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Alpine Caving Techniques | Speleo Projects

Alpine Caving Techniques

A Complete Guide to Safe and Efficient Caving
By Georges Marbach & Bernard Tourte
Translated and adapted from the French by Melanie Alspaugh

The English edition of the classic French manual, a definitive source for vertical and horizontal caving techniques among cavers worldwide, is an updated translation of the Third French Edition (2000). While it emphasizes vertical caving and rigging practices, it also presents new and thorough discussions on many other aspects of cave exploration, such as:

  • equipment specifications and use
  • training, diet, and mental well-being
  • travelling efficiently through the cave, on and off rope
  • systematic prospection methods
  • emergency self-and small party-rescue.

Whether you cave on or off-rope, in the high mountains or in the equatorial jungle, as a speleo-tourist or a hardcore explorer, this book provides essential information on how to optimize your efficiency and ensure your ultimate safety in the challenging environment of vertical caves.

Publishing: Speleo Projects
ISBN: 978-3-908495-10-5
Language(s): English
Year of publication: 2002
Number of pages: 320
Contents: With many illustrations (b/w)
Format: 17 x 25 cm
Binding: Hardcover

Review by Chris Howes – Descent Magazine Aug/Sept 2002 (excerpt)
Open the volume and you will be struck by the wealth of detail and information, attractively presented using blue to highlight key points. The line drawings are exceptionally clear and, even though this edition is based on the 2000 publication, they include more recent equipment. The manual is divided into three main sections: equipment, physical and mental aspects, and underground. Each is subdivided, for example that for equipment covers such topics as basic principles (rules of conduct, manufacturing standards…), lighting, personal gear (harnesses, descenders, footloops…), and transporting kit. The second section is an excellent overview of how factors such as diet, fatigue, exhaustion, training, motivation and confidence affect our abilities; this is the best text on the topic that you are likely to find anywhere. The largest section is devoted to the underground and this, primarily, means ropework. This is where SRT is covered to minute detail, the advice being clean and precise; that might not suit every style of SRT (something acknowledged in the book), but it would be surprising if any experienced caver could not learn something from these pages, let alone a beginner. For its SRT coverage alone, Alpine Caving should be on your shelf.

Review by Nigel Dyson-Hudson for www.caves.com Book Reviews
Alpine Caving Techniques is a compendium of caving techniques. It is the standard introductory caving book in France. While Alpine Caving Techniques may not be the caving book to give to a beginner in the States before their first caving trip, this is the book they should be reading after a couple of trips. Maybe the book should be subtitled “Every thing you wanted to know about caving but were afraid to ask.” OR Maybe the book should be subtitled “Everything you wanted to know about caving but didn’t know where to begin.” It is a must have book for any caver who wants to know even a bit about a lot of techniques that are mentioned but never described in detail among US cavers. Keep in mind that the title is Alpine Caving Techniques, so specific recommendations and techniques are focused on European and Alpine caving. The Suiting Up section focuses on one-piece fleece undersuits (not to be confused with their heavier cousin used for winter mountaineering) and rubber knee high boots, “Wellingtons.” They do mention both Nylon and PVC coveralls and suggest that you use an inner tube to make several large rubber bands for holding your coverall legs closed over your boots. (Every time I do a muddy dig and don’t wear my PVC coveralls, I vow never again while fighting pounds of extra mud weight). I did mention to Ms. Alspaugh that future translations should describe cave temperatures since this type of clothing is only suitable for cold Northeast and Alpine caves. The Lighting section focuses on using carbide “ceiling burners” because of the need for lots of light and some warmth from the flame. The HDS LED light is briefly mentioned. The personal gear section is about the Frog system and using a Stop as a descender with a brief mention of using a rack. It is an excellent source of information on properly configuring a Frog system including using a Pantin foot ascender. The Material for Rigging the Cave section covers everything from ropes to bolts and even rubber rafts for floating through wet caves. The section on pg. 56 about fall factors should be read by everyone since not many people seem to understand them and why most of us are using static rope in the wrong places. There is a comprehensive discussion of bolting including glued in bolts. As well as pitons, chocks, sky hooks and even ice screws including vital information that answered a lot of questions that I had about their use in a caving environment. There is even information that a cordless drill will drill about 1.8 m of 10mm hole on a single charge as well as using a meter or so of copper tube to take the exhaust gas away from a 2-cycle drill for the gases to be reburned by a flame source. In addition to the dangers of using a 2 cycle drill in a space with limited air flow. The Transporting Gear and Supplies section covers everything from small packs for single day trips to larger packs able to fit several days gear, to drum packs, which are used on a rafting trip for carrying lots of gear to keep it dry. There is even a food and cooking section, which is not something that US cavers normally do in cave. Again, the design of the packs, with a round bottom, is for their style of caving. And from personal experience, a round bottom pack, Meander or Petzl, is much less likely to hang up in fissures and keyholes than the typical US rectangular pack. The Moving Through the Cave section covers both horizontal and vertical. Again, it is an excellent source of information on properly working with a Frog system including using a Pantin foot ascender. The US ascending systems are also mentioned as well as information on using cable ladders. The Rigging the Cave section is over 70 pages and covers everything from basic vertical to traverse lines to rebelays. The illustrations show a number of girth hitches while earlier in the book there is the admonishment to “never use a girth hitch.” There is a discussion of light rigging, think of it as Alpine Climbing underground, which can reduce the weight of equipment to rig 150m from 10.5 kg to 6 kg. (kg x 2.2 = lb) There is also information on climbing underground as well as river caves and staying out of waterfalls and water spray. The coverage of digging is brief but gives an overview of all the major techniques including blasting and micro blasting. Cave diving is even mention but with a leave-it-to-the-experts note. Given everything covered in this section I am surprised that free divable sumps were not mentioned. There have been a number of comments on some caver e-mail lists about the extensive use of rebelays. There is a significant amount of information in the book that addresses this topic:
1. It is a question of finesse vs. brute force. Maybe straight down the pit is the fastest way but you need a heavier rope and to pad multiple wear points as well as having multiple failure points and only having one or two people on rope. With rebelays, a person can be on each section and a stronger person, or someone who needs to get out quicker, can pass at a rebelay.
2. On multi day trips especially in colder caves staying as dry as possible is critical. The water is not your friend, so staying out of waterfalls with rebelays can make the trip safer and easier. The Emergencies and Rescue section starts with how to improvise various pieces of gear then covers topics including small party self rescue, “don’t panic and don’t endanger yourself”, then dry and wet horizontal rescue. There is an extensive section on pick-off methods. Again, they use just the Frog system and the rescuer and patient are lowered together. In On Rope and the NCRC method, the patient is lowered separately. Pick-off techniques where the rope is cut are even included – this seems to be taught more in the Canyoning area where one must get a patient on rope out of the water quickly. Even options for dealing with flooding situations are included. The book begins to wrap up with some pages on surveying and documenting the rigging, like climbers document the pitches of a climb, and finally concludes with a conservation note.
As mentioned previously, it is a must-have book for any caver who wants to know a bit about a lot of techniques used in caving.

