This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
PROVO - For decades, the water-trickling hole sat unmenacingly behind a pocket of nondescript trees on Provo's Y Mountain - hidden to all but a few.
That changed nearly a year ago - on Aug. 18, 2005 - when Gollum's Cave, the small underground passage tucked into the hillside near Seven Peaks and named after the creepy creature from The Lord of the Rings, went from being a concealed curiosity for thrill seekers to a watery grave for four Utah County friends.
Scott McDonald, 28, Blake Donner, 24, Jennifer Galbraith, 21, and Ariel Singer, 18, lost their lives when they got stuck in a water-filled tunnel inside the cave.
"Of the hundreds that went in there . . . then, bam, four people died and it changes everything," recalls Jennifer's father, Chris Galbraith, of Pleasant Grove. "If that would have been just a traffic accident, it wouldn't have created a buzz."
Instead, the tragedy garnered international headlines, and authorities immediately pledged to block access to this "Cave of Death" and others like it around the state. Within a day, crews had sealed the lethal cavern. And, today, gates greet novice adventurers at a handful of popular caves, including Nutty Putty west of Utah Lake.
But progress on hundreds of other dangerous holes - from enticing caves to abandoned mines - is hard to track, according to cave experts. What's more, many Utah cavers aren't convinced that sealing them up is the best solution.
"There are more caves in Utah than we know about right now," says Chuck Acklin, vice chairman of Timpanogos Grotto, Utah County's chapter of the National Speleological Society. "Sealing off all the mines makes sense, but the caves, there's a lot of science in those caves that we don't understand yet."
Utah County experts say Gollum's Cave actually was, in speleological terminology, a "vug" - a mine intersecting a cave.
The most dangerous - and, it turns out, deadly - section of that vug was the narrow, 15-foot underground water passage that cavers would swim through (guided by a rope) to reach a small open chamber.
"The reward was a little room where you could barely stand and get out of the water," explains Timpanogos Grotto chairman Jon Jasper. "It just didn't seem worth the risk."
So, what went fatally wrong last August in the blackness of that watery passageway? Rescuer Chris Reed records in his log what most experts believe happened:
The friends swam one after the other through the tunnel, only to be greeted by bad air in the small chamber. A sensor later measured the oxygen concentration at only 19 percent.
Oxygen-starved, the four then struggled to swim back out of the murky tunnel and, perhaps, passed out before reaching the exit hole.
"They had probably been there before and never had a problem," Acklin says.
Toxicology reports later showed none of the four had any substances in their body. Cause of death: drowning.
"It was a terrible, terrible accident," says Laura Hamblin, Donner's mother.
Afterward, authorities renewed their push to preach safety and close dangerous holes.
In May, crews installed a gate at Nutty Putty Cave, a popular spot for amateur adventurers on the desertlike state trust lands west of Utah Lake. That barrier was preceded by other gates on Blowhole, Silly Putty and Rabbit Trap, three other caves near Nutty Putty.
Rescue crews have logs that show Nutty Putty posed a safety hazard long before last August's tragedy. But it was only after the Gollum deaths that the gate went up.
Now, Timpanogos Grotto regulates Nutty Putty, along with Blowhole, Silly Putty and Rabbit Trap, granting access only to applying groups with experienced leaders.
"There is a pretty extensive effort [going on]," says Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Teresa Rigby, "especially on those [caves and mines] that are in places people frequently visit."
According to the Timpanogos Grotto Web site, Utah sports 26 gated caves. But cavers estimate the state has 500 known caves and, perhaps, hundreds more that remain unknown.
Installing gates - or sealing danger spots - isn't cheap. BLM official Chris Tincher says it can cost more than $3,000 to identify, prepare and seal an abandoned mine.
Another challenge is coordinating the campaign among multitudes of landowners. Caves and mines dot BLM lands, national forests, state trust lands, city properties and private grounds.
Gollum's Cave happened to be on Provo property, making the speedy decision to seal the hole easy for city brass.
Most cavers endorse efforts to seal abandoned mines (or gate them if bats are present) but closing natural caves is more sensitive.
Uinta National Forest officials note so many caves exist on their land that they struggle just to keep track, let alone gate them.
The truth is, expert spelunkers - who care about the caves and the life inside them - don't want to see any unnatural barriers.
"A lot of people trip and fall and are injured on hiking trips," Acklin says. "You don't go back and get rid of all the rocks you could trip on."
Instead, the goal is to rein in the thrill seekers by giving them the rules and praying they do what's right and smart. To boost that effort, Utah grotto groups have crafted cave-training programs and work closely with Scout troops and other youth organizations.
Meanwhile, Utah-based BLM officials have ramped up efforts to promote their national "stay out-stay alive" safety campaign for active and abandoned mines.
Not everyone listens.
"We've attempted to manage the risk, but we're unable to manage the gamblers," Acklin says. "We're trying to bring out that caving is, in fact, very dangerous."
That point is obvious to Jasper, the Timp Grotto chairman.
"It's really not any rocket science," he says. "I've been to Nutty Putty and seen people with flip-flops and no shirt and a flashlight shared between three or four people. Common sense tells you that's a little risky."