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Vertical Caving

Photo: caver descending into pit on ropeIn 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.

Book cover: On RopeAmerican 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 NSS bookstore 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 questioned.

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.

Photo: rappel rack

6 bar Rappel Rack

Photo: Petzl Stop descending device

Petzl Stop

 Photo: handled ascender

Handled Ascender

Photo: Petzl Croll ascender

Petzl Croll


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 the ascent.


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  Copyright 2002-2004, Bob Robins
  Last Updated: August 9, 2005