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Jesse Houser Shares His Vertical Wisdom

Jesse Houser Shares His Vertical Wisdom

Note that this list is an example kit as I do not intend to present all available options for equipment, manufacturers, or retailers.  Careful attention has been placed on presenting a collection of equipment that works well together as a safe and efficient system for Single Rope Technique progression in caves.  Further explanation on some equipment and techniques can be found on the 'Recommendations, or How I Do It' [section]. - Jesse Houser

 

Example Caving SRT Personal Kit

 

Item Description QTY Weight (g) Cost Notes
harness, seat MTDE Amazonia 1 645 $89.00 alternatives: Petzl SUPERAVANTI, MTDE Picos
harness, chest Aventure Verticale Spelshoulder Pro 1 185 $25.00 alternative: MTDE Garma
harness, seat, connector Petzl OMNI SCREW-LOCK 1 86 $36.95 alternative: Petzl DEMI ROND (lighter, less expensive, less convenient) note: Petzl OMNI TRIACT not recommended due to sharp corners on gate (known to cause undue wear on right side harness attachment point)
cowstail, rope PMI Erratic 8.9 3 165 $10.00 3 m of dynamic single rope
cowstail, short, connector Petzl DJINN Straight Gate 1 45 $8.95 carabiner, aluminum, modified D, wide opening, straight gate, non-locking
cowstail, long, connector Petzl DJINN Straight Gate 1 45 $8.95 carabiner, aluminum, modified D, wide opening, straight gate, non-locking
foot cord Beal Pure Dyneema 5 mm Cord 1.5 23 $12.00 1.5-2 m of 5 mm pure Dyneema cord
foot loops Petzl ST'ANNEAU 60 cm 1 20 $11.95 Dyneema sling
optional, highly recommended
foot cord, connector Petzl SPIRIT Straight Gate 1 39 $10.95 carabiner, aluminum, modified D, non-locking
ascender, chest Petzl CROLL S 1 85 $72.95 alternative: Petzl CROLL L (heavier at 140 g, but a little easier to use with 11 mm rope)
ascender, upper Petzl BASIC 1 85 $79.95 ascender, non-handled, lower attachment hole sized to accept two carabiners
ascender, foot Petzl PANTIN R 1 85 $79.95 optional, highly recommended
descender Petzl SIMPLE 1 240 $69.95 new model D004AA00
alternative: CT Acles DX
descender, connector Petzl OK SCREW-LOCK 1 70 $13.95

carabiner, aluminum,

oval, screw-lock

descender, braking carabiner Raumer Handy 1 135 $30.00 alternatives: steel non-locking carabiner, aluminum non-locking carabiner
Total 1,953 $560.50

 

Ancillary Kit for Caving SRT

Item Description QTY Weight (g) Cost Notes
pack haul tether Beal Pure Dyneema 5 mm Cord 1.5 23 $9.00 1-1.5 m of 5 mm pure Dyneema cord
pack haul tether, carabiner Petzl SPIRIT Screw Lock 1 carabiner, aluminum, modified D, screw-lock
pack, carabiner Petzl SPIRIT Straight Gate 1 39 $10.95 carabiner, aluminum, modified D, non-locking
pack attachment cord, seat harness Beal Pure Dyneema 5 mm Cord 0.5 8 $3.00 0.5 m of 5 mm pure Dyneema cord
foot cord keeper, foot Beal Pure Dyneema 5 mm Cord 0.5 7.5 $3.00 0.5 m of 5 mm pure Dyneema cord
foot cord keeper, knee bungee cord, 3 mm 0.5 5 $1.50 alternative: loop of tire inner tube
pulley Petzl MICRO TRAXION 1 85 $129.95 pulley, progress capture
knife Petzl SPATHA 1 43 $29.95 folding knife with serrated edge and carabiner attachment hole
wrench Lobster UM24X 150 mm Light Weight Adjustable Wrench 1 90 $24.80 adjustable wrench, 150 mm
carabiner Petzl OK SCREW-LOCK 1 70 $13.95 carabiner, aluminum, oval, screw-lock

 

My Recommendations, or How I Do It 

Cowstails
I begin with with a single 3 m length of 9-10 mm dynamic single rope. Poachers Knots capture the carabiners at the working end of each cowstail, and an Overhand Loop Knot attaches the cowstails to the left side of the seat harness connector.

