Depth through thought

OUCC News 16th May 2007

Volume 17, Number 14

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Editor: Peter Devlin:

Note from the editor

Please keep the reports coming in.

Here are the trips planned for Trinity Term (2007):

A cautionary tale

Rich Gerrish

"Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence and that a momentary negligence may ruin the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step and from the beginning think what may be the end." Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps

"Close calls are wake up calls, and the accounts of other people's accidents form a bible for those who would read it." Laurence Gonzales, The Rules Of Adventure, National Geographic Magazine,  Jan/Feb 2000

I don't like making mistakes, especially at something I think I am good at, mainly because it makes me look stupid in front of other people and that is not the look I am after. This particular mistake is about as big as they get in the world of rope work and I recount it here for your benefit not mine. You will probably think I was stupid (and you'd be right), you may even laugh at my ineptitude, but, maybe, in the long run you and your friends will be a little bit safer when playing with string.

The events take place at a climbing crag in Hong Kong where some friends and I were doing a Vertical Rescue course. Have a giggle at my expense by all accounts but get my point also.

It had been an oppressive afternoon on Spider Rock. I hadn't eaten anything of any quality for lunch, just a couple of cakes and half an orange. I had been drinking throughout the day but with hindsight I had probably not drunk as much as I had on other days and probably not as much as I should have. I was probably slightly dehydrated although I did need to go to the toilet. It had been another long day on the course, day four of five and I think the strain was starting to show on all of us. The course was both mentally and physically demanding with long full days and a lot to learn. I was feeling quite lethargic by 1600 and was quite happy to sit around and watch Alex Lau and Chris Yeung as they successfully completed their abseil pluck off rescues.

When Rob Brittle asked me if I wanted to do my assessment I immediately agreed, although this was more out of a desire to get it done and out of the way rather than anything else. I kitted up and began to run through the process in my head at the top of the abseil line. The ropes had been changed about slightly and I assumed that they had been used for other assessments and that as such they would be fine.

Chris abseiled over the edge and down to the knot, from where I was required to rescue him. After setting all of my equipment in easy access locations on my harness and around my shoulders and running through the procedure one last time I began my descent to Chris. Unknown to me at this time I had omitted to add extra friction to my own abseil device to cater for the increased weight of adding Chris to my system.

When I neared Chris I controlled the abseil with one hand and with the other I held my strop karabiner open at full stretch so that I could stop as soon as I was within clipping distance. I had never practiced with Chris before and as I approached him I realized this when I saw his harness. Chris was wearing an all black Petzl Navaho Rope Access harness; everybody else on the course was wearing a climbing harness of one sort or another. Whilst we should all have been able to deal with a variety of different harness types and despite the fact that in the past I have performed rescues on caving harnesses and rope access harnesses I was initially confused when I arrived near Chris. Chris' belay karabiner was matt black as was his metal tie in loop; maybe this caught me out? To be honest I can't recall much about why I did what I did then, only that I did it. I clipped the strop into Chris' belay karabiner.

Rob was watching me from the top of the crag maybe 5 metres away and as soon as the karabiner went in I was acutely aware that the 4-minute time period with which we had to complete the rescue had just begun. Rescues like this one are for me really a question of making a decision and then following a procedure. I snapped into procedure mode...

Prussik cord comes off the left shoulder; Klemheist knot goes onto the participant's rope, Overhand knot in the end of this to shorten it.

Karabiner into this.

Dyneema sling off the right shoulder and larks foot it to the participant's tie-in loop. I put this first onto Chris' karabiner... pause for thought, realize my error, undo it and larks foot it onto his metal tie-in loop.

Unscrew Chris's belay karabiner, thread Dyneema sling through prussik cord karabiner, push prussik knot as high up the rope as it will go whilst still allowing me to stand in the end of the sling.


Chris doesn't move all that much so I reach down and grab his harness with my left hand. Yanking up hard on this and stamping down with my left foot in the sling Chris comes up easily to a position level with me. His belay karabiner is no longer loaded. The space between us is crowded, a cluster of 'biners, belay plates and slings lie in my lap, some mine, some his. I maintain tension on Chris with my left foot and start wriggling his belay karabiner free from his harness, I do not notice that he is attached to nothing else except the sling that is being held in place by the counterbalance action of my foot. His karabiner comes off and I drop the load and swing around to release my foot. Chris is hanging quite low and I struggle to get my foot out. As I do I expect his weight to be taken any time on the strop that should join me to him, it doesn't. The sling comes off the karabiner. I look down at Chris, he slides away from me slowly, I see him trailing the sling and a million thoughts rush through my mind as one word comes out of my mouth.


He seems to slow somewhat on the lip of the slab but then gravity takes over and he disappears over the edge and falls the remaining distance to the floor. I can hear him moan and other people are calling out and moving too him. I believe he must have slid/fallen between 5 and 8 metres in total.

"Stay where you are Chris, don't move" I hear Rob say.

