many areas rope work is required to access all or part of some caves due
to large vertical drops, often entrance pits that can be hundreds of feet
deep (the popular Sotano de Las Golondrinas in Mexico has a free drop
of over 1,000 feet).
Certain areas are known for their vertical caves such as TAG (an area
named for its location in adjacent areas of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia)
while other areas may have few if any vertical caves. Thus the emphasis
on vertical caving in your area is likely to be heavily influenced by
the number of vertical caves readily accessible.
While vertical caves were first explored by lowering people on ropes
or rigging ladders, vertical caving today is largely largely done using
variations of Single Rope Technique (SRT) developed in Europe and the
United States. A good overview of European style SRT is given on Sherry
Mayo's Notes on Alpine-style SRT
from The Cave Page in Australia.
SRT involves the use of mechanical ascenders and descenders and a single
fixed rope. Caving rope is specially designed 'static' rope with minimal
stretch, as contrasted to 'dynamic' climbing rope which is designed to
stretch to absorb the shock of falling on a climb.
style SRT, often referred to in jest by Europeans as Indestructible Rope
Technique (IRT), was developed in different types of caves than those
encountered in Europen alpine caving. Stiffer ropes with significantly
higher abrasion resisitance and less emphasis on rigging to avoid any
possible contact with the rock led to "Indestructible" designation.
The two caving styles seem to be merging, as both sides adopt elements
of the other's style that is applicable to their own caving needs.
Bruce Smith's book On Rope, published by the NSS is a classic
text on US SRT and has been recently updated. It is available from the
or one of the speleo vendors.
Vertical caving has a relatively good safety record but training, proper
equipment, practice, and respect for the dangers involved are essential.
If you are interested in vertical caving you should find a local caving
organization that offers vertical training and beginner's trips.
Proper equipment is essential and technique should be practiced outside
the cave to fine tune both your equipment and your technique. Practice
is typically done on a rope hanging from a tree with the rope being lowered
through a pulley as you climb. This way you are never too far off the
ground and can be easily lowered if something goes wrong. You will be
amazed at the number of little things that go wrong the first few times.
Be sure to practice changing over from descent to ascent and vice versa,
in case you ever encounter a problem and need to reverse directions. Since
a mistake in the cave can be fatal, the qualifications of anyone who suggests
you can learn all your vertical techniques in the cave should be seriously
Some examples of the specialized equipment typically used in vertical
caving are shown below. Dr. Gary D. Storrick has a web
site that documents his extensive collection of ascending and descending
devices for those who want to see more.
Typical descenders for SRT include the 6 bar Rappel Rack popular
in the US and the Petzl Stop favored by Europeans. Both types of
devices allow the caver to control their descent by applying friction
to the rope that is threaded through them. The descender is attached
to the cavers seat harness by a locking carabiner or quicklink.
6 bar Rappel Rack
Ascenders work by using cams that allow the ascender to be pushed
up the rope, but grab the rope when weight is put on the ascender.
Climbing is done by alternately moving two or three ascenders up
the rope. One or more ascenders hold the cavers weight while the
unweighted ascender is moved up the rope. There are a variety of
systems that use different arrangements of these devices to accomplish