MCG Occasional Publication No. 5
A Few Thoughts on Tackle and Equipment
written by Tony Knibbs
The earliest accounts of cave exploration speak of the descent of vertical entrance pitches being accomplished by a team of navvies lowering the explorer into the depths using a stout hemp rope, usually with a wooden crossbar attached to it for a rudimentary 'seat'. The shortcomings of this technique soon encouraged the adoption of rope ladders featuring rope passing through or around wooden rungs. Such ladders were standard equipment for seagoing use during which the questions of volume or 'weight when wet' never seriously arose. The rope used was traditionally either hemp or sisal. Despite the availability of water-repellent treatments, the rope was prone to rot. The wooden rungs (traditionally oak or ash) would outlast the rope, but were also of limited life.
The first descent of Gaping Gill in 1895 by E.A. Martel was carried out using a combination of rope ladders, knotted rope(!) and rope lifeline.
Mendip caving required limited use of rope ladders. Nevertheless it was an interesting experience to drag a 40ft length of wet rope ladder out of Swildon's Hole together with 80ft of hemp lifeline!
The advance of caving on mainland Europe (notably France) led to the evolution of flexible metal 'electron' ladders using galvanised steel wire rope sides and aluminium alloy rungs ('electron' = an alloy of aluminium).
Mendip Caving Group came into being just as the changeover from rope to 'wire' ladders was taking place in Britain. Although I recall making a short ladder using ash rungs and sisal rope for my own use there was only one practical solution when it came to acquiring Group communal tackle. Flexible metal ladders were not available ready made, so a DIY solution was necessary. In those days the leading light on the subject of innovative tackle was C. Lewis Railton (SWCC) whose work "Some Notes on Ropes and Ladders" was published in 1952 by the Cave Research Group (CRG). This described a solution to the problem of attaching rungs to wire rope. Contact was made with Lewis Railton and the Group set about obtaining the appropriate materials and creating manufacturing jigs. Being engineers, it was Tony Crawford and Pete Goddard who led the way with ladder making.
In 1954 the Tacklemaster Mike Burbidge had obtained 560ft of 'natural-lay' (one-eigth inch diamater) aero cable for ladders. The 'aero' refers to the fact that these wire ropes were in common use in aircraft to link external control surfaces with cockpit controls. Tony Crawford undertook to verify and order the correct specification of the three-eigth inch diamater aluminium alloy tube for the rungs; he also prepared the necessary jigs "sufficient for 250ft of the best tackle". The construction technique involved the insertion of a soft aluminium plug into each end of every rung then drilling both rung and plug for the passage of the wire rope. Before insertion of the wire rope another smaller diameter hole was drilled at 90° to the first hole. Having threaded the wire rope through the rungs, stainless steel pins were then forced through the wire rope using the smaller hole. This had the effect of expanding the wire rope into the soft plug to obtain a secure fixing. By August 1954 the first prototype ladder with 12 inch rung spacing was in use. The cost of materials for a 25 foot ladder was quoted as £1-5s-9d (£1.29p). The only operation we had to have professionally done was the finishing of the ladder 'tails' where the thimbles with C-links were secured by swaged Talurit sleeves fitted by Yacht and Commercial Rigging Ltd of Twickenham. By October, due to the need to recoup the expenses of ladder making, members were being charged two shillings to borrow tackle, up to a maximum of five shillings per week. Meanwhile, the use of digging ropes was free of charge.
In parallel with the revolution affecting ladders there was a move away from hemp and sisal ropes in favour of adopting nylon ropes, driven by the needs of the mountaineering community. The only ladders or ropes made from natural materials were therefore only those ever used for digging.
The Group's equipment was now increasing in both value and volume. The volume aspect was bad news because transport to and from Mendip was usually by motorbike. The search was already on for a headquarters building on Mendip. Here we had some luck when Mr Ball from the Lion Rock Hotel, Cheddar loaned us a small shed 'with electric lighting' to store our equipment. He was to become our first honorary member.
