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ON TECHNIQUES AND SAFETY

© 1997  William K. Storage

 Originally published in the NSS News, July 1993

 "His legs were weary, but his mind was at ease, free from the presentiment of change. The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is, in the logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident, as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink; and it is often observable that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to retain a believing conception of his own death."

-from Silas Marner, by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans Cross), written in 1861

In the last twenty years or so, I have personally known ten cavers who died in caves because they made mistakes. Three of them, Mitch Gubkin, Reginald White, and John Gerber, died directly because of poor vertical technique. I say this not in criticism of their abilities, but from the circumstances of their fatal accidents, accounts of trip members, and the state of their equipment, after the fact. I have only known a few hundred cavers, and ten of them died in caves. These are not good odds. Having known so many victims, in my comparatively limited caving experience, makes me wonder about our techniques.

I stood outside Canadian Hole in West Virginia one day, kidding John Gerber about his peculiar vertical rig. Don't be a pompous jerk, I then thought to myself. Cavers are highly individualistic, and John's rig might be superior to mine. Later that day he lay dead at the bottom of a 50-foot pit. He had problems while ascending through a constriction, and was unable to properly switch to rappel. Maybe his rig was OK; but, clearly, he was not properly trained in its use. This and similar incidents make me wonder about the general state of vertical technique, if we can call our everyone-for-himself-here's-a-thousand-options approach "technique".

It's not just the obviously bad technique, like John was using, that should be questioned in our type of activity, though. Chris Yeager, who died two years ago in Cueva Cheve, was using the same technique that the seasoned veterans of Mexico caving use. As lucky survivors of similar situations will attest, there are certain elements of that technique that are intolerant of seemingly small mistakes. I welcome opinions on what can be done about the rappel-rack-to-harness juncture, particularly in heavy-duffel caving. 

It's time to talk about fatalities and technique. Where do we think we're going. As with diving accidents, discussed briefly below, far too many of us are calling these deaths "freak accidents" and saying "nothing could have been done." Even if you accept that cop-out, there is still the issue of what can be done in the future?

 While some of the deaths involved probable equipment failure, none of them involved inconceivable failures or conditions that had not been previously documented. All of these deaths were due to human error, and thus could have been prevented.

 All of the places where these deaths occurred (with the possible exception of Roberta Swicegood, who was diving in virgin territory) had been visited by a number of cavers and are agreed to be places where the inherent dangers could be dealt with, using the proper technique. Therefore these deaths might really all be categorized as procedural errors. Bad technique.

 Technique is really what caving safety is all about. And technique is rooted in knowledge and training. Training is a huge component of caving in some circles, France and Canada, for instance. A look at England's Descent magazine reveals half a dozen advertisements of vertical training for hire.

 Of course, England has no single national organization, such as the NSS. Our resources for quality training seem immense. So what are we doing, and where does the problem lie? Part of the problem must stem from our individuality, or perhaps it could more accurately termed provincialism.

 

PROVINCIALISM KILLS

It's good to get out of your own back yard once in a while.

Rock climbers long ago abandoned the self-drive bolts which are the mainstay of artificial anchors in caves. Climbers seem to have moved to stainless sleeve and collar style bolts for precisely the same reasons that cavers should make the change- things like corrosion and reliability. But we have nothing to learn from glitzy Spandex-clad show-offs; we're cavers. Climbers know nothing of caves, anyway.

 Caves come in a tremendous range of shapes, sizes and temperatures. Factors such as mud, water, rats, ice, squeezes, pits, dilithium crystals, and big rocks make them interesting. When I say the word "cave" you have a tendency to think of those you know personally. A potential problem arises from the fact that one of you pictures Carlsbad and another is thinking of Holloch. If you dress for Carlsbad and I took you to Holloch, you'd be cold, and I'd be negligent. It is similarly negligent to simply state that rebelays are not needed in Holloch. If you went there, it would all be obvious. Of course, reading accounts of exploration elsewhere, without taking a superior position, can be enlightening as well.

 In the mid '80s there was quite a bit of discussion about rebelays in US caving circles. There were even some pronouncements made to the effect that they shouldn't be used. Many cavers probably were thinking of Schoolhouse and Hellhole. No rebelays needed there. So I guess they can be categorically rejected after all. Huh?

