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Jamaican Caves Organization Advisory

In this brief paper, we would like to describe an approach to cave exploration and monitoring on the island of Jamaica that differs from the traditional methods employed in the initial surveys and route finding of the past. Although the work accomplished by the GSD, NSS, JCC, Bristol U. et al.[1] was truly invaluable and provided the base upon which subsequent exploration and monitoring could proceed, the advantages gained by the use of large parties when balanced against the potential for harm to the cave environment suggests that a different approach is needed.

The progression of Mountaineering methods, from the early years of Mallory, through the “siege tactics” employed for the first ascents of Annapurna, K2, Kangchejunga, and Everest and on to the, “fast and light”, approach favoured during the seventies and eighties, can serve as a useful analogy for caving techniques. It was found that although the use of large parties, great quantities of gear, food, and logistical calculations could indeed put someone at the summit, the increased risk and costs, both human and monetary, made the structure created fragile and expensive. Improvements in Single Rope Techniques eventually enabled small teams to be more certain of achieving the sought after result, and “siege tactics”, became something only currently employed in the tourist industry. As in mountaineering, improvement in rope and gear has created new opportunities and enabled a small team to safely and thoroughly monitor and explore unfamiliar or new caves in a short time with minimal harm to the environment by using only SRT and temporary protection. In this paper I will outline the methods used and the advantages gained.

Size of Team

The optimal number of cavers engaged in any one cave is three. Two is insufficient for any self-rescue attempt; it requires two team members to transport an injured caver out of a cave. The use of a fourth member will slow the progress on difficult ground, especially when talus slopes and rockfall are factors. Communications will be less efficient; the larger the team, the more chance there is for confusion. Interaction with the cave ecosystem and the possibility of damage to formations requires the use of the smallest possible team. As seen above that number is three.


With modern nylon rope, there is no need for cable ladders. Although the frequent presence of sharp rock in Jamaican caves, when combined with the use of SRT, makes the use of 11mm static nylon rope the best choice rather than the lighter dynamic lines often used by rock-climbers, if all ropes and webbing are inspected regularly for wear and damage, then the use of cable ladders does not need to be considered. The great weight involved is unnecessary with a team of three and proper SRT, and there will be less damage done to the cave because of the use of a a smaller group. Large teams are only necessary when ladders are used.

Anchors and Protection

All anchors must be temporary. SRT when used with tubular webbing slings on natural anchors eliminates the need for bolting on all movement downward into a cave system. This is the scenario encountered most frequently in Jamaica. In most caves there will be natural protection in the form of boulders or large stalagmites available at some distance. Tubular nylon webbing with a width of 25mm is very light, very strong, has little tendency to roll on rock and does minimal damage to formation structure. Slings should be placed around the anchors, then caribinered to the static rope. The length of the sling must be such that the carabiner and the sling lines will form an angle of no greater than 90 degrees; i.e., slings should always be of a circumference 50% greater then that of the anchor. The angle formed by the static rope and two anchors should also not be greater than 90 degrees.[2] If necessary, long single lengths can be extended to the edge of the drop. Long lengths of webbing should be brought along on every expedition so that two anchors may be found up to a distance of 50m from the pitch. It should be noted that webbing by nature of its flat profile is less liable to be cut by rolling on a sharp edge at the lip of the drop. Rope protection in the form of a pad or slit hose should be strongly considered if it is necessary to have the static rope in contact with sharp edges. All caribiners should be of the locking type. Deviations or re-belays should use only natural anchors slung with webbing. If initial upward movement cannot be achieved through belayed climbing using slung chockstones, non-fragile formations or rocks, or by the use of lightweight maypoles, the route should be abandoned; preservation of the cave structure must be given priority.

