NPC Bulletin 1975, pp 14-19


The entrance drop of Proventina was rigged on July 14 with two single long lines of Bluewater II. The Bluewater rope is ½" in diameter, with a thick, braided Perlon-type sheath. Stretch on this rope is very slight and a high resistance to abrasion makes it ideal for prusiking. We rappel on a single strand of Bluewater rope, using a 2" wide seat sling and an American descending rack with 6 brake bars. No belays are used for the first man down; after he is down, however, he will hold onto the end of the rappel line and give each following man a "bottom belay" while he descends. An out-of-control descent can be stopped by the belayer by simply pulling downward with all his might, the increase in tension on the rappeller's rack will jam the bars, causing him to stop. The "victim" can then be lowered by controlling the tension from the bottom of the rappel line.

Our anchor points for each 600' rope were two self-cutting rock bolts, each of which is 1¼" long and ½" in diameter. These are screwed into a holder and then beaten mightily with a piton hammer. Once the bolt's teeth have cut the hole (which takes approximately 10-15 minutes), thc bolt and holder are removed, and a small red wedge placed in the centre of the bolt's drilling teeth. You return the bolt and wedge to the hole, pound on the holder until the bolt is set, and remove the holder. Bolt on a hanger, and you've an anchor that can hold well over half a ton.

The four people involved in the descent all had full wetsuits with wetsuit gloves, Wonder electric headlamps, and Premier carbide caplamps. Will and I took crampons, iceaxes, and small deadmen down on the rigging trip of the 14th, as we fully expected a 70 degree snowslope on the Spider.

Will rappelled in first with his rack and seatsling; he reached the Spider within 15 minutes. Even though he was 520' below us, we could hear his shout, The three men on top then lowered a duffle bag containing a 900' rope for the second 700' drop, and two huge deadmen, to the Spider. The large deadmen were 25" by 20" by ¼" of hardened aluminium, made by us "just in case" the rock at the Spider was too rotten to hold bolts, as we then would have used them for anchors in the snow for the next drop.

The bag reached the Spider and was secured by Will. I then rappelled in with a rack and reached the Spider in about 10 minutes. Only 70' of the 520' entrance pitch was free, where an aven intersected the main shaft. The shaft, however, was quite vertical, a good 80' by 100' in cross section, and contained no ledges except for a staircase of beds within 20' of the top. I landed on the Spider to find Will Howie in a 4' deep, 7' long and 3½' high niche on one side of the Spider.

After the initial shock of 520' daylight pitch wore off, we became relatively content with our protected position, and dropped 50' down the spider to the breakover where the second pitch began. The Spider tapered like a great funnel from 60' by 100', to a gap at its lower end only 8' wide. There, the snow tapered to nothing about 2' above the gap, leaving a solid rock lip into the 700' pit. There was no overhanging snow or ice; clearing the lip was accomplished with three kicks of a boot.

I returned up the 45 degree snowslope and helped Will set the rigging bolts in the alcove for the 900' rope. The first two bolts cracked the rock, but the next two looked decent, and made the appropriate "tinging" sounds when tapped with a hammer. All four bolts were tied together with various slings, tho 300' rope unpacked and lowered down the Spider and we were set to go, after 3 hours in Provetina. By this time we were both quite cold from sitting in the cramped alcove's snow and 34 degree F meltwater while driving the bolts.

Once the first man rappelled down to the bottom of the Spider, it became evident that times had changed. A waterfall had been born somewhere in the second pitch, and its faint roar could be heard in the blackness below the lip. I padded the rope at the breakover, and spent some time talking to Will about this new development We weren't really into doing a 700' pitch in a waterfall but at the same tire we weren't quite psyched out enough to scrap it for the day. It was rationalised that the first man down could change over on the rope if things got bad, and climb back out to the spider - and safety. After ten minutes of discussion, I went down.

Within 50' I was in a small shower of 34 degree F meltwater from the Spider. I could look up and see the narrow 8' wide gap that marked the bottom of the 60' by 100' Spider. Imagining a 70 degree snowslope above this, with a snow and ice overhang at the lip, I began to understand the problems facing the previous British trips. Anything that hit the Spider could easily have been funnelled right onto a climber in the second pit.

After more rapelling, the walls to the right and left, and behind me gradually drew away, leaving me on a perfectly vertical wall with only darkness behind me. In no place was the rope more than 3' from the wall. The shower increased to the point that I was soaked. With water cooling on the rack now, I increased the rate of rappel. Within 10 minutes of leaving the Spider I saw a white blur below me. Three minutes later I was on the bottom of Provetina, and derigged from the rope.

The centre of the 130' by 220' pit floor was covered with up to 8' of snow, except for where the running water on the walls had wasted the snow, leaving a 5-10' wide rock corridor running along the walls and around the circular snow field in the centre of the floor, I began to explore, picking up a Jumar near the landing area. Within three minutes, however, I was seized with violent shivering. The two hours we had spent on the Spider bolting, and the soaking I had on the 700' drop, were enough to exhaust me. I returned to the rope quickly, rigged in, put on wetsuit gloves, and started for a dim shaft of light 700' above me.

The climbing rig I use is best suited for long, vertical pitches. I have a single Gibbs ascender which is attached tightly to my left foot, with a small 1" diameter connecting loop that allows the ascender to rotate freely when I kick to set the cam. The second ascender attaches to my right foot with a long 7 mm perlon rope sling (single strand). Both footloops for the Gibbs and Jumar slings are tightly fitting 1" tubular webbing sewn loops, and each have a small piece of attached ½" webbing which are used to tie in both feet by knotting the ends around your ankles, This ankle-tying routine will prevent one's feet from slipping out of the footloops if you're upended.

