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A weekend with Cave Rescue (outside) 'How to not cut your rope' training and Build a Tyrolean High Line.

Map:-

Wombeyan Caves NP.

Party:-

CR: Al, Kevin, Chris, Andrew, Dave, Rod. NPWS: Steve, Valda, Dave. BWRS: Dug.

Plan:-

BWRS members to tune up your PPE rigs with the help of the masters of ascending. Set re-belay/re-anchor on a big pitch with lots of challenges, and build a Tyrolean transfer across a Canyon. If blazing hot, retire to swimming hole for pre-dinner swim.

Two dots on the cliff face above the natural arch cave.  pic by dug.

Two dots on the cliff face above the big Natural Arch Cave.

I was glad I could make this weekend at Wombeyan Caves NP. It is always a pleasure to see masters at work, they make even the difficult look so easy, just one simple movement and it is all done. A beautiful location with magnificent weather and what's more, challenging cliffs to work with.

I drove in on Friday afternoon to set up camp in daylight. Just as well as it turned out. The road from Mittagong to the caves has about 30km of gravel, twisty, turny, and omg over the side. There are stages where the sign says "Danger Falling Rocks Be Prepared to Avoid Obstacles". At one of the places with scattered rock, I thought I was threading carefully to miss all, but not careful enough. Zunk a short while after that unmistakable flappy growl of a flat tire. I needed to drive on to where eventually, I found some road at, a wash-away, wide enough to work and let any other vehicle pass. Of course the ground very uneven, to the extent the jack didn't lift high enough. Well I was a mason in my youth, so obviously build a stone wall under the sill, let down the jack and build another stone wall to stand the jack on. All well soon completed (by the way don't try that unless you are a mason, you will injure yourself).

Cave Rescue must have a reputation and NPWS didn't want them causing havoc amongst the school holiday campers, so they had a little area for our use corralled between steep slopes thick scrub and mad wild kangaroos and locked gates to protect the others. The gate had a sign reserved for cave rescue and an open padlock. I managed to find the flat spot for the Barbie tent and set up for the weekend. Table (from the CRV back tray), chair, cup of tea, cooking dinner. Warm enough to do without a camp fire, just, after I put on extra clothes. No nuisance insects, which was an unexpected bonus (but we are under drought conditions again in these parts). Pleasant quiet spot just the last goodnight bird chorus and faint yells of folks playing the last game in the far distance camping ground. Steve and Valdae, local parks rangers dropped by to see all was well and leave the key for the gate, so we could lock up while away tomorrow.

Dodgy rock to avaoid.  Pic by dug
Some of the dodgy loose rock we need to avoid disloging.

Al, Kevin, Andrew arrived before it was fully dark and soon set themselves up in swags or screen tent, and had a final cuppa. Dave arrived a little later after I had turned in by then. Usually we like the symphony of the bush as we drift to sleep, tonight we had distant techno from the dance party in the camp ground, lucky I'm deaf. I can sleep through anything, so a good night very pleasant.

Gentle wake up in the morning, to the bird dawn chorus, which I always love. The local kangaroos are still around eating, it seems that they will stay here all day not too worried by us cavers and bushwalker. Nice to have a warm shower to start the day un-smelly, un-sticky and shaven.

Leisurely breakfast waiting for Chris, Rob, to arrive and while sorting gear for the day. Al showed photos of the cliff face, Parks would like us to survey for a possible future commercial abseil site. I guess about 30m with an unknown height free fall after that. The cliff face looks to have lots of loose rocks to avoid dislodging at the inconvenient time. Al has marked 3 possible routes, in consultation with Steve, each with the opportunity to rig offset anchors (to avoid rope on rock rubbing) to demonstrate the other purpose of the day, 'How to not cut your rope' training, demonstration and practice. Caves Rescue has quite a bit of rope that is around 15 years old but has hardly been used, which they are retiring soon, so it is regarded as expendable.