The short cowstail is adjusted in length such that its carabiner sits in my hand when fully extended and my elbow is placed at the base of the cowstail; the exception to this being for very short cavers who may require a slightly proportionally longer short cowstail. The purpose of this adjustment is so that it is both: a) long enough to reach the clip in point of rebelays and other anchors when negotiating them on ascent, and b) short enough to allow for a convenient, relatively close placement of the caver’s body when hanging from the short cowstail at a rebelay or other anchor to prevent wasted motion on both ascent and descent when shifting weight to and from the short cowstail and ascenders or the descender.

The long cowstail is adjusted in length such that when it is fully extended, the end of its carabiner is at the my forehead level. It should be long enough such that, when used as a tether to the upper ascender, it does not interfere with the full upward motion of the upper ascender.

I trim excess tail from the Poachers Knots, leaving 7-10 cm (about a fist width) of tail.
Foot cord construction
Dyneema is the best material as it is hard-wearing, light weight, and has negligible elongation. I use a doubled (folded) 60 cm Dyneema sling to create two loops. Tie a loop knot (I use a bowline) in one end of a 1.5 m length of 5 mm pure Dyneema cord, and attach the loop knot to the sling at its midpoint using a girth hitch. Tie a loop knot (eg. bowline) in the other end of the cord, and attach the loop securely to the carabiner using a girth hitch (trim excess tail). Optionally, if an adjustable length is desired, a Blake's Hitch can be used instead of the bowline on the carabiner end of the foot cord. The length of the foot cord should be such that with the legs fully extended, the upper ascender cam just meets the chest ascender. Note that I use knots and hitches that can be untied even after repeated loading, just in case I need to deconstruct my foot loop/cord for some unforeseen circumstance.

Normally, both of the loops are placed around my left foot. The width of the two pieces of Dyneema webbing distributes the pressure over a larger area of your instep, providing greater comfort. If I am a) ascending a short pitch, and b) I don't want to bother with attaching my foot ascender to the rope, and c) I don't want to ascend using only my left leg, then I can attach one loop to each foot.

