Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cave Skills Part 1 : Why Use a Line ?

Thanks to pioneers like Sheck Exley cave diving is not as risky as it once was. His survey of caving deaths and the subsequent principles that every cave diver should follow was instrumental in eliminating the inherent risk of being underwater in a cave. Interestingly, the first contributing cause he identified was NOT using a continuous guideline (see the blog post, Blue Print for Survival). These days not using a guideline is the exception rather than the norm, but back in the early 90’s using your memory was an accepted alternative. Indeed there was a continuous argument between divers who preferred to ‘learn’ the system (memorise the way in and out) and those who relied on lines to get them in and out. With each claiming the others method to be dangerous.
Those who argued for memory maintained that if you lost the line you had no way of using visual queues to get yourself back onto it (and so out) as you never had to ‘learn’ the system. They also argued that using a line emboldened divers who then went further than they should which got them into trouble. When you dived using your memory (they argued) penetrations were slower requiring a number of dives in order to create the memory imprint of the route. This meant that risk was added slowly and so the chances were that should something go wrong, the diver would get out. The problem with this philosophy is that overhead environments are notoriously easy to silt out (not to mention the fact that light sources can fail). This meant that exiting the cave could often occur in the dark, which in turn meant that ‘learning’ the system only worked if you also learnt it in the Braille version.
No matter which way you look at it, the only reliable way of returning from a silt out (or any other emergency) is using a continuous guideline ? What that means is that you must be able to find your way back to the surface using either the line you laid or a line that is already in place. This line must at all times connect you to the safety of the surface, without any breaks or jumps. In an emergency all you should need to do is follow that line and most importantly, you should not require any light to do so (and preferably little effort and thought).
Practically this means tying off just before you enter the cave system (preferably where inquisitive sport divers can’t find the line and tamper with it or even worse, follow it into the cave). As the guideline is your life, you have a secondary tie off just inside the cave system or entrance which ensures that the line will always be there (just in case an inquisitive sport diver removes your primary tie off outside).
If you are lucky you will be the only dive team diving the cave system however more often than not, yours will not be the only line wending its way through the inky darknesss. In this instance there are two choices open to you. The first is to piggy back on the lines that have already been laid. This will require you locating the owners of that line and negotiating with them to use their lines. Some divers are happy with that, some not. And don’t be tempted to avoid the asking and simply use the lines. Divers can get quite territorial about their lines, not to mention the fact that you stand a real risk of the line being removed while you are still diving (can you imagine getting to a tie off and finding that the line you came in on is no longer there ?).
Quite a few divers avoid sharing and instead lay their own line. If there are other lines already in place then basic line laying etiquette dictates that you always lay your line under existing lines. The argument goes that should a team already be in the cave and need to exit in an emergency they will not know about your line as it was not there when they went in. Should they encounter a new line over theirs it could cause confusion and delays. If the line is under theirs they can ignore it and get out quickly and safely.
One other advantage of laying one’s own line is that you control the location and frequency of the tie-offs. The number and location of tie-off’s is one of the most frequently asked questions by new (and old) cavers. Divers tend to fall into two categories, either too many or too few tie offs. Nerves tend to increase the number of tie offs, while confidence tends to reduce the number. Both extremes are problematic. The line is there to get you out as fast as possible in an emergency where you have no visibility. Tie-off’s are obstacles which have to be negotiated. If the diver was meticulous the obstacle around which the line was tied off (normally a convenient boulder) is ‘invisible’ and the line flows in a single unbroken line straight past the boulder. However if this is not the case each obstacle has to be negotiated by touch in order to find the ‘exit’ point of the line. Not what you want in the dark.
The other problem that divers encounter when exiting a line is that of unforeseen obstacles or line traps. The rule of thumb is to tie off when you change direction. This will prevent the line from swinging into the wall and boulders or narrow crevices. This is easier said then done as direction changes can be subtle and often the only time you realise the line has moved is when you swim back on it and find it has tucked itself neatly into a crack. That is when you thank the heavens that you are not exiting in an emergency and make a mental note to add a tie off next time round. The trick is to keep looking back - that way you can see exactly how your line actually is lying and add a tie off it needed.
The next question normally asked is how many tie off’s is enough. There is no simple answer as that. A well laid line enables the diver to exit fast, in the dark. It also ensures that the line is always in an area a diver can pas through. A well laid line is also taut. Too few tie off’s can create a loose line as can badly tied tie off’s that come loose during the dive. Loose line can move…normally toward those cracks and crevices. It also is an entrapment hazard.
How do you know if your line is well laid ? The easiest answer is to ‘practice’ leaving on the line while pretending that you are doing so in the dark - that way you will see for yourself. Whether or not you are in the habit of ‘practicing’ on the way out, you should at least one official and real practice from your cave course. Even with a couple of practiced silt outs under my belt (and a handful of real one’s) I still find them stressful. My heart rate increases and with that comes a nagging doubt that this time something will go wrong. Do I have enough gas ? Will the line hold ? There is one place in particular that I do not enjoy, the restriction on 7th level (going to the old station) at Badgat. This is fine on the way in (a little tight but no problem if you are number one or two). But when you come back out it can be a complete silt out. Now I know that the line is well laid and that if I follow it I will be in the widest part of the restriction so there is no problem… but there is always that niggle, especially as you casually swim after what is after all a rather frail line that disappears into clouds of swirling silt. What if I take my hand off for some reason ? What if I do not find it again ? It is not simply a matter of placing your hand where you think you left the line. In a silt out you can never tell which direction you are in fact facing. It is easy to turn around without realizing it and at 80 odd meters gas is not something you take for granted (even with full conservative gas planning).
The panic never takes hold. I have been diving in caves for too long for that. But it is always there, a reminder not to get too confident. A reminder that the basics are essential if you want to survive and explore.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My memoir - Fatally Flawed (The Quest to be Deepest)