When the final two arrived we set out across the camping ground heading for the saddle above the natural arch cave, stopping at the rangers' cottage for a chat over a cuppa, on the way. Pleasant sunny day not too warm, in fact, just right. In position we study the real cliff and make an attack plan. Al picks two teams to set up two of the routs and they set off to make it happen. Main point of briefing if you think the loose rock is too dangerous or any other dangers 'come back up immediately'. A great place to visit, the saddle crosses a natural arch where Wombeyan Creek cuts through the mountain to continue on its way. This natural arch cavern is part of a self guided cave tour but the tourists fenced off so won't get under the goings on. The ridge top of the spur is rocky and vegetated by prickly. Lithgow boxthorn and other scrubby bush, but have a couple of eucalypts and Currajong trees. The chasm below is around 100m across with a steeply sloping ground covered in loose boulder falls and prickly looking scrub. I can't see the actual creek bed because of the slope of the cliffs.

The cliffs all around are certainly something, offering a lot of challenges to the abseil rigging. I have changed my estimate of the height to more like 40m with another 20m at least free fall below that. I ducked up to see the rigging and both teams are using rock as anchors one with a single 11mm rope sling, the other two 11mm rope slings load sharing. They are using double fisherman's' knot for joining the sling. A bowline on the bite as attaching loop to the access line (I like that innovation as it meant the knot will be easy to undo even after being heavily loaded and it can be used as part of a load sharing (rabbits ears connection), however I would be selective who I taught it to).

Working on the face. pic by dug
Just starting to rig the face, down about 10m.

Back to my vantage point over to the side so I can watch action on the face easily. The nearest team has come down an incline chute in the cliff face, to where a clever bit of rock climbing enables Chris to loop a sling anchor around a safe flake of rock, so he can redirect the access line by adding a mid line loop and carabiner. The access line now went down directly to a small steeply sloping V shaped ledge with a dead looking Currajong tree. The aim is to re-anchor off the tree if feasible, there is some discussion to and fro, from Chris to Al about the 'line' the access line will take and it seems there is a potential rub point down about 3 meters. The re-anchor was installed and Chris continued down dislodging a 'Big' rock on the way. Just as well it didn't get caught in the rope bag (I haven't considered this before, even after all these years, I'll think and talk with others, about making the connection to the rope bag a weak link). The rope runs out about level with the top of the free fall down the arch. Chris ascended back up and Al went down with another rope. The original rope was 50m so this tends to confirm the 40m cliff face.

Al set up a redirect from an appropriate branch on the tree to the existing access rope cleared the edge and then a long 11mm rope sling anchor around the tree so that it hung below the ledge. This meant that there were two ropes each carrying half the load touching the edge so movement was minimal negating the chance of the rope cutting. The new access rope was attached to the anchor so that the abseiler could complete the pitch.

I'll try for a word picture. The abseiler came down the first section of rope till it formed a V up to the second anchor, this meant getting onto ascenders to get over to the other rope, or stretching over and grabbing it if you were long enough. Being on ascenders was handy as you only need to swap the descender over and get off the ascenders, the alternative was to clip into the anchor for the swap over. It is important to add, that figure up there didn't look very big compared to the stretch of cliff below. The abseiler then continued down to the third anchor and swap ropes mid air. The figure on rope looked even smaller down there. Then the little dot continued on down the rope in free air of the arch to eventually become an ant on the ground. The good part only just started then jug back up the rope passing all the changes to the top 70m above. Must say some were red in the face but none were breathing heavily well done all good operators!

Rout 4, nice clean simple face.
The much cleaner face on th western facing cliff, beeing checked-out.

While this was going on the other team moved down there access line but in the end decided that the loose rocks made it too dangerous and pulled back. They then set up on the other route but this time some judicious gardening to eventually reach the ground safely. Everyone (bar me) had a go on the line and some ascended again, even Steve the park ranger.

Al changed the teams around to give some of the less experienced operators a chance to build systems. Two anchors were built on the side wall where we had been watching from and the operators went down the side but both decided that it was too dangerous to continue, which surprised because we had all thought that this was the cleanest wall.

