The Virtues of Vis-Bot

Generally speaking, cavers in the UK understand the benefits of knowing how caves respond to rainfall (unless your caving takes place solely in Goatchurch). With the advent of very accurate and up to date forecasts online, it is pretty easy to avoid the major weather events that, on their own, can spoil your day; we just need to be alert to key phrases such as ‘thunderstorms’, ‘heavy showers’ or ‘prolonged rainfall’. Not very hard to manage!

However, the other side of the equation is what the weather has already done in our chosen caving area. Saturated ground or snow cover can all make for nasty surprises if you add even a small amount of rain from a warm or occluded weather front. However, this information can be harder to get. For sure, most cavers have the use of their senses; if you sink knee-deep in bog on the way to Ireby Fell, or flounder through snow on the way to P8, you’ll be aware of the potential hazards. To get that information at the planning stage, before you pack the ropes and get an early night for the trials of the day ahead, is a bit harder.

This is where the Cave Diving Group can help. Visit the website at and follow the links to VIS-BOT. Here you will find rainfall graphs for various Dales and Peak locations, plus links to various weather stations on Mendip and other resources. Cave divers will also sometimes post general info on cave conditions where they have been active. Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted, and online reconnaissance is the least amount of effort, as long as you trust the resources! In the case of Vis-Bot, if there is any information given, it is generally spot-on; and if you look up the locations of the various reports you can even get a sense of what the prevailing weather was over the last couple of days eg where the rain was coming from and how heavily it fell on different aspects of slope. All pretty good life-maintaining info.

So raise a toast to the volunteers who help provide this service!

Rearranging the Fan / Waste Interface

I’ve been listening to Iain Abernethy’s podcasts about practical Karate for a few years now. He says a lot of sensible things in his (admittedly non-speleological) field of expertise.

In a recent podcast he talked about re-inventing violence. There are  some forms of karate which describe themselves as being practical defensive disciplines; but, the scenarios in which their techniques would be wholly effective turn out to be elaborately unrealistic (attackers coming at you one at a time is a classic you may have seen in films). What has happened is that a martial art has evolved – moving away from its roots in conflict management, into the arena of a points-scoring contact sport.The point is, this is fine, as long as you don’t then take this highly refined sporting technique and say that it still works as a defensive strategy. The context is wrong. The fact that, in order for the strategy to work, violence has to be re-imagined into something other than its messy reality, suggests that while practitioners describe their karate as a valid defence technique, it is actually something entirely different. These highly-skilled sporting karateka  are so in love with their own expertise that they cannot appreciate its limitations; rather, they (possibly unconsciously) create the types of problems that best  fit their own capacity to solve them.

A few of us – back in the world of caving, now –  are beginning to experiment with the approach of swapping “here is a rope rescue technique, let us find the situation that fits it” for ” if ‘x’ happens, what is the resulting situation, and how can we solve it?”

In an advanced SRT practice last week, we had fun dealing with an array of unconscious casualties, on both Racks and Simples, who had slid into the loop of a rebelay. The rationale was, if an abseiler loses consciousness on these devices, they either hit the deck – traumatic but no longer a mid rope rescue – or their flight is interrupted by rigging, which *is* a pick-off. It was fascinating, and if you’ve never tried dealing with it before (we hadn’t) I recommend giving it a go.

But play safely, go carefully. Once you start tackling problems rather than practicing techniques, it’s all a bit more unpredictable. Much like life, in fact.



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 – because 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?