Tuesday, March 19, 2002 | 8:25 a.m.
Wriggling his Isuzu Trooper through Yucca plants and other desert shrubs, Steve Deveny came to a halt on the bumpy road, leaned forward and rested his arms on the steering wheel.
Squinting and surveying the fork in the road, he said aloud to himself, "OK. This is not looking good. Plan B."
By this time on a recent journey to Tea Kettle Cave, a secluded cavern in a mountain top in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Deveny and a group of cavers had left behind two pickups and a lonesome van unable to clear the back roads.
"Half the fun of caving is the trip," Deveny, a 40-year-old cave enthusiast, said. "The actual caving may only last a half-hour or an hour. But the fun is in getting there."
Deveny is chairman of the Southern Nevada Grotto, an organized group of cavers who love to belly crawl through cool rocky tunnels, maneuver around stalactites and stalagmites and repel into dark caverns few humans traverse.
The nonprofit organization works to conserve and monitor roughly 25 caves in Southern Nevada and is a member of the National Speleological Society, a national organization based in Huntsville, Ala.
Grotto members visit each cave at least once a year and survey the caves' conditions, make notes and take photographs.
Since the group's origin in 1968, Grotto members have visited nearly 100 caves throughout the state.
Photographs and maps of some of the caves are posted on the group's website, guanopage.com
On this particular day, there were novice and experienced cavers joining Deveny, including first-timer Rose Garcia, who said she's been wanting for a long time to explore a cave.
"I'm scared," Garcia, who teaches a computer design course at Community College of Southern Nevada, said while sitting next to her 14-year-old son, Eddie, on the drive to Tea Kettle. "But my curiosity is stronger than my fear."
Because of its remote location, not many hikers are likely to come across Tea Kettle Cave. And the Grotto is not likely to openly divulge the cave's locale.
"We don't want kids coming in, breaking things off, spray painting," Deveny said.
"Most of the formations were developed over thousands of years. The damage that we can do in a lifetime can never be replaced. Tea Kettle is the most fragile cave up here in Red Rock."
Desert Cave, an easily accessible cave in Red Rock Canyon, is almost completely destroyed, Grotto members say. The cave, near the horse corrals in Red Rock Canyon, is riddled with graffiti, candle wax, bottles and other trash left behind by revelers.
To protect Wounded Knee Cave, another cave in the area that is in danger of being ruined, the group erected a gate over its the entrance.
Caves are formed by acidified rainwater that seeps into cracks and crevices of limestone layers and creates small caverns.
With each rainfall, water that is enriched with carbon dioxide flows into the small caverns of the highly-soluble limestone, dissolving the rock and creating larger caverns.
A cave's natural features, such as the stalactites and stalagmites, are also formed by slowly dripping water.
Most of the caves in Southern Nevada are warm caves with temperatures ranging between 62-70 degrees, Deveny said.
Because many of the more remote caves are accessed by long hikes and climbs, caving season is typically between March and May and September and December when outdoor temperatures are cooler. Some caves are more dangerous than others.
Pinnacle Cave on Mount Potosi is considered very technical. It has a 120-foot drop to the bottom and its entrance is a 10-foot tunnel called the "birth canal." Halfway through the tunnel all sides of a person's body touch the rock. Exploration of the cave takes six to seven hours.
Caving should always be done in groups of four, Deveny said. A group of fewer than four could pose a problem in case of an emergency. A group larger than four can be damaging to a cave.
"There's a lot to caving," he added. "It's all up to your ability. You can die from hypothermia. You can break legs and arms."
When the group that was recently trekking to Tea Kettle Cave finally arrived at the foot of the mountain in the La Madre Mountain Range, the 11 cavers spilled out of the vehicles and started up the mountainside.
A two-hour hike brought them to the base of Tea Kettle Cave where they were helmeted, harnessed and debriefed by Deveny on the voice commands used in rock climbing, the use of climbing gear and cave etiquette.
One by one the cavers scaled the limestone, then disappeared into the 2-by-3-foot entrance that opened to a sloped and shadowed grayish ceiling -- toothy with stalactites -- then rappelled 50 feet downward into the cave.
Once inside, they wandered through the rooms and spaces, among the bony-smooth stalagmites and stalactites and the rocky "popcorn" known as cave coral. They climbed the slopes and walls of the cave and rested on its ledges.
"To me there's nothing that matches this," said 18-year-old Justin Gleason, a trained emergency medical technician from Pahrump who joined the Grotto two years ago.
"It's almost like going into another world," Gleason said of being inside a cave. "It's beautiful. It's a place that's rarely seen by people."
True. In the bottom rear of the cave, a plastic jar set on its side held an assortment of pencils and a note pad sealed in a plastic bag for guests to sign. One of its eight past signers over the last two years had come from as far away as Norway.
From the back of the cave, Eddie Garcia called out: "There's a whole nother room back there. I think I can fit back there. I don't know."
His voice disappearing, Garcia continued, "It goes into another little, tiny room."
The sport of it
"A true caver really wants to explore every nook and cranny to see what you can come up with," said 29-year-old Courtney Purcell, who moved to Las Vegas last month and recently joined the group.
"It's that feeling of scrambling through a little hole and crawling 30 or 40 feet. Every time you exhale, the air is kicking up dust. You're coughing. Your nostrils are all caked with dust. I like that.
"The hope," he said, "is that one day you're going to find a new room. It's a fantastic feeling. You might find a whole new room with beautiful stalactites.
"Sometimes you crawl into a tunnel, get stuck and have to figure a way to turn around and crawl out," Purcell said.
A longtime caver, Purcell said he's been to caves in Kentucky, Alabama and Canada.
Joining the Grotto offers better opportunities for exploration, he said.
"A lot of times if you don't know about the rappelling (descent down a cliff by using rope)," Purcell said, "it really limits what you can do."
The 40-member Southern Nevada Grotto is open to new members, and Deveny said he's willing to take anyone to a cave.
Deveny began caving six years ago after his interest was piqued by his wife, Kristine, who has been caving for 12 years.
After their first trip, Rose and Eddie Garcia said they plan to continue caving with the Southern Nevada Grotto.
"I didn't know the space was going to be so beautiful," Rose Garcia said from a ledge in Tea Kettle Cave.
"I thought it was going to be neat," she said. "But it's better than I thought it would be. It's awesome. When I first went through that hole (entrance) it was like an emotional explosion."