Nutty Putty Cave Accident

This article describes the Nutty Putty Cave accident in which a 26-year-old caver named John Jones tragically lost his life in 2009. His death is a sobering reminder of how dangerous caving can be and why we should follow safe caving practices at all times when spelunking.

The cave

Nutty Putty Cave (located in Utah, exact Google Maps location here) was first explored in 1960 and it quickly became famous for its narrow and slippery passageways, twists, turns and squeezes. Different parts of the cave are named accordingly – The Birth Canal, The Aorta Crawl, The Scout Eater, The Maze. Nutty Putty Cave is a hydrothermal cave, with a total surveyed length and depth of 1355 and 145 feet, respectively.

Nutty Putty Cave Map (click for full size). Copyright: Brandon Kowallis

John Jones

John had had plenty of caving experience, but not recently – most of his spelunking was done when he was a kid – John’s father frequently took him and his younger brother Josh on caving trips all over Utah.

Josh wasn’t his only brother: John Edwards Jones was born into a big family of five boys and two girls, he also had 16 nieces and nephews. John was a devout Christian, and according to his family statement later, he was known for his “good nature, delightful sense of humor, strong work ethic, a genuine love of people, a masterful ability to relate to children, a love of and unwavering faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his commitment to his family as an amazing husband, father, son and brother.”

At the time of the accident, John was studying to become a pediatric cardiologist, had recently become a father, and his wife was pregnant with their second child.

John Edwards Jones
Picture of John Jones.

The accident

Entering the cave

On November 24, 2009, the brothers John and Josh decided to rekindle their love for caving and picked Nutty Putty Cave as their next conquest. It was 8 p.m. on Wednesday, just a few days before Thanksgiving when they arrived at the cave site. They weren’t alone: 9 more friends and acquaintances had joined them, so by caving standards, it was quite a large group that finally entered the Nutty Putty Cave.

Everything went smooth for an hour or so. The party had explored the largest room in the cave, aptly named the Big Slide. Soon, John, Josh, and two of their friends decided to take up a challenge they had heard about – namely passing through the Birth Canal, a narrow and challenging passageway that eventually opens up into a larger room. John went first: he wriggled forward for some time but did not see any larger area. He continued to inch forward, but the narrow passage did not come to an end; instead, the squeeze made a sharp downward turn. Confidently, John pressed forward, perhaps noticing the tunnel got wider at the bottom, but it was already too late.

It all went wrong 50 feet earlier. It is unclear from the conflicting sources on the internet whether John entered the Birth Canal and accidentally turned and wriggled into the Scout Eater or if he had missed the Birth Canal entirely and crawled into another passageway, just next to the Birth Canal, called Ed’s Push. Now, Ed’s Push does not lead to a larger room. It does not lead anywhere, at least nowhere a 6-foot 200-pound man can fit. Ed’s Push has four uncharted passageways at its end, but they are all too small for a human (if he instead pushed into the Scout Eater, it similarly has a small passageway that doesn’t lead anywhere). In any case, John kept pushing through until he couldn’t continue. To top things off, he had wriggled into a fissure that went nearly straight down, which made him unable to turn back on his own. The narrow crevice he was trapped in measured 10 by 18 inches. This size is comparable to the opening of a front-loading washing machine, except it wasn’t a perfect circle and he was stuck in the tightest part of the opening. Trapped more than 100 feet below the ground, and deep inside the cave, all John could do was wait and pray.

The long wait

His brother Josh who was following him was the first one to find John. Anxious of how much the rock had swallowed John, Josh tried to pull him out but only managed to inch him up a little. As soon as he let John go, he slid right back into the crevice. John was stuck with one hand pinned underneath him, and the other forced backward. His ankles and feet were free but were of little use as gravity pushed him down. They both said a quick prayer, and Josh hurried back to the ground as fast as he could, slowly wiggling out of the tight passage and rushing to the surface. Once outside, he quickly called for help while their friend stayed with John.

The first person to arrive to help, Susan, was a local rescue volunteer who immediately dropped everything she was doing when she received the message on her rescue pager and rushed to the scene with her Toyota. She arrived sometime around midnight – it was now more than three hours since John had been trapped deep inside the cave. Small, agile, and quick, Susan took no time to reach John.

“Hi, John, my name is Susie. How’s it going?”

“Hi Susie, thanks for coming,” John said, “but I really, really want to get out.”

Within the next few hours, tens and tens of rescuers arrived. The rescue team quickly brainstormed a plan after a plan. They discussed everything – even lubing the walls of the cave – until they decided to use a rescue rope that passes through a series of climbing cams with one end of the rope tied around John’s legs and the other end pulled by the team. At the same time, they also tried drilling away chunks of rock near John, but the hard material and the awkward position made drilling a slow and painful work. In over an hour, they only managed to drill through a couple of inches of rock.

