Caving is an activity that involves exploring passages underground. Often tight and always dark, cave environments pose extreme challenges to adventurers daring enough to step inside. When practiced safely, this sport can be truly thrilling, offering cavers the chance to witness breathtaking natural beauty that few others will ever see.
Things do go wrong. Poor preparation, bad judgments, and overconfidence can cause injuries or, worse, imprisonment. When this happens, the normally fascinating cave turns into a dark underground hell.
Those lucky enough to escape from caving accidents are forever grateful. However, helping someone in this situation is complicated and dangerous, even for search and rescue volunteers. Sometimes a person can push their limits too far. In making this grave error, they go beyond the point of rescue. This is a story about one such case.
Nutty Putty Cave – A Cave With A Troubled Past
Nutty Putty Cave is a hydrothermal cave in Northern Utah, USA, formed naturally underground millions of years ago. Caving veteran Dale Green was the first to explore it in 1960 properly. Its name refers to the soft clay found inside the cave’s tunnels. The cave’s obstacles and tight turns made it a popular place for both experts and amateurs to test their minds and bodies.
The challenging nature of the cave also led to numerous incidents over the years. In July 1999, two teenagers had to be rescued after getting stuck deep within the cave. The effort took 12+ hours and needed the help of 40 people. In 2001, two 13-year-olds were trapped in the cave for four hours before being rescued. Then in 2004, it took all night to save a 16-year-old boy who was stuck upside down with his legs trapped in the cave. He spent days in the hospital as a result.
This series of accidents led to improved safety measures in the cave. By 2009, a gate had been installed at the entrance, and a booking system was in place to ensure that only groups with an experienced leader could go inside. Despite these precautions, the cave’s worst accident was yet to come.
An Avid Cave Explorer
John Edward Jones was born in 1983. A Utah native, he developed a love for caving as a child during frequent expeditions with his father and brothers. This made him an experienced caver.
In 2009, Jones was studying medicine in Virginia. He had a spouse and one child (another baby was also on the way), so all was well for the 26-year-old. For Thanksgiving that year, he returned home to visit his family and friends in Utah.
On November 24th, John, accompanied by several others, decided to have some fun by spending the evening in a local cave. They chose to visit Nutty Putty Cave.
John had not been inside a cave for years and wanted to relive his childhood hobby. At roughly 8 pm, the group stepped into the cave’s narrow entrance and began exploring. Everything went according to plan for the first hour as the group easily passed through Nutty Putty’s main chamber.
John and his younger brother Josh, hungry for a bigger challenge, then moved toward a much narrower part of the cave known as the “birth canal.”
This particular section was the site of many previous rescues. John took the lead and crawled headfirst into a tunnel that he believed was the birth canal. Unfortunately, he was wrong. This dangerously narrow passage was in uncharted territory and was a dead end.
Jones wriggled through the tight space, which bent downwards―probably thinking it would widen so he could turn around. But it did not. In fact, the passage got tighter as his body slid down. Jones was now upside down and totally engulfed by a crack as wide as a washing machine’s door.
Praying For Help
Jones was trapped 400ft from the entrance in one of the worst sections of the cave. Worse still, his body was near upside down at a 70-80 degree angle with his arms pinned―a very deadly scenario. He called out to his brother Josh who quickly came to his aid. After squeezing through the tunnel, he started to get stuck himself. When he saw how far down his brother was, he realized what big trouble he was in.
Josh could only pull John up by his feet a little, so he made his way out of the cave to call for help. Meanwhile, a friend stayed behind with John to comfort him. John spent some of this time praying for salvation.
After the call for help, rescuers began arriving at Nutty Putty’s entrance at approximately midnight―three hours after he became trapped. It took them about half an hour to reach the area where John Jones was.
The first rescuer to reach John greeted him but could only see his feet. Jones responded: “…thanks for coming, but I really really want to get out.”
Time Was Running Out
Due to Jones’ awkward position in the tight tunnel, his body was suffering. Being upside down, his heart was under huge stress to pump blood towards his lower body. Medical experts on the scene knew that he had a matter of hours to live, so rescuers needed to work fast to pull Jones out.
John Jones was no longer the small child who could effortlessly slide through tight cave passages. Now he was 6ft tall and weighed 200lbs. His size made the extraction even trickier.
Over the next few hours, the 100+ strong team that included cavers, firefighters and doctors, devised a few plans to bring John to safety. One idea was to lubricate the cave walls to slip his body out more easily. They also intended to widen the tunnel that trapped him with the limited tools they could get down there. Ultimately, the main extraction plan comprised a pulley system that would pull John up by his ankles.
Work got underway to rig the pulley system. In the cramped environment, they made slow progress as it took them many hours to drill into the hard rock walls. After a lengthy effort and with Jones’ ankles tied to a rope, the team down below was ready to pull him out of the abyss.
Eight rescue workers near the accident site started to tug on the rope. By now, Jones had been upside down for many hours; his health was hanging in the balance. Amazingly the plan seemed to be working, and with each pull of the rope, John was being freed inch by inch. Eventually, the rescuer closest to him could see John’s face.
After a brief rest, the team continued their effort. Another few tugs and their man would surely be free. As everybody heaved once more, there was a loud crack, and the rope felt loose.
Something had hit the man nearest to John hard in the face; it was a pulley. The bolt securing the device above Jones’ feet came loose and flew out of the wall. Jones, who was already exhausted and fading fast, sank back into the crevice.
The struggle to save the trapped caver had taken another dark turn. This failure greatly demoralized the rescuers, and John’s life was in severe danger. Their chance to get him out was slipping away.
The End Of The Rescue
Although the rescue team had worked tirelessly for 24 hours, they had made no progress once John fell back into his prison. They kept trying to communicate with him, but by this point, he was unresponsive. He was already struggling to breathe, and now he seemed to be unconscious.
A medical professional entered the cave and got near John. They could detect no pulse from the 26-year-old, and he was pronounced dead close to midnight on the 25th of November. His agonizing struggle lasted for 27 hours, and the cause of death was believed to be cardiac arrest.
In the end, the best efforts of 137 brave and determined individuals could not free Jones.
The Aftermath Of John Jones’ Death
John Jones’ relatives and wife were first told about the tragic news. The news crews gathered at the site of the cave found out soon after. The rescue personnel determined it would be too dangerous to try and recover his body. His family discussed with the landowner and decided to leave his body, making the cave John’s final resting place.
After his death, John Jones was survived by his wife Emily, two children, and six siblings.
This accident proved to be the last in Nutty Putty’s history. After the fatality, authorities deemed the cave too hazardous to remain open, so they sealed the entrance with concrete.
A film called The Last Descent later told the story of this horrific ordeal. The terrifying disaster in Nutty Putty is a cautionary tale and acts as a stern warning to anybody who wishes to set foot in a cave environment.
Some may ask: Could John Jones have been saved? If John had stopped crawling down that passage sooner, might rescuers have pulled him out? Was there another plan entirely that might have got him out? Right now, only one thing is certain―John Jones will stay in that cave until the end of time.