In 1955 the Group was given an ex-RAF inflatable rubber dinghy. At this time the cost of an acetylene 'Premier' cap-lamp from Caswell's in Midsomer Norton was £0-5s-6d (27.½p). 'Daylight' cap-lamps were available from Thomas Black & Sons, Gray's Inn Road, London at twice this price. Mining helmets (lacquered compressed cardboard) were available from either of these sources at a similar price difference. By the end of the 1950's various plastic helmets added to our comfort and protection.
In 1957 tacklemaster Tony Crawford listed 180ft of ladder, 50ft of assorted length tethers and 380ft of nylon rope lifeline.
However, it was not all plain sailing; in 1962 tacklemaster Jack Green's report in January read; "My friends, you will see from the report below that we have hit a bad patch with our tackle, 13 ladders damaged, 95ft just SCRAP. I will pull no punches, this can only be your joint faults. Even allowing for wear and tear, the figure is too high! Can we afford it? NO!" He goes on to say that more ladder has been assembled by members and advises that, "the best way in which you can safeguard your handiwork is to check any bad ladder-climbing habits and any misuse of Group tackle." He also added, "Dear member, thank you for the piece of slab fruit cake found in a tackle bag. Richard [Woolacott] and I buried it with full military honours."
A small ('stinky') carbide cap lamp could be kept going for up to four hours, but was easily extinguished under a strong waterfall or in a howling draught. To counteract this, it was usual to fit an electric lamp on the helmet for use as a backup. This was a step beyond carrying an electric cycle lamp or torch hanging from a string around one's neck. The backup lamps were often simply that part of the cycle lamp holding the bulb and reflector removed from the battery container and mounted on the helmet by means of some crude bracket arrangement. Retaining the glass disc ensured a degree of water protection but was prone to end up as broken glass left inconveniently in a crawl. The battery was either mounted on the back of the helmet or carried in a suitable pocket. Most cavers (but not all) were aware that tipping out spent carbide produced unacceptable litter on a cave floor.
Two useful novelties made their appearance around 1965: cheap rechargeable ex-NCB mining cap-lamps and the foam neoprene wetsuit. Almost overnight, wetsuits changed the face of British caving where so much exposure to cold water was unavoidable. Making a wetsuit, usually out of unlined foam neoprene sheet initially necessitated creating a paper pattern from which the neoprene could be marked out and cut. Cavers of a certain vintage may recall having to lie down on the floor of the wooden Cottage while an assistant drew around them to create a pattern. Eventually two-piece wetsuit kits became available in appropriate sizes. Sub Aqua Products kits came with a pattern already marked out on brown paper and consisted of:
Constructing the wetsuit was relatively easy: cut out the neoprene foam shapes; coat the facing joint edges with adhesive; allow to almost dry, then firmly press the edges together ensuring a successful bond all along the joints. When joints were dry, the coloured tape was applied to the outside surface of the suit using the same adhesive – this gave the joints more strength and added a dash of colour. Unlined suits required the application of copious quantities of French chalk or (much more chic) perfumed talcum powder to all internal surfaces before being able to struggle into them.
It was not uncommon for some cavers to contract wetsuit rash after really long trips, but the condition was not fatal. Indeed, the condition was insignificant when compared to the state of near hypothermia it was possible to reach when doing the same trip dressed only in the traditional wool next to the skin, ie. submariner knitted wool longjohns, vest or other light woollen garment under an oiled-wool sweater.
The usual overgarment was a linen boiler suit or even what was commonly termed a 'goon' suit - an ex-War Department (usually bright yellow) rubberised linen suit with seals at neck, wrists and ankles. This kept everything dry, but often resulted in overheating. Frequently seen later, the green 'anti-kerosene' suits (worn by aircraft carrier deck crew) which were like boiler suits but made of tough plasticised material without seals. Under really wet conditions the neoprene wetsuit provided a more practical solution. The bits of neoprene invariably left over from cutting out the suit were great for making kneepads, elbow pads and for repairs.