Descent and Ascent

Descents on anything other than very long drops are most easily accomplished with the use of a Figure-8. The weight saved when compared to Racks is considerable; the simple nature of their use makes them much less prone to being set improperly when compared to more complicated mechanical descent devices. On pitches greater than 30m, Racks are to be preferred due to their greater ability to absorb and radiate heat built up through friction. The use of a safety brake in the form of a Prusik knot is not recommended due to the doubtful outcome in the case of an out of control rappeller. The wisest course is to ensure that the other team members are not in a position to cause rockfall onto the rappeller. This careful positioning of team members at both the top and bottom of pitches, when strictly adhered, to will eliminate the chance of an experienced caver losing control on a descent. The only real danger encountered is rockfall and if the person on rappel does not get hit, then there is no need for a belay or anything other than SRT.

Ascenders of a quality comparable to Jumars, when used correctly, negate the need for a third, “safety”, ascender. Use of the European, “frog”, system[3], with the upper Jumar backed up with a tie-in to the seat harness is not only safe but eliminates the extra weight of a third ascender or problems associated with Prusik knots as a backup. An easily tied length of webbing can be substituted for the chest harness to keep the chest Jumar in place. This system is more energy efficient than rope-walking methods on long pitches and permits the passing of diversions, re-belays and knots more easily. If all tying in, and setting up of gear is checked thoroughly prior to the ascent, there is no need for belaying. The two other team members will be out of the rockfall zone, or if at the top of the pitch, in a position where nothing can be dropped onto the ascending climber. Etriers of suitable length can be useful at the top of a pitch, especially in the case of overhangs. Climbers should stay attached by the Jumars to the rope until a completely safe stance is reached.

Movement on Talus Slopes

Steep talus slopes such as the second entrance at Bristol Cave and the top entrance at Windsor Great Cave require special precautions. There is a real danger of starting a serious rockslide; movement must be cautious and staged. The use of long static ropes and gear on this type of ground often makes the situation worse. The rope will tend, in its natural to and fro motion, to dislodge rocks directly above the caver on the rope. Progress is best accomplished through delicate movement by the caver and an awareness of the danger. Only one caver should move at a time; the other two cavers should be stationary. Look for the most probable route of falling rocks and then find a good stance as safely out of the way as possible. The caver in motion must take all care to avoid dislodging rocks but it should be noted that there is a likelihood that rocks will indeed fall.

Light and Batteries

All lights should be electric. The effect of combustion by-products on cave fauna is undetermined; carbide should be avoided. The three members of the team should each carry two primary sources of light and one backup. The two primary sources should consist of a headlamp mounted on the safety helmet and a hand lamp for conditions when insect numbers preclude the use of the headlamp. The backup light can be as small as a Mini-Mag but should have fresh alkaline batteries and should never be used unless necessary. One of the team must have a 6V tight beam lamp for finding openings in large chambers. The other two can carry smaller lights for general use. The hand lamps should be attached with small diameter Kevlar line or webbing to the harness to prevent loss on difficult ground. Each caver should use only one light at a time, when possible, and turn off all lights during rest stops. Each caver should carry one set of extra batteries and spare bulbs for every light. If rechargeable batteries are used they must be at least Ni-Cad and the duration of the battery life must be determined. It is advisable for every caver to have one of the extra sets be fresh alkaline batteries, preferably not purchased in Jamaica. The shelf life of batteries in Jamaica is usually short due to the ambient heat during storage. If batteries purchased in Jamaica must be used, one set from the purchase should be used and timed before the others are trusted.

Route Marking

Route marking should be of a temporary nature and is best achieved by the use of flagging ribbon removed after use. The cave system should be left as it was found. All junctions should have the initial entry passage marked in a manner that indicates the ultimate way out. This can be done by using different colours of ribbon or doubling the ribbon in the direction towards the entrance. On unfamiliar ground flags should be visible from the adjacent flags. The use of Scotchlite reflective cloth ribbon is to be strongly considered despite the cost; it can be reused many times and is easily visible in low light conditions. An accurate compass should be brought into the cave system and consulted often by the lead caver to maintain orientation. Altimeters can be useful in many situations although their accuracy is problematic in conditions of high humidity or rapidly changing barometric pressure. Physical surveys are best carried out with a non-intrusive method such as laser range finding to avoid widespread interaction with the cave floor. Compaction destroys the habitat for many floor dwelling invertebrates.

