Caving Techniques

by Rebecca Lawson

I'll begin with a warning - I'm probably not the best person to be writing an article about caving techniques, since I've never caved in North America, and I'm sure there are differences between European and American techniques - but here goes anyway......

I'm going to describe some of the techniques and equipment used in caving - starting with more general points which will apply to most caving trips, then going on to describe some more specialist areas. I'll start by assuming you are going to a horizontal cave, i.e. one with no vertical drops, so you won't be needing ladders or rope. You'll be needing: strong boots or wellies (rubber boots), a wetsuit (wet caves !) or dry gear, a helmet with mounting for a lamp head-set, light source(s) and a waist-belt to hang your light-source off, and various odds and ends, depending on how safety and comfort conscious you are (e.g., chocolate bars, gloves, wet-socks, neoprene or furry hood, knee-pads, and elbow pads if you're really wimpy, survival blanket, a first-aid kit......).

Obviously, your light source is crucial - without this, you are either stranded, or you'll be depending on someone else for light - the latter is just fine in a nice, straight, flat, sandy-bottomed railway tunnel sized passage.....but that's just not going to happen ! You'll probably be hiring or borrowing your main light source, either electric (you hang the battery on a belt around your waist, the head-set is mounted on your helmet) or carbide (a bit more fiddly, you need a generator, a metal container which allows you to belt around your waist, the head-set is mounted on your helmet) or carbide (a bit more fiddly, you need a generator, a metal container which allows you to mix the water and carbide (CaC2) in a controlled way. This mixture gives off acetylene gas. The gas is fed up a tube from the waist-mounted generator to the headset, again mounted on your helmet, where the gas is ignited). Electric lights give a powerful, focused beam, good for looking down pits or up to hidden levels. Carbide gives a warm and more diffuse light, good for big caverns. Ideally, you will have a couple of light back-ups too - an electric back-up for your carbide (carbide lights are hard to keep alight if it is too wet or windy - and the last thing you want to be doing as you freeze under a waterfall is to be fiddling about, trying to get your carbide going again) and I often carry a (Petzl) head-lamp, but only do this if you don't mind it getting battered (this goes double if you are thinking of taking a camera underground. Army ammunition boxes made of iron, and filled with foam are cheap and are pretty good at protecting delicate things, however it is still usually difficult to avoid the mud and water).

What you wear depends on the type of cave you're going to. British caves are generally small, cold and damp, if not downright wet (bet that comes as a surprise !). For seriously wet caves (wading more than thigh deep for some time, or getting your upper body wet) then wetsuits are good. They trap water in a layer around your body, and the theory is that this layer of water warms up and insulates you. Unless you're wearing a seriously tight wetsuit with artery-constricting wrist and ankle cuffs, you will still get a lot of cold water coming in, if you are actually wading in the stuff, but you'll survive (a regular cause of UK caver death until the 60's was hypothermia...then wetsuits came out, and there hasn't been a single hypothermia fatality since). The down side of wetsuits are - expense, if you don't already have one, wetsuit burns at the back of your knees if you walk very far in them, and general discomfort and overheating if you are climbing or walking any distance. Unless you really have to, or you're seriously into neoprene, most people would opt for dry grots. These can range from T-shirt and shorts (Deep South) to old clothes with a sacrificial pair of overalls on top, to "proper" caving suits. As I'm scared of the cold, I wear a thermal jump-suit, and then a furry jumpsuit (made of fibre-pile) and on top a tough, waterproof oversuit. You will stay much warmer if you wear gloves (I use rubber washing-up gloves, preferably pink, lots of people don't wear them, some wear neoprene, others rubber or leather gloves), a hood (worn under your helmet; neoprene keeps you really warm, but you can't hear anything, a furry hood/balaclava is a good compromise) and neoprene wet-socks. Neoprene kneepads are essential if you're going to be doing much crawling over rock - they do a great job of protecting your expensive wetsuit or oversuit, and an even better job of protecting your irreplaceable knees...I've seen someone who crawled through his kneepads, through his wetsuit, and fin! ally through his knees, then didn't bother to treat the subsequent skin infection - it was not a pretty sight. Elbow-pads are supposed to protect your elbows, but unless you have Schwarzenegger-like biceps most people find they end up acting as bulky bracelets.

OK, so now you're caving, and you come to a drop. You can try free-climbing it, or jump it or slide down it, but at some point (hopefully) you will decide that artificial assistance is going to be useful. If you're a traditionalist you'll unroll your ladder (made of wire and tubes of aluminium for lightness, usually rolled into "nests" of around 25 feet so they are easy to carry. If you need a longer ladder you simply attach the end of one ladder length to the start of the next). The ladder is fastened to something convenient (this article is already rambling on, so I'll spare you the gory details of actually fixing ropes and ladders to a piece of rock which won't come down the hole with you as you descend. Suffice to say that you can either use a "natural" anchor, i.e. a convenient boulder or rock spike that you can tie the rope or ladder to, or you can use a metal bolt or spike which has been driven into the rock). You then climb down the ladder, no problem. Unfortunately, people often fall off ladders, even 10 feet ladders, so you must have some kind of back-up system to make sure they can't just free-fall if they let go. Normally you attach a rope securely to the waist of the person descending (ideally they have a belay belt to tie the rope to, which is a very strong waist belt made of webbing and strength tested), then the belayer standing at the top of the ladder holds on tight to the other the rope, and gradually lets down the rope as the person descends. The belayer releases the rope down (and on the way up the ladder, the belayer pulls up the rope), ideally using a belay device like a sticht-plate or a figure-of-eight. Obviously the belayer at the top of the ladder should be securely attached to something, so they can't be dragged over the edge if the person climbing the ladder falls off. The rope should be kept taut all the time, so if the ladder-climber does fall, they don't go far.

The more recent alternative to laddering a cave is using the SRT (single rope technique) system. If you're a novice caver you won't be doing this (you should practice above ground first). However, briefly, with SRT you ascend and descend a single rope (with no belayers, you are entirely this (you should practice above ground first). However, briefly, with SRT you ascend and descend a single rope (with no belayers, you are entirely responsible for your own safety) using jammers / jumars / krolls / racks / descenders - bits of metalware that make use of friction against the rope to allow a controlled ascent and descent. The various bits of metalware are all attached to a caving harness. The whole system is similar to that used by climbers going up multi-pitch rock faces, i.e. a harness, with jumars and a descending device like a figure-of-eight attached to the harness.

I hope that covers the main points. I should also say that although caving is potentially highly technical (and perhaps this article makes it appear that way) there is no need to have lots of equipment or training to begin to cave. Cavers are notoriously tight-fisted (well, perhaps not my transatlantic cousins, but certainly in my neck of the woods) so if they don't have to buy gear they won't. A lot of the gear can either be used for other things (wellies, washing-up gloves, windsurfing wetsuit, climbing helmet, crabs and belay devices etc.) or it can be improvised (an old fibrepile jacket and your Mum's long-johns instead of thermals) or it can be borrowed from your caving club or grotto (lights, ladders, ropes etc.). So now is anyone to take me caving......?!

Cheers, Rebecca

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last updated July 16, 1998