Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

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Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Jeff Bartlett » Jan 29, 2013 8:52 pm

In a recent thread discussing helmet-less caving, one post included the following comment:
GroundquestMSA wrote:Maybe I'm experiencing a phase of childish rebellion, but the "hobgoblin of little minds" seems to scurry through the spelean Canon. Rightly or wrongly, we don't give people any credit whatsoever to use their brains.

Now, this gave me an off-topic thought, but rather than hijack that thread, I thought I'd start a new one. Since my thought relates to rope systems, I've posted it in the "On Rope" forum.

Groundquest's comment, which I did not recognize until its source was pointed out to me, is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The essay is a call for individuals to follow their own instincts and ideas, or at least consider them strongly, when presented with a baseless consistency.

This started me thinking about the caving community, and more specifically our approach to systems for vertical caving. It would seem to me that cavers are fiercely individualist as a general rule; likewise, it would seem to me that we are surprisingly tolerant of personal preferences among vertical cavers, even when presented with other cavers whose climbing systems appear poorly-composed. There are some legendary examples here, which I'll skip. But -- with the exception of brand new cavers who have been taught in a class or by the same person -- have you ever even seen two people with an identical vertical system? I have caved with a lot of different people in the last six years, and I don't think I have.

I thought of myself and two friends, all of whom are froggers and all of whom learned independently before meeting. We visit very similar caves, with very similar goals, we frog exclusively and we all typically use micro-racks for rappelling. But our frog systems are all different! For example, each of us uses a different style of chest harness. One uses a handled upper ascender, one uses a Basic and one carries both. One climbs with a Pantin & single footloop, one uses a double footloop and one uses two independent footloops (one for each foot, attached at the bottom of the upper ascender). Considering that there aren't all that many components to a frog that may be interchanged, I find this fascinating. Having watched multiple, prolonged arguments on this forum about appropriate materials, configurations and attachment hardware for cowstails alone, it's not surprising... just fascinating.

So, do we do this? Do we bully each other into a foolish consistency? I don't think we do,at least not in many places (helmets being an obvious example to the contrary). But elsewhere, do we? And with rope systems, where consistency is probably least foolish, are we guilty of suppressing creative thought? If so, is this good or bad?
"Although it pains me to say it, in this case Jeff is right. Plan accordingly." --Andy Armstrong
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby eyecave » Jan 29, 2013 9:47 pm

during emerson's time there were many people needing to free their minds.....sadly, there are probably more now.............

with some things i think cavers are somewhat restrictive with creativity.....the usual excuse is safety........my usual defense is "with experience....."

climbing up a rope is a very solitary experience....its you, leverage, gravity, and friction dancing in the dark in three dimensions.......the only way to define normality in its anatomical sense is with a range.....therefore the perfect climbing system for me becomes the one that is least painful when being employed.....of course i mean painful in the broad sense.....and of course some of the differences could easily be interchanged and still ultimately work just as well in all aspects..

...categories of defined use is perhaps a next topic as it relates to rescue cavers impeding technique evolution?....

always read my posts twice....if it still makes no sense at all please give up and quietly leave.. :doh: .
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jan 30, 2013 12:13 am

Having never climbed rope with another caver, I don't really know anything about common variances in climbing systems. I'm sure I would be sternly corrected if another caver ever saw my setup. It seems to me, though, that the differences you mention in your post don't really amount to anything, and certainly aren't an expression of "creative thought." Any of you could trade systems and carry on without difficulty. Now, if someone showed up with a radically different method of climbing, you know he would be criticized mercilessly, even if it worked safely for him. Even methods that are considered occasionally allowable by some are at times sneered at by members of this forum. Take the use of the fig.8 to descend. It has been argued about at great length, with the majority agreeing that it's much less than ideal. Some cavers therefore automatically dismiss the 8 as an option even though many of them could effectively use it as their sole method of descent for every single pit they will ever drop.

When I used that line, however, I wasn't really thinking about climbing. I was thinking about the multitude of time honored rules that can acceptably be broken in the right situations. We all say it's about safety, and it is, partly. It's also partly about being too lazy to make decisions based on individual sets of circumstances.
Derek Bristol,
caving solo, with one source of light, without a surface watch, entering a stream cave when rain was threatening, scooping passage without surveying, caving with people I had never met before, trusting fixed ropes and anchors blindly, and even caving without a helmet
or wearing jeans and sneakers, or holding flashlights etc. etc. are, according to the Pharisees of the Beneath and the Mosaic Law of Cavechat, the great sins of caving. These rules are mostly based on good sense but they at times bind a burden of guilt upon a poor innocent soul who is being convicted for doing something that his common sense, and even years of experience, tell him is ok.