Review by Jay P. Kennedy, MD <caver_doc@hotmail.com>, 16 August 2002, published in NSS News, October 2002
Marbach’s original treatise on single rope techniques, Techniques de la Speleologie Alpine, was last revised in 1981 prior to the publication of the much-updated third edition in 2000. Only now has this seminal work on caving “the French way” become available in English. As European rebelay-style rigging and the “Frog” system of climbing rope gain popularity in North America, this work replaces Alan Warild’s Vertical (published in second edition in 1990, recently upgraded on a CD edition) as the definitive work on European-style vertical caving. Many of Europe’s premier caving areas are located in mountainous “alpine” environments and may explain the title, but I find the techniques applicable to caving in general and not just the cold, wet, vertical caves found in our Rocky Mountains and the high plateaus of Montana (where I have been doing most of my caving of late). Melanie Alspaugh has done a superb job in translating the technical French of the original edition. My collegiate French allowed me to understand the captions, tables and most of the simpler concepts presented in the 1981 edition but the slang and technical terminology were problematic. That is not the case with this English translation; it presents complicated procedures (such as pick-offs) clearly. Melanie’s translator’s note in the foreword explains her aim to make this book “…as relevant and complete as possible for all English readers…” although she favors American terms (specifically, Texan, by her admission!). The book is divided into four sections: Equipment, Physical and Mental Aspects, Underground and Conclusion. Equipment aids the novice caver in selecting proper clothing, cave packs, lighting and elements of the single rope technique system, as well as items necessary to rig the cave such as ropes and anchor hardware. The section dealing with physical and mental aspects covers only eight pages, something I would like to see expanded in future editions. Caving movement, both so-called horizontal techniques as well as technical rigging and dealing with common emergencies constitute the majority of the book. Early in the book the safety standard of the European Community is explained, denoted by the “CE” mark (Conformite aux Exigences) if a product meets standards of regulation within its category. Such a mark is a guarantee of at least a minimum of safety. Although no such “community” standard exists in North America, it is comforting to know such tightly controlled testing of European-manufactured gear does occur.
As to content, I found the book very informative about items of equipment that normally are not covered well in recent caving books dealing with technique, especially vertical caving. This is especially true regarding caving oversuits and undersuits, which are gaining in popularity among American cavers. The authors include key points, tips and maintenance suggestions in the text. American cavers will likely never see a cagoule or pontonniere (specialist garments similar to a rain jacket and waders, respectively)but it is nice to know such evolved gear exists. Remote generator carbide lamps are thoroughly covered; I gleaned several interesting suggestions from this chapter that made my Petzl Ariane run more smoothly. Some interesting concepts are presented, such as the use of a foot ascender (best exemplified by the Petzl Pantin)to better enable a “vertical orientation” of the body while climbing. The insistence on using 8mm self-drive bolts as the primary anchors for vertical rigging will no doubt be controversial. These anchors are less likely to meet universal acceptance in the United States, where stainless steel studs and hammer drills are gaining in use. Several methods for doing a pickoff are presented but not the Sawatsky technique favored by many of my caving colleagues from Canada and Montana. Some cavers will disagree with the authors’ views–that’s fine. Marbach and Tourte are outlining the concepts widely used in Europe, especially as taught at the EFS (French Speleology School). Marbach himself sums it up beautifully: “This edition is of course only a snapshot of French techniques for exploring vertical caves in the year 2000.” It is up to the individual reader to decide what he finds useful and chooses to add to his personal arsenal of caving tricks. Some of the information is merely interesting. I found the book so mesmerizing that I finished it in a single long night of reading. The next day I made several minor changes to my own Frog rig, ordered a second copy of Alpine Caving Techniques (to loan to friends) and cleaned my Ariane acetylene generator. If you are interested in a single source textbook on European caving technique, buy this one. You will not be disappointed.

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