I look back at the ropes, the strop hangs limply, holding only Chris's belay krab and device, the reality of what I have done hits me. I am shaking; my mind is in a mess. I want to get to the ground quick but I now notice that the rope I am on doesn't reach the floor and nor does it have a knot in it. I swap onto the rope that Chris was attached to and begin my descent to the floor. Chris is lying on his belly, conscious and coherent but obviously in considerable pain. Both his heels are elevated and these seem to be his major concern. On his left hand is a nasty friction burn from trying to hold the rope as he fell. I apologize, and Chris acknowledges and tells me not to worry, I feel numb, disorientated and stupid. Rob is all over the first aid and rescue response. He is calm and methodical; Chris is in the best of hands. The rest of the crew Alex, Lars, Anthony and Rhys are all involved. Rhys makes the first phone call I think.

Alex writes the S.O.A.P note for Rob as he runs through a head to toe check. There is some concern over Chris' spine; he has some numbness at the base. I am of no use here; the situation is now under control so I head off to help clear the crag for the ensuing evacuation.

Calls go back and forth. The emergency services are on their way and so is the helicopter. I do very little apart from help move bags, chat with Chris and feel bad about the whole sorry situation. I do know however that I best serve the situation by staying out of it. I am acutely aware I am in no fit mental state to take charge of anything when so many other capable people surround me. The paramedics arrive with the fire brigade and pack Chris into a stretcher brought by the helicopter crewman who is winched down to the awkward location. Eventually he is hoisted away and flown to hospital.

Looking back on this incident I am enormously relieved at how lucky Chris was, lucky in the sense that he suffered no broken bones, his spine was fine and that he got away with only serious bruising to his heels and a burn to his hand. It could easily have been so much worse.

This incident was an unbelievably big shock for me. I have been successfully practicing rope work stuff for 13 years from multi pitch rock climbing through, deep potholing, SRT rescue, Rope Access training work to aid climbing with few mistakes and certainly none as big as this. The first three and a half days of the course had been superb. Although the equipment was different from what I was most familiar with the concepts were identical and I lapped up the content with passion and ease.

Therein lay the problem. I was so confident of my own abilities that I failed to see the following dominoes as they stacked up against me:

I made three key mistakes. Although only one of these caused the accident it is worthwhile noting the other two as it indicates how badly the points above had impaired my judgment.

In the long run I am actually glad I have had this unpleasant experience. My mind set has taken a sharp U turn from confidence bordering on arrogance to a humbling acceptance of what can happen when you take your eye off the ball for just a second. I will be much more careful and I firmly believe far better with rope work in the future. I hope you will too.

A daft OFD1 roundtrip

Peter Devlin [5/7 May 07]

Bridget Hall had offered me a couple of dates to do a trip to get me my OFD1 leader ticket. I decided that I would combine the trip with a brief dive in Hush Sump (the sump in the boulder choke) experimenting with a light carry of a single 3 ltr bottle. We were joined my Jem, a seasoned SWCC member. The trip to the sump was probably the easiest underground carry I have done. All my gear was in a single tacklebag and it's upright walking all the way. The choke itself is the only bit where it's not so easy, but soon I was at the sump getting my gear organised. This trip was more about seeing what the carry was like than the dive, so I planned I had planned a 10 minute dive. Diving with 1 bottle instead of 2 I had put an extra kilo on my harness, but the minute I got in I knew I was underweight.

I found that by lifting up a biggish stone I was just about acceptably weighted and followed the line around a corner. With my buoyancy a mess I was kicking up the silt so I had to keep my hand on the line. This meant I didn't have a hand free to check gauges, so I started to feel continuing would be imprudent. I paused for a moment to consider what an idiot I would look like returning after a 2 minute dive, but decided that was insufficient grounds to continue the dive. Back at the sump Bridget and Jem were surprised to see me back so soon, but weren't complaining that their wait at the sump had been curtailed. I got my gear together, this time caving with my bottle on my harness and followed the other two out of the choke.

At this point Bridget suggested I lead out to earn my stripes. My eyesight may not be as sharp as it once was, but it is sufficiently good to spot the ropes hanging down from Lowe's Chain. At the SWCC AGM that morning there had been a debate as to whether a fixed ladder should be put on this to make it easier for a party to use in a crisis. We argued that we formed a fairly representative cross section of the caving community: Bridget was a girl, Jem was deemed elderly while I opted for incompetent. We all made it up, thus disproving those who wanted to fix a ladder. From the other time I had done the roundtrip I remembered one bit just up from Lowe's Chain that was a little tight. I found this to be tighter still with a bottle onboard, but I managed it all the same. From this point on it was becoming clear that my dive gear was slowing me down. After a climb I was having to stop and catch my breath while the others were perfectly fresh. I knew when we were in Roundabout Chamber that there was a danger of getting confused and going round in circles. I stuck to the right wall and was trying to figure out the way on. Stopping to catch my breath I was surprised that first Bridget and then Jem overtook me and climbed up a way that I hadn't considered going. I put this down to them being impatient with my stopping to catch my breath and followed them. We stopped to admire the lovely stal ... for the second time: I had been suckered into going round in a circle.

