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

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

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 Jones 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 region.”

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.

2,000,000: 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.”

45: 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

Filed to:

Trending on Outside Online