The following anecdote by Arthur Spain conveys something of the joys of owning a wetsuit:
Wesuititus. It all started when it was planned to 'do' O.F.D and Dan-yr-Ogof. Up to this time only a few sensible types had acquired wetsuits. On the Saturday we did O.F.D with a few ribald remarks concerning the fact that some of us were wet-suitless. However, as the cave was not too wet, it happened that we did not take a great deal of notice. Next day we eventually got round to doing Dan-yr-Ogof. With much gusto we wandered through the show cave part to the first lake where, much to my consternation, some members of the party became enthusiastically acquainted with the water. About ten minutes later we all came in contact with water – swimming. My hat! was that water cold. We swam to the entrance of the second lake, but after a reconnoitre it proved to be too dangerous to go on. So, breathing a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the person who said "I think we ought to turn back," we retraced our swimming steps, Pat (Walsh) and myself both running to the cave entrance to regain lost circulation (we were both wet-suitless).
That day was the beginning of the end of ordinary caving clothes for me; I ordered a Wet-Suit Kit. The price caused a gap in the family budget for a few weeks, but we soon overcame that. When the kit arrived there was just under 2 weeks to assemble it before the second Wales trip, under canvas at Ystradfellte. It was touch and go as several alterations had to be made. The initial test came with a visit to nearby Porth-yr-Ogof where a few of us dived into the deep pool at the cave entrance. I was very dubious at first and lowered myself in gingerly. Apart from the initial cold water entering, I was delightfully warm. After an exploration of the dry series I actually agreed to go with Simon (Knight) back along the stream passage route against a strong current, a thing I would not have dreamed of doing a few months earlier, except perhaps by necessity. Next day some of us decided to explore the Neath River Valley area. Most of the caves in this area are small or end in sumps... we ended up shooting the rapids down the fast-flowing river with nothing more than wet-suits for protection; great fun (when adequately covered)!
After these stringent tests, surprisingly enough it (the wet suit) is still in one piece. I only hope that all active members of the Club eventually purchase wet-suits so that they can enjoy their caving to a much fuller extent. Note: I have no financial interest in Sub Aqua Products, as may be rumoured.
By the mid 1960s it was very rare to see anyone still wearing leather boots with nailed soles. 'Vibram' 'commando' soles were now the order of the day, later followed by the use of short lace-up rubber boots. These eventually gave way to heavyweight industrial 'wellies' in the next decade.
Good quality retail (as opposed to cheaply produced) one-piece furry suits began to make their appearance at about the same time as higher-quality (expensive) PVC oversuits became available. By putting a rigid plastic 'sleeve' into the top of the 'welly' boot, the legs of the oversuit could be now be made reasonably watertight by fastening them with a rubber band outside the boot.
The choice of undergarments now increased. Man-made fibres such as Damart 'thermolactyl' effectively ousted traditional wool and varying degrees of insulation became available. No longer did we have to rely on ex-WD suppliers and jumble sales for our underwear! The cost of caving rose accordingly!
At the 1966 AGM it was reported that ladder stocks had reduced to 540ft: rope stocks were 450ft Ulstron and 600ft nylon. Soon afterwards the number of club helmets was increased to ten. The supply of lighting was left to the borrower.
In 1968 all the remaining stock of the original ladder with 12in rung spacing was deemed unfit for use and a number of lifelines withdrawn. John Miriam carried out a post mortem on a failed ladder (rungs broken in centre due to wear). He found that where the wire rope 'tails' emerged from the end rungs, some fraying of the wires had occurred. The rung fixing itself showed that the act of forcing the steel pins through the wire rope had fractured some of the strands. The Railton method had clearly given rise to some stress concentration. The decision to make new ladders took this evidence into account. The new ladders were to remain available in 20ft and 30ft lengths, but rung spacing was reduced to 10in. The wire rope size was increased to 5/32in dia. Two types of ladder were made: a version with 5/8in dia. rungs for use on Mendip and a lighter version with 1/2in dia. rungs for use in the Dales where it gave greater comfort than the original 3/8in dia. rungs when climbing longer pitches.
A new method of rung fixing using epoxy resin was chosen. Having drilled the rungs with a single hole for the passage of the wire rope and prior to threading the wire rope, a cork was pushed into each side of every rung to a point beyond the drilled hole before inserting the wire ropes. Through the ends of the rungs sharpened oval nails were now forced through the wire rope: one nail for the 1/2in dia. rung ladder; two for the 5/8 in dia. rung version, to open out the wire rope to maximise penetration of the epoxy resin. The ladders were now degreased in preparation for pouring the runny resin. Once the resin had set it was finally cured by placing the ladder into an oven for a short period. The 'tails' were finished as per the original ladders, but the C-links were of a heavier gauge steel.
