The Howie System

The last few years have seen the acceptance of SRT in this country. However, the poor caver has found himself confronted with a bewildering mass of information and ideas on several dozen completely different systems, some of which are patently suicidal orjust so laborious as to warrant the return of the rope ladder. It can be argued that the ULSA reviews got the first hints across on making prussiking less desperate, with their article on rope walkers and the subsequent details of their manufacture. Since then we have seen articles in "Descent" and in various journals all purporting to have found the best SRT methods. It can be validly argued that there is no best system since what might be great for a free hang might be ludicrous against a wall or in a waterfall.

So, if you've tried the APS and various chest harnesses or Jumars and Shunts but found yourself exasperated whilst hanging by your foot loop with your tongue hanging out, then read on.

The Pennine were paid a visit last year by a brilliant American caver called Wil (Thur y'go) Howie. Being a friend of Jim Eyre he didn't waste time showing off his prussiking gear, which didn't make much impression on anybody but Jim. Nobody else could work out the complex harness assembly. However, Jim spent many hours extolling the virtue of this 'fabulous' rope trick to the lesser mortals of the Pennine, until at last he convinced me that the system might help the SRT lobby win over a few cripples.

After seeing the system for myself I decided to try to make my own, (having access to an industrial sewing machine!), but instead of the somewhat painful Howie sit harness, I used the Whillans sit sling as my main item. The Howie sit sling comprised a single tape that passed in and out of a 5 inch diameter steel loop, around the crotch and buttocks. It had the advantage of a low takeoff point for the 'back belt' but also the great disadvantage of being impossible to cave in (between pitches). The system is basically ropewalkers on ankle and knee (floating cam is much less painful!) with a back belt instead of a chest harness. At first you may be forgiven for thinking that a chest harness of sorts is essential. Not necessarily: the back belt (or Howie belt) consists of a loop of tape with a crab on one end and a quick release 3-bar buckle on the other. One end of a length of tape is passed through this buckle and the other end holds a ropewalker or old-style Clogger (new style is no good for this position!) The short loop and crab is clipped into the main crab of the Whillans harness, then the tape is passed round the back so that the ascender rests pivoting on the shoulder. Thus, when the rope is clipped in, the body is held firmly against it (unlike even the tightest of chest harnesses!) This belt has the advantage of being turned into a safety belay on difficult and awkward take-offs by merely stepping out of the belt, without unclipping, and adjusting the tape through the buckle, so that the ascender ends up in front of the caver. This sounds quite complex but in action is safety and simplicity itself. The numbered illustrations show the sequence to be followed before racing up your given rope... Fig. 1: Affix the ankle ropewalker to the rope, a slight weight on the rope is advisable. Fig 2: now clip the clogger or ropewalker (on the Howie belt) to the rope in front of you. Fig 3: Attain a sitting position and fix the knee or floating cam ropewalker to the rope. Fig 4: as you straighten your legs, pass the Howie belt over your head so that it rests tightly on your shoulder; the belt can easily be adjusted to make a perfect fit. Yoiu will now find yourself in perfect balance, you will also find that your arms are not required, unless you wish to carry a camera or some caving tackle. If you choose to use a floating cam, the elastic must be connected to the ropewalker sheath, not the cam, and passed up to the should cam (as illustrated).

The lip of a pitch presents a problem to a chest harness, but not to the Howie belt. As the caver nears the top of the pitch he slips out of the shoulder position and adjusts the belt so that the ascender grips the rope only a few inches above the sit sling. With one hand on the ascender the caver then steps over the lip of the pitch, attaining a sitting position on the edge. The ascender is then slid into a belay position while the ropewalkers are removed. On big free hanging pitches this system allows incredible speeds to be attained (Howie himself ascended Golandrinas - 1,100 feet - in 35 minutes!!) Against a wall the Howie system leaves your hands free to push yourself away or rock climb in safety. It is the buckle that puts most people off the Howie belt because of its flimsy appearance (in practice it was found that the tape could not be made to accidentally slip through the buckle). The choice is yours: do you want to grunt and groan up the pitch or run effortlessly up it?

If you want more information on making the Howie belt or wish to purchase one ready made, contact Mr. B. Hryndyj.

B.B. Hryndyj

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