There aren’t that many caves in Buchan that you can walk into and out of, with no gear needed. Many of the caves, especially on the Potholes Reserve, have vertical sections that cannot be ‘free climbed’ (IE Climbed with no aid). A vertical section of cave is called a pitch. Once you’ve done the half a dozen or so caves that don’t have any pitches, you will have to graduate to the next level up, and use a ladder to ascend and descend the pitch in the cave.
Ladders – it’s all about technique
In Buchan specifically there are another half a dozen or so frequently used caves that have an ‘entrance pitch’. IE The start of the cave is straight down and cannot be free climbed. The caves I’m referring to include Honeycomb, Oolite, Baby Berger and Slocombe’s which are amongst some of the most frequently explored caves in the area. Once you are down the ladder to the bottom of the pitch the cave can then be explored horizontally. Some of these caves have further pitches further in, and some don’t.
Caving ladders are quite unique. They are made of metal and are flexible, so they can be coiled up when not in use to fit in a pack and transported. The advantage of being metallic is that they are tough and unlike rope which can be worn away or even severed, they are bomb proof in any situation.
Sounds good? There is a hitch. Because they are not solid, it means they have the tendency to flail around if your technique is not good. The usual outcome is that the ladder swings out below you and you end up hanging on with just your arms. In that situation your arms will tire very quickly and you risk losing your grip.
To stop this happening the technique is to wrap your legs around the ladder, so your heals go into the ladder from the other side. This equalises your centre of gravity and means you can use the strength in your legs to climb up or down. More often than not, as long as you’re not the final caver ascending, you can get people to hold the bottom of the ladder to stop it from flailing, which helps tremendously, but this can’t be guaranteed so you need to learn good laddering technique. Ladders can also be tough when they are against the rock, because it is then hard to get your fingers and feet behind the rungs.
Your first laddering should be a practice in the outdoors – If in Buchan, Wilson’s Cliff is an ideal place.
Ladders in the old days (IE before the 70s) were used for all pitches, until single rope technique was developed. But they are still used today on pitches of less than about 10 metres. This is because for such a small pitch it is over-kill to rig ropes and carry or wear vertical caving equipment.
All ladder climbs should be belayed. This means you will wear a harness connected to a rope at the top of the pitch, let out (belayed) by another caver in case you slip and fall, get hit by a falling rock and lose consciousness, get too tired to keep holding on (which is almost always due to poor technique). If a harness is not available, then one can be made using tape. Or as a worst case just tie a bowline knot around your body under your arms. A fall with just a rope around you will hurt (and potentially crack ribs) but it will stop you from falling.
The caver at the top of the pitch will use a ‘belay device’ to catch your fall if you come off the ladder. Such devices include stitch plates, racks, or even just a knot called a munter hitch tied around a carabiner (although this is not ideal as it twists the rope), but is a perfectly good makeshift belay if nothing else is available.
Never, ever, do a ladder pitch without a belay on. Even if it is just a loop of rope around your waste!
On a short ladder of only perhaps 5 metres, often a belay is not used, but this is not good practice. Even a short fall of 5 metres can break bones or even kill you if you fall onto a sharp rock. So even on short ladder pitches a belay should always be used.
The trip leader would normally operate the belay, and he or she should have a way to self-belay when they descend the ladder after everyone else, or ascend the ladder before everyone else. Again, more often than not the leader has good technique and will just do the ladder with no belay, and that is their choice.