Making the Most of Climbing Practice

By Kevin Harris, NSS #16868 (Nashua, NH)

You can get many more benefits out of climbing practice if you give it a little thought ahead of time and try something new or different. While climbing systems can be used comfortably by most healthy adults, however, equipment and techniques are not good substitutes for fitness. Plan ahead and do some running, biking or aerobics so that you won't run out of steam halfway up a rope climb. Use climbers putty to strengthen your hand so that you can work your rappel rack under the load of your body weight.

Check out your equipment ahead of the scheduled practice. You don't want to make others wait because you don't have your gear in order. If you need a piece of equipment to complete your rig, buy it or make it now. If your rope is dirty or worn, now is the time to clean or replace it. If an ascender is muddy or a carabiner is hard to open, it is time to clean and lube it. If you have trouble putting on your harness or slings, now is the time to practice, so you won't waste time fumbling when it is your turn to climb. "Tune" your rack, as discussed in On Rope. Adjust the fit or your harnesses to your new size or new clothes.

It is a good idea to pick up an extra length of sling or hand line; this can help you adjust your rig for comfort or flexibility Wearing a pair of finger-less biking gloves can protect your hands and yet retain dexterity to work the equipment while hanging in space.

Before leaving for practice, be sure to pack some food and water. A bottle of cold water sure tastes good after that struggle to get over the lip after a long climb. Don't forget your helmet, boots and some sunscreen! Leave your jewelry (rings, earrings, etc.) At home, since they can cause problems. Make sure long hair is tied up so it doesn't get caught in the rappel device.

Once at the practice site, consider learning a new knot, learning how to pad the lip to see how the lip rigging affects the ease of the rappel and climb. If you never rigged the rope before, try your hand at it.

Practice adjusting the friction of your rack so that you can pass the lip comfortably in a standing position without tipping to far back or forward. Once past the lip, practice adjusting the friction on the way down to speed up and slow down. Alternate between fast and slow just by sliding the bottom bar up and down an inch or so.

Practice stopping, tying off and adding and removing bars on your rack while moving. All of these skills are vital to safety and comfort on a cave trip -- you don't want the other party members to get cold and stiff waiting for you to feed rope through the rack for the whole rappel. Try a new rappel device, such as rappel racks made of different materials or configurations, bobbins, and carabiner/brake bar sets. Each of these devices has a different set of quirks and you might be called upon to use one in an emergency.

Practice switching from rappel to ascend. This is a pretty easy maneuver, but it requires a fairly careful adjustment of the sling length on your safety Jumar. It is also the most commonly needed advanced technique, since it might be needed anytime by the first person to descend into a pit on a given rope.

Practice taking your harness on and off quickly. This is useful on a cave trip to avoid slowing down the group when the time comes to leave.

Learn how to self-start easily and quickly. Self-starting is always needed by the last climber and is often needed if the climbing zone is dangerous to a bottom belayer, due to debris at the lip. Foot Gibbs rigs are especially prone to difficult self starts.

Learn how to climb efficiently. Keep your chest harness as tight as you can stand it. This keeps you vertical when climbing. You lose efficiency very quickly when you start tipping backwards. Learn to climb with your pack tethered to your seat harness instead of your back. Adjust your ascender position to slide up smoothly and grab the rope on the first downward movement. Avoid swinging your arms and legs, use your energy for straight upward motions.

Learn to use a new climbing system. Practice more advanced maneuvers, such as crossing a knot. This is fairly easy on ascent, but can be difficult on descent. You need to figure out how to release your safety ascender once the rack is rigged below the knot. A similar problem is encountered when switching from ascent to rappel. Try it low to the ground first, so you can escape easily if it doesn't work on the first try. Learn how to cross a rebelay in both directions.

In practice sessions, one could learn advanced vertical techniques, most often used in rescues. For instance, lowering and hauling a disabled caver, rigging and using a tyrolean traverse safely, or setting an expansion bolt. While rescues are needed infrequently, the availability of these skills in a caving party can often eliminate the need for a rescue when a problem arises.

Above all, have fun, but keep safety in mind at all times. Plan for possible problems before attaching yourself to the rope. Watch your companions. Don't be afraid to stop someone who appears to be doing something dangerous -- they may have forgotten something or had an unnoticed equipment problem. Shout ROCK! when you drop something over the lip.

And don't step on the rope!

Reprinted from the D.C. Speleograph - Aug. 94


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