The tip-off was the breeze, warm and moist and smelling of bats. It wafted through a crack in the floor of the sinkhole, 15 feet beneath the Arizona desert. To caver Randy Tufts, it was strong evidence that he had found what he had been hunting for—an undiscovered cave, a place in which no human had set foot.
But a breeze doesn't always mean a cave. Tufts and his partner, Gary Tenen, had wiggled into scores of similar holes only to meet with disappointment. Most ended after five or 10 feet, but this sink, in the Whetstone Mountains 50 miles southeast of Tucson, would be different.
Tenen, the smaller of the two at 5'7" and 130 pounds, went first, screwing himself down into the hole. He was well prepared. Tenen used to wiggle through wire hangers as practice for such a moment.
Even so, the hole was a tight lit. "The first couple of times through, it was real unnerving." says Tenen, 40, who with his wife, Judy, owns a printing press in Tucson. "At any moment, we could've been squished."
The two cavers inched their way through two chambers and then hammered a small hole in a limestone barrier to get farther into the cave. Tufts, who is 6 feet and 170 pounds, had to remove his belt and exhale to make it through the opening. "It was like being born all over again," he says.
As they continued, crawling on their hands and knees, the ceiling suddenly rose. They were in a 10-foot-high corridor. Walking upright, they followed it for 300 feet. But by then it was late in the day, and Tufts and Tenen decided to turn back.
The following weekend they returned to the cave and crawled to the top of a mound a short distance from where they had stopped the week before. Using a carbide lamp, they spied what lay beyond—a vast blackness.
"When we shined the light and couldn't make out the next wall, we got a little giggly," says Tenen.
It took a year of further exploration before the full extent of their discovery became apparent. What Tufts and Tenen had crawled into that day in November 1974 was a cave rich in colorful mineral deposits and unusual rock formations. It was 2½ miles long and contained two high-ceilinged rooms, each roughly the dimensions of a football field, as well as 26 smaller rooms; nearly the entire area of this vast underground expanse was 100% pristine. Water was still dripping, forming stalagmites and stalactites.
"It had always been my dream to find any unknown cave," says Tufts, 43, who is working on his doctorate in geology at the University of Arizona. "But to find one of this magnitude was boggling." The cavers named it Xanadu, after the kingdom in the Coleridge poem "Kubla Khan": "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree...."