After de-rigging all the pitches a different pitch on the other side wall was rigged and successfully descended and ascended. This proved to be the cleanest site of all but not as spectacular as the one that received all the attention above. To use that pitch commercially would require a fair bit of loose rock clean up and some hardware bolted to the face to ensure no rope rub on the rock faces. But as said above it was certainly spectacular and the abseil down the open arch in view of the public a real buzz for the paying clients.

A great successful day with most finished off with a swim in a big swimming hole about km away. I don't feel the heat (and hadn't done anything anyway) so went back to camp for a cuppa. A pleasant time sitting in the twilight preparing and eating dinner, chatting on the day's events. The kangaroos just continued to feed around us. A goanna was seen disappearing up a tree to where?

Saturday

A pleasant night, quieter too. Waken to a second sunny day and take our time preparing for the activities. The target is to build a simple highline across a canyon gorge (near the swimming hole). We will find a location when we get there. Steve has marked out a rout for walkers to get to the top of the canyon section so they can do the whole canyon some swims no abseils, unless you're desperate to do so, I am told. Al decided on a site right at the start between a cliff on one side and a smaller cliff with steep rocky bank above on the other, along pool between. A most inviting pool it is too, 50m long, deep in parts and coloured that delightful green that you get in limestone country or glacial run off streams, (they did say the water was 'refreshing' for their swim yesterday ).

Fly above  the Canyon by Tyrolean Highline.  pic by dug

Fly above the Canyon by Tyrolean Highline.

We had a 100m nylon 11mm rope for the load line and two 50m for tag/belay lines. There was some discussion about, whether the 50m was long enough. "Oh well, we can put in a pass the knot system if necessary". Chris and Andrew chose bank right where we could see a couple of large Currajong trees at the top of the cliff. Dave and Rod chose the bank left and I joined them to help in any way I could (it is their training day). After the team on bank right selected their anchor Rod and Dave selected anchors in the correct alignment and about the same height. A two 5m 11mm ropes were rigged as slings around a tree, for the anchor for the load line. A tree behind it was set as the belay/tag anchor, using another 5m 11mm rope sling. A slight redirection off the main anchor ensured that the belay/tag line, lined-up with the load line.

Chris abseiled down the grassy, very steep, rocky, bank to the cliff edge with the 50m rope. On the way down I saw a double brick size rock dislodge and miss his head by less than 9 inches. He was using a stop descender, so if it he had been struck it would have been serious, but if he had been using a descender without an auto-stop it could have been catastrophic. Chris threw the rope to Al and Kevin who were below. The managed to catch it without it going in the water. The 100m was connected and pulled up.

Rod tossed a 50m line from our side and the two lines, 50m and 100m, were pulled up so that they could be connected. The 100m load line to the anchor and tightened hand tight. A pulley was attached to load line and the two belays attached by carabiner. The other side tag/belay line was only just long enough.

The standard frictionless hitch on the anchor bank right, bank left used a 'stop descender' at the load release and first pulley for a 3:1 in line tensioning for the load line. The other pulley was attached to the line using a j type toothed ascender (justified in these circumstances, but I would have preferred an 8mm three wrap prusik). The line was initially tensioned to about 180kg (measured by load cell), by two person haul. This had dropped to 90kg (from memory), as the knots tightened and rope stretched, by the time the system was ready to take the load.

Al was first across with his weight this end the load on the anchor went up to about 200kg. A 'stop descender' on the tag/belay line allowed Al to roll down the load line in a controlled way. The tag/belay was simply pulled tight through a 'stop descender' on the other side to maintain tension. At the mid-point across the gorge, where the load line has formed a V the load measured was about 200kg (the maximum load I saw was 210kg). From here on the other side had to pull Al up while this side let out. Umm we have run out of belay/tag line, our 50m rope must be shorter than the other. Simple tie-off, undo the end and tie the unused end of the load line. Connect the descender, allow enough slack, connect the line to the anchor, release the tie-off and finish the belay.