The main rope and the Jumar's long rope sling are threaded through a chest sling with two attached pulleys. This chest sling is adjustable, made of 2" webbing for comfort, and fits very tightly. A quick release on the pulleys allows the rope to be inserted easily anywhere along a line; any pulley design must allow for quick and easy clip-on of the main rope and the long Jumar sling. The pulleys arc also located within 1½" of the sling web when loaded. With a tight-fittiig chest sling and pulleys close to the chest, one is kept upright and quite close to the rope when climbing. This frees the hands for operating the ascenders rather than holding the body close to the rope. One hand is used on the Jumar, which is pushed up while one stands on the Gibbs foot ascender. When you've stood up on the Gibbs and pushed your Jumar up about 1½', you stand in the Jumar sling and step up, until you reach your height with your right leg fully extended. At the same time, your left leg with the Gibbs is coming up, and you take a 1½' bite as if climbing a stair, kicking out slightly to set the Gibbs cam (which doesn't have a spring). As you stand up on the Gibbs, you must move your Jumar up as you rise on your left foot. Failure to do this will have you rising on your left foot, your chest pulley coming up the rope, but the Jumar is still on the rope and isn't moving, right? That Jumar will be hit by the pulley box, and then you'll have to struggle with the Jumar. Always move the Jumir up as you stand on your left foot, and life will not be complicated.

Also, the proper length for the right foot Jumar sling is such that when rigged in and standing at full height on the right foot, the Jumar rests exactly on top of your chest pulley box. No more than an inch or two of sling should extend above the box. The more sling extends above the box, the higher you must reach.

This system has several advantages over the commonly used Gibbs and Jumar foot sling/Jumar to seat sling methods. The Gibbs keeps one against the rope such that you don't tire out your arms when standing up, yet the knee Gibbs in difficult to position, and does a job on your knee joint. Also, as knee Gibbs positioning is difficult to achieve, you often wind up taking very small steps. We just replace the knee Gibbs with a Jumar, and run the Jumar sling through another chest pulley.

The Jumar to seat sling/Jumar to foot loop method is a real killer. One can rest at any time, simply by sitting down, but one must also hold one's self into the rope every time one stands up. Very tiring on the arms and very slow.

Resting with the system I described (one Jumar/one foot Gibbs) or the foot Gibbs/knee Gibbs system, you will need a seat sling for resting. One just can't rest comfortably with a chest sling, so on long hauls (greater than 300') I have a seat sling with attached Jumar. When you get bushed, just clip in the Jumar and have a look at the view. Either chest sling method is remarkably like walking up a set of stairs; very little arm strain is involved. The hooker is that the chest sling must be high on your chest, very tight (and that hurts after a bit), and the pulleys must not be 3" or 4" out from your chest. The closer you are to the rope, the easier your climb will be.

With my Gibbs (on the ankle) and Jumar (with long sling extending through the pulley box on my chest), and a seat sling for resting (with a 2nd Jumar), I climbed out of the 700' pit in the light meltwater shower within 30 minutes, The seat sling was quite comfortable for resting; the view was not.

Will and I, after some screwing around, climbed bsside each other on the entrance pitch. With one man to a 600' line, we reached the entrance within 6½ hours of our first rappel to the Spider.

Will's system, I might add, is identical to mine except that he does not use a left foot Gibbs ascender. Instead, he had a short sling attached to a jumar, which, when rigged, extends so that the Jumar bottom is just above the left kneecap. Unlike my Gibbs, which rides up when I raise my foot, Will must pull up his Jumar by hand when he raises his left foot.

On the 15th of July Bob Osbourne and JJ Jones dropped into Provetina. They also had wetsuits, electric headlamps, and assorted goodies, although their trip to the bottom took about an hour, for the two of them. The seven hour survey trip produced only one lead at the pit bottom - a small, rockfilled pit into which a stream disappeared. Some of the gear they noticed on the bottom included a winch drum, many hundreds of feet of commel wire, a British Army field radio, and someone's tripod and flash attachment. Their climb out was without incident.

That, Jim, is a detailed account of the nuts, bolts, and psych of the trip. If you do try rappelling and prusiking techniques, all of the gear that I have mentioned (racks, bars, 2" wide webbing, Gibbs, Jumars, and chest boxes and slings) can be obtained from the Bluewater Company in the States.

Bluewater (11 mm) runs $0.15/ft., racks with bars (6), run $10.00 to $12.00, Gibbs run $7.25, pulley boxes are $7.50, and chest slings with buckles $2.25

Until you get your slings right, and learn the rhythm, prusiking will be quite a chore. With a few weekends of practice one can do a changeover from rappel to prusik on a free hanging rope, and climb 250' in 15 minutes if you go to the Gibbs or Gibbs/Jumar system. The seat sling system is easier to learn, but no speed is possible, and it's quite tiring, as you probably know.

P.S. If you are rappelling with a large load, it is best to clip a two or three foot sling onto the load, and then clip the sling into your seat sling carabiner (which is a locking carabiner). One rappels with the load hanging below you, at calf level. I once tried to do a 240' pit with too great a load in my pack, and wound up upside down while on rappel! As long as your 2" wide sewn web seat sling fits tightly, one won't slip out, but it certainly scared the hell right out of me! Since then, I've been clipping big loads (more than 300-400' of Bluewater) into my seat sling, and it works.

Good caving,

Webeditor's note: from a European context, a quarter century later, the above description sounds very strange. But short-step prusik methods were "state of the art" in the USA, where pitches were usually rigged as single drops with no rebelays or deviations, such as are common in the UK. The article is reproduced on the website for historical interest, and should not be construed as a recommendation to adopt ropewalking systems for European style rigging !

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> Provetina was discovered by CUCC on expedition in 1962 - the write up of ths trip is reproduced on the CUCC website.