The position of John’s body also complicated things. He was trapped nearly upside down, only his feet were visible to the rescuers, and the ceiling above the feet hanged so low the rescuers couldn’t just pull him out as his feet would get in the way. Time passed as rescuers worked frantically and failed with their first system of climbing cams. They then tried to use a rope-pully system, anchoring the pullies with bolts, drilling the bolts deep in the cave walls.

One of the rescuers working on the pulley system in Nutty Putty cave. Photo credit: UCSSAR.org

Everything was made more difficult by how narrow the cave was. Even though there was a large team of rescuers, volunteers, emergency services, and a rescue helicopter outside, only one person could directly access John.

Meanwhile, John was doing worse – he had now been stuck upside down for a long time, having some difficulty breathing, and his heart had to work twice as hard against gravity to push the continuous blood flow out of his brain. He was swinging back and forth between panic and calmness.

At one point, they brought a two-way cable radio into the cave and managed to lower it to him so he could speak with his wife, who was near the cave entrance on the surface. They were both agitated but comforted each other.

John had now been trapped upside down for 19 hours.

Diagram of John being trapped in Nutty Putty Cave.
Diagram of John being trapped in Nutty Putty Cave.

Things start to look better

Everything changed when the rescuers finally finished installing their pully system and started pulling John out. They worked in an eight-men tandem, all tugging as one. John was at times in great pain, so they made frequent pauses. But each time they pulled, they managed to pull John up a bit more.

After pulling him upwards the third time, John was finally lifted high enough so that he could make eye contact with the rescuer closest to him. He looked tired, his eyes were red, and his face was dirty, but he seemed fine otherwise.

“How are you?”

“It sucks. I’m upside down. I can’t believe I’m upside down. My legs are killing me.”

The rescuer saw that even though John was complaining, he had a smile on his face.

They had another rest then decided to continue pulling John up. He was almost out.

Disaster strikes

When the rescue team pulled John upward for the fourth time, something happened.

The entire team fell backward as the rope suddenly went loose in their hands. The closest rescuer felt something hard hit his face, and he passed out for a second. When he came to, he saw nothing but dust. Once the dust settled a bit, he realized the stone arch near John’s legs where the rope was tied around had shattered, and the nearest key bolt had broken off. He couldn’t make out in the dust where exactly John was, but soon he realized – John had slid right down the crevice again, this time seemingly even deeper than before.

As the rescuer suffered severe facial injuries from the impact with a metal carabineer and couldn’t continue his rescue efforts, he had to switch places with his dad who was also on the rescue team. When he reached John, he realized that John’s breathing was much more shallow and less frequent, and he was struggling to stay alive. The rescuer called for John but received no response. Desperate, he tried to lower himself into the crevice to put the rope around John’s waist but got stuck himself. After finally wriggling himself free, he drilled a new hole for the pulley and crawled out of the cave, exhausted, to be replaced by yet another rescuer who reached John but couldn’t make contact with him.

Soon after, a medical professional crawled into the cave and reached John. At midnight, November 25, John was pronounced dead. He was 26 years old.

A total of 137 rescuers worked hard for 27 hours to save John but had to leave the tragic site with empty hands and heavy hearts. One of them told the media this was his toughest rescue in his 29 years of being a search-and-rescue volunteer.

The next day, the authorities determined that it was too difficult and dangerous to get his body out of the cave, so Nutty Putty Cave will forever remain the final resting place for John Edwards Jones.

A week after, public authorities decided to close Nutty Putty Cave to the public permanently. It has been sealed ever since.

John’s family had a plaque put on the entrance of the cave in his memory.

A plaque in remembrance of John Jones near the entrance to Nutty Putty Cave.
A plaque in remembrance of John Jones near the entrance to Nutty Putty Cave.

252 thoughts on “Nutty Putty Cave Accident

  1. May he rest in peace….He will be always there in our Hearts…I have tears in my eyes….he was so young…but met such a fate….Rest in Peace brother.

      1. this one tragedy is close to the thai cave rescue of the trapped kids and their coach.
        😭😭 gives chills to the bones

    1. A mistake happened, It was not predictable. They should pull him out immediately. That wasn’t situation to judge.

    2. Unless you were there on site and down in that tube trying to help rescue him, you have NO basis for making such an accusation. If you had even a shred of decency, you would retract your comment and beg the family and would-be rescuers for forgiveness.

    3. He killed himself. As said, without the help from his legs and arms there wasn’t anything they could do with the position his body. Didn’t you read the article?

