Forty-one years ago, rescuers couldn’t get the body of James Mitchell out of the cave where he died. Workers dynamited the cave, sealed it with rocks, placed a memorial headstone above it and left him dangling in his harness, 60 feet above the cave floor.
Mitchell’s story drove spelunkers to get more serious about safety, and would later intrigue a boy whose grandfather discovered the cave in the Adirondack foothills. On Saturday that boy, now grown, intends to give that story a real ending.
“He needs a proper burial,” said Christian Lyon, 36, who has the blessing of Mitchell’s family and local officials to recover his body, and will be filming the event for a documentary.
His work will finally lay to rest a 23-year-old Massachusetts chemist still remembered with an annual award from the National Speleological Society for outstanding scientific papers. The high-profile rescue effort, by an inexperienced crew from hundreds of miles away, led cavers to form rescue teams around the world.
The spelunker’s story
Mitchell had come to Dolgeville, some 200 miles northwest of New York City, on Feb. 13, 1965, to explore Schroeder’s Pants Cave with two friends from the Boston Grotto Club — Hedy Miller, a nurse, and Charles Bennett, a graduate student at Harvard.
In preparation, Mitchell visited Lyon’s grandfather, George Lyon, who had discovered the cave with Herb Schroeder in 1947. But no one warned Mitchell and his friends that temperatures earlier that week had hovered around freezing, creating more runoff than usual. Ice-cold water was pouring through the cave’s passageways.
Mitchell, then Miller and Bennett, inched through sections named by previous cavers — Lemon Squeeze, Z-bend, Gunbarrel — until they reached an open area. There, they stared down a vertical shaft that extended to a bell-shaped cavern about 80 feet below.
‘Something went wrong’
Despite the frigid water cascading around them, Mitchell hooked his safety lines and started down. Then he stopped.
“Something went wrong,” Miller told reporters afterward. “He tried to wiggle lower and then could not move. He tried to pull himself up on the rope with one hand, but his hand kept slipping.”
About 10 gallons of icy water were pouring on his head every minute.
“He told me not to worry, that he’d get out. Later on, he could not talk at all,” Miller said.
After 45 frantic minutes trying to lift Mitchell to safety, Bennett left the cave to find help. And when the newly formed National Capital Grotto Rescue Squad flew in from Washington, D.C., on Air Force 2, the story became front-page news.
A daring rescue attempt
Doug Bradford was among the six young men on the rescue team, which had virtually no experience.
“We had done a lot of practicing, but boy, was that little cave tight,” Bradford said. “The first thing we did was try to haul him up. We got hold of him, and it was clear he was lifeless and wasn’t going to help us much. It wasn’t long before we figured out he was dead.”
Rescuers glumly turned to recovery of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Mitchell’s remains.
“We worked on some of the narrow places for three days and were going nowhere, so we mapped the cave,” Bradford said. “They drilled a test hole where he had been hanging and did some more heavy drilling. But when we went down to rig him for extrication, part of the cave collapsed. Dirt was coming down the shaft. We had to get the hell out of there.”
The rescue effort was halted on the sixth day.
Finishing the unfinished
Two years later, a different opening to the cave was discovered, and about 20 people have since made their way inside to Mitchell’s eerie resting place. His skeleton lies at the bottom of a 75-foot drop-off under the shaft.
Crews will use that entrance Saturday. Neither Bennett nor Miller will be there and Mitchell’s 89-year-old father is not well enough to make the trip. Mitchell’s brother, Bill, will represent the family.
Bennett, now 63 and a scientist with IBM, declined to comment out of deference to the Mitchell family and his desire to leave that tragic day in the past. Miller lives in Denmark and does not speak publicly of Mitchell’s death.
The remains will be given to a local coroner and state officials for examination before being cremated. Some of his ashes will be given to the family and the rest will be buried near the cave.
Bradford, now 60 and semi-retired in Georgia, is making the long drive north.
“I’m looking at it as an opportunity to take care of unfinished business, but I’m skeptical,” he said. “I’m going to reserve judgment on what we’re going to find. I sure hope there’s something we can give his dad.”