A lot of clubs use ladders. They’re versatile pieces of kit; suitable for novice trips, the odd short ‘nuisance’ drop, and in some cases just faster and more convenient (Knackertrapper, a classic case).

But here’s a suggestion that might improve safety, and also save a bit of cash!

Everyone knows that there are three standard weak / fail points on ladders:

i) strain on wires above the top rung, if wires are angled in to a single point (bolt) belay

ii) C links, which traditionally have a breaking load of c. 300kg

iii) the climber / ladder interface (the caver lets go and falls off)

Now, there’s not much to be done about the last, except use a safety line. But the other two, we can fix pretty easily. A common procedure among instructors is to fix a cord of 6 – 8mm at one end of the ladder, to act as a spreader. To do this, take about 2m of cord and tie a **rethreaded bowline-on-the-bight** through the eyelets – not the C Links, or else you’re retaining the physically weakest link in the system. Get the loops long enough to stop a tight angle forming at the wires coming out of the top rung – but don’t make the loops too long either

This should leave you with a good tail of rope, which you can then attach to your chosen belay.

Ideally, the tail is long enough to tie an Italian or slippery hitch around a krab. This just means that the next time a novice puts a leg through the rungs and hasn’t the strength to get themselves out of the pickle, you can release the knot and lower it a few inches – which should be just enough for them to free themselves, while you hold their weight on the lifeline.

If there are no novices to look after, or the ladder belay is a bit low for comfort, then a clove hitch gives the highest possible take off; or even, if you have a P hanger in place, tie in directly to that; and if you have a mishap, then at least the ladder can still be released by cutting the rope. Not such a good option as releasing it; but at least it’s an option…

So – using a rethreaded bowline-on-the-bight (or other compact, easily made two-loop knot) you have:

i) made a releasable belay

ii) made a belay that can be as high as possible to cope with sub-optimal rigging

iii) made the system stronger by avoiding C links

iv) saved a few pennies Рbecause spreaders start at £7.00 and go up to rather more!

v) made it easier to coil the ladder in a ‘rough and ready’ way – coil it in the usual way, with the tail on the outside, and then wrap the rope around the ladder a couple of times and use half-hitches to secure it. Pretty swift and secure.

Worth a try?


Comments aboutLadders

  1. C-links weak? Mechanically they may be one of the weaker parts of a ladder but I have never heard of properly-cut C-links on properly-rigged ladders, used with good techniques and looked after correctly, failing under a caver’s weight.

    A ladder might fail by shock-loading if a rung becomes snagged on something that then suddenly gives way above the climber, but any part of the ladder could break in that situation.

    It might also fail from hidden corrosion – but that applies generally!

    The practice of clipping both links together into one belay, or to keep a carried / stored ladder rolled, is more likely to weaken the ladder, but by damaging the wires. Both of my clubs impress upon members that they must not abuse the poor ladders so.

    I don’t know what the commercial ladder-builders have always used, but almost all club-built ones have always had C-links cut from chain. That is safe if cut on the weld; dangerous if cut opposite the weld although in theory the weld should be as strong as the parent metal. I think the worry about C-links comes from instances of wrongly-cut links, failed or not.

    Good Caving!

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