The Complete Guide to Vertical Caving Techniques

Vertical caving, also known as single rope technique (SRT) caving, involves descending and ascending a cave using ropes and other specialized equipment. It opens up a whole new world of cave exploration compared to horizontal caving, allowing cavers to safely access deep pits, high domes, and remote passages.

Mastering vertical caving takes dedicated training and practice. But with the right gear and techniques, it provides an unparalleled adventure. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about the different skills and setups for successful SRT caving.

An Introduction to Vertical Caving

Vertical caving enables cavers to descend and ascend pits and shafts within a cave using ropes. It originated in the 1950s as cavers looked to explore deeper and more technical cave systems.

The main advantages of vertical caving include:

  • Access to new passages – Ropes provide access to pits and vertical sections that cannot be passed horizontally. This opens up huge amounts of virgin cave passage.
  • Efficiency – Rigging ropes allows cavers to quickly descend and ascend pits safely. This is much faster than attempting to climb up and down pits.
  • Safety – Modern vertical caving equipment and techniques enable cave exploration with minimized risks. Cavers are securely attached to ropes at all times.

The two primary vertical caving techniques are:

  • Single rope technique (SRT) – Cavers descend and ascend on the same rope using mechanical ascenders and descenders attached to their harness. This is the most common method.
  • Double rope technique (DRT) – Two separate ropes are rigged – one as the main line, and another as a safety belay. Cavers climb up and down the ropes using friction hitches.

Let’s look further at vertical caving gear, safety, rigging, ascending, descending, and changeovers between pitches.

Essential Gear for Vertical Caving

Vertical caving requires specialized equipment to rig ropes, descend, ascend, and stay safe. Key gear includes:


  • A full body harness provides attachment points for hardware and ensures comfortable suspension upright.
  • Harnesses specific for SRT caving have a padded waistbelt and leg loops to prevent pressure points during long hangs.


  • A caving helmet provides impact and headlamp mounting. Models with chin straps are recommended for vertical work.


  • Mechanical ascendors with camming mechanisms provide efficient uphill progress along the rope.
  • Typical caving ascenders come in handled and non-handled versions. Using two provides redundancy.


  • A descender controls the rate of descent on rope. Friction hitches were once common, but modern rack descenders are far more efficient.

Backup Devices

  • A safety back-up like a Prusik cord or autoblocking device is used to catch falls and attach to anchors.


  • Steel screwgate carabiners securely connect gear to the rope and harness. Locking models prevent accidental unclipping.


  • Static caving ropes with very low stretch are used. 9-11mm diameter ropes are common for vertical work.

Belay Device

  • A belay plate is used to manage the rope when belaying others from the surface.


  • Pulleys make rope retrievals and hauling systems more efficient. Self-locking pulleys are best for SRT rigging.


  • Cave packs carry gear and provide attachment points for items like bolt kits. Haul sacks hold ropes.

Safety Considerations for Vertical Caving

SRT caving allows access to areas beyond the reach of ladders or handlines. But the increased height and exposure also multiplies the hazards. Focus on safety with every vertical caving trip. Key aspects include:

Redundancy – Critical gear like ascenders and descenders should have backups in case of failure. Carry multiple light sources too.

Communication – Clear commands and confirmation between team members ensures everyone is on the same page.

Helmets – Wear (and secure) your helmet at all times when under or near the pit to protect from falling debris.

Rigging – Check all anchors and rigging for stability. Use rope protectors on sharp edges.

No Downclimbing – Never descend a rope without the proper gear and technique – ascending back up is extremely difficult.

Prudence – Know your limits. Don’t push into complex vertical terrain until you’ve trained extensively.

Focus – Always pay close attention during the entire descent and ascent. complacency leads to mistakes.

With care, training, and vigilance, the risks of vertical caving can be minimized. But never get casual about the hazards – stay safe.

How to Rig a Vertical Cave Drop

Rigging ropes for descending and ascending a cave pit requires careful planning and setup for safety:

Evaluate the Drop – Assess the entire pit from top to bottom. Check that the walls are solid with no loose rocks. Identify any hazards like waterfalls or bell holes at the bottom.

Select Anchors – Pick solid natural anchors like stalwart trees and boulders. For artificial anchors, hangers with bolts that extend into the rock work best.

Place Rope Protectors – Pad any edges where the rope may run over sharp rock using old firehoses or foam protectors to prevent abrasion.

Rig Main Line – Run the rope through the highest anchor(s) depending on the direction of pull.

Add Deviation – If needed, add directional pieces like pulleys or additional anchors to avoid hazards.

Rig Belay Line – For safety, rig a separate belay line running parallel to the main rope. This provides backup if the main line fails.

Test the System – Double-check the entire rig by hanging on the rope before commencing actual descents.

With a bomber setup, the rope is now ready for the adventure! But always exercise extreme care when trusting your life to the rigging.

