Springing into spelunking
Friday, April 7, 2000 4:45 p.m. MDT - By Edward L. Carter Deseret News staff writer
NUTTY PUTTY CAVE, Utah County — First, you drop about 15 feet into a hole that gets progressively smaller, then you wiggle your way through a horizontal shaft so suffocatingly tiny that you probably will panic and back out.
If you haven't chickened out yet, you crawl Marine-style through several inches of water before the cavern opens up, but not much. Now you're in the Nutty Putty Cave, one of Utah County's most popular — and least regulated — recreation attractions.
Entrance to the cave is not restricted, and just about anybody who can find it can go inside. The cave is located on a hilltop several miles west of U-68 at the southwest end of Utah Lake.
"Make sure you wear a hard hat and bring two sources of light," said Kent Kowallis, an American Fork resident who has done his share of crawling around in dark, cold places.
"We say wear a hard hat not because we're worried about your head," joked Kowallis, "but because we don't like blood in the caves."
Indeed, cavers without a helmet are likely to get poked by a sharp, craggy rock hidden in the darkness. But most weekend cavers and hobbyists don't know about the no-blood-in-the-caves rule.
Ownership of land around the cave is shared by private individuals, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state. Responsibility for managing the cave falls upon the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which does not advocate people entering the cave but also does not restrict access.
"It's really kind of a nightmare to manage," said Gary Bagley, a real estate specialist with the lands administration. "We don't want a public outcry about shutting it down.
"We just don't want somebody going in there and getting hurt."
Nutty Putty is just one of scores of caves in Utah County, but it's also perhaps the most popular. It's fairly accessible by car, and word about it seems to have been passed down through generations of students at local high schools, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley State College.
As the weather warms up, outdoor enthusiasts head for the hills, water, trails and caves. And the rescue calls start rolling in to the Utah County Sheriff's Office.
Already this week, a Provo man and his motorcycle were hoisted from a 25-foot deep mine shaft in Cedar Valley, and rescuers also found a woman who was thrown from a horse above Mapleton.
Kevin Dickerson, an avid caver and volunteer with the Utah County Sheriff's search and rescue team, helped bail out motorcyclist Randy Gatton, who didn't see the shaft as he rode his motorcycle up a hill.
Dickerson has also seen all-terrain vehicles and even full-size Jeeps fall into big holes in Utah's sparsely populated areas.
"They see these piles of mine tailings and try to climb them," he said. "They're pretty good at getting up there but not at stopping once they reach the top."
Like many search and rescue volunteers, Dickerson and his fully equipped truck stand at the ready. He doesn't doubt he'll soon be called to help pull someone out of Nutty Putty Cave or another hole.
Last year, two teens got stuck in the Nutty Putty Cave for 20 hours. Rescuers still reminisce about the effort to get them out of a tiny crack where they had gotten stranded.
"People don't understand the potential for things to go wrong," Kowallis said. "Just because you got in doesn't mean you can get out."
Inside the Nutty Putty Cave, visitors have myriad options of where to go. Two main shafts extend for up to a mile each, and the paths are fraught with peril and fun. Vertical drops of up to 10 feet must be negotiated, and other spots require crawling, climbing, wriggling and plenty of holding on for dear life.
Increased use of the cave — and attendant ills such as camping, the prospect of injuries and four-wheel drive vehicles carving up the landscape — prompted the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration last year to begin considering how to better manage the cave. Options include capping its entrance, installing a gate and giving keys only to a local caving club or posting signs with safety warnings.
"It is open, but if you go in there you better know what you're doing and be prepared," Bagley said.
Members of the Timpanogos Grotto caving club offer one-hour workshops to groups planning a trip to Nutty Putty or another cave. The free workshops cover equipment needed and things to watch out for in the cave. Anyone interested may contact Dickerson at 785-7409.