entrance. This trifling trapezoidal hole was barely shoulder width and not much higher.

Peering through the small hole with my flashlight, I saw a distinct room and knew I had found my first cave. Five feet or so below the modest aperture, I saw a level floor and decided that further examination was required. I yelled at Steve to let him know where I was going before nervously squeezing feet-first through the undersized entry, pushing back and dropping down into a rock room.

“No need for a dangerous cave sign here,” I said to Steve when I saw him peering in through the opening. “Climb on down.”

Steve on the ramp leading to the main chamber of the new cave.

His feet soon wiggled through the hole, and as the bulk of his weight was inside the chamber, I looked down to be sure his blind backwards drop would bring him to a safe landing spot. That’s when I first noticed that the chamber floor directly below his feet was not a floor at all, but a gaping dark hole. The apparently bottomless pit was not visible from the outside, tucked tightly under the little room’s front wall. When climbing in, I had pushed back from the wall, landed on solid ground, and not even noticed the void. Steve was now dangling above the vertical shaft, butt-in and head-out, preparing to release his grasp on the rocks.

“HANG ON!” I yelled. But at that same moment, he released his grip, expecting to drop a few inches to the solid floor. One second he was above me, and the next he had disappeared into a gateway to China. The bumping and scraping sounds of the fall were followed by the thump of his eventual touchdown. As the dust cleared, I was relieved to see him looking up from below with a surprised look on his face. Although he had dropped more than ten feet, he assured me that he was uninjured.

Always the explorer, Steve explained that since he was already there he might as well look around. He retrieved a small light from his pocket, moved downward, and disappeared. From the dark void, I could hear his voice explaining that below the hole I had climbed into, and below the hole he had fallen into, and below the downward sloping tunnel he was gazing into, was yet another chamber beyond the reach of his light. He said it looked accessible, but we agreed that further exploration required caving equipment and caving experts. After he extracted himself from the vertical shaft, we took a quick look around the upper chamber and then slithered out through the tiny entrance to the welcome light of day.

On the hike back to the Jeep, we speculated on what might be down below. I was curious about the newfound cave, but uncertain that I wanted to be the one doing the looking.

Driving back to the world of pavement, we agreed to return soon to the deep cavern with proper gear and proper supervision. “I only agreed to return to the cave site,” I told myself, “and made no commitment to go back underground.” Then Steve told me of a cave he had found in the area, the location now a closely held secret, where federal authorities had recovered numerous artifacts. As we drove back through the Virgin River Gorge, the adventurous part of my brain was already arguing with the timid part, and before we got to Mesquite I agreed to help Steve and the government’s cave expert explore and survey our new find. You can’t say my mom didn’t raise any fools.


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