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So you think you are safe on a Lifeline?

Some interesting experiments with a technique that perhaps we take too much for granted!

by Ian Wilton-Jones

My brother Graham and myself recently conducted some tests with various types of waist harness - tying them either tightly or loosely round different parts of the torso.  The results, while not comprehensive, were rather surprising and should affect the way many people apply lifelines to themselves - as well as prodding more people into making further tests.

We started these tests after my wealthy brother had shown off his Whillans Harness, and I had shown him how you could finish up hanging upside-down in it.  I then tied a 1" nylon waist loop around me to see how my body would hang in it.  Instead of determining the position, I found myself struggling for breath and in considerable pain, and we both concluded that - had I fallen a few feet the shock of breath being pushed out plus the severe pain might well have precluded any efforts at regaining hand and footholds.  To pretend to go caving in my dining room rather than work on the car in the pouring rain seemed a good idea.

We used three different waist loops.  1. A nylon tied loop, 2. A length of rope tied in a bowline and 3. A rather comfy (too good for caving) Karrimor waist belt of 2" padded nylon with a rope looped through it.  We are both very slightly built (skinny) and were both wearing a couple of pullovers round the areas we were tying the loops round.  The guinea pig lay between two chairs and was lifted off the ground by the other person standing astride him on the chairs.

Graham's old caving book explained that a loose loop should be tied round the upper torso (not the neck!) so we tried this first with a 1" nylon loop.  On hanging in it, it was found that it was very painful on the skin under the armpits; dug deeply into the ribs; less deeply into the shoulder blades, and caused considerable difficulty in breathing in and out. "Let's tie it tightly" we then thought.  This was even worse, with the pain getting worse all round, especially round the front of the body.  Breathing was even more difficult.

We now decided to try the more often used waist position, tying it quite tightly, the way one straps in a novice and, incidentally, the way I have always tied mine.  Hanging in agony, we concluded that this wasn't a good position - there was pain all round, especially in the kidneys, sides and diaphragm and the body's fight against that pain led to the diaphragm being almost un-useable for breathing.

We then tied it loosely around the waist (with about 7 inches of loose rope) and found the pain was now much less severe, and the much decreased strain on the diaphragm made it possible to breathe without too much discomfort.  This position was the only one which was, in our opinion, comfortable enough for us to test any shock loading.  Even so, we did not try proper shock leading, but one of us snatch pulled the other into the air, from slack, as quickly as possible.  This was found to be within the limits of pain, and we would have been able to regain a ladder in this case.  We didn't feel very enthusiastic about trying shock loading on the other three positions!

We then tried the four positions again, using a waist rope.  In both of the tight cases it was so painful that I refused to be lifted right off the ground.  The loose waist position was only just bearable for me, where as Graham found it a bit more comfortable - possibly due to his thicker pullovers.

With the Karrimor, the pain was much less in all cases, being rather comfortable in the loose waist position.  Once again, this was the only position we dared try shock loading.

Needless to say, we conclude that a loose waist harness should be fitted round the waist with about 7" of slack rope in the loop.  This figure is only approximate, but it must be borne in mind that the tighter it is, the more it hurts.  There is no worry for people of my shape, because my chest can't slip though the extra size (it may be no coincidence that my chest just happens to be 7" larger in circumference than my waist.)

The reason why the tight waist harness is so painful is because it rides up and, being tight, it digs into the diaphragm.  If the ride up could be prevented by a form of sit harness (a loop for each thigh, attached to the sides of the front of the harness) or a Whillans Harness if you want to spend good money damaging good equipment during general caving.  A twelve to thirteen foot length of tape can be knotted onto a suitable sit harness for lifelining and therefore you can increase your safety for under £1.

You may say that these tests are a waste of time because, in your experience, when you slip you only partly use the lifeline to regain your grip, so the real pain never comes.  But suppose the bolt falls out? or a water fall knocks you off the ladder?  Can you cope with the panic due to pain and the inability to breathe AS WELL AS your suspended troubles?  Don't pretend to be so hard try it, and let's see how hard you really are!  I think you'll find it quite a bit more painful than you realise.

Lastly, I must emphasise that we both have no surplus fat to cushion ourselves, and we would be interested to see what difference body size makes to the discomfort.

Editor's Note:     I haven't had the time to look up the article I have in mind, but it struck me that perhaps Tim Reynolds's prussicking harness, which was made of a single loop of rope (accurately made to measure) and fastened, if I remember rightly, with a single 'crab' might be worth trying here, and would not be too costly to make up.  I have been right off a ladder once (Hunters Hole) with the late Tan Dear lifelining with a loose loop round the upper chest and didn't find the pain all that great - but then I was ruddy fat in those days!