In contrast, the drawbacks of using one large loop to accommodate both feet are: a) the length of the foot cord changes depending on whether you are using one or both feet, b) it causes additional pressure on the outside of your feet when using both feet, and c) the pressure on your instep is concentrated on a smaller surface area when using one foot.
Foot cord setup and use
For cave passages with significant vertical development, I keep the foot cord attached to my left foot and leg. It is fastened to my left foot by passing both foot loops through a loop of cord around my ankle, and to my left leg by passing the foot cord through a loop of stretchy material (eg. bungee cord, piece of rubber inner tube, or knee pad strap) just below my knee. When I reach the top of a pitch and no longer need to use the foot cord, I simply remove its carabiner from the upper ascender and stow it on my harness gear loop, leaving the foot cord attached to my left foot and leg. With my foot cord length adjusted properly, it is long enough to reach my harness gear loop without having too much slack to catch on things. If I need to go through a horizontal passage where it will likely get caught, I remove it and stow it on on harness—similar to the way I would stow a sewn sling.
Foot ascender
I recommend using a right foot ascender for the following reasons: a) it promotes efficient form by forcing you to keep your feet underneath your torso b) it pulls your upper body into a more vertical position, c) it allows for faster and more efficient ascending against a wall using the alternating step technique, and d) it improves efficiency in passing obstables when used in combination with a foot cord that is attached to your left leg (you never have to remove/replace a foot loop from one of your feet).
Upper ascender
I recommend using a non-handled upper ascender with a lower attachment hole large enough to accomodate both the long cowstail carabiner and the foot cord carabiner.
-Non-handled upper ascenders promote efficient ascending form—using the arms primarily for keeping the torso in a vertical orientation and the legs for propulsion. The foot cord can be adjusted such that the bottom of the upper ascender cam and the top of the chest ascender just meet when the legs are fully extended.
-Upper ascenders with handles may seem easier to grasp, but they tend to promote poor form (pulling on the handle for propulsion) and, when the foot cord is adjusted properly for maximum ascending efficiency, there is an interference between handle and the chest ascender.
-Having an attachment hole large enough to accommodate two carabiners allows for easy and efficient use of the foot cord method described above.
Descender
I am of the opinion that the simple bobbin descender it is the easiest for beginners/novices to learn, and also the most fit-for-task for the majority of caving situations. Become familiar with the 'S' and 'O' (also known as 'C') configurations to deal with ropes of different diameters/stiffness. The auto-stop bobbin is very convenient if you are installing anchors or rigging—the most significant reason in my experience being that fine-tuning work position up/down is very easy. Passing rebelays with an autostop bobbin can also be more efficient because it is possible to step up, pull rope through the descender (the locking cam capturing your progress), sit down, then remove your short cowstail (all without tying off the descender). But in general, I think a simple bobbin is the go-to for most situations and is the easiest for me to recommend due to ease-of-use, versatility, weight, size, cost, and serviceability (replaceable wear surfaces).
Braking carabiner
I recommend using a Raumer Handy due to the wide range of rope diameters/stiffness it can handle. It is especially helpful if using Type B or Type L rope, or descending with heavy bags.
Long cowstails and foot cords—right side vs. left side
There has been some debate about which leg to use in combination with the foot cord, and which side of the seat harness connector that the long cowstail should be placed. I have found through personal experience and in deliberation with others, that having the long cowstail and foot cord on the left side is the simplest, cleanest, and even the safest approach. While right leg dominant cavers may give up some efficiency in the beginning using their left leg for the foot cord, this can be overcome with practice.
Long cowstail and foot cord on left side (highly recommended)
Advantages:
-Rigging is more often done by a right-handed person, so anchors are installed such that when you are ascending, the rope above the rebelay is usually on your left. The cowstail and foot cord remain on the left side of your body during the transition.
-No interference between chest ascender cam safety catch and long cowstail.
-When advancing rope through the chest ascender (when there is very little rope weight, for example), the left hand naturally grasps the upper ascender, and the right hand pulls the rope downward below the chest ascender.
-If you are left leg dominant, you may gain some efficiency when ascending.
Disadvantages: -If you are right leg dominant, you may lost some efficiency when ascending.
Long cowstail and foot cord on right side
Advantages:
-If you are right leg dominant, you may gain some efficiency when ascending.
-The Basic ascender cam safety catch opens with the right thumb, so installing/uninstalling it on rope may feel more natural.
Disadvantages:
-There exists a potential for interference between the long cowstail and the chest ascender cam safety catch.
-The seat harness connector will be more cluttered (extra loop of rope for the long cowstail).
-Rigging is more often done by a right-handed person, so anchors are installed such that when you are ascending, the rope above the rebelay is usually on the left. The cowstail and foot cord must then necessarily cross over to the opposite side of your body during the transition.
-If you are left leg dominant, you may lose some efficiency when ascending.
Long cowstail on left side, foot cord on right side
Advantages:
-If you are right leg dominant, you may gain some efficiency when ascending.
Disadvantages:
-Careful attention must be placed on not trapping the rope inside your long cowstail/upper ascender/foot cord assembly. This requires making sure that the long cowstail passes from the left side, between the rope and your chest, and then attaches to the upper ascender. The cowstail carabiner may interfere with the chest ascender at the top of the frog cycle.
-Rigging is more often done by a right-handed person, so anchors are installed such that when you are ascending, the rope above the rebelay is usually on the left. The foot cord must then necessarily cross over to the opposite side of your body during the transition.
-If you are left leg dominant, you may lose some efficiency when ascending.
Pack hauling
This is the essence of caving! Pack management is one of the keys to efficiency in SRT.
Seat harness pack attachment cord
I attach a piece of 5mm Dyneema cord to my seat harness attachment loops with Figure 8 follow-through knots. This serves to place the load on the same axis as the tensioned rope above me (directly on my attachment point to the rope).
Pack haul cord
Most of my packs have an integrated pack haul cord. However, I may need to haul a different pack without an integrated haul cord. I have constructed one made of 5mm Dyneema with loop knots at each end (bowlines) and two overhand knots along the length (provide something to grip when lifting the pack). One end of the haul cord is girth hitched to a *secure* haul point on the pack. The other end is girth hitched to a screw lock carabiner. This carabiner is clipped into the seat harness cord (screw lock!). The length of the haul cord is such that the top of the pack is just barely out of reach of my feet. When progressing using SRT, the pack stays attached to my seat harness via the seat harness pack attachment cord and pack haul cord. This eliminates the hazard created by dropping the pack. It is also useful when stemming in canyons and for dragging the pack when crawling. When shouldering the pack (eg. on a slope where the pack could knock a rock loose), I grasp the pack haul cord and one shoulder strap with my hand, and place the pack on the corresponding shoulder; this keeps the pack haul cord routing clear of other equipment.
Pack carabiner
This is attached to a secure haul point at the top of the pack. I use this carabiner when I need to attach the pack to the side of my harness, or hang the pack on a traverse line or at an anchor.

 

 Photo Credit:  Jesse Houser puts his practice to work in Sistema Huautla, Mexico.  Photo by Chris Higgins of Chris Higgins Photography

 


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