Still as Bridget pointed out, I was now less likely to make the mistake the next time.

Finding the climb down from Roundabout Chamber we passed a chamber with lovely crystals on the wall and ceiling and soon got to the bedding plane where it is customary to roll. Rolling in a narrow bedding with a bottle attached doesn't really work, so I just dragged my gear along behind me.

Soon we were in Pi Chamber. Anecdote relates that there is something pie-like on the wall, but I have never seen it. I remembered, however that from Pi Chamber the way on goes back on itself down a hidden little climb that leads down to Elephant's Posterior. This last passage was a bundle of laughs with dive gear and I found myself questioning my choice to do the roundtrip with dive gear, but soon we were at the bottom. Here we met another crowd of South Wales cavers coming up, which seemed like a good excuse for me to catch my breath. The traverses was fun as usual, although Bridget did it au naturelle while I rejoiced in the comfort of my cowstails. Soon we were at the grotty little crawl where the way on had been linked up. I tried this with my bottle attached, but the awkward angle and tight passage just wouldn't do, so I backed out and asked Bridget to take the bottle through. Once out of the tight bit I took back my bottle and continued down the passage. At one point I stopped to catch my breath, but Bridget pointed out that while I was in a wetsuit she was not and she was not enjoying lying in a puddle, so I got moving again. Soon we were back at the junction to the main route and it was declared that I had failed to fail the test. We got out 3 hours after getting underground and with plenty of time to get cleaned up before the Ceilidh. Unfortunately I had to get back to Oxford that night so I didn't go the distance on the Ceilidh.

Bank holiday Monday morning saw an early start. I was taking my wife's sister Ann caving with my daughter Catherine. My wife being claustrophobic I have not yet succeeded in getting her underground. I felt that if her sister enjoyed it and in particular came back saying "caves are huge" it would help my case. On that basis I had opted for a trip into Top Entrance in OFD2. 9.30 saw us in Penwyllt, so while I cooked breakfast Catherine showed Ann round the hut. 11 saw us getting underground. I had put a 3pm callout on the board, the route being Salubrious to the Judge and Trident.

Coming through the Brickyard Ann remarked that "my bottom is my best asset when caving". We stopped for a break in Gnome Chamber and then headed down to the Corkscrew. Ann took one look at the Corkscrew and decided it was not for her. I showed her how it is done and she started to waiver. Catherine, who had quickly stepped up to the cave leader role (showing Ann where to put her feet, how to do various manoeuvres) opted to go down first (with a lifeline on her). Soon I had Ann on a lifeline and she was on her way down.

My next concern for Ann was the rifty climb in Salubrious. When we got there we had been about 1 1/4 hours underground. I reckoned we could get to the Judge and Trident in 15 minutes, but was not sure if Ann would like the rifty climb. Ann took a look at the climb and wasn't sure. On that basis we decided it was Yorkie time, so we had our snacks and headed out. Watching Ann climb out of Salubrious it was clear that she was getting tired. Ann struggled a little coming up the Corkscrew, but soon we were on our way up.

As we got back to Gnome Chamber Catherine's like started to flicker. Given that she was caving on my Nova and that when they go they really go (see DTT 15.7) I decided that I would give Catherine my FX3 and I would cave on my backup. Half past one saw us back out into daylight. Ann had had a great trip underground, which she described as "exhilarating". We probably haven't converted her to caving as her primary sport, but Catherine and I should get her underground from time to time.

A return to GB

Peter Devlin [13 May 07]

The 07 CDG AGM took place in Hunters on the Saturday and like many I was stopping at the Wessex. I felt certain of some kind of a trip underground on the Sunday so had packed wet and dry diving gear as well as my caving gear. One of the plans had been for Martyn Farr and I to do a Swildon's trip, but there had been torrential rain on the Saturday and Sunday was equally wet. In the end we opted for a trip down GB on the grounds that it would be dryer. In the end we had a good party: Martyn and Clive Westlake represented the old school, Gary Jones and Duncan Price represented the young Turks of the CDG, while Duncan's girlfriend, Antoinette, John Maneely a CDG neophyte and I made up the party.

Standing in the rain waiting for the others to get kitted up, the consensus was "let's get underground". I had long wanted to get back in to GB as it had been my second trip. On that occasion Tim had had to help me get out onto the pitch at the top of Devil's Elbow, so I had found it a very intimidating trip. This time we avoided the Devil's Elbow, so very soon we were into the large passage of the main streamway. In the main chamber we stopped for a while to admire the space and the amazing stal before looking at the climb down to the bottom of the cave. Here the water was too high to do the climb down, so we started on the way out. Very soon we were back in the entrance series, and with only one false turn into a dead end boulder choke we soon made it to the entrance.

It had been the perfect Sunday trip: a gentle bit of exercise in a jewel of a cave.