The tragic ending to rescue efforts in Utah to free a trapped caver brings new attention – and a cautionary note – to a sport that has been growing in popularity.
By all accounts, John Jones, who died around midnight Wednesday after being stuck in the Nutty Putty Cave south of Salt Lake City for 28 hours, was an experienced caver and avid outdoorsman. To access the cave, which is owned by Utah's State Institutional Trust Land Administration, explorers are required to have reservations and either travel with a guide or have experience.
Mr. Jones is not the first caver to get stuck inside Nutty Putty, which draws about 5,000 visitors a year. According to the Deseret News, rescuers have freed at least six people from the cave since it was discovered in 1960. In 2006, the land trust moved to begin limiting the number of people who could enter, in hopes of reducing mishaps.
"We were hoping that by limiting access to those with the proper gear, proper leadership preparations and the appropriate skills, we could make sure that only the most prepared people were going into the cave," caver Jon Jasper told the Salt Lake Tribune. Mr. Jasper is a volunteer with the Timpanogos Grotto, which manages the cave and is a local chapter of the NSS.
"Even with everything that has been put in place to help guide people into proper preparation, going into the cave can still be dangerous," he told the paper.
"A Guide to Responsible Caving," published by The National Speleological Society (NSS), America's leading caving organization, might be enough to deter many would-be caving enthusiasts. "Dangers include falling down pits, being crushed by falling rocks, drowning, and hypothermia," it states. "And then there is the possibility of getting lost and quickly dying of hypothermia or slowly starving to death. But for people trained to cave safely, the rewards are worth the misery and risks."
The NSS tracks caving rescue operations and publishes the American Caving Accidents journal. According to its data, at least nine caving rescue operations have been carried out this year, not including the most recent rescue attempt in Utah. Two other cavers died in an accident earlier this year. In 2008, it recorded 20 rescues and five fatalities.
On Friday afternoon officials said it's too dangerous to retrieve Jones's body and that the cave will be permanently closed. A memorial for Jones may be placed at the entrance of the cave.
"Caving isn't generally considered to be a dangerous sport," Sgt. Spencer Cannon of the Utah County sheriff's office told the Associated Press. "But I think you can safely say this is a dangerous spot in that cave."
Two of the other cavers rescued from Nutty Putty were apparently pulled from the same area where Jones became stuck. According to an account by the Deseret News, Jones entered the cave with a group of 11 people on Tuesday evening. After going off on his own, according to the paper, he became lodged upside down in a spot called "Bob's Push," which is about 18 inches wide by 10 inches high.
His brother, also on the trip, tried to rescue him by climbing into the opening feet first.
According to the NSS safety guide: "Avoid forcing yourself into small or tight places where exiting may be very difficult, or your teammates would be unable to reach you to help you out. Consider entering a tight section of passage feet first, especially going downhill, because it will be easier to return if you do not continue. Know your physical and mental limits, and back out before you reach them."
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