 

REBELAYS: WHO NEEDS THEM

Both Americans and Europeans are guilty of talking about "American" and "European" rigging. What they usually mean is that Europeans use rebelays and intermediate anchors a lot. Americans do not. This situation is due to the fact that rebelays are needed for many European pits, but for very few in the U.S. So a European would probably rig Hellhole the same way that we do. Similarly, skilled cavers in the US recognize that in a few places, rebelays are absolutely essential.

 Lechuguilla Cave has an interesting spot, the Aragonitemare, where reluctance to rebelay nearly led to an occupied rope being severed. The rigging has since been corrected. Some TAG caves provide a provocative choice as well: use a rebelay or be beaten by whitewater until you drown.

At one convention I overheard a person of some caving fame telling a large audience that American rope is so strong that rebelays are never needed. The image that immediately came to my mind was Jim Smith in Mexico, having forgotten his knife, cutting 7/16th caving rope with two blows from a Huautla rock. Maybe Jim should perform this feat at conventions, for those who think American rope is indestructible.

 Of course, since rebelays are uncommon in the U.S., most cavers never really need to learn this technique, right? Well there are a couple of reasons to reconsider this attitude. Ropework, if you really think about it, is needed for only a very small part of vertical caving. Canadian Hole, McFails and Cass Cave are all primarily horizontal, yet cavers have died doing ropework there. The inherent dangers of vertical spots are so much greater than those of the flat parts that the horizontal/vertical passage ratio is totally meaningless. It's the interesting spots that will get you.

 In other words, if you're ever in a spot where rebelay technique is needed, very little else will do.

 Along similar lines, vertical cavers should realize that the skills necessary for rebelays are identical to those needed for handling problems that might occur in any vertical cave-- things like getting short-roped, needing to pass a knot, or aborting an ascent. So take a little of the time normally spent practicing for the ropewalking speed championship and broaden your skills base. Your loved ones may be thankful some day.

 Note: For a completely different opinion on the above subject, see Steve Knutson's analysis of the death of Chris Yeager in the most recent American Caving Accidents. Steve and I disagree rather strongly.

 

DEAD END HIGHWAY

Hopefully, no one takes the articles in Nylon Highway as advice. At best the newsletter of the vertical section of the NSS is considered by us readers to be a forum for considerations on equipment use and to air random thoughts, notions and wild ideas for peer review., But there are a great number of "how-to" articles, from which it is obvious that the peer review does not happen prior to publication.

Weird ideas by themselves can do no harm. Many weird ideas, scorned by the establishment and the cognoscenti, have turned out to be revolutionary elements of technology. But weird caving ideas- ideas about procedures and techniques- presented as fact or instruction could make a real mess. When it comes to instruction on procedures, great care should be used to provide good advice. You don't have to look far in the Nylon Highway to find some very bad advice.

For example, a recent issue suggested that stainless rappel racks with coiled eyes should be welded at the eye to increase strength. These racks can uncoil under loads as small as 800 pounds. The author showed details of the weld procedure.

A good engineer might want to debate the likelihood of such welding, if done under less than ideal circumstances, resulting in an embrittled and corrosion-prone area about an inch from the weld. Or an engineer might make a point that while a 150 pound human hanging from a rack might survive a deceleration of 5.3 g (needed to begin uncoiling the eye) if its duration were short, it is inconceivable that a human would survive a load high enough to uncoil the rack for the length of time needed to uncoil the ten inch long coiled region. A practical caver might note that anyone subject to an 800 pound load on a rack has both locked off his rack and done some extremely poor rigging. Yeah sure, the rack article was concerned with rescue situations as opposed to standard caving; but if I were a victim I'd feel much better if my rescuers used wimpy racks and good rigging rather than the other way around.

All these intellectual arguments aside, let's say we agree that welded racks are essential. They cost twenty five dollars. Where on earth could you find a quality welder, one capable of doing a good job with austenitic stainless, for $25? Get serious. Revised advice: support your local equipment vendor. Buy a new rack. Learn proper rigging-for-rescue. Get a life.

