The Nutty Putty Cave and the untimely death of a young caver

The unique characteristics of the Nutty Putty cave and its tragic tale.
Interesting Engineering
cave entrance with breeze
cave entrance with breeze

Jon Jasper 

In 1960, Dale Green and his friends discovered and explored a cave in Utah. After having gone through its narrow turns and passages lined with clay, the texture of soft, brown putty, they named it the Silly Putty cave. They later decided that Nutty Putty was a better name, and it stuck. 

At the time, Green probably had no idea that it would become a famous cave that thousands of tourists would visit every year. He sure as hell didn’t know that a young explorer would die in the cave or that it would be sealed after the tragic incident. 

We’ll come to that story later, but first, to understand how the Nutty Putty cave formed and what kind of cave it is, let's learn a bit about caves and their various types.

Types of caves

The Nutty Putty Cave and the untimely death of a young caver
Inside the cave

Caves are formed by different natural processes and are named after the process that created them. Following are some common cave types that can be found around the world.

Solution caves 

These types of caves form in soluble rocks like limestone, gypsum, or dolomite. Rainwater absorbs CO2 from the air, becoming weakly acidic, and then seeps through the soils and percolates through fractures in the bedrock, dissolving the rock. This process occurs over thousands of years, and eventually, a cave system may be formed. Solution caves or karst caves are the most common type of caves in the world.

Lava caves

Lava caves, also called lava tubes, are formed as a result of volcanic eruptions. When the lava comes out, its outer surface begins to cool and harden. Beneath the outer hard insulating surface, the hot lava continues to flow. Once completely drained, the tubes remain empty and, over time, become solid rock.

Glacier caves

As the name suggests, glacier caves are formed when glaciers start melting. The melting can occur due to multiple reasons, but global warming and temperature is the main cause. In summer, glaciers start melting at the base. The melting may cause small caves to form between the ice and the bedrock or sediment beneath it. The resulting water crates pathways as it flows. Glacier caves are highly unstable, changing shape and size throughout the year.

Eolian caves

Eolian caves are formed in dry areas when wind, carrying small particles of sand or silt, strikes against cliffs and carves them out. Sometimes, these caves are further carved and shaped by humans into beautiful temples. Of course, if formed naturally, this is a slow process and takes hundreds or thousands of years. These caves usually extend only a few meters and are usually found in desert areas.

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So what about the Nutty Putty cave? What type of cave is it? 

If your guess was a “solution cave,” then you’re right. But it’s not that simple. Some features of the Nutty Putty cave are truly unique.  

One of the characteristic features of the cave is the viscous clay coming out of some of its walls. The hard clay changes into an elastic putty when squeezed. That’s the reason Dale green named the cave Nutty Putty.

Like most caves, Nutty Putty is also a limestone cave. Unlike most caves, however, the formation of Nutty Putty cave started at the bottom. Usually, a limestone cave (solution cave) starts forming at the top when water starts dissolving the rock. But the Nutty Putty formed as a result of hydrothermal activity at the bottom. These types of caves are called hypogenic caves. Hot water from deep in the earth was forced upward and dissolved the bedrock of limestone as it made its way up.  

It is typical for a hypogenic cave to have multiple passages and tunnels, which is indeed true of the Nutty Putty cave. It has a lot of narrow turns and twists. That’s what the Nutty Putty was famous for – its tight and narrow squeezes.

Nutty Putty in a nutshell

The Nutty Putty cave is located outside Salt Lake City, Utah, in the United States. The entrance to the cave is from the top of a hill called Blowhole Hill. The coordinates for the entrance are 40°05′51″N 112°02′13″W. The cave entrance is a six feet wide opening with an initial straight-down drop of 15 ft. After the initial climb-down, you have two options: You can either descend the “Big Slide” or go left towards the section of the cave called “The Maze.” You can see different parts of the cave with their names on the map given below.

The Nutty Putty Cave and the untimely death of a young caver
Nutty Putty cave map

The picture is based on a survey that tried mapping the cave back in 2003. They were able to map 413 meters of the cave, reaching a depth of 45 meters from the entrance. This depth is nothing compared to the world’s deepest cave, but its depth was not the reason for its fame. 

The tragic death in the Nutty Putty cave (the John Edward Jones incident)

The three tightest passages of the Nutty Putty cave are called “The Helmet Eater,” “The Scout Eater,” and “The Birth Canal.” One might think that they are just cool names to attract tourists, but that's not true. According to Timpanogos Grotto, the branch of the National Speleological Society in Utah, between 1999 and 2004, there were six incidents of people getting seriously stuck and trapped in different tight squeezes of the cave. All six people made it out alive, but every single time the rescue and search teams feared the next incident would be fatal.

The Nutty Putty Cave and the untimely death of a young caver
The Scout Trap: The location of two scouts who got stuck

With fears looming, they closed the cave in 2006 to avoid future accidents. The Nutty Putty cave was closed for three years, from 2006 to 2009. However, the cave reopened after an agreement with the Timpanogos Grotto to manage online reservations to the cave, allowing only one group at a time to enter. Furthermore, it was considered safer to padlock the cave entrance during the night.

Only months after the cave was reopened and just a few days before Thanksgiving, the Jones family visited the cave to reconnect and have some fun. At the time, John was 26 years old. He was married and had a one-year-old daughter. John was back home for Thanksgiving from Virginia, where he was attending medical school. 

As a kid, John Edward Jones loved caving expeditions with his father. His father used to take John and his brother on spelunking adventures in Utah – John fell in love with the dark beauty of the caves. It was John’s first caving expedition in the Nutty Putty cave that turned out to be his last.  

It was November 24, 2009, a few days before Thanksgiving. John was at the Nutty Putty cave with his brother and nine other friends and family members. John started his expedition around 8 pm. He wanted to explore one of the narrowest tunnels of the Nutty Putty cave, known as “The Birth Canal.” He took a wrong turn and found himself in an unmapped tunnel near Ed’s Push. He kept crawling forward head first, inching his way into the narrow tunnel, and within minutes realized he had made a serious mistake. John was stuck, inverted at a 70-degree angle. Cavers are especially warned not to make this mistake – crawling head first in a narrow tunnel going downwards.

During the next 27 hours, 137 volunteers tried to save John. The rescuers tried installing pulleys and tried pulling John with ropes but failed. One of the rescuers got seriously injured when a pully broke and hit him in the face. The heroic efforts could not save John, and he breathed his last breath a few minutes before midnight. It was November 25, a day before Thanksgiving. His body could not be retrieved from the cave, and his parents decided to leave it inside. The Nutty Putty cave was sealed and permanently closed after the accident. 

What was discovered as a cave and remained a tourist and adventure spot for years is now the final resting place of John Edward Jones. 

Cave specialist Jon Jasper, who was kind enough to share his photos, has led many young groups to visit the Nutty Putty cave. He believes exploring caves is safe and fun, provided you take proper safety measures. He worked hard to ensure this in hopes of keeping the cave open. He says it’s been years now, and he would love to see John E. Jones removed and given a proper burial.

Dale Green, who discovered the Nutty Putty cave, also didn’t want it to be closed. He thought only a particular section of the cave should be sealed. So, there is a possibility that the Nutty Putty cave will reopen in the future. In the meanwhile, if you want to have the experience, you can watch the movie "The Last Descent," based on the attempted rescue of John Edward Jones from the Nutty Putty cave.