Cave or mine? Either way, it pays to be safe
Friday, August 19, 2005 - 12:00 AM - N.S. Nokkentved - DAILY HERALD
A trickle of water flows from a small opening on the mountainside above Provo. Its source in the darkness beyond and its origins go back millennia.
Slowly, drop by drop, water picks up carbonic acid from decaying plants. Over thousands of years, the acid-laden water seeped into the mountain along natural fault lines and dissolved the limestone.
Eventually caverns and tunnels form. Some are hundreds of feet deep and unimaginably dark, and some are just large enough to swallow a human.
Most caves along the Wasatch Front below the level of the ancient Lake Bonneville would have filled with silt. But in a few, natural springs have cleared away passages in the sediments and filled low spots with pools of water.
Thursday morning, it's likely one such cavern in Y Mountain swallowed four people. They apparently drowned while trying to navigate a submerged tunnel.
Officials disagree about the nature of the cave. Some think it's a mine, or a mine that tapped into a natural cave. Others say its a natural limestone cave.
"I know there are a number of abandoned mines in the area, but that's not one of them," said Jim Springer, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
Provo Mayor Lewis Billings said the cave is believed to be an old mine, and that the property was given to the city for open space as part of a development proposal.
A city employee found the site about a year ago while following a stream of water up the mountain, Billings said, but at the time the opening of the cave was less than a foot wide.
Caves are common in Utah County, and cavers are familiar with about 50 caves within an hour's drive of Provo, said Jon Jasper of the Timpanogos Grotto, a local caving group. Many of them are difficult to get to and difficult to get into.
Some have been cemented shut to keep people out.
Caves aren't inherently dangerous, Jasper said. But people who go into caves without proper equipment are asking for trouble.
"Things can go really wrong if you're unprepared," he said.
A hard-hat is a must, as is a light, preferably mounted on the helmet to free the hands. A backup light and proper clothing for the cave environment are recommended. The inexperienced should go with a skilled caver, Jasper said. And they should tell someone where they're going and when they'll be back.
Experienced cavers who venture into water-filled passages typically carry diving equipment, Jasper said. Such caves often have fixed hand ropes.
The most popular is Nutty Putty Cave in western Utah County, because of the easy access. The non-technical cave is deceptively easy, Jasper said. But even here, inexperienced and poorly equipped would-be spelunkers get into trouble regularly. There have been four official rescues since the mid-1990s and state officials are now seeking to close the cave because of safety concerns, and say that it's only a matter of time before someone gets killed.
"If there's a death, they would probably be on the ball to close it immediately," Jasper said earlier this year.
The mountains of the Wasatch Front also are riddled with many small mines. Abandoned mines have their own hazards and are inherently more dangerous than natural caves.
Mine shafts are newer than caves and may not be completely settled, carrying a danger of collapsing. They also may hold pockets of bad air and house rattlesnakes or other wildlife.
Most of the nice caves in Utah are gated, said Doug Hansen, owner of High Angle Technology in Orem and an expert in cave rescue and climbing. That means access is controlled.
There are about 22 such caves in Utah and eastern Nevada.
Exploring caves can be exciting, but it doesn't have to be dangerous.
"It's like climbing or any other thing," Hansen said. There's often more to it than it seems. Most accidents are the result of inexperience, improper equipment and poor judgment.
And drowning is the second leading cause of cave deaths after falling, he said.
N.S. Nokkentved can be reached at 344-2930 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for safe cave exploration:
- Wear a helmet.
- Bring three light sources with extra batteries and bulbs.
- Wear clothing appropriate to the cave temperature.
- Bring lots of water and food.
- Bring a map.
- Go with someone skilled in caving.
- Tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A8.