Discovered in 1960, Nutty Putty Cave outside of Salt Lake City, Utah was a local favorite with Boy Scout troops and college students, attracting 5,000 visitors a year. Then came the tragic death of John Edward Jones in 2009, when the 26-year-old father and medical student became hopelessly trapped upside down inside a narrow fissure and couldn't be rescued.
Nutty Putty Cave has been closed ever since. Because Jones' body couldn't be removed, the site is now considered a grave. Visitors to Nutty Putty today will only find a plaque dedicated to Jones and poured concrete sealing over the entrance.
More than a decade after the unfortunate accident, we spoke to a pair of experienced Utah cavers about what it was like to explore Nutty Putty Cave, the history and geology of the cave, and how the 2009 incident impacted the local caving community.
Like countless Boy Scouts before him, Matt Paulson's very first caving experience was at Nutty Putty. He was just 12 years old and "grossly underprepared," but he nervously followed his troop down into the cave mouth and crawled on his belly through a narrow, muddy canal into a larger downward shaft called the Big Slide.
Today, Paulson is the Chair of the Timpanogos Grotto, the local branch of the National Speleological Society that once managed access to Nutty Putty, which was easily the "most popular cave" in the area, says Paulson. Richard Downey, the Grotto's treasurer and historian, led some of those same Boy Scout trips into Nutty Putty for decades.
"It was a crawly little cave," says Downey. "There were also some larger passages. It was believed to be really easy and that's why all of your Boy Scouts and locals went in with flashlights and sandals and things. You had to work hard to get in trouble."
Formed From Below
Almost all caves form in limestone, which, over long periods of time, is slowly eaten away by slightly acidic groundwater. Nutty Putty is also a limestone cave, but instead of being dissolved by water dripping in from above, it was created from the bottom up by hydrothermal activity.
Paulson explains that Nutty Putty is what's known as a hypogenic cave, formed when superheated water is forced upward into a bed of limestone, and minerals in the water eat away at the rock above to create cave shafts.
"Traditionally, these types of caves are very complex and feature lots of domes and three-dimensional passages, which was true of Nutty Putty," says Paulson. "It had tight squeezes that opened up into a big room, then back to another tight squeeze. It was very characteristic of a hypogenic cave."
Perhaps because of its hydrothermal past, temperatures inside Nutty Putty stayed around 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12.7 degrees Celsius) year round. A survey conducted in 2003 was able to map 1,355 feet (413 meters) of cave to a depth of 145 feet (44 meters) from the surface.
The most recognizable characteristic of the cave was the strangely viscous clay oozing from some of its walls, which the cave's first explorer, a man named Dale Green, compared to Nutty Putty, the original product name for Silly Putty. Like Silly Putty, the clay would change from a solid to an elastic fluid when lightly squeezed.
Downey says that the clay was even "sound active," meaning that if you yelled at it, it would ooze and move. Analyses done on the clay in the 1960s found that it was composed of tiny particles of silicon dioxide (the main component of sand) roughly 3 microns (less than 0.0001 inches) in diameter.
Hints of Trouble
Since Nutty Putty was such a popular cave, attracting thousands of visitors a year, it was perhaps inevitable that a few amateur cavers would get themselves into trouble.
"A lot of the people going to Nutty Putty were first-timers, or they were on a date with their girlfriend and wanted to show off or whatever," says Downey. "They put themselves in situations that they probably wouldn't have if they had just stopped and thought about it for a minute."
From 1999 to 2004, six different people became stuck in one of Nutty Putty's narrow passages. It's not for nothing that three of the cave's tightest squeezes are called "The Helmet Eater," "The Scout Eater" and "The Birth Canal."
All six of those trapped cavers made it out of Nutty Putty alive, but the local sheriff's office and search and rescue crews grew tired of making regular trips out to pull tourists from the cave, and they worried that the next accident would be fatal. Concern mounted in 2005 after the tragic drowning deaths of four young Utahns in a nearby cave on "Y" Mountain.
Nutty Putty Cave was closed in 2006 citing safety concerns and only reopened in May 2009 after a cave management plan was signed with the Timpanogos Grotto. The Grotto set up an online reservation system that only allowed one group in the cave at a time, and the entrance to the cave was padlocked shut at night.
A Family Outing Ends in Disaster
John Edward Jones visited Nutty Putty Cave with his brother Josh and 11 others on Nov. 24, 2009, only months after the cave was reopened. While attempting to find the Birth Canal, Jones took a wrong turn and ended up in an unmapped section of the cave near Ed's Push. Thinking he saw a larger opening on the other side, Jones tried to squeeze headfirst through the tight spot and turn around, but he became hopelessly wedged at a 70-degree angle.
"As cavers, that's one of the things we're taught not to do, go head first into a tight squeeze going downward," says Paulson. "Had he been oriented the other way, it's my opinion he would have gotten out."
News cameras broadcast the 27-hour ordeal in which 137 volunteers attempted to rescue Jones, who began to lose consciousness as blood pooled in his head and put increasing stress on his heart. Downey remembers getting a phone call at 1 or 2 a.m.
"I was the Grotto secretary and I had all of the contact information for the local caving community," says Downey. "They told me, 'I need to get contact information for really skinny cavers.'"
Rescuers installed a system of 15 pulleys to try and free Jones, but the clay walls of the cave couldn't bear the weight. One rescuer was badly injured when a pulley ripped free and struck him in the face. Despite the heroic effort to save him, Jones died a few minutes before midnight, the day before Thanksgiving. He left behind his wife Emily, a young daughter and a baby boy on the way (he's named John).
Downey says that many of the volunteer rescuers were traumatized by the experience and some haven't entered a cave since. When it became clear that Jones' remains couldn't be extricated from the cave, Nutty Putty was permanently closed and sealed as Jones' final resting place.
Paulson mourns the death of Jones, but insists that caving is a very safe activity, especially when it's done with the right equipment and with an experienced guide.
"That's why there are grottos of the National Speleological Society like ours all over the United States," says Paulson. "We're here to inform, teach and get people into caving safely."
Now That's Cool
"The Last Descent" is a moving film about John and Emily's relationship and his attempted rescue from Nutty Putty in 2009.
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