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We have three letters of some importance this month.

The first letter is the one which has already been mentioned in the editorial from Graham Wilton-Jones.

Dear Alfie,

On Saturday, February 7th, a special meeting of all member clubs of C.N.C.C. was held at Ingleton. The meeting was advertised with the sensationalist headline POTHOLING BANNED ON NORTHERN FELLS.  It was held because several events have occurred recently which could have serious consequences upon caving in Yorkshire. Specifically, they are:-

a.                  The landowner of LECK FELL is making things difficult for cavers.

b.                  There have been two rescues from BIRKS FELL CAVE.  Both parties were 'pirating' access and both were in the close season.

c.                  There has been a great deal of pirating on PENYGHENT.  The landowner has recently died, and therefore it is at present very difficult to negotiate a new access agreement.

Thirty three clubs were represented at the meeting.  This was utter chaos.  Club representatives were asked if their committees could guarantee or prevent their member from pirating access agreement.  Only nineteen said that they could.  Of the fourteen who said that they could no, or would not, one representative - a diver from Preston C.C. - admitted to being the ‘phantom diver’ who had pirated several dives in the north, and assured the meeting that he would continue his present practice of disregarding all access agreements. Another representative, also a member of C.R.O., backed up his view.  Uproar naturally ensued.  After three hours, the meeting was ended, nothing having been achieved.

In the view of some of us Southerners, we face a number of possibilities:-

a.                  Cavers will continue to pirate access on an increasing scale until landowners, fed up with all this, will begin to block entrances almost irretrievably.  This has been done before.

b.                  Landowners will find it necessary to gate caves - a difficult and expensive process, almost impossible in many cases - and certain cavers have assured the C.N.C.C. that they will use bang to destroy such gates.  This would lead to ALL cavers bang licences being withdrawn - a simple matter for the authorities concerned.

c.                  Landowners will prosecute trespassers and the fells.

d.                  Landowners will finally realize that money is to be made out of cavers.

This last is the most likely, for certain cavers are NOT prepared to sit around waiting for committees to sort out impossible access agreements.  They are already impossible in that cavers are not able to ensure that all other cavers will comply with the access regulations.  Cavers basically want to cave and, whether they think so or not, they are prepared to pay to do so.

For myself, it costs me at least £5 travelling for a Mendip weekend; £8 for South Wales and at least £10 for Yorkshire.  Other cavers must be in a similar position over travelling costs.  My caving gear is worth about £115 plus a further £125 for rope. These amounts are not unusual.  At these prices, I see no reason against paying, say, £1 per head for a caving trip in Yorkshire.

What will happen if landlords realise that caves are a source of income?  Someone only has to offer money on one occasion, and the avalanche has started - soon to spread throughout the fells.  I, for one, would consider myself far better off under these circumstances as a caver.  No longer the bother of booking up weeks or months in advance:  We’re almost back to the days when a friendly word at a farmhouse door is all that is required - plus a few of those green things and spontaneous caving is back, just as it still exists on Mendip.

Our club is affiliated to C.N.C.C. and although we have no voting rights, we are clearly deeply involved in such matters as this.  Other people within the club must have their own views.  Let’s hear them.

Graham

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The next letter is from Tim Large, the Caving Secretary, who has comments to make about the N.C.A. Equipment Committee.  He writes as follows:-

Dear Alfie,

I would like to add my comments to those already published in recent B.B.’s concerning the N.C.A. Equipment committee.

Like Dave, I too am concerned about the ideas of such a committee for much the same reasons, but would now like to look at the question from a caver’s point of view.

On the whole, the available equipment (be it ropes, krabs, descendeurs etc.) is of a very good standard. The manufacturers are well aware of the reliance placed on their products and have long experience in dealing with climbing and caving requirements.  In this respect, the committee has its purpose, as I see it, in passing on cavers needs to the manufacturers and to publicise any information regarding faulty items that do get on to the retail market.

It seems to me that the N. C.A. equipment committee was primarily instigated with the advent of S.R.T. and its ever increasing popularity.  O.K.  So, like everything else, there are teething problems with these new techniques (as there were with electron ladders initially) but these were overcome.

Now I know you are going to say "Yes, but there has been this accident or that, so we must needs improve our tackle."  Well, go ahead!  Caving is a pastime which attracts independent minds and inventive skills – so modify your equipment yourself!

The main fault, and I would suggest reason, for recent accidents (particularly with regard to S.R.T.) are the bad techniques employed when using tackle.  Ropes are not meant to be rubbed against sharp limestone with a hundred and fifty pounds swinging on the end.  They should be belayed in such a position that they hang free or should be protected in some way if this is not possible.  A classic example of this problem is the present belaying points in Rhino Rift.  It would not surprise me to hear of a rope breaking down there, through what can only amount to misuse.  In Rhino's case it may prove difficult to provide free-hanging belay points, but not impossible for those who value their life!

Think back, over past caving trips, to all those small incidents that could have proved disastrous - screw gate not done up, hence the krab opens up when passed against the rock. Knots not tied correctly. Rawlbolts not fitted correctly. Whistle signals not known by all members of the party, hence lifelines go slack and someone peels.  The list could go on.  It all points to incompetence or misuse in the handling of tackle and NOT to actual tackle failures.  It may take more time to do things properly, but surely this is half the pleasure to be able to overcome an obstacle as safely as possible.  I know there are those amongst us who like to gallop around caves at high speed - which is very enjoyable providing that you are competent to do so, both with regard to your own safety and the preservation of the cave.