Despite the tackle booking system that John Miriam instigated, by 1978 the tackle stocks were reported as 400ft of ladder, 20 tethers and no rope. It was decided to buy new rope as soon as Cottage building no longer took priority over expenditure.
It was always necessary to carry articles underground. WW2 had produced a wealth of canvas bags that were available for a couple of shillings from any ex-WD supplier. Alas, these were not usually waterproof, so things like food and cameras needed to be carefully wrapped to stay dry. Eventually the steel ammunition box was found to be an effective way of transporting food etc. in a watertight, crushproof container. Most cavers simply carried these boxes by their folding handles, attaching them by a karabiner when negotiating obstacles or pitches. A party of, say, ten cavers carrying ammo boxes through a boulder choke could make an astonishingly loud clatter and they also caused damage to the cave. An interesting event occurred in Aggy Aggy in the First Boulder Choke when Tony Fitzgibbon dropped his box between the boulders; it bounced down for several seconds, then came a loud explosion! The box was recovered and found to have been 'inflated'. A spare carbide lamp in the box had been producing acetylene and the fall had operated the flint striker, igniting the gas/air mixture. We continued to Summertime Series without further mishap.
Unfortunately their weight and bulk could make them tiring to carry during very long trips. Returning from a trip to the Far North in DYO (in the 1980's), Bob Varley was visibly making heavy weather of one particular passage; I asked him if he was OK. By way of reply Bob said he was very tired and asked if I would carry his ammo box (in addition to my own). This I did, but found that dragging two boxes through the Long Crawl was very arduous! Unfortunately Bob left the Group before I could get my revenge by filling his box with stones or suchlike mischief on a future trip.
In the Mid 1970s the use of single rope techniques began to influence British caving. Initially it was the rope-walking systems of American origin that were tried. A small group of members (including John Miriam and Greg Smith) used the Howie system successfully in the Gouffre Berger and Greece. Rope-walking systems worked very well on uninterrupted pitches, but passing a rebelay was not an easy task. Of the many single rope systems that were tried, it was the 'frog' (or 'sit-stand') system which was finally retained as the most practical.
In December 1971 during a visit to Lamb Leer Cavern several members tried Bill Jones's Jumar hand jammers on the return up the 65ft free-hanging pitch. Several people managed to ascend a few feet, but only Greg Smith managed the whole climb on Jumars. Single rope techniques really began to take root in British caving during the 1970s. Indeed the first fatal accident occurred in 1974 when a caver died while abseiling Gaping Ghyll main shaft. He was using a figure-of-eight descender on a 10mm dia. hawser-laid staple-spun polypropylene rope. The most likely cause of the accident was a combination of abrasion and melting of the rope. Group members were reminded that "under no circumstances may lifelines belonging to the Group be used for single rope techniques". John Miriam was going to look into the possibility of buying some 'Bluewater' static rope for resale to interested members.
During 1981 tacklemaster John Miriam reported tackle stocks as: 330ft ladder, less than 200ft lifeline and 20 assorted tethers. He also announced that any future acquisition of ladders would involve buying them rather than making them. Lyon ladders with 10in rung spacing were eventually chosen.
In the early 1980s Single Rope Techniques became more widely adopted by Group members. Discussion of ladders now began to fade into the background. With the condition of ropes becoming a key safety factor and SRT trips evolving into trips carried out among groups of friends (ie. not advertised as Group meets), lively discussion now surrounded the general issue of Group ropes for SRT trips. It was initially decided that extra ropes would not be bought and issued for members' SRT use. However, the decision was made to buy some rope for a trip to France in 1983, when the rope chosen was Edelrid 10.5mm – much more user-friendly than the ultra-stiff Bluewater. It was concern for the protection of SRT ropes that lead to the use of tacklebags for carrying equipment of all sorts.
