The Allen’s Ranch area west of Provo is a lonely, windswept region. Criss-crossed by ranch roads, the valley east of Gardison Ridge is mostly dry ranch land, with higher ridges ringing the basin.
Caves have been long known to be found on these ridges, with the most popular being Nutty Putty Cave, a 1,355-foot-long cave in the Gardner Dolomite. Since its discovery by master Salt Lake City cave hunter Dale Green in 1961, Nutty Putty grew in popularity to become Utah’s most popular wild cave, with 5,000 or more people exploring its passageways and chambers during its peak in popularity. In recent years, the Rocky Mountain Region of the National Speleological Society donated $1000 of its funds to help the Timpanogos Grotto install a gate to protect the cave from vandals who would want to do it harm, but also from inexperienced cavers who are tempted by numerous small, sinuous crawls and squeezeways that comprise the cave’s southern branch.
Sadly, Nutty Putty Cave is also the grave of 26-year-old Utah caver John Jones, who explored an unsurveyed side passage near Ed’s Push and never returned. In a well-publicized rescue attempt of November 24-25, 2009, volunteer cavers from the Utah grottos and rescue teams from several search and rescue groups tried their best to safely extract John from the exceptionally tight passage that would become his tomb. To their anguish, the rescuers failed at their task, leaving John alone in the depths of this once popular but now strangely quiet cave.
While discussions continue both in Utah and across the nation as to whether John should be left in the cave and the entrance sealed, or if every effort should be made to extract his body for a traditional burial, the longer term issue is to what cavers within the Rocky Mountain Region can do in the future to prevent another underground tragedy.
In Colorado, the Colorado Cave Rescue Network has worked long and hard to create a skilled volunteer organization of cavers who can help with any cave emergency that might arise within the state. By contacting Colorado search and rescue teams, and sheriff’s offices in cave-rich regions of the state, it is a certainty that any rescue in Colorado’s future will involve cavers from this team, even if non-National Speleological Society cavers may not know of the Network. In other adjacent states, however, it is less certain that trained cavers will be contacted by the commanding sheriff’s office in an underground emergency.
Steve Reames, one of the founders of the Colorado Cave Rescue Network, explains that in all outdoor rescue emergencies, the county sheriff’s office serves as the commander of all rescue operations. They may decide to defer incident management to a search and rescue team, but ultimately, the sheriff is charged with the task of managing a rescue. For Nutty Putty Cave, the Utah County Sheriff’s office was in command of the rescue operation, but according to Dale Green, they deferred underground operation management to the group of cavers who had experience in cave rescues.
Though Nutty Putty Cave is only a short drive from major cities like Provo and Salt Lake City, many of our Rocky Mountain Region’s caves are in remote regions, like Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and the wilderness regions of Montana. In many of these regions, very few cavers can be found. Even less likely is that the local sheriff’s office is aware of cave rescue organizations like Colorado’s well trained team.
In the hope that future tragedies might be averted, it would be worthwhile for the Colorado Cave Rescue Network to reach out to Society chapters in our Region, providing contact information and an assurance that if an emergency arises, Colorado cavers are only a phone call away. In addition, local sheriff’s offices in cave areas of the Rocky Mountain Region might be contacted proactively and provided with contact information.
For the Rocky Mountain Region, South Dakota caver Marc Ohms serves as the volunteer coordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission. An expert caver who works as a professional with the National Park Service, Marc also volunteers his time in helping arrange cave rescue training for teams such as Teton County Search and Rescue. With a huge geographic region to oversee, Marc simply doesn’t have the time to alert every grotto and every sheriff’s office of the services available to them by organized cave rescue teams like Colorado’s. Yet, he will readily welcome help from other regional cavers who will evangelize the availability of trained underground rescue assistance.
With enough regional cavers providing volunteer assistance, each and every cave region sheriff’s office can be provided with contact information for Marc, and for existing groups. Additional rescue training seminars can be arranged throughout the region, providing more cavers, and more search and rescue personnel, with specialized training.
Let’s remember the legacy of Nutty Putty Cave in a sense that the tragedy that met John Jones will not be forgotten. Perhaps in some future rescue, individuals motivated through John’s death underground will help save another life.