I don't yet have the wisdom to know if I'm right or wrong about all of this. Certainly the safety standards set by cavers in general are good ones and no harm can come from adhering to them. Perhaps that's the only point that matters. Isn't it at least possible, though, that some are too quick to accuse others of ignorance, negligence, or unintelligence just because the letter of the law is being ignored?
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Chads93GT » Jan 30, 2013 1:41 am

Nothing wrong with jeans or sneakers if you know the dangers of wearing them in the wrong situation. Nothing wrong with a flash light. It will simply slow you down and make you less efficient. Hence why we wear headlamps. Many caving rules can be broken as long as you know what you are doing and you aren't putting others In harms way from your stupidity. Sub as blue jeans in a wet Missouri cave which will most likely result in others having to do a self rescue when you go hypothermic. Etc. as for climbing systems and ridicule. You may get some funny looks but ridicule? I doubt it. I mean I never gave Marion crap when he showed up at my house to go pit bouncing in Missouri. No need. He knew what he was doing.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Mike Hopley » Jan 30, 2013 7:39 am

Interesting topic. Here are some relevant questions a vertical caver should ask himself:

  1. Is my system safe?
  2. Is it efficient?
  3. Does it allow me to help other cavers who are in trouble?
  4. What if I get in trouble? How will my system affect the ability of other cavers to rescue me?

(1) Many setups are just not safe enough, or at least could be made much safer with no loss of efficiency. This is the most basic requirement of a good vertical system. For example, attaching the Croll between the descender and the braking krab can cause problems when changing over to ascent. Therefore this individual preference is suspect.

(2) Efficiency is important if you are doing long, difficult trips. You may be more efficient by customising your system to suit you, rather than using the local norm. Being efficient also makes you safer, because you can do things quickly and reliably when the proverbial hits the rotary cooling device. For example, my changeover technique involves hanging from one jammer, which some cavers consider unsafe. But I am very fast, and I never get it wrong; this could be important if a flood pulse arrives when I am on rope.

(3) I want to be able to help cavers who are stuck on rope; this is uncommon but can be life-threatening. This could affect my vertical system: for example, I may carry a little extra kit. I will certainly carry a knife.

(4) I want other cavers in my team to be capable of rescuing me. For this reason, I will explain my setup to them before the trip. In particular I will point out aspects where my kit differs from the local norm. For example, I will show them how to convert my system from ropewalking to frog. Similarly, I will try to understand their system in case I need to rescue them.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Scott McCrea » Jan 30, 2013 8:14 am

No one looks alike. My vehicle doesn't look like your vehicle. Your boat/bike/climbing rack is not outfitted like my boat/bike/climbing rack. I like yellow lanyards. I eat meat.

Everyone is different. Yet, just about anyone could jump in my truck, look around for a minute and drive it away. The climbing system details are different, but the basics are the same—one thing to sit on and one thing to stand on.

I believe that this diversity is what makes cavers interesting. I love looking at (and critiquing) gear/kit/systems. It's a great way to learn and decide who you want (and don't want) to cave with.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Carl Amundson » Jan 30, 2013 10:49 am

Is it safe, is it functional? Those are the questions you ask in the beginning.

All vertical cavers start out with what was recommended by more experienced cavers (hopefully). After you get more experience you start playing with your system, trying to make more comfortable for you and the type of caving you do. My vertical system has evolved over the years. Project caving has made my vertical system more minimal and more versatile. My rescue experience has caused me to carry some equipment that a few years ago I would not have considered carrying. It’s an evolutionary process. Eventually with enough experience and experimentation, you find the combination that works best for you.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Extremeophile » Jan 30, 2013 11:06 am

GroundquestMSA wrote:These rules are mostly based on good sense but they at times bind a burden of guilt upon a poor innocent soul who is being convicted for doing something that his common sense, and even years of experience, tell him is ok.