Descending On Rope With a Rack

Rack descenders provide cavers with efficient, controlled downward progress on a rope. Follow these best practices when descending with a rack:

Inspect Gear – Double check that your rack, harness, carabiners, and backup prusik are good to go before approaching the pit.

Attach to Anchor – Secure yourself to the anchor before disengaging from the rope. Redundancy is key.

Rig the Rack – With the brake open, thread the rope correctly through the rack and lock to your harness.

Add Backup – Attach your cow’s tail backup prusik above the rack to the harness belay loop.

Check Systems – Confirm all attachments by hanging briefly on the rope and bouncing before letting go of the anchor.

Open the Brake – When ready to descend, slowly open the rack brake lever to feed rope.

Modulate Speed – Control your rate of descent using the rack brake and a friction mitt on the rope below.

Stay Attached – Always keep connected to the rope and use multiple points of contact when possible.

With control and vigilance, rack descenders allow fast and safe downward progress in pits. Take the time to become intimately familiar with controlling your speed. A top belay is recommended until you gain experience.

Ascending Rope With Mechanical Ascenders

Ascending vertical pitches requires a system of mechanical rope ascenders:

Startsecure – Always begin by securely attaching to the anchor before disconnecting from the rope.

Connect Ascenders – Clip two handled ascenders to your harness mounted on footloops or a chest harness for optimal body position.

Add Backups – Attach high and low prusiks above the ascenders as backups.

Check Connections – Confirm all gear is correctly configured on the rope before letting go of the anchor.

Find Stance – Stand up fully in the footloops to keep your body vertically aligned and the ascenders high.

Move High Ascender – Using the handle, slide the high ascender up the rope to progress.

Advance Low Ascender – Then use the low ascender’s handle to bring it up underneath the high unit.

Repeat – Keep repeating the process, moving ascenders one after the other up the rope.

Keep Weight On Feet – Try to keep your weight on your feet in the loops instead of pulling from your arms.

With an efficient system, mechanical ascenders allow cavers to make steady upwards progress on rope. But controlling body position is key – don’t rush it!

Performing a Clean Rope Changeover

When vertical caving, changing from descending to ascending (“transitioning”) requires swapping gear efficiently while remaining secured. Follow these best practices for a clean changeover:

Prep Gear – Have all necessary ascending gear (ascenders, prusiks, footloops) at the ready before reaching the anchor.

Attach to Anchor – Secure yourself directly to the anchor upon arriving. Avoid relying solely on the rope.

Remove Descenders – Detach rack, uninstall rope from it, and stow. Keep harness still locked into rope separately.

Add Ascenders – Install ascending setup including ascenders, footloops, and safety prusik to harness while remaining anchored.

Test Weight – Carefully shift some weight onto the rope through the new ascending rig before trusting completely.

Clean Backup – Remove any unneeded backups, prusiks, etc. and stow the excess gear.

Release Anchor – Finally, detach completely from the anchor and commence ascending!

With practice, a smooth changeover can be made that prevents any danger of a fall. Rushing leads to forgotten steps and potential disaster. Stay calm, focused, and methodical.

Pick-Off Rescue Techniques

Knowing how to safely retrieve a stranded caver from mid-rope is an essential vertical skill. This is known as performing a “pick-off”:

Evaluate the Situation – First assess what gear the stranded caver has available and if they are injured. Communicate with them.

Attach to Anchor – Secure yourself directly to the anchor adjacent to the pit. Keep load off the stranded caver.

Rig Pick-Off Line – Clip a new rope to the caver’s harness that can be used to transfer their weight.

Back Up the Main Line – Attach a Prusik or ascender above the caver to back up the main line as a precaution.

Transfer to Pick-Off Line – Coach the caver to slowly transfer their weight onto the new pick-off line.

Detach from Main Line – Once secured to the pick-off line, have the caver detach completely from the main rope.

Lower to Anchor – Cautiously lower the caver on the new line down to your anchor point and secure them.

Ascend – With the caver safely on anchor, you can now ascend the pick-off line and continue.

Pick-offs require great care, communication and redundancy. But executed properly, they allow rescuing a stranded caver mid-pitch. This is a vital vertical skill.

Advancing Past Long Rebelays

Long traverses between rebelay anchors can make rope retrieval tedious. Use these techniques to avoid constant up and down trips:

  • Directionals – Use pulleys or intermediate anchors to direct-connect pitches in a “Y-hang” for straight drops.
  • retrieval Cord – Tie a thin retrieval line to the rope end to pull it from afar rather than climbing each time.
  • Tie-Off Loops – When rigging, leave ~1m loops tied off at anchors to clip carabiners through.
  • Butterfly Coils – Coil any excess rope at rebelays in a “butterfly” to prevent tangles with other ropes.
  • Rope Stacks – Neatly stack and store any extra rope at anchors to prevent cluttering the passage.
  • Extra Biners – Bring enough lockers to leave some carabiners rigged at high points to quickly re-anchor on the way out.
  • Haul sacks – Use haul sacks to quickly pull ropes through redirects.
  • reset Ropes – On the exit, reset ropes to remove redirects and simplify orientation.

