Nutty Putty Cave



Utah cave to entomb spelunker
Tragedy » Officials say it's too risky to retrieve John Jones, will seal cavern with his body inside.

By Lindsay Whitehurst


The cave that claimed the life of John Jones will also be his tomb.

Nutty Putty Cave will be sealed permanently with the 26-year-old medical student's body inside, a decision supported by his family and rescue officials, who said retrieving him is too great a risk to rescuers. They also cited a desire to protect the safety of future cavers.

"The cave will serve as the final resting place for John Edward Jones," said Utah County sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon. The Jones family will place a permanent memorial at the cave's entrance.

"It will be, as they describe it, a sacred place for them and for a lot of other people," he said.

Officials considered closing only the part of the cave where Jones rests, but as Kim Christy, assistant director at the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), said, "We decided it probably wasn't appropriate to have recreational activities going on in the same area that has a final resting place."

Jones died late Wednesday after becoming stuck in an unmapped finger of the cave near the end of the main passageway, about 100 feet below the surface and 400 feet from the entrance, not near "Bob's Push" as previously reported.

Rescuers briefly pulled him out of the crevice using a pulley system and ropes tied to his feet, but he slipped back in after an anchor broke free of the cave wall.

The 137 people who tried to free Jones are physically and mentally exhausted after the 27-hour effort, and will be offered critical stress counseling, said Utah County sheriff's Sgt. Tom Hodgson.

"It isn't in our makeup to leave anything undone," he said. "They still feel like there is work left to be done, that they didn't bring closure to the Jones family."

He described the "Herculean effort" as the most difficult rescue he's worked on in 30 years.

Jones' brother Josh said the family stands behind the crews, and are grateful for their efforts.

"There are some who feel like they failed our family," he said. "We know they did their best. We want to thank them from the bottom of our hearts."

John Valentine, a state senator and longtime search-and-rescue participant, said the crevice is simply too small, and the passage too winding, for anyone to crawl inside and pull him out without being at risk themselves.

"He is in an area that is really beyond the scope of what anyone can get into," he said. It's "where the cave peters down to nothing."

Jones entered the small passage as he and a group of family and friends fanned out to explore the cave. About 400 feet in, he found himself unable to move, stuck at a 70-degree angle with "a good portion of his waist and torso" pinched in an approximately 10-inch-wide space, Cannon said. His head was out and unsupported at one end, and his feet stuck out at the other end. After crews got him out of the crevice, they still would have had to pull him through the difficult stretch of cave behind him, which twisted and turned in 90-degree angles over uneven ground, Cannon said.

But Jones fell again less than 30 minutes after he was unstuck. He wasn't injured in the fall, but started struggling to breathe about two hours later. He later fell silent after relaying messages to his family, Hodgson said. Rescuers, who also have medical training, threaded a stethoscope in the crevice but could not find a pulse. He was pronounced dead at 11:57 p.m. He is thought to have died of the effects of the constant pressure on his body.

"I don't think we'll ever be certain, and I don't think that's important," said Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy.

Jones was home for Thanksgiving in Stansbury Park from Charlottesville, Va., where he was a second-year medical student at the University of Virginia. He planned to become a pediatric cardiologist.

He graduated from Dixie High School in St. George, where he played basketball and was senior class president, said friend Morgan Miles.

He met his wife, Emily, at Brigham Young University. They married in 2006 and had a 14-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, whom they called Lizzie. The couple recently found out Emily is pregnant and expecting a second child in June.

Jones had explored many caves and loved the outdoors, so his family struggled with the decision to close Nutty Putty to future visitors, said 23-year-old Josh Jones.

But "we feel it would be John's will to protect the safety of future cavers," he said.

Officials have not decided how to close off the cave, which is now restricted by a metal grate and fencing under the ground, Cannon said. One option would be to fill in the entrance, which is a hole at the top of a hill west of Utah Lake. They expect to decide on what will be done within two to three weeks, and until then, a deputy will stand guard.

The popular cave attracted about 5,000 to 10,000 people a year, despite its remote access point at the top of a hill west of State Road 68. On Friday, a draft of warm, moist air drifted out of the moss-lined entrance at the top of the cave as if the earth were exhaling.

It was named for its soft brown "nutty putty" clay, which is found nowhere else in the country, said Mike Leavitt, the leader of the caving group Timpanogos Grotto. Because it is has no long rappels, it's a popular spot for beginner and intermediate cavers.

"It is special in its own way," he said. "There are many safe parts of the cave, and there are extreme parts."

There have been five high-profile rescues in the past 10 years, and it was closed temporarily in 2004 after two people became trapped in separate incidents within a week of each other, including a 16-year-old who got stuck in the same place Jones did.

"There's no place else where we respond on five calls and have one death," Hodgson said. "That is significant."

In 2006, officials of SITLA, which owns the cave and surrounding land, turned over management to the Timpanogos Grotto, a local chapter of the National Speleological Society.

The group spent years developing a permitting process, and, on May 18 of this year, groups were allowed back in the cave.

Closing it again just six months later is difficult, Leavitt said, though he agreed it was "absolutely the right decision."

Cave experts weigh in on closing the cave

Climbing and cave expert Doug Hansen is disappointed with the decision to close Nutty Putty cave. The Orem man said the cave has provided youth with opportunities to explore and learn how to use maps and compasses.

Dale Green, the man credited with discovering the cave in 1960, said completely closing off Nutty Putty Cave doesn't seem necessary.

"I think they can do nearly the same thing by blocking off access to this one part of the cave," he said. "That's really the only problem there. ... I just think it's a big loss to the people if they do that."

Green said he doesn't find the cave -- named after the soft clay found in parts of the tunnel -- too interesting personally, but it's an easily accessible cave that many people find entertaining to crawl through.

Proper training and proper respect of the terrain is needed when exploring caves, said the 80-year-old, a member of the National Speleological Society Salt Lake Grotto chapter.

"Caves, it's like mountain climbing, and in general it's as safe as you want to make it," Green said. "If you don't use common sense and don't take care and think ahead of what you're doing, things can get dangerous. ... There's danger everywhere, but you just have to use common sense."

-- Tribune reporters Donald W. Meyers and Maria Villaseñor

Memorial for John Jones

A memorial service for John Jones will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Stansbury Park LDS Stake Center, 417 E. Benson Road in Stansbury Park.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks for contributions to the Emily Jones Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo Bank or Universal Campus Credit Union.



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