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Stewart Green

Utah Caver Dies After Becoming Stuck

By November 28, 2009

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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.


November 28, 2009 at 4:18 pm
(1) Leslie F. Miller says:

Well, I guessed the punchline. Now I’m crying all over the place. Couldn’t you do something safe, like drive some rock band around town or something? Sheesh.

November 28, 2009 at 5:03 pm
(2) PK says:

Closing this cave is completely senseless. If we were to close everything where something bad happens, there would be ZERO outdoor activity. So much as retrieving his body is concerned, it would eventually be retrievable. I’d have professional cavers retrieve it, instead of search and rescue who ARE NOT cavers. The discoverer of the cave even agrees it should not be closed.

November 29, 2009 at 10:38 pm
(3) tom says:

A senseless loss of life made even moreso by the decision to close the cave. Even if it were too dangerous to retrieve his body now, it will be extractable in a year or so and the cave reopened, the dangerous section sealed shut. To close the cave is a legacy of loss that any caver would abhor, especially John Jones.

November 30, 2009 at 10:24 am
(4) JPE says:

As a recreational caver AND a member of a group that specializes in cave rescue I can only imagine the frustration with not having a better outcome. I can also attest to the fact that this scenario is entirely possible in many caves and could end similarly regardless of the personnel involved in the rescue.
My condolences go out to the family members of John Jones but I do believe as the true caver that he was he would have wanted to be recovered when it is possible and have the cave reopened for future generations to explore.

November 30, 2009 at 1:47 pm
(5) Daniel says:

First of all our condolences to Joh’s family.

I do not understand soma parts of this article, which says that “is a popular beginner’s cave” but also says that ” the National Speleological Society, allows only experienced cavers inside the cave. The entrance is barred by a locked gate.”

This is somehow scary, thinking on a dual categorized cave, I cannot imagine people (pheraps was not John’s case) going inside to a begineers cave and founding himself ina situaltion for an experienced and expert caver or espeliologist.

Regarding the close of the cave, I think they should reconsider the situation and pheraps rescue the body when possible, open the cave and name a part of the cave per John’s memory, that way every person entering will remember him and extreme preacutions.

Just imagine how many times Yosemite should have been closed due to fatalities in its walls.

December 1, 2009 at 1:17 am
(6) erfan fekri says:

I think “closing the cave” is the worst decision. if they want to continue these kind of decisions we will find “everest peak” or “k2 peak” forbidden, in the near future!
So the best way to decrease these kind of accidents is to inform the people truly about the adventure risks and help them to increase their ability for these kind of adventure by organized training.

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