S.R.T. has become the 'in' thing because, so many would have us believe, it saves time and means less tackle to carry - assuming you live to carry it out!  If done safely, within the limitations of the ropes available, S.R.T. can still be a useful method in certain circumstances.  Of course, it would be very nice to have a hard wearing, high tensile strength, low stretch, anti-spin rope for S. R. T. and, given time, I am sure the manufacturers could produce something - but at a price!  I suggest that the price would be so high as to make it commercially impracticable to develop.  Whereas, by the use of currently available ropes and by treating them respectfully with good rope techniques and by discarding such ropes at regular intervals, the current ropes would prove satisfactory, as I have no doubt many people have found out.

So, once more I say that the value of an Equipment Committee is very limited and, certainly as far as I am concerned, would NOT include providing testing facilities for any equipment. This committee, and the N.C.A. as a whole, do what cavers want, and would do well to remember that those elected to the various committees are merely acting as the cavers' mouthpiece - to be given teeth only when we, the active cavers, desire it.  Long live the true spirit of independent caving.

Yours very sincerely,
Tim Large.

Editor's Note:     I would go even further, and suggest that if the intention is merely to inform manufacturers of the needs of cavers, or to inform cavers of the products of manufacturers, it hardly needs a committee, since the job can easily be handled by one man.  On the other hand, the publicising of faulty products is something which has to be approached very warily indeed, since it has to be proved that the product was being used at all times within the limitations laid down by the manufacturer and was not subject to any form of abuse.  The remainder of Tim's letter shows how difficult this might be to prove.

Another danger implied by Tim is that some form of 'official' approval by an N.C.A. committee might give the impression that there was no need for the normal care of equipment once it had been approved.  One final point - the whistle code Tim mentions is S.U.D. in case any caver feels too proud to ask.  One blast for STOP, two for UP and three for DOWN.

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Now, a member's views on another controversial subject that of school caving and affiliation of such bodies to caving clubs.

Dear Alfie,

Re school caving groups becoming affiliated to the B.E.C.  Here are one or two thoughts I would like to raise:-

  1. I voted with the rest at the A.G.M. against any certification in the caving world - but if no alternative is offered, and offered quickly, Local Education Authorities will force the certification issue.
  2. Any vetting scheme of teachers as to their competence (whether this is done by B.A.C.I. or by C.S.C.C.) is tantamount to a certificate.  Do we really want to see caver assessing caver?  Isn't this an invidious situation?
  3. We all basically deplore non-cavers or idiots (not the same thing, surely!) having anything to do with novice caving trips whether from school or not.
  4. Whether people agree with caving from schools or not, it is happening and is probably on the increase  again, whether we like it or not.
  5. Have we any more right to discourage schools rather than geologists or employees of Bristol Waterworks?  Do we really want the right to forbid to anyone what we ourselves enjoy?  Who is to judge whether schools spoil caves or whether cavers do.  The muddy Land marks on the stal in the Great Chamber in G.B. were surely not put there by novice school parties - led or un-led.
  6. We have a chance of allowing schools to become affiliated to the B.E.C. and thus a chance to influence this group of cave users.  Note, to influence them - not to pass judgment on them.  To pass on informed opinion and creative ideas.  If we let this chance go by, we may never again be able to influence this group in the same way.  If this happens, don't bellyache in five years time when we all have to have a certificate.

Yours,
Ian Calder.

Ian's letter deserves a fairly lengthy comment, because it raises a number of points about which some members are known to feel strongly, but which I suspect they may not be informed of the present situation.  Taking Ian's letter paragraph by paragraph:-

  1. It is true that the club voted in no uncertain terms against any form of certification.  Most other clubs on Mendip feel the same way, as does the Southern Council in consequence.  In order to PREVENT the spread of certification, the Southern Council published its own booklet called CAVING FOR BEGINNERS in which it made it quite clear that caving was not a competitive sport and that all forms of certification were unnecessary.  Instead, it suggested in informal scheme for keeping an eye on novices such as schoolboys.  Thus, an alternative WAS offered quite some time ago.
  2. However, Somerset Local Education Authority (L.E.A.) could not accept this.  The reason is that they must have some sort of competence standard.  This means, as Ian puts it, caver assessing caver.  Thus, the ONLY choice open to Mendip clubs, through the Southern Council, is either to find a compromise acceptable to the Somerset L.E.A. and to the caving clubs or to wash their hands of the whole affair.  If this latter is done, then Somerset will go it alone and produce a scheme which has nothing at all to do with local clubs.  NOTHING AT ALL.  Thus, we will have no opportunity to influence, to moderate extreme ideas, to apply our experience.
  3. This being so, the Southern Council have been negotiating with Somerset L.E.A. and have now reached the stage of having a compromise solution, which will be put to the next Southern Council meeting.  One of the points is that any leader shall be a caver first and a school leader second.  This answers Ian's 3rd paragraph.
  4. What has been said so far shows that Ian is right his assessment here.
  5. With the greatest respect to Ian, I think he has missed the point here.  I don't think that anyone wants the right to forbid people going caving.  What we should be trying to do is to convince schools and other bodies that it is one thing to make caving trips available for those who are genuinely interested and quite another thing to pressurise people into caving.  As Ian says, damage to caves will occur in any case and the more people involved, the greater the damage.  Therefore, we only ought to have the people who really WANT to go down caves and not those who have been talked into it.  This is one direction where we must try to use our influence
  6. Firmly written into the proposed agreement with the Somerset L.E.A. is the participation of local caving clubs.  Indeed, the wording has now been so arranged that the B.E.C. no longer have to make the decision as to whether to permit formal affiliation, or not.  As for the spread of certification, it may well be that when their blokes and our blokes have got to know each other enough it may even be possible to persuade the L.E.A. to come even more into line with what the caving clubs would like to see and to progress towards the ideals of CAVING FOR BEGINNERS.

I hope that these remarks may go some way towards putt' Ian's and other members minds at rest on this subject.  Any further correspondence will, of course, be welcome.