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Randy Tufts, 53; Discovered Kartchner Cave Complex

April 11, 2002|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a cloudy day in November 1974, Randy Tufts and a friend pushed aside some rocks, squeezed their way into a tiny hole in the mountains of the Arizona desert and stumbled on a pot of gold, of sorts.

At a time when discovering anything new in the well-trodden West was nearly impossible, Tufts and his roommate, Gary Tenen, went home that evening not realizing they had found the entrance to one of the nation's most extravagant cave complexes.

And that's only half the story.

Tufts, who unearthed Kartchner Caverns and contributed to groundbreaking research on Jupiter's moon Europa, died April 1 in Tucson of a rare blood disorder. He was 53.

Tufts was best known for his conservation ethic and a sense of wonder about the natural world that seemed to grow as he got older. "I don't know many people who made major geological discoveries both on Earth and in space," said Peter Zimmerman, a longtime friend.

A native of Tucson, Tufts fell in love with spelunking while in high school, where he announced to friends his intention to discover a major new cave. Soon, a miner provided Tufts with a vague tip: Somewhere in the Whetstone Mountains east of Tucson there was an interesting sinkhole, and maybe a cave.

After earning a bachelor's degree in geology at the University of Arizona, Tufts and his roommates--whom he took spelunking--often pored over geologic maps of the Arizona desert. Tufts was certain he could find a new cave by identifying areas with certain types of limestone and then exploring them inch by inch.

"We were doing grid searches," said Tenen. "We'd walk back and forth over ridges and hills; we'd go in a canyon and Randy would take one side and I'd take another."

While exploring a sinkhole with Tenen in November 1974, Tufts caught a whiff of bat guano from a small fissure. They crawled into the opening, but hesitated. No one knew where they were. No one could help if they got stuck.

So they went back the next weekend with friends. Reaching the cave's interior required squeezing through a 10-inch hole and then navigating a long, narrow tunnel covered in guano.

Over subsequent months, they pushed deeper into the 21/2-mile cavern. While nowhere near the size of the world's longest cavern--Mammoth Caves in Kentucky is 348 miles long--they found three huge chambers; long, pencil-thin stalactites called soda straws, and other strange features. The cave's humidity was more than 99% and water was percolating down from the surface. Formations were still growing.

They gave the cave the code name Xanadu. Only a few select friends were told, fearing that if word leaked out, the cave would be trashed by vandals and others simply eager to explore.

"It didn't take us long to become hermetic about it," said Tufts in a 2000 interview with the Irish Times. "We seldom even used the 'cave' word. We were obsessively secretive. We were known among cavers in Arizona for hiking in that region, and just the idea that people might know we'd found something--well, they'd probably know the whereabouts straight away."

Despite having no money, Tufts and Tenen hired a real estate agent to inquire about buying the land, which was part of a family ranch dating back to the state's pioneer days. The owner didn't want to sell.

Tufts and Tenen arranged a meeting with James Kartchner, the family patriarch, in 1978. First they showed him photos of another Arizona cave that had been vandalized. Then they showed him photos of the cave beneath his property.

Kartchner was amazed. All his life--he was then in his 70s--he had galloped across the ranch on horseback thinking the ground often sounded hollow.

The Kartchners agreed to keep the cave a secret while Tufts and Tenen figured out a way to permanently protect it. "We took the perspective that the decisions we made had to endure for hundreds of years," Tenen said.

After an initial attempt to interest Arizona State Parks in the cave was met with indifference, Tufts got word of their find to the state's governor, Bruce Babbitt, who had degrees in geology and geophysics.

Early one morning in 1985, Babbitt slipped away from his work and secretly visited the cave, which led to the state's purchase of the cavern from the Kartchners in 1988. Eleven years later, the cave was opened to the public after a long, and sometimes contentious process--with Tufts the primary watchdog--about how best to build a tunnel and lighting system that would allow tourists to visit while preserving the cave's delicate ecosystem.

Kartchner Caverns now attracts 180,000 visitors a year, with many lining up each day at 4 a.m. to buy tickets.

Tufts had long worked in community development, but in the mid-1980s he took a 14-month trip around the world. During that time he read about Europa, the fourth largest of Jupiter's moons, and became intrigued.

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