    4. Oh this was a horrible tragedy. My first reaction was that the rescue team was incompetent out of the sadness I felt. I am sure that there are rescue teams that were better suited but how could you get them there so fast? The rescue team they had just couldn’t do it and it sounds they tried everything known to them. It was a horrible idea to climb this deep into this 10X18 hole. I feel bad for him and everyone effected by him.

    5. I agree with you, the incompetence of these
      People are the reason John met his demise. The stupidity of self, is further exacerbated by the stupidity of others.

    6. John killed John. It’s sad but he shouldn’t have been in that position. He didn’t know enough about caving to undertake that route.

    7. They should have left him there to start with. People who so these stupid things don’t deserve rescue. all those people put their lifes at risk for some idiot who has no regard for anyone else. absolute moron. Deserved what he got.

      1. You Stupid Idiot, Even if he made a stupid mistake he should be given a chance and tried to be rescued.
        Everyone deserve’s a second chance and if he was rescued he could have learned from his mistake.

    8. You’re not entirely incorrect. I mean, why attach the rope around a rock? Such an unnecessary risk when this would’ve been avoided had there been a proper wheel drilled above John instead. However writing them off as incompetent is outright wrong of you. They tried, and sometimes mistakes happen in high octane situations and that doesn’t make any of these volunteers incompetent.

  2. This is the saddest story I have ever read , I can’t even imagine the terror that young man went thru. I get choked up just thinking about it May he rest in peace.

  3. Don’t ever undermine the brave rescue teams who risked their lives for a complete stranger. They worked tirelessly for 27 hours to pull him out. Can you even imagine the conditions in the cave? It was probably damp, wet, and suffocating. Undermining their heroic actions is disrespectful.

  4. Damn, no wonder you folks are crawling under rocks if you’re stupid enough to think this was a tragedy. This guy had a family, with another kid on the way, yet he decided the best use of his time would be to do the worm-wiggle in a 10×18 hole. You know who doesn’t die for nothing 100ft below ground? People who have half a functioning brain that tells them not to try squeezing into a place called “The Birth Canal” that coincidentally happens to be etched into solid stone.
    Go find a better hobby and more productive hobby, like gardening or baking. Just talk to a therapist to overcome the urge of crawling inside of the oven first, if you go for the latter.

    1. What a psychologically disturbing and revealing response you submitted.

      Whether your an adolescent or an adult playing the troll role or your comments are indeed a direct reflection of your mindset, your writings further confirm the classic line that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Your verbal swill is a testament to that fact.

      Someday you will suffer a loss of your own in some form or fashion and will feel just as trapped and helpless in the moment as much as Mr. Jones and all others must have felt. The utter nonsense that you professed in your post will be there to haunt you.

      For starters I suggest you take a long hard look in a mirror and then go seek professional help.

      You need it. Society needs it.

      Good luck.

      1. I mean he’s actually right.maybe he’s not being nice about it but it is the truth. If you have kids you really shouldn’t be risking your life for the sake of adventure. That’s extremely selfish whether or not he did it as a kid. Life doesn’t have to be boring but it’s kind of like free climbing in the mountains or something when you have children. One slip and your dead like not the best idea.

    2. You know, to be honest, I do kind of agree with you. It was still a tragic incident though, but one that could have been avoided. The whole thing is just very sad, but yes, John’s decision to do something he loved and did his whole life cost him his life. May he rest in peace.

    3. That is an incredibly hateful thing to say. Do you eat red meat? Ever smoke? Try to do too much physical activity with a beer gut? Drink alcohol? Do no physical exercise? All potential death sentences under the right circumstances. To live is to risk death every day. Whether on the highway or going down a flight of stairs. I had a patient who lost a parent that slipped on stairs and fell, instantly breaking her neck. I’ve done some stupid things in my life, and you have too, clearly. Neither of us is in a place to judge others. Imagine what those kids feel like growing up knowing this happened to their dad. Imagine what it’s like to read ignorant hateful people trash their dad online for all eternity.

      It costs you NOTHING to be nice. Would your mother be proud of your hate and spite? What is going on your life that makes you this mean and hateful? Is this where we are in this country? Hate trolling people who died horrible deaths and their families?

      Get some gddmn counseling and stop taking it out on everybody else.

      1. Everything has risk but different activities have different rates of failure and different potential ways of mitigating that failure. It’s called fail-safety. Conflating unhealthy personal habits with undertaking an activity with a high rate of failure and no real back up plan is disingenuous and just a very helpless way of looking at life. Diets can be changed, nicotine and alcohol can be quit, exercise plans can be made, and if you’re lucky the damage you’ve done to your health will be somewhat reversed before you end up in the hospital, and EVEN THEN there are modern medical procedures that could possibly save your life. This is over years, with multiple ways of fixing it, it’s not even close to making a quick decision to do something nonessential, extremely risky, and irreversible. I’m sorry but I really get bothered by an all-or-nothing approach to risk, it sets people up for extreme paranoia or needlessly throwing themselves into deadly situations. Anyone could meet tragedy any time, but if there was no benefit to weighing risks and making failure plans then the species wouldn’t have made it this long.

