It is strange how, as SRT cavers, we don’t look after kit. Unlike cars or washing machines or computers, it’s all pretty eighteenth-century stuff. All your jammers, descenders and harnesses need is a little, little bit of TLC. You can do it at home, in an alpine meadow on expedition, or even – to an extent – underground. Here are a few suggestions. They’re not exhaustive but at least they’re a start…
Harnesses and ropes are pretty tough, but if we wash our SRT ropes when we have used them, then surely we need to extend the same treatment to the cowstails and footloops that get rubbed against rock, dragged through gritty mud, and repetitively stressed in use. Think of the dreadful things you do to your footloops, when you grind mud into the foot section, then repeatedly put your full weight on it, maybe thousands of times!
For this kit, a good wash in warm water is surely the least it can expect. A stream and a scrubbing brush will do, but warm soapy water is even better – this is why we wash our clothes in special machines and not (normally) in rivers. Most of the non-metal parts of your SRT kit are made of the same material as your clothes, so why not treat them in a similar way? Harnesses are sold with notes on their care, so take a moment to read them. As a minimum it should be possible to sneak cowstails and footloops into a caving hut kitchen and give them a once-over in the sink. Just remember to tidy up after yourself or there may be trouble – don’t blame me for that…(As an aside – if you choose to put kit through the washing machine, take the metalwork off first, use a cool – sports – wash, and put it in an old pillow slip to keep it neat if you like. Don’t put it through a hot wash, or force dry it at all!)
If you are camping underground, leaving the kit in running water overnight will help, if you give it a bit of a scrub to break up crusted silt. BUT remember to secure it – having your SRT kit washed away in a flood would be embarrassing.
Metalwork – jammers, descenders, karabiners and maillons – all get treated pretty brutally. They contain simple mechanisms but they can still be delicate with their small springs and fine bearings. Let’s be clear, oiling is not enough. It’s like putting polish on your shoes without taking the crud off them first. The answer is simple – once again warm soapy water is the best treatment. Washing up water is ideal as long as you clean the plates and cutlery first, or you may get complaints! Treat the kit like you would a dirty plate, let it soak and then give it a bit of a scrub. After that, all you need to do is work the moving parts while still in the water (gates and screwgates on karabiners, cams on ascenders, moving plates on descenders). You should feel the mechanism clearing as the combination of movement (to loosen grit) and water (to transport grit away) works its magic. Keep doing this until it all moves as you’d want it to. Perhaps the main advantage of warm water is that it makes this part of the process comfortable, so you persevere until the kit is properly clean!
As for lubricating moving parts, I know that this is a controversial area. So I’ll let people make up their own minds about what to use, while adding that a small application of cooking oil has helped make maillons and descenders work as good as new on several expeditions.
At this point, you must hang the kit up to dry, if you possibly can. Don’t leave wet alloy and wet steel in close connection for long periods of time – the alloy doesn’t benefit from this at all. As I said earlier, force drying or leaving in high altitude sunshine is to be avoided, but generally a dark or at least shaded place can be found to allow kit to drip and air. Don’t put it back in a plastic bag! This is also the best opportunity to check kit for developing problems: wear and abrasion on harnesses; slipping knots on cowstails; loose nuts on descenders; and smooth cams on jammers. This is perhaps the most important part of the process, after all!
It all takes about ten minutes. Just make the washing up bowl your friend!