Facing my Mortality in Stygian Darkness

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I had the opportunity to participate in a really incredible summer programme. It was about a month long and would give us art, PE, and science credit in return for jaunting all over the American West to camp, bike, hike, spelunk, white-water raft, conduct field experiments in geology and biology, draw wildlife, make pottery out of raw clay we gathered ourselves — you get the picture. It was a blast, and I remember most of it with great fondness.

There were a couple of experiences, though, that still give me a chill when I think about them — and this one is the worst.

It was one bright morning in June when me and my group (three teachers and about 20 students) turned up at the lip of the short vertical well that marked the entrance to the Nutty Putty cave. Nutty Putty cave was discovered in the 1960’s, and is located just west and north of central Utah. It is a hydrothermal feature located in a very fossiliferous area (home to cherty limestone, dolomite, Deseret limestone, and all sorts of other exciting things). Despite this, the formations in the cave are not the calcite stalactites and stalagmites some people expect — instead it’s just sort of muddy and damp and brown, and the natural formations of Silicon Dioxide go mostly unnoticed by any but the real geology enthusiasts.

Getting into the cave itself was already a test of my nerves — first you had to clamber down the short vertical drop, and then crawl through what looks almost like a rabbit hole at the bottom. It quickly became clear that it was a little wider than it seems, but there was no way to move forward besides sliding in on your stomach across the rocky detritus of the cave floor for about 6-10 feet. Once you managed that, the cave opened up into something much more spacious.

Now — I have never been super excited about tight, enclosed spaces, but I don’t think that my discomfort at that time was any more than a lot of people have. As it was, I had to really give myself a pep-talk to get past that first crawl, but I managed to persuade myself to do it.  There are a few different routes which could be taken once inside, but my group pretty much all wanted to head down to the bottom reaches and the “Birth Canal” feature. This was a tight, absurdly small corkscrew tunnel of rock, and I still have no idea why they wanted to shove themselves through it like human toothpaste in a tube. I had no intentions of doing so, and there were a couple others who agreed with me.

The crowd who wanted to have their skeletons compressed stopped at the Birth Canal, and the handful remaining continued on towards the feature at the lowest reach of that arm of the cave. This was another loop of rock, but much wider and oriented vertically. You’d drop or climb down one side, move through the bottom “curve” of the loop, and then clamber up the other side. I was last in our line of intrepid spelunkers, and so I was the last into the loop. It wasn’t an impressively large feature, and the drop down into it was innocuous enough. The problem came, however, when I tried to get back up the other side.

I am not a tall dude. In fact, I’m really short — five feet tall, and despite being a pretty physically fit 14-year-old, arm strength wasn’t my strong suit.  I could brace myself with my feet on the rock and reach the handholds I would need to pull myself up, but I couldn’t get any leverage to push or jump with my legs thanks to a combination of the distance I had to span, and the angle.  The only option was to pull myself up by my arms, and it became dreadfully apparent to me right away that I wasn’t able to do this. If I had been fully rested and not suddenly suffused with joint-melting levels of mortal terror, I might have been able to manage it with a little luck, but I was already fatigued from the hour or so that we’d already been descending into the cave.  

For the first time in my young life, I became truly aware of my own mortality. As the moments passed and I literally could not pull myself up, I suddenly understood how people can just end up dead — and dead in the worst possible ways. I had never before really been in a situation where I had no way out, and I was utterly dependent upon the ability of another person to fish me out of the jaws of a really miserable death. I know this sounds dramatic and hyperbolic, but stay with me — I promise you it is not.

“Alex!” I said, my voice coming out as a dusty, terrified squeak. “Alex, I can’t get up!”

Luckily, my friend who had been next to last in line was still within earshot. He was about a foot taller than I was, and probably about 30% scrawnier. He came back to the edge of the drop and reached down for me — and luckily we managed between the two of us to scramble me up and out of the loop. I was pretty spooked, but I had to stick with my class, so we were in the cave for at least another hour or so. When we finally ascended the main gallery and emerged into the blazing desert sun — I tell you, I have never been more grateful to see the sky in my entire life.

 

Over the years Nutty Putty caves has turned up in the news from time to time — stories of groups of careless hobby cavers or Boy Scouts who end up needing to be rescued from one area of the cave or other, and every time there has been some talk of measures to make the caves safer, or regulate who is allowed to enter.  The last time, though, the talk was all too late. A man who was caving with his brother and some others was exploring the cave, and he accidentally crawled along a tiny passage and then into a vertical crevice, only to find himself compressed on all sides, suspended upside-down, and unable to move anywhere. 28 hours of rescue attempts later (with rescuers able to get close enough to see and pull on him, but unable to unstick him), he died. They couldn’t even recover his body.

Nutty Putty is sealed now, a tortuous crypt for one unfortunate person who made a small error in movement and judgement. Had I been alone, it could just have easily have been me — and this thought still haunts my nightmares.

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