Self-Rescue and Safety

It is unwise to assume that outside help will be available in the case of injury, or confusion over the route, in any Jamaican cave. You must be prepared to get yourselves out. That being said, in cave systems with multiple pitches it is advisable to have, when possible, a strong, responsible member of the local community at the top of the first drop. Injuries are least likely to occur when the movement is vertical on rope; more likely is a bad fall on slippery or rocky ground. If problems arise, it will probably be in the form of bad cuts, abrasions and broken limbs. A basic first-aid kit is essential. Include compression bandages and lightweight splints. If faced with serious injuries, yam-sticks, bamboo etc., are often near to entrances and, when used with webbing and harness, can be used as a very functional stretcher. Bring two carabiner slung pulleys and adequate rope for mechanical advantage up pitches. Wear a helmet and strong boots. Take as few chances as possible. Never, ever get lost. Always consider the worst-case scenario and how you would respond to it. Remember at all times that caving is inherently dangerous.

Cave Etiquette

Never has the old adage, “Tread lightly upon the land”, been more appropriate than in the case of caves. Cave environments are fragile both biologically and structurally. Those of us who are fortunate enough to gain access to these hidden recesses bear a great responsibility; the preservation of that which attracts us. Formations that have taken tens of thousands of years to grow can be destroyed by one wrong move. Bat populations, especially during the time before the pups are weaned, are highly susceptible to harm during even brief entries into caves. Troglobytic crabs and other invertebrates can be crushed underfoot by a careless caver. The overall health of the cave system must always have top priority. First and foremost in the mind of any caver in Jamaica must be the question, “Am I doing harm?” If the answer is, “Maybe”, then the expedition must be reconsidered. Some of the caves that once supplied habitat for bats still retain substantial colonies; some show historical evidence in the form of staining and guano but are presently abandoned as a result of human activity.[4] When passing through caves with extant bat populations it is essential to keep light and noise to a minimum. Avoid shining lights toward the roof of the chambers. Spend as little time as possible in roosting areas. Many invertebrates make their homes in the loose guano found on the floors of biologically active caves. Compaction is a danger to these creatures and is best minimized by keeping to one track. Try to establish a route that all three can stay on and use it for every passage through the cave. Formations should never be willfully broken or removed. Cavers must resist the temptation to leave signs of their visit to a cave system.[5] Collection devices and bottles used for research purposes must be removed as soon as their purpose has been served.[6] Researchers should avoid leaving permanent markings.[7] Any available opportunity should be taken advantage of to educate local Jamaicans in the factors influencing the health of their cave. This is best done over cold Red Stripes, at the closest shop, in a friendly and respectful manner.


The advantages gained by employing a small party of cavers using SRT to explore and monitor caves are two-fold: The expedition is fast, light, flexible and requires a much smaller outlay of monetary and human capital. The damage done to the cave environment is minimized by the avoidance of cable ladders, the small number of cavers on the team and by spending the least amount of time interfering with the cave ecosystem. Fewer lights are required, noise is reduced, less compaction of guano is caused and there is a lessened chance of invertebrates being walked upon. The Single Rope Techniques required are trustworthy and proven. Thorough familiarity with SRT methods is necessary before entry into a cave, but the skills are easily learned and used. The use of large survey parties in the future should be reconsidered, despite the great work accomplished in the past. I hope that this brief paper will help to encourage a modern approach to caving in Jamaica.

[1] “Jamaica Underground”, Fincham, ISBN 976-640-036-9, pages 1-8
[2] “On Rope”, Padgett and Smith, ISBN 0-9615093-2-5, page 61
[3] “On Rope”, page 160
[4]e.g. Bristol Cave, Feb, 2002
[5] Club graffiti at bottom of first drop at Deeside Roaring River Cave.
[6] Sesarma collection bottle abandoned in Bamboo Bottom passage for several years, Windsor Great Cave.
[7] Green spray paint marking route from Bamboo Bottom entrance to pool, Windsor Great Cave.

RSS, May 2002

The Jamaican Caves Organization