OUCC Proceedings 9 (1979)

Silly Rope Techniques ?

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by Kev Senior

During May and June of this year I was eagerly looking forward to my first expedition caving. My only experience of SRT in caves was a Cerberus Yorkshire meet when Ken taught me the rudiments of the sit-stand system in Sell Gill holes. I knew that I needed more experience before going to Spain and when I heard that most of the Oxford cavers would be using rope-walkers I was forced to ponder again over the choice of sit-stand or rope-walkers. "If we find a 280m pitch like the French did recently," I reasoned. "I'm going to be left behind. They'll curse me for holding them up at pitches." I decided to play safe, talk to my bank manager (again), and buy some rope-walkers as well. "I'll use sit-stand on long drops and rope-walkers on big ones," I told myself. I wasn't sure what I would do in a cave with some small drops and some big drops.

My new SRT goodies arrived in June. I had only a few weeks to teach myself rope-walking. I headed for the nearest suitable tree on Southampton Common followed closely by several sniggering university cavers anxious to witness any accident. "Don't worry about them,!" I told myself. "The most difficult bit will be rigging the rope." An hour later I thought I had proved this point having tried several routes up the tree before one was successful. I rigged the rope as suggested by Montgomery and tried sit-stand first, partly to demonstrate the system to the spectators but mainly to give me confidence. No hassle. They are all most impressed. Ego well boosted I descended and rigged my rope-walkers.

srt1.gif (7810 bytes)I had little trouble actually climbing the rope as long as someone was holding the rope fairly taught. My foot rope-walker needed an inconveniently large kick to get it to jam and I found that after a while my arms became tired with the effort of holding my body in a vertical position. At the end of the 50m rope I told myself that it was much quicker than sit-stand. It had to be because I was knackered! The problems began when I ascended the rope to de-rig it from the pulley. At the pulley my shoulder rope-walker got jammed up. My struggle to free myself caused the shredding of the elastic for my floating ascender, and the separation of its component parts of my shoulder rope-walker. The sheath of this eventually plummeted to ground. "Don't panic, " I thought. "Find what's caught and sort it out." I ignored the laughter from below and tried to remove my right foot from behind my left ear. After much thought, swearing, gnashing of teeth and flapping of limbs I managed to extricate myself, get the rope out of the pulley and descend on a double rope looped over a branch. "Just goes to show the importance of practising on the surface before going underground," I said, trying to recover the position. "I think I need a little more practice."

And so to Spain..................

Somehow I never got around to that extra practice with my rope-walkers. I retreated in to the familiar simplicity of my sit-stand system. As it turned out I was never called upon to prove myself on rope-walkers because none of the caves explored in Spain had pitches big enough to warrant their use. The rope-walking cavers soon became frustrated with their systems. The cave which really sorted them out was Xitu. 19 small pitches and none of them over 25m. Most of the pitches were difficult at the top and rope protectors had to be used frequently. Many of the more awkward drops should have been laddered but as an SRT expedition we had only brought a few ladders. The rope-walking cavers had amazing problems in Xitu. I had come out last of any party I was with so that I could keep the rope taught enough to allow rope-walkers to run up the rope. Vast amounts of energy and time were wasted by the rope-walking cavers while swearing and frantically kicking to get their foot rope-walkers to jam, or floating ascender to float.

"Hold the rope will you please?"
"OK" (Sounds of thrashing around then....)
"F*** this f***ing rope-walker it never jams!"
"How are you doing?" (Shiver! Shiver!)
"I'm having to pull my floating clog up 'cos it keeps jamming. Hang on a minute." (Thrash, thrash, curse, etc)
"Are you clear yet?" (More shivering).
"No! Hang on ! I can't get the pin out of my foot rope-walker."

All this time a continuous stream of icy water was running down the rope, up my arm, down the inside of my drysuit and eventually into my boots. I had plenty of time in Xitu to think how useless rope-walkers were in these conditions.

srt2.gif (5348 bytes)Some cavers found that the cord linking the sheath, pin and cam of their rope-walkers broke after several trips, usually at the crimped ring where the cord is attached to the sheath. The crimped rings themselves do not last long if bent repeatedly, as can happen if the locking wire is pulled out too roughly, or if the rope-walker is not carried assembled. At pitch heads it is easy to start to move off to the next pitch without remembering to re-assemble the foot rope-walker. The sheath can easily snag, the linking cord snap under load, and the sheath descend into darkness. This could be a very dangerous situation if the caver had no spare ascenders with him. So, keep the linking cord in good condition and be careful not to load it accidentally. In my opinion the chain, as used by Gibbs, is much safer than the cord used on the Lewis or Brew designs.

It quickly became my opinion that the use of rope-walkers on small awkward drops is potentially dangerous whereas the use of sit-stand system on long drops is merely slightly slower. On a drop of, say, 280m, it will usually be possible to rig the pitch as for 70m drops. This allows a maximum of four cavers to be climbing at one time. Rope-walkers will clearly be faster than sit-stand over 70m, but what about the rest of the cave? If there are some small pitches as well, the time gained by rope-walking the 280m pitch could easily haven been lost on these pitches. In Xitu much time and energy was undoubtedly wasted because the rope-walking systems were unsuitable for those sort of pitches. I think it would have been better if everyone had bought sit-stand systems and been content to be a little slower on longer drops. However, many of the difficulties encountered were probably made worse by the fact that most of the cavers only had a little experience with their systems.

My only problem in Spain concerned my foot-loops. I had passed them through a chest crab to encourage a more upright stance. Unfortunately, wear of the loops at this crab was much worse than I had anticipated, and on the way up the 23m pitch in Xitu one loop suddenly failed although there had only been a slight furring visible before I went down. The footloop was also in a bad way so I prusiked slowly and carefully to cause the least strain on it. All went well until I reached the last pitch. On the very last step at the top of the pitch the foot-loop snapped! I muttered something like "I thought they would be good enough for just one more trip!" And tried to stop my legs shaking. Next time I will have spare foot-loops with me, just in case. I don't fancy the idea of prusiking all the way out of Xitu on knots, although it should be mentioned that one caver was so frustrated with his system that he reverted to that! A fair comment on the efficiency of rope-walkers on small pitches?

Until the art of rope-walking efficiently, especially on short and/or awkward pitches, is explained to me I'm sticking to sit-stand systems!