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Pit Etiquette

Reprinted by permission from the CAVETEX remailer. 6-25-2005

The 2005 NSS Convention is fast approaching and more than a thousand cavers are expected to congregate in Huntsville, Alabama over the 4th of July week. This convention is located in the heart of TAG, one of the best know caving regions in the country named after the intersection of the states of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. More than 10,000 caves are located within a few hours drive of the convention including some of the best known vertical caves in the country. Photographs of some of the better known pits have appeared on the cover of various caver publications - some are known for their depth, others for their difficulty, and still others for their stunning beauty.

There are many inherit dangers associated with vertical caving - the exposure, cool temperatures, waterfalls, loose rocks, sharp edges - all of these hazards have resulted in accidents. There is also one additional danger associated with vertical caving - the human element.

The sport of scuba diving also has many inherit dangers such as savage shark attacks, gruesome boat prop accidents, electric eels, man eating clams, piranhas, drowning - yeah, I could go on and on about scuba diving - but I digress. The scuba industry has enacted controls to regulate training and equipment to help minimize accidents and have also created an advanced "Dive Master" program that trains people to manage large dive groups and dive sites - thereby minimizing the risk to divers and the diving location (many dive sites are as fragile as caves.) However, cavers have a much more limited training program and no form of national certification (this is not intended to bring up the certification debate, just a statement of fact). While the NSS Vertical Section has an excellent vertical training course outline, many vertical cavers have not taken advantage of it. Most cavers learn vertical techniques from a caving friend - sort of a mentor or apprenticeship system. This is an excellent system when your mentor is Yoda, the Jedi Master. However, when you're both new to caving but your mentor has 6 months more experience then you do, it's more like the blind leading the blind. My observations on this subject indicate to me that it takes most cavers 3 to 5 years of caving on a regular basis, before they are reasonably competent and should be leading vertical caving trips or instructing vertical training classes. Some folks either don't have the common sense or attention to detail, and should probably never be participating in the sport.

Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to attend a number of conventions and regional events and have seen my fair share of buffoonery at popular vertical caves related to poor training, lack of experience, and improper pit etiquette. All of these conditions are converging on Huntsville in the next week to create the perfect storm - anytime you bring people with limited training and experience in close proximity to deep and easily accessible pits - there is a potential problem. However, there is no Dive Master keeping an eye on cavers - you're pretty much on your own.
How to avoid becoming a victim of the perfect storm -

While this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of do's and don'ts; hopefully, we can make some folks think before they rappel into a pit. One of the best recommendations I can make is to ask the locals. TAG has many many experienced vertical cavers and the south is famous for its hospitability - take advantage of this opportunity. Ask the local cavers for advice on a pit that is suitable for your experience, equipment, and techniques. As them to come along - you'll make some great lifelong friends. If you are polite and respectful, you'll always be welcome to come back, even if they kid you about being a Yankee. However, a couple of important reminders, if you ain't from the south, don't talk bad about grits and don't think you know anything about barbeque or NASCAR. (and you TAG cavers, show the Yankee's a little patience.
Recommendations for individuals:

If you're a beginner, and even if you're not, take a vertical training course following the NSS Vertical Section outline. Attend the Vertical Section meeting and take the Vertical Section Workshop at the convention. Attend an NCRC course.

Be able to perform basic vertical caving techniques. If you can't change from rappelling to ascending to rappelling without touching the ground, you need more outside training and experience before entering a pit.

If you don't have your own gear and have to pass equipment up and down the rope, get your own equipment and practice with it before pitting. Make sure it's adjusted to your body before pitting.

Always ask the "What If" question followed by the "Why" question. What if this happens, what will be the results? What can I do the make it safer, simpler, and more versatile? Visually examine everyone's gear and techniques all the time. Ask yourself why the caver rigged their equipment one way verses another or why they used one technique verse another? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Vertical caving is about problem solving. Ask questions and more questions. You can learn a lot and you may prevent an accident?

Don't try to adapt rock climbing equipment and techniques to vertical caving. They're two different sports that happen to have the vertical environment in common. Listen to your body. If you're not comfortable doing a rappel or climb - don't do it. Get more experience on shorter drops and don't allow peer pressure to get you into trouble. This is called challenge by choice. Remember that testosterone is the most dangerous drug on the planet.

Group Dynamics: Know the people on your trip and their experience level. If I'm invited on a trip, I don't have any problem with people politely asking about my background and experience and you can bet I'll do the same to them. This shouldn't be offensive to anyone if done tactfully, but it is very important. Make sure that there is sufficient discussion to discover if someone is overstating their experience level - it happens all the time.

If there are lead vertical trips, sign up and go with one of the locals. They can help you with understanding the local conditions and keep an eye on your technique.

Set boundaries for the trip so that you don't go beyond the experience or skill level of your weakest member.

The Pit Master Concept: During the convention, many of the classic pits in TAG will have more than one group visiting at a time. Some of the large pits are big enough to accommodate more than one rope if properly coordinated - most are not. If the parking lot is full, you should either be prepared to wait or go to another pit.

If you are the first group to a pit, I would recommend that you employ the "Pit Master" concept as a form of self defense. The Pit Master concept is a method to promote safety when multiple groups are present. This concept works only if you take an active and immediate role in management of the scene when the next group arrives. While the term "Pit Master" is an informal term, it is extremely important for everyone's safety. In the hazardous waste field, this person would be called the "Health and Safety Officer." They have control over everyone who enters the work environment.

If you think of a pit as a vertical phone booth, would you walk in uninvited and grab the phone from their hand and start using it. I think the answer is no for most people. Now if you treat a pit as a phone booth, asking if it's OK to use the phone is the polite and safe thing to do. The phone booth may have room for more than one rope, especially if you can agree on coordinating rappelling and ascending activities.

However, every pit has a limit on the number of ropes and people that can safely enter at any given time. Discuss this issue with the leaders of other groups. Is there sufficient room to accommodate another rope, how many cavers can safely enter the pit at any given time, where should people safely stand at the bottom of the pit, whether rappelling and ascending activities on separate ropes needs to be coordinated, etc. If an agreement can't be reached, the leader of the first group should have the final say on safety at the pit. If you disregard their decisions, you may be held liable for any accidents you may cause. There are acts of God and then there are acts of intentional endangerment and stupidity is not a defense.

I don't know how may times I've seen a new group show up at a drop, not ask if it's OK if they do the pit, create a new rig point, kick rocks and dirt down on people going up and down an existing rope, then act like you're taking up their space when you have a problem with it. This is an excellent way to get "flat rocked" - either by accident when you're in the pit or later back at the campground (flat rocking is a TAG term for picking up a big flat rock and dropping it on someone that's pissed you off and is generally reserved for buffoons.)

Enough pontificating; hopefully, this will generate some discussion on the subject, probably some excellent cases histories of buffoonery in action, and may even prevent an accident. Feel free to reprint this on other use groups or newsletters.

I'm looking forward to seeing many old friends at the convention next week.

With regards,

Geary Schindel