 In another recent issue of Nylon Highway I read of the highly original idea of double rope technique. See, that way if you have two ropes and one breaks, you're still safe. Even if the author has never read Halliday's books, or heard about the horrors of tangled belay lines, peer review might have alerted him to the possibility of tangled dual-ropes in a waterfall and subsequent climber hypothermia. Now who could imagine anything like that.

Don't blame the editor for the quality of the articles. Editing is a tiring and thankless job. They can only print what they get, and readers demand a copy every six months. I suspect there is no surplus of volunteers for technical review. So Nylon Highway needs to reexamine its purpose. Cavers have lost interest in the real value such a publication could have. Its weary editors have difficulty getting articles, quality or not, from cavers. The stuff they do get, like the one showing how to use half a ton of gear to rig equilateral rope dodecagons between mile-high towers is doing little to advance the state of the art, or to enhance the safety of vertical caving.

  

LOYALTY TO PETRIFIED OPINION

As I was writing this article I received news of another death from the inability to change direction on rope. NSS member Ted Rudolph died because of complications from a jammed ascender. A jammed ascender is a foreseeable and common-enough event that dealing with it should be routine to everyone. But Ted's ascending system was properly constructed, at least in the contemporary view. When his upper ascender slipped, he ended up in that uncomfortable position where one knee is being pushed into the chest. After secondary problems, Ted apparently died of congestive heart-failure. A previously undiscovered health problem may have existed, but hanging in an unnatural position for several hours certainly contributed to the problem.

 We all have a tendency to read of a situation like the one that killed Ted in Banshee Hole, and then say, "that could never happen to me because..." But face it; the ascending system Ted was using was perfectly customary. On Rope, on page 162, correctly states that with failure of the upper ascender in a Mitchell system, the chest box merely jams into the lower ascender, preventing a fall. The drawing shows a climber without a seat harness, just as Ted was equipped. And, of course, On Rope accurately reflects customary practices. Lots of people do it. It's a tradition of sorts.

 It is intensely aggravating, however, that with the incredible body of knowledge and experience in the NSS, we cannot affect a change in dangerous traditions. Collectively, we have plenty of evidence that ascending without a seat harness is bad news. What if you need to switch to rappel? Is that so inconceivable?

Mark Twain wrote that loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul. We cavers are slaves to our own past. I think we'd be a lot better off if we thought less about sacred Prusik rituals and rope races and more about vertical technique that accommodates problems that we know are inevitable.

 The NSS has a wonderfully colorful past. The history of vertical caving includes Prusik knots, winches, laid rope, whaletails, body rappels and tragic deaths. Certain techniques were acceptable for Schoolhouse and Hellhole. But we explore more challenging caves now. Techniques of the forties just aren't right for Great X, The Cerro Rabon, or even Lechuguilla for that matter. If you head out of Mexico's Kijahe Xontjoa on Prusik knots, you will certainly starve before you see the cloudy skies of the Cerro Rabon.

 As fate would have it, while writing this, I just received from John Dill, the Search and Rescue expert at Yosemite, an account of the death of a caver last year on El Capitan. Doing 3000-foot rappel is serious (many say atrocious) business that has little to do with caving technique. I'll spare you the details, but the victim carried no means of ascending, and that may have been a factor in his death.

 

AMERICA LOVES COMPETITION

Switzerland's Roman Hapka visited me upon leaving Salem, his first NSS Convention. He was puzzled at our rope ascending races. His concern was that we were setting a bad example, or at least that our emphasis was misplaced. "Why don't you have a race to ascend a rope to get a dummy victim down?" he asked. "Or a rebelay course, or something to interest people in some type of vertical skill that they don't already know about?" Roman had correctly assessed that many vertical cavers do not know much about self-rescue, or even switching direction on rope.

 So how about it sports fans? I suspect that those who run vertical contests at conventions are trying to give us what we want. Its up to the rest of us to tell them our desires. Would it really be so bad to have a new event or two each year? I'm reasonably sure that those who have died on rope, unable to ascend, would have had a keen interest in a simulated self-rescue contest. Maybe someday you will too. What better place could there be to establish some new, good habits?