Unfortunately "common sense" isn't all that common underground. Being in total darkness or on rope are not common experiences for most people. Of course, as anyone that has taken an NCRC class knows, the answer to most questions is "it depends". We all have knowledge and experience that enable us to teach others. We also all have areas of ignorance where we can learn from others. Some who are fiercely independent will insist on learning everything on their own. They may question the mainstream ideas of wearing a helmet, or avoiding clotheslines for rappelling, or not wearing jeans in stream caves. This attitude can and has resulted in rescues and placing other cavers at risk. This doesn't mean I believe everyone needs to do everything exactly the same. Do the research - read the books, search the internet, discuss ideas with fellow cavers, try ideas in a controlled environment - and determine what works best for you. But recognize that when there are standards such as wearing a helmet, wearing synthetic clothes in wet caves, keeping two points of attachment while ascending rope, etc., that there are good reasons why these standards exist. Maybe you can find a better, safer, more efficient way to do things, but it's more likely that this will be achieved by building on the foundation of existing knowledge rather than doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing out of some sense of rebellion.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jan 30, 2013 7:13 pm

Chads93GT wrote:I mean I never gave Marion crap when he showed up at my house to go pit bouncing in Missouri. No need. He knew what he was doing.


You think? :big grin:
I assume that this is one of the legendary examples that Jeff meant to keep out of this discussion. Evidently he has heard a lot from other cavers who remain unimpressed with his methods, though. I assume it's all good natured by now. He refused to give me climbing advice because he was
not an appropriate person to train new cavers. My vertical ways are considered backward by many and are definitely not technical

It seems that a person must break the rules successfully, safely, confidently, and for a long time before they can be respected.

Extremeophile wrote:Maybe you can find a better, safer, more efficient way to do things, but it's more likely that this will be achieved by building on the foundation of existing knowledge rather than doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing out of some sense of rebellion.


That's reasonable. I don't want to sound egocentric, but since it seems that this thread is at least in part devoted to correcting my thinking, let me say that I am not making my arguments out of a sense of rebellion. I embrace wholeheartedly many of the basic do's and don'ts of caving without feeling the need to challenge them.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Jeff Bartlett » Jan 30, 2013 7:42 pm

GroundquestMSA wrote:but since it seems that this thread is at least in part devoted to correcting my thinking

Nah, not in the slightest. Just the interesting train of thought in my head after your quote. I tried pretty hard when writing the OP to make sure I didn't sound like wasn't calling you out or being critical or anything, though I had a feeling it would be basically impossible. :)
"Although it pains me to say it, in this case Jeff is right. Plan accordingly." --Andy Armstrong
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jan 30, 2013 8:01 pm

My apologies then. Not that there's anything wrong with correcting my thinking. It obviously needs some tweaking.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby paul » Jan 31, 2013 7:25 am

As well as what has already been stated (Safety, Efficiency, learning from others. etc.), at least if when you begin to learn SRT with the "standard" setup and techniques, you won't be "re-inventing the wheel" and repeating the same mistakes or missing out on improvements which others have already done in the past.

If after learning with the "standard" equipment and techniques you wish to experiment and improve things for yourself, go ahead.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Extremeophile » Jan 31, 2013 10:22 am

It always sort of struck me as ironic that most of the people engaged in the activity of riding Harley motorcycles see and describe themselves as strongly individualistic. They dismiss conformity with mainstream society and exercise self expression. But to an outsider they all seem to do it in more or less the same way. There appears to be strong conformity within that community. I'm sure they believe that their custom skull paint job and exhaust modification is completely unique, but to those with a less trained eye it looks just like every other cruiser.

I think we have the same situation in the caving community. We act like not bringing a QAS is a radical deviation from the norm, or rappelling short drops on a figure-8 is like giving the finger to the man. I can't wait to see what mind blowing radical new thing someone will propose next. Caving without knee pads?
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Mike Hopley » Jan 31, 2013 10:28 am

Extremeophile wrote:I'm sure they believe that their custom skull paint job and exhaust modification is completely unique, but to those with a less trained eye it looks just like every other cruiser.


The vanity of small differences.
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Re: Climbing systems and the "hobgoblin of little minds."

Postby Carl Amundson » Jan 31, 2013 10:40 am

I teach new cavers on how to use a frog climbing system in various venues; formal classes, grotto practices & regional caving events

I use a standard frog system for my classes. Croll with GGG chest harness, basic GGG seat harness, left handled ascender for the foot-loops (both single & double loop footloops), a double cowtails (long and short tail with non-locking biners) and micro-racks. It’s a vanilla system. I teach how to don your gear (proper ordination the gear on the D-link), how to adjust the system to fit you, go up rope, do a change-over and then rappel down. Basic stuff.

Along with the class I distribute a document that goes into detail about the frog system components, change-overs, passing rebelays and deviations. I feel strongly that having a document that cavers can reference while practicing is a good thing. Once someone gets more experienced, they can then intelligently make changes to their system to more suit them.
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