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Cave explorer rescued after 18 hours stuck underground in Black Hills

A man exploring a cave in South Dakota's Black Hills became trapped in a passageway 9 inches high. He was freed after rescuers managed to enlarge the crawl space.

Cave rescue 1.jpg
Rescuers work at the entrance of a South Dakota cave on private property in the Black Hills to free a cave explorer who was trapped for 18 hours Oct. 7 and 8, 2022. Emergency responders from Custer and Pennington counties assisted trained cave rescuers, who performed the rescue.
Custer County Search and Rescue photo
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CUSTER, S.D. — Rescuers were able to free a man who was trapped underground in a narrow passageway for 18 hours while exploring a cave in the Black Hills.

The man was part of an experienced spelunking group that was probing previously unexplored reaches of the cave, located at an undisclosed location on private property.

Numerous emergency responders from Custer County and Pennington County, which includes Rapid City, provided above-ground assistance while expert cave rescuers, who were in constant communication with the man who was trapped, worked to free him.

“They could communicate with him, but they couldn’t reach him,” said Sam Smolnisky, director of Custer County Search and Rescue and a paramedic for Custer Ambulance Service.

The episode happened Oct. 7 and 8, and the cave rescue team and emergency responders described the rescue effort in a press conference on Thursday, Oct. 13, in Custer.

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Except for cuts and abrasions that are normal for cave explorers who crawl through confined spaces with rough, rocky surfaces, the man was uninjured, according to Smolnisky.

“It was a very, very complex rescue as far as the in-cave rescue,” he said.

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After the man, whose identity is not being released, became stuck, members of the spelunking party called other cave explorers to the scene, who came with cave rescue equipment, and later summoned emergency crews.

The man became stuck in a very narrow passage, reportedly 9 inches high, which is not unusual for cave explorers, who squeeze their bodies to pass through narrow areas, hoping they lead to rooms or caverns.

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Emergency responders provided above-ground assistance while cave rescuers worked underground to free a man trapped for 18 hours in South Dakota.
Custer County Search and Rescue photo

The trapped caver had squeezed through a 90-degree bend, and had managed to turn himself around, but wasn’t able to return through the sharp bend. His companions tried to free him, but were unable to do so, so they called for help.

The cave rescue was carried out by members of Paha Sapa Grotto, an active group of experienced spelunkers who explore caves in the Black Hills, including Jewel Cave and Wind Cave.

“The local cavers are the ones who actually performed the rescue,” Smolnisky said. “They are some of the best in the region.”

“When people need help they’re able to drop everything and respond,” he said. “It’s amazing how skilled they are. They’re truly heroes. It’s such a cool thing to witness.

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“Cavers, they do a really good job of taking care of themselves. They’re a close-knit community. They train, they prepare.”

Ultimately, after hours of effort, the rescue party was able to use a hammer drill to “slightly” enlarge the passageway. The rescuers were able to get nylon straps — essentially a flat rope — into the trapped man, who managed to free himself.

“He was able to get out under his own power,” Smolnisky said. Blankets and supplies had been staged in a room inside the cave, where the man was warmed and given food and water to enable him to crawl out the rest of the way.

“He was able to be rehydrated,” Smolnisky said, adding that the cave rescuers did their best to get food and water to the man during the prolonged ordeal.

The man was stuck in a location that was about 40 minutes from the cave entrance, with much of the route traversed by crawling.

cave rescue 3.jpg
Cave explorers called for help from fellow spelunkers and emergency responders to free a man trapped for 18 hours underground on Oct. 7-8, 2022, in South Dakota's Black Hills.
Custer County Search and Rescue photo

The cave the group was exploring was on private land, and the explorers had the landowner’s permission and “did everything right,” emergency responders from Custer County Search and Rescue said in a Facebook post describing the drama .

Officials involved in the rescue, which also involved the Pennington County Search and Rescue and Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and Keystone Ambulance Service, will not disclose the location of the cave, except to say it is in the area of Custer and Pennington counties.

“It is on private property so we don’t have permission to disclose the location,” Smolnisky said.

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“It continued to grow in response,” he said of the rescue, with more rescuers and responders dispatched to the scene as the effort unfolded. “We were requested near the end.”

Above ground, Smolnisky said, “There’s a lot of logistics that are happening.”

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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