 

DOWN TO A SUNLESS BURIAL AT SEA

I am not a diver, so I have no business criticizing the procedures and safety provisions of cave diving. At least that is what several of us who have expressed interest in analyzing diving accidents have been told. I am also not a pilot, but the aerospace industry seems to think its OK for me to have a say in designing airplane control systems, and procedures for their use.

 I'm not the only one to see a parallel between pilots and divers. In a recent conversation with John Zumrick, he pointed out the "right stuff" problem in cave diving circles. If the diver doesn't come back alive, he obviously didn't have the right stuff. This attitude is ignorant and destructive on at least two counts.

First, we cannot deny that there are inherent risks, both from the use of complex equipment, and from the environment. As expert diver John Schweyen has noted on several occasions, the belief that adhering to accepted technique alone will prevent accidents is tantamount to stating that cave-diving is a risk-free activity. But acknowledging that such risks exist does not justify leaving your fate in the hands of the gods of water and darkness. Analysis of equipment failure modes and compensating provisions is as important to divers as it is to pilots. And, by the way, failure compensation for airplane pilots is determined by a large body of pilots and engineers, in a structured and well-documented manner - one that invites vigorous skepticism by all.

Sometime prior to the advent of cave diving, Publilius noted that "he is truly wise who benefits from another man's mishap." Divers could start a worthwhile analysis by collecting accounts of close calls. What hazards have you narrowly escaped, through skill or luck on a dive, that are reasonably conceivable to happen to someone else? From this list, should any elements of training be added or changed? Does the emphasis need re-evaluation?

Second, lets say that some people truly do not have the right stuff to be a diver. This is clearly a possibility, for physiological or psychological reasons. The reasonable time to discover this unsuitability is during training or certification, not during autopsy. If someone doesn't belong in cave diving, his peers have a responsibility to say so. And his trainers have a responsibility to make a reasonable effort to discover whether a diver has the needed stuff, or the ability to acquire it. This topic warrants a lot of study, but it seems entirely possible that cave diver training just isn't thorough enough. Take a look at the statistics.

 

SAFETY SECOND

Many people say safety is first. I once heard, in an old Jimmy Stewart movie, that safety was second. Truth and beauty come first. I agree, and think that truth and beauty lie in good techniques.

 In the October 1991 Safety & Techniques column I discussed a point made by human factors experts, that safety consciousness by itself has very little value. Accident history suggests that mere awareness of dangers primarily affects the decision to engage a hazardous environment or not. Once you have made that decision (you are now on rope in the waterfall) awareness of the danger has little value. (It doesn't tell you how to handle the fact that you have just rappelled into a knot.)

For those of us who choose to engage potential hazards (you are again on rope), the real safety lies in technique. You must be able to execute a procedure with very little thought. (Attach your jammer; stand in the foot loop; and connect the Croll above your rack.)

Should we, perhaps, change the column name from Safety & Techniques to Techniques and Safety? Of course not; itís a tradition.

Do I hear a chain, rattling in the distance?

 

UNSPEAKABLE THINGS

In the mid 70's, NSS cavers violently debated the merits of caver vertical certification. Of course I was adamantly opposed to stooping to such depths. Have you people no dignity? I imagined a bunch of simple-minded pit-boppers wearing their vertical-cert merit-badges. You may remember the "Vertical Ten" patch. Unlike divers, whose tanks need charging, vertical cavers need nothing that can be regulated by an agency. Why would any good caver ever want to be certified? Besides, we hate bureaucracy. Furthermore, vertical caving is diverse. We're very individualistic and everyone has a different method.

Of course many of those methods are downright wrong. Like ascending without a seat harness. There's a lot of evidence that we should sacrifice just a smidgen of our precious individuality for the sake of standardized vertical technique to save our precious individualistic lives. Or perhaps there exists an opportunity to show individuality by dumping petrified opinion and bad habits. I now think formal, standardized, vertical training is a good idea.

On the issue of why good cavers would want to be certified, I neglected one minor point in my 1975 arguments: peer pressure. A year later I accepted an anonymous climbing belay, resulting in a 25-foot fall. Had vertical certification existed I might have questioned whether my belayer possessed it. Just say no is reported to be fairly successful in comparison to the mountain of other anti-drug campaigns. If an uncertified caver wanted to join your trip, you could just say no.