With some foresight on the initial descent, rope management for long distances between anchors can be greatly streamlined. This prevents exhausting up-and-down rebelay trips.

When To Use Double Rope Technique Over SRT

While single rope technique has become the standard in vertical caving, double rope technique still has advantages in certain situations:

  • Beginners – DRT provides a simpler introduction to vertical caving without mechanical gear.
  • Self-Rescue – Ascending the second rope provides backup if the main line fails.
  • Rebelays – DRT may allow faster redirects and deviations on complex drops.
  • Light Packs – For short drops, a DRT rig requires less specialized gear to carry.
  • Wet Pitches – Two ropes reduces risk of getting soaked from waterfalls.
  • Alpine Caves – DRT offers fast deployment for short pitches and portability.
  • Emergency Use – In a pinch, DRT can be improvised with minimal gear.

So while SRT reigns supreme for serious vertical caving, DRT still has very legitimate applications. Both techniques complement each other well!

Vertical Caving Calls and Commands

Clear communication while vertical caving is absolutely critical to coordinate the team and avoid accidents. Standard calls include:

“On Rope!” – Announces caver is leaving the anchor and committing full weight to the rope.

“Off Rope!” – Means a caver has transferred back off the rope and onto an anchor.

“Tension!” – Request for someone to add tension to the rope for a better descending/ascending angle.

“Slack!” – Request for more rope to be fed out to extend the drop.

“Mind the Rope!” – Caution to watch out for loose rope on the ground that could snag.

“Rock!” – Alert to warn of any falling objects so others can take cover.

These and other clear calls need to become second nature. Effective communication while vertical caving helps prevent accidents.

Key Tips For Safer and Easier Vertical Caving

Mastering vertical rope work opens exciting new dimensions of subterranean exploration. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Take your time rigging – don’t rush the critical setup.
  • Know exactly how to use every piece of gear – practice on the surface first.
  • Always use a backup prusik or safety tether. Redundancy is king.
  • Neatly stack and stow any excess rope to prevent tangles.
  • Conserve energy ascending by using your feet whenever possible.
  • Slow down and focus when transitioning between descending and ascending.
  • Use rope protectors to avoid abrasion on rough edges.
  • Communicate constantly with verbal calls and confirmations.
  • Stay alert to any hazards above like falling rocks or water.

Vertical caving is an amazing experience, but one that comes with substantial risks. Training extensively, using proper gear, and staying vigilant will keep you safe on the rope!

Frequently Asked Questions About Vertical Caving

What are the different classes of vertical caving systems?

The four main classes of vertical caving systems are:

  • Class 1: Rappel based systems using bars and rappel racks. Simplest to use but inefficient.
  • Class 2: Rope ascent based systems using prusik knots or ascenders with footloops. Allows ascending but cumbersome.
  • Class 3: Harness-based systems using full body harnesses and chest croll with ascenders/descenders. Basic modern vertical caving standard.
  • Class 4: Dowel-based technique using two aluminum bars for control on ascent/descent. Very specialized technique.

How deep can you safely descend in a vertical cave?

There is no set maximum depth limit, but drops over 300m begin to require much more complex logistics, rigging, and fitness. Currently, the deepest vertical cave descent is the Patkov Gust in Croatia at 553m deep. However, most vertical cavers tackle pits in the range of 10-100m depth which provides an excellent experience without extremes.

What is the difference between a pit, a shaft, and a dome?

These terms refer to vertical spaces in caves:

  • Pit: A vertical hole in the cave floor that leads downwards. Often formed at the junction between upper and lower cave levels by collapse.
  • Shaft: A vertical passage extending from one cave level to another. Often found extending upwards, but also downwards.
  • Dome: A rising, dome-shaped vertical space in the ceiling of a cave chamber. Usually formed by differential erosion of rock layers.

How long does it take to become competent at vertical caving?

It’s advisable to spend at least 6 months slowly building skills and experience before tackling complex vertical caves. Take courses to learn essential techniques like rope ascension and pick-off rescues. Start on pits of 20-30m depth to gain confidence. As skills improve, slowly work up to more advanced drops and rigging scenarios. With diligent practice, you can gain vertical caving proficiency within a year.


The unique techniques of vertical caving open up a thrilling new world of rope descents and ascents within caves. With the proper gear, rigging knowledge, ascending/descending skills, and safety systems mastered, cavers can explore underground like never before. But it takes dedication and methodical practice to gain true vertical proficiency. This guide covers all the essential info and tips you’ll need. Stay vigilant, use redundancy, and keep your wits about you in vertical environments. With care and creativity, a deep appreciation of c

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