  5. I truly wonder what the f**k took him down there????!!!! What the f**k is he a lizard or something??!!! I feel sorry for him but BRUHH why the f**k would he put himself down there!!!!! Dayum!

  6. I am a claustrobe so to read this, I was all sorts of panic and anxiety feeling. The thing that frustrates me about these thrill seekers though are the fact that they don’t seem to think about their families and what they put them through and also the rescuers who have to put their own lives at risk to rescue them from the results of their thrill seeking waves. It seems selfish to me. Of course accidents happen all the time but to do something with such a high risk, It really makes me irritated. I hate what happened to him and feel terribly for his wife and children. I am just thankful that no rescuer died attempting to try to save him. I am sure though they are dealing from PTSD though. All because some thrill seeker had to go on a thrill crawl through a tunnel he barely could fit. SMH

    1. Maybe he wanted to rekindle with old memories, feel it once last time kinda thing which is completely fine. I do agree on them not thinking about the risk, sometimes they just go for it without a second thought not even looking back at what they could loose. Yet, every moment of our lives we are in danger, every second you walk outside, fall asleep, get up, every action is a risk with bad or horrible outcomes. We are only alive once and there comes a time when some people may want to be selfish, have that last little thing one more time, experience a joy they miss that final time or just having enough of everything, of everyone that you want to be selfish and do something even if it may harm others

      In the end though, they made their decision, good or bad, we cannot take back what we’ve sown, the moment reality hits is the most painful and heart wrenching as the weight of a simple action tears on you. Even going out to just buy a snack at the local store you could get hit by a car on the way, isn’t that just selfish? One little action is all it takes to loose it all so calling John selfish in the end is quite silly since every day we make decisions which some would say are very much selfish. Every decision is a risk, even swimming at the pool is a risk of you hitting your head then drowning, we cannot live our entire lives in fear of the possibilities, we just have to live moment by moment and take consideration of the risk

  7. I’m also a claustrophobe so I see where you’re coming from Erinn, but you have to think from his side of it he has been doing this since he was a kid and accidentally took a wrong turn.

    1. He didn’t “accidentally take a wrong turn,” though – he didn’t know where he was and he guessed, with deadly consequences. It’d be one thing if he was certain he was in the Birth Canal and if he’d done enough research in advance to know he would fit. He didn’t have that assurance. Instead, it was as if he was a kid, and didn’t realize the ramifications of guessing incorrectly. It is horrible and I’m not blaming him – I’ve made and regretted rash decisions myself (relationships, money – nothing that could kill me but painful learning experiences). I really feel for his children’s trauma.

    2. He didn’t do it since he was a kid or for his entire life, according to this article he did it as a kid and this was his first time doing it as an adult without a parent guiding him. I would basically consider that a beginner. Any hobby I did as a child I would consider myself a total novice if I started it up now. Having some childhood experience can help you breeze through the basics more quickly but it’s not enough to start making executive decisions that only a seasoned professional could reasonably make.

  8. this is the reason ant man did not crawl up thano’s asshole in infinity war

    paul rudd did not want a nutty putty incident

  9. Very very irresponsible. People who have wife/children should think twice before doing what they do.

  10. Oh my goodness, I started panicking just reading this. This has to be one of the worst ways to go out, and he didn’t deserve that at all. I hope his family and friends are doing alright, rest in piece John

  11. Some of these comments are really heart breaking. Even though I personally feel like any one who chooses to go spelunking should rethink their life choices because it’s so dangerous, I don’t believe if they die from it then it’s deserved. That’s a horrible way to think of people. Nobody deserves something like this to happen to them. I couldn’t even imagine the terror in this poor young man’s mind. He had to have known to some degree that he was going to die. So of course imagine spending 29 hours upside down trapped in frightening poison like this and all you can do is pray, think about your family and regret your choices. It’s absolutely heart breaking. And then all those folks who tries for so long to rescue him by putting their own lives in danger going into the sane situation praying that they don’t also get stuck while trying to save him. Just trying to imagine the whole situation. It truly breaks my heart. Nobody has the right to speak poorly of any one of these folks or poor John. Bless his poor soul. But he will await his reunification with his family up in heaven.

  12. John probably wanted to rekindle that adventurous spirit he had as a kid forgetting that he no longer had a kid’s body. And, instead of asking for help when he first got into that tight space, maybe out of embarrassment, he made things worse by continuing and slid headfirst into the hole. It’s a sad story that probably continues to haunt his family.

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