Caving Deaths: The Truth About How Many Cavers Die Each Year

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

More than 2,000,000 American citizens visit caves annually. Knowing this is not the safest of outdoors activities, people typically accept the risk for the reward of experiencing some of Earth’s most remote locations in person. On average, 15 people face injuries each year inside the caves of the United States. Just between 1980 and 2008, there have been about 81 known caving deaths occurred, mostly due to traumatic injuries.

For a recreational activity, this is an alarming figure that should show you that caving isn’t the safest sport. But it is still garnering immense popularity. If you plan to go caving, always take extra precautions, travel with a group, and bring the right supplies so you don’t get caught in any unfortunate situations.

If you’re looking for some of the more famous caving deaths, check this article next.

Show (or Tourist) Caves

Show caves or tourist caves are among the most safe options.

They are also known as commercial caves as they have been accessible to the public for entertainment. Government or commercial organizations design and use show caves for profits. Guided tours come with complete equipment, entrance fee, and regular opening hours.

For that reason, show caves are for everyone.

You walk only on the constructed trails and stairs and see cave formations, temples, or religious statues. People are always around you, so you will find it nearly impossible to get lost. Caving deaths and injuries don’t happen when there’s a guide, a strong group, and tons of preparation.

Some popular show caves we’ve covered include Idaho’s Minnetonka Cave, The Louisiana Mega Caverns, and Tennessee’s Craighead Caverns.

Wild Caves

The real problem comes in wild or semi-wild caves. Most caving deaths happen here. Cavers often underestimate their difficulties and dangers and try to conquer them like show caves. They have no lights or trails inside them that can lead to safety, and sometimes they feel too confident about their skills and neglect this fact.

Besides, sometimes only a small group of people (2-3) visit wild caves, which makes the entire trip more dangerous. Most people have no expertise and have no idea about what is waiting for them in each passage. No two caves are alike, and many passageways are often dark, narrow, and uneven.

And wild caves aren’t just taking the lives of the untrained cavers.

In the last 20 years, 67 trained divers have died in wild caves. There are several different causes behind their deaths, such as asphyxia, loss of visibility, and loss of consciousness.

In some cases, caving deaths occur because even as a professional, someone violated the safety rules and took a risk without needing to.

The Death of John Jones

A diagram showing the situation that led to the death of John Jones while spelunking in Nutty Putty Cave.

One of the most famous caving deaths is so well-known due to its chilling aftermath. This incident involved a man named John Jones, who became trapped and perished in Nutty Putty Cave of Utah. Ryan Shurtz, his father, and over 100 others attempted to save John Jones for over 24 hours in 2009, after Jones became stuck, ultimately failing to rescue him.

Spending hours to put together a system with pulleys, the group spent over 24 hours at the site. As they worked endlessly to put together a couple pulleys and try to get him out, they made gradual progress until a pulley attached to a cave wall broke. The clay walls came free and gravity did not help, as John fell back down the hole and became trapped once more.

When Shurtz’s father took control, Jones was already unconscious and never came to. The cave was ultimately sealed up to prevent further accidents, with Jones’ body inside.

You can read more about this tragedy here.

The Mossdale Caverns Tragedy

There have some shocking stories in the UK as well. One of the most famous stories is associated with Mossdale Caverns where six professional UK cavers died in 1967 because of an unexpected cloud burst. Ten cavers entered, and four emerged.

The remaining six continued into the cave despite the weather turning worse outside, and Mossdale Beck suddenly flooded the entrance series and much of the cave with tragic results. Those 6 others Bill Frakes (19), Colin Vickers (23), Dave Adamson (26), Geoff Boireau (24), Michael Ryan (17) and John Ogden (21) – went missing, and were presumed to have drowned in an underwater passage.

A caver smiles for the camera, half submerged in the waters of Mossdale Caverns.

How Caving Deaths Occur

When we breakdown the fatality chart, most cave related fatalities happened between 1950 and 2010. This shows that cavers are now more alert and have changed their techniques, as better education has emerged. Moreover, they have more improved caving equipment today that helps out in unexpected situations.

Commercial or Tour Caves are typically quite safe, as many include artificial lighting, installed walkways and railings, and guides to ensure safety. Kids are often taken to these caves and there is no real danger.

But wild caves are a different story. If you are planning to visit wild caves, you should learn about the most common causes of caving deaths, as these happen much more often in wild caves than any other type of cave.

A) Falls

Falling deaths are the most common when it comes to caving fatalities. They happen mostly in the vertical caves when a caver falls from a high point or off a cliff by losing their footing.

Usually, this happens due to an inferior rope or incorrect climbing technique. Some caves have large sinkholes, too. These can be over 300 meters deep, having formed when water eroded their underlying rock.

Sinkholes, under special circumstances, can also cause a cave to collapse unexpectedly. While this is rare, it’s a tragic reality with wild caves. If you want to stay safe, avoid caves that are vertical or have sinkholes. Falling and flooding accidents are most common there.

B) Rocks

In 2009, a boy was killed because of a rock fall in Shropshire cave. This category causes 14% of fatalities.

Rock falls can happen inside or on top of the cave, particularly if it has a hill-like surface. Similarly, if you are exploring a sinkhole surrounded by rocks and greenery, the chances of deaths and accidents increase significantly. It is one of the most vulnerable positions to be in, as rocks in sinkholes are like hanging deaths.

There are some other hazards too that cause these accidents, such as changes in temperature, erosion, and earthquakes. If there’s a chance of a large rock coming loose anywhere above where you might be climbing or walking, there is almost no way to predict such an incident.

A look inside the Shropshire cave, where a roof collapse killed a teenage boy in 2009.
Shropshire cave claimed the life of a teenage boy in 2009.

C) Drowning

Almost half of the caving deaths happen because of drowning. Cavers start diving with insufficient gas and run out of it, finding themselves trapped in some passage.

These deaths happen at deeper depths where it is tough to send help. Besides, in underwater caves, rescuers don’t have much time. Once the diving cylinder stops working or you are out of gas, you will become unconscious within a few seconds.

Experts recommend teaching specific gas management rules in cave diving courses and compel new diver to emphasize them. When visiting an environment with inherent and multiple hazards like flowing water, no visibility, and flood, take extra care in your preparation.

D) Hypothermia

This life-threatening situation happens when your body starts to lose heat faster. It occurs in three main stages.

In the first stage, you experience a bit cold and shivering. The second stage floods you with confusion and irritability. The third and the final stage is dangerous and the most advanced stage; most deaths happen in the third stage as you start to lose consciousness.

Almost all cave rescues present the threat of hypothermia because caves are usually at a constant temperature throughout the year. In addition, the deeper inside a cave you go, the colder it gets. When cavers try to reach extreme lows, their bodies often and easily induce hypothermia symptoms.


If you are a new caver or planning to visit some cave with family or friends, these facts and figures are worth knowing. But don’t be too discouraged, there is no reason to give up your new hobby. If you respect your environment and do your best to stay prepared, you can have a lot of fun and minimize any risk to yourself or your caving companions.

Start with show caves; they are the safest and provide hours of entertainment. If you are interested in wild caves, consider joining your local grotto. From maps to lights and training for different caving skills, they have everything. Their experience and assistance will save you time, and maybe even your life.

Lastly, never exceed your limits! Know what your weaknesses are and don’t overdo it, especially in your early caving trips. Take the time to learn more and be more safe than you need to, so you don’t have any issues in the long run.

Read our article on How to Cave Safely before you plan your next trip.

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