For the first time we were faced with a caving technique of sufficient complexity and risk to warrant formal training. It was essential to have the right equipment and know how to use it. Following a gap of several years we decided to have an overseas Group meet in 1983 to the Pyrénées where it was planned to explore parts of the Réseau Trombe stem near Arbas: almost 100m deep and over 100km long and with some 35 entrances. Now that the various SRT techniques had been narrowed down to just one, the choice was an easy one for those members who had yet to venture into SRT. Even though there existed various written descriptions of the generally favoured 'frog' system, it was felt that some professional tuition was necessary to get the best out of its use. Early in 1983 we booked a weekend course at Whernside Manor, Yorkshire where Dave Elliott, John Forder and Paul Ramsden introduced us to the equipment and its correct use. Saturday was spent dangling around trees in the Manor grounds; normal SRT was fine, but demonstration of rescue techniques seemed to indicate that their application on a wet pitch in the dark might prove difficult or even impossible. Sunday saw us out on the fells doing Gingling Hole, Bull Pot (not 'of the Witches') and Rowten Pot. The experience has since proved invaluable. We continued to practise our skills in trees behind Ian McKechnie's flat in Weybridge, Surrey until the trip in August. We were late starters at the SRT game, but you cannot get too excited about SRT if most of your caving is done on Mendip.
SRT had the effect of making the descent of big caves much easier, and reducing the size of party needed to bottom big systems. Our Réseau Trombe expedition coincided with a visit by a large group from Whernside Manor who seemed to have rigged everything in sight. I can well remember meeting cavers moving around as individuals in Gouffre Pierre. This struck me as quite unusual in a sport that had always so much relied on teamwork. At one point I noticed a pair of boots in an alcove before a pitch. Looking in, I discovered that they had an owner who declared that he felt ill and was waiting for his group to collect him on their way out!
The need to be festooned with equipment to do even a short pitch seems to me to be an occasional drawback to SRT. There are numerous caves that are several kilometres in length, but only have one or two pitches of a dozen or so metres. Instead of walking for several hours encumbered by equipment, it would be easier and quicker to carry suitable ladders and lifelines. Even when ladders were the main technique for tackling pitches, it was not unusual for cavers to abseil down lifelining ropes to save time and effort. Often, using a ladder obviates the need for a rebelay.
The high point in MCG tackle stocks must surely have been in 1986 when Roy Kempston reported that we had 515ft ladder, 1385ft lifeline and 500ft of SRT rope plus belays etc.
By the 1990s, the job of tacklemaster had become almost one of 'keeper of the ropes, tackle sacks and specialised digging equipment' since the use of ladders was so much reduced, although these remained available. After protracted discussion, the vexed question of the Group buying and issuing SRT ropes had been positively resolved. Care of ropes and SRT equipment almost became a pursuit in its own right. The Group purchase of a rope washer served to underline the need to respect the ropes on which our lives depend.
A popular source of equipment was the 'MCG shop'; this existed thanks to the efforts of two people who, alas, are no longer with us. During the 1960s Malcolm Cotter began buying books at advantageous prices that he resold to members, mostly at Thursday night meetings. The natural evolution of this was that he eventually took to obtaining clothing and equipment. By mid 1981, ably aided and abetted by Phil Ingold, he was selling ladders, lifelines and SRT equipment in addition to ready-made wetsuits, furry suits, oversuits and lighting equipment. The 'MCG shop' flourished under their enthusiastic direction until it was finally wound up in 1994.
Space has not allowed me to deal with one aspect of equipment improvement that I have taken a keen interest in throughout my caving career. That aspect is lighting, without which we would not venture far underground. When I started caving the most popular 'last ditch' emergency form of lighting was half of a wax candle and a box of matches in a sealed tobacco tin. Thankfully times have changed and my main form of light is no longer the electric glow-worm I started with in 1953. It is a Petzl Duo LED helmet-mounted arrangement backed-up by another smaller LED system carried around my neck. Improvements in lighting have indeed been spectacular.
Mendip Caving Group. UK Charity Number 270088. The object of the Group is, for the benefit of the public, the furtherance of all aspects of the exploration, scientific study and conservation of caves and related features. Membership shall be open to anyone over the age of 18 years with an interest in the objects of the Group.