A caver died early Thanksgiving morning after being stuck upside down for 28 hours in a tight passageway in Nutty Putty Cave in Utah. John Jones, a 26-year-old medical student at the University of Virginia and a Utah native, was exploring the 1,355-foot-long and 145-foot-deep cave, which consists of many narrow tunnels, passages, and small rooms, along with 11 other family members and friends when he tried to squirm through an L-shaped corridor called Bob's Push about 700 feet underground. He became stuck head first in the 18-inch-wide by 10-inch-high crevice and was unable to move since his body blocked the entire passage.
Nutty Putty Cave, a limestone cave on the west side of Utah Lake about 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, is a popular beginner's cave. Climb-Utah.com says, "The cave is a lot of fun and will be enjoyed by anyone seeking a little adventure." Access to the cave is limited by a reservations system operated by the Timpanagos Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society, allowing only experienced cavers inside the cave. The entrance is barred by a locked gate.
View a map of Nutty Putty Cave. The accident happened at Bob's Push in the The Birth Canal area. Also note the warning: "Do not squeeze into anything that you might not be able to squeeze out of."
Michael Leavitt, the cave access manager, says the group was experienced and was granted one of six daily permits. "They've never been to Nutty Putty before, but they toured many harder caves in the Logan area that required vertical climbing skills," Leavitt told media. "They were qualified, John was qualified. I'm sure he went into this passage hoping it was going to open up into one of the larger rooms."
After Mr. Jones was stuck, cave rescuers were called to free the 6-foot, 190-pound man. The rescue team, which numbered as many as 50 people, placed bolt anchors in the cave roof for a pulley system, attached ropes to him, and used power tools to widen the tunnel. They were able to raise him 12 feet and give him food and water before the rock that one of the pulley bolts was placed in broke, causing the anchor to fail, and dropped him tightly back into the hole. His physical condition then worsened as he had difficulty breathing and drifted in and out of consciousness. Rescuers sang songs to him to keep his spirits up.
John Jones' brother Spencer Jones of San Francisco told the Associated Press, "We all were very optimistic and hopeful. But it became increasingly clear last night after he got re-stuck that there weren't very many options left. We thought he was in the clear and then when we got the news that he had slipped again. That's when we started to get scared."
Early Thursday morning, John Jones died in Nutty Putty Cave. His funeral is planned for Saturday in Stansbury Park, Utah. He leaves behind a pregnant wife and eight-month-old daughter. Our condolences to his friends and family on this tragedy.
This is not the first time that someone has become stuck and had to be rescued in Nutty Putty Cave. In July 1999, two teenagers were rescued after being stuck in a narrow passage called The Birth Canal 120 feet below the surface for 10 hours. Another two cavers were pulled from the Bob's Push area during Thanksgiving week in 2004. John Jones is the cave's first fatality.
The Deseret News reports that the cave will be closed permanently to avoid future accidents and rescues and because Nutty Putty Cave is now the tomb of John Jones. Spencer Cannon, spokesman for the Utah County Sheriff, says that after consultation with cavers and the search and rescue group, "There will be no future efforts to remove the body because of where it's located and the danger of accessing the area. The risk is too high." The family plans to create a memorial to John at the cave entrance and to set up a fund to promote safe caving.
Photographs above: Top: A search and rescue caver squirms through a narrow passage in Nutty Putty Cave near the location of John Jones accident. Bottom: One of the bolts that anchored the pulley system to pull John Jones out of his wedged position. Photographs courtesy Utah County Sheriff Department.