This was a simple transport high line which is all that would be need in most cases in a cave. Many of the previous ones I have been involved with included special reeveing so that rescuers can be lowered and raised at any position across the gorge to rescue from inside the cavity, if you have the resources of equipment and personnel. An alternative used where limited people and equipment is for someone to abseil down from the pulley into the void and then use counterbalance techniques to raise a load. A major disadvantage of this technique is that you will usually have three persons supported by the high-line. A potentially high load on the anchors.

Lunch spot in the shady cave by the clear water.  Pic by dug.
Lunch in the Canyon, overlooking the crystal clear green water.

We transported Chris back this time the maximum load on anchor got up to 230kg, but when we checked it unloaded it was down to 40kg. Time for a re-tension this time we took it up to 120kg and by the time it was tied off it was back to 90kg and this was the un-loaded weight from then on. We transported all those who wished back and forth the maximum load we saw was 214kg, around 3 times the load about what Al expected. We could use the unused end of the load line because it was 100m meaning we had about 40m or so spare. Spare rope like this can be used for many things but in this particular load line instance I would prefer to keep it free so that in an emergency we could have lowered a load on the load line to the bottom of the gorge. Gorge approximately 20m deep, 40m extra rope, marginal but an option, considering the steep slope this side.

A pretty location for our day, a deeply gorged creek, with clear green tinged water, in long pools. Broken cliffs along its length, with steep slopes in-between, above and below. Limestone cliffs marble white or grey or black and even orange/yellow occasionally. Blue skies above with towering cumulous clouds scattered. The forecast said chance of a shower, my prediction was NOT MUCH chance of a shower, (I must admit this is why I brought a tent and we did get a spot a couple of times yesterday. It may have rained in the sky but it all evaporated in the dry, dry, air before it hit the ground.).

After all those interested in a ride had been across, the packing up was remarkably quick. After all only 3 ropes and 4 anchors, not much gear really to achieve so much. Then down to an overhang beside the water for lunch and a swim for those so inclined. Very pleasant indeed.

The stroll back involved a couple of steepish climbs which slowed me a little, fortunately not so high. Cave rescue sorted and checked their gear all good. It is certainly handy everyone settling for the same type of equipment, similar harnesses, 'stop descenders', toothed ascenders. This made setting up quick and repetitive. Anyone not expecting to go on-rope used their equipment to rig the systems. Toss our gear into vehicles and off.

I drove slowly along the windy, narrow road along besides Jocks Creek and along beside the Wollondilly River. Two reasons: - I didn't need another puncture, no spare; and it is very pretty drive. It took an hour to get to the bitumen vs. half an hour on the way in. I did pass a nearly new BMW 4wd abandoned at the side of the road, expensive looking damage to the front mudguard. Further on I passed two Nissan Patrol Uts in convoy. The rear vehicle had a very buckled front left wheel and damage to the steering struts, as well as general front under-body damage. Must have been hell to drive even at those slow speeds. Having traveled in India Mountains I can see why the boy chose to ride in the back, at least he would have a chance to jump out onto the road when it looked like going over the edge on its way down all that way to the river below .

A personal thank you to all who helped out, a great team made the whole show run well. Having people you can rely on made it look so easy but in reality that was because all knew what we were doing. copyright Dug Floyd, October 8, 2012.

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Watching intently. pic by dug

Watching intently.

Two in space one down.  pic by dug

Two suspended in space, one down.

Route 3,gardening. pic by dug

Route 3, gardening on the way down.

Al re-anchor V ledge.  pic by dug

Al re-anchor the V ledge.

Chris in V ledge first.  pic by dug

Chris first try to re-anchor V ledge.

Kevin in space.  pic by dug

Kevin in space.

Hi-line carriage.  pic by dug

Very simple hi-line transport carriage.

Load cell measure forces.  pic by dug

Load cell to measure anchor forces.

Final check.

Final check, Al ready to go.

Flying the high-line. pic by dug

He doesn't look very big out in the middle.