Exploring Caving Accidents, Deaths, and Rescues in the United States

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Entering the cave. Photo: Rechitan Soran/Shutterstock

Not long before Thanksgiving in 2009, 26-year-old University
of Virginia medical student John Jones, his wife Emily, and their 13-month-old
daughter flew home to Utah. Emily was pregnant, and the couple had plans to
share that news with friends and family over the holiday. On Tuesday, November 24, John took off
with a crew of 10 other people to navigate the
recesses of Nutty Putty Cave, about 80 miles south of Salt Lake City. The group
had received permission to enter the cave from Timpanogos Grotto, a
local chapter of the National Speleological Society that weighed applications
based on experience. Nutty Putty is a beginner’s cave, but there are narrow,
dangerous sections where people have required rescue in the past.

Jones got stuck in one such section, an
18-by-10-inch, L-shaped bend roughly 150 feet below the surface known as
“Bob’s Push.” The 6-foot, 190-pound
was pinched between rocks with his head below his feet. Search and Rescue
personnel arrived and went to work. The team was able to raise the caver from his initial position using ropes, but an anchor in the cave ceiling broke, causing Jones to slip back into place. More than 100 rescue workers arrived over a roughly 28-hour period to help. As
time wore on, Jones got on a radio and told his family jokes while they waited
above, even though the upside down position made it very difficult for him to breathe and caused circulation problems. After roughly a day of being trapped, he lost consciousness. Hours later,
on Wednesday night, he died.

The incident had at least two major effects
in the world of caving. The first was local. Officials closed Nutty Putty Cave
to future expeditions. The second began at the University of Virginia Medical
School. Doctors looking for numbers on caving deaths and accidents found little
in the way of scientific studies, so they decided to write their own paper. “That
had us all thinking about caving safety,” says study
co-author Dr. Nathan Charlton. “There is very little hard data out there
regarding the epidemiology of injuries and fatalities in caves. We thought it
would be important information for our area as there are a lot of caves in the

Charlton and colleagues gathered the National Speleological Society’s
annual American Caving Accidents publications from 1980 to 2008 and started going through them. The numbers were not definitive, as the
organization relies on rescue groups, law enforcement, and local grottoes to
file volunteer reports. The numbers did represent the best dataset
available, and Charlton and his team analyzed them. The resulting study, “The Epidemiology of Caving
Accidents in the United States
,” was published in the September issue of
Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. It is the most comprehensive look at caving
deaths, injuries, and rescues to date. Here is what Fletcher and his
colleagues found, by the numbers.

Estimated number of people who visit caves annually, the majority of them on
low risk expeditions or on guided cave tours.

10,000: Members
of the National Speleological Society, who are more likely involved in more rigorous

1,356: Victims
over the 28-year study period, an average of roughly 50 people a year.

83: Percentage of
the victims who were male.

54: Percentage of
cavers rescued because they became lost or stranded. “While it is
impossible to know for sure as the data isn't there, this was likely most often
due to lack of experience,” says Fletcher.

446: Traumatic
injuries reported.

74: Percentage of traumatic
injuries caused by caver fall, the number one accident type. “With
an often damp and dark environment it is easy to see how this could occur,
especially once the caver gets tired—or cold, which would
lead to decreased dexterity,” says Charlton. “Keeping well hydrated, fed and
warm would help with physical and mental acuity and hopefully decrease the
number of these errors.”

Cases of hypothermia.

81: Fatalities
during the 28-year study period, an average of roughly three deaths a year.

24: Fatalities
due to falls, which tied as the leading cause of death.

24: Fatalities due
to drowning, including six boy scouts in one incident. “This
was very heartbreaking and preventable had the rain been anticipated more,” says
study co-author Dr. Alejandro Stella-Watts.

The takeaway, according to Fletcher and Stella-Watts, is to join
a local grotto and the National Speleological Society to increase safety
awareness and improve caving skills. The doctors also recommend total preparation before any caving trip, and that includes everything from checking the weather to
wearing the proper gear. “Being
properly dressed to protect from the wet environment, good footwear, and most
of all good headlamps can make a dramatic improvement in the condition of cavers,” says Stella-Watts.

—Joe Spring

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