When I finished my 221 meter dive I knew my next challenge would be writing the story of how I actually got there. There are just so many aspects to breaking a world record not the least of which is facing the fear of death and actually doing the dive. It is only when I look back at who I was and where I came from that I realise how far I had to go and how hard it was for me as in individual to get there. Just a word of warning, this post may fall into the category of (what has been described to me as) ‘fluffy’ (which I interpret as talking about emotions and philosophical concepts)....
A world record is an odd thing! It is yours for only a while and there will always be someone you do not yet know working their way slowly and inexorably toward breaking it. Once you have it, you are no longer invisible to the world and once you lose the protection of invisibility you are wide open to the judgements and criticisms of what can be an uncaring and disrespectful world. Whilst getting my record changed the way the world perceived me, it has taken much longer for it to change the way I see myself. From inside there is no glory, little fame and definitely no fortune!
The final incentive to write my story down was the day Dave (Shaw) died. Well not so much the day Dave died, but the story that unfolded afterwards. I found myself questioning the reason why divers choose to place their lives on the line for something so ephemeral as a world record. It became important for me to understand why I had made the choice to dedicate almost a decade of my life to this one thing. I realized that my perspective was unique – there simply is no other person in the world who has been an active participant in not one, but three world record dives. I was a support diver for Nuno Gomes (and indeed the lessons I learnt diving with Nuno have formed the basis for my technical diving career). I have a world record of my own and I was the person responsible for keeping Dave Shaw’s dive together when it all fell apart.
Love us or hate us, the divers who dare to go deep all hold an elusive attraction to the rest of the world (who choose to remain in the shadows of safety).
Should I have written this book ? I often wonder about that; about the self indulgence of writing down my journey and the permanence of capturing the experience. But I always wished that the divers who went deep and broke records (the true explorers) would write about the experience… and not just the facts and details, but what it felt like, what personal challenges they had to overcome. I wanted to learn from the divers who came before me.
Today the proof arrived which means I can start to sell my story and after almost three years of struggling to get this far, I find that taking the next step is far harder than I thought it would be. The responsibility weighs down on me. What if I have the words wrong ? What if my story has no value ? And then I hear a whisper, just a whisper, and it says, “Who you are is important! Where you came from is important! You have the right to exist! You have the right to your story. You have the right to have it told!”.
Without this book my record has little impact. It affects only me and the people I surround myself with. Perhaps…perhaps this story will connect with some-one else, who is looking for a way out, a way forward and perhaps, just perhaps, they will be the invisible face that breaks my record! I certainly hope so! Perhaps it will inspire you to tell your story, because just like mine, it has value and has a right to exist and be told.
And who knows, maybe now I will focus on book two, the manual to getting deeper that I wish I had had !
If you are interested in finding out more about Fatally Flawed go to www.tekdiver.co.za/Publications/FatallyFlawed.htm. The official launch should be in April

Monday, March 17, 2008

Blue Print for Survival - Top Ten Ways Cave Divers Die!

The interesting thing about writing a blog is that one becomes aware of personal themes. As I write I find myself continually reverting to the concept of risk management. Sport diving is sold as a risk free endeavor that anyone can participate in... so safe you can allow your child to participate. Yet the statistics simply do not support this idea - accidents can and do happen.

As a deep diver people often assume that I like risky situations. The irony is that the opposite holds true - I am in fact totally risk averse. As a diver I actively avoid taking unnecessary risks. I am anal about planning, preferring to know and understand the risks that could kill me. Whilst I do not like risk, I do not avoid them and it is this conscious risk acceptance that I believe has been key to my success as a deep diver. it is this conscious acceptance of risks and their management that I believe every diver should incorporate into their diving.

The combination of training and experience is designed to enable you to identify and manage the most probable risks you will encounter underwater. These are risks that as a community we have regularly encountered. They are known and so we can do something to either eliminate the risk or succesfully manage your way through it.
After over two decades of technical diving, pioneers like Sheck Exley have established and proven the concepts and methods required to enhance (if not ensure) your safety underwater. In fact, it was a book by Sheck that formed the basis for the technical courses we know today. His analysis of accident statistics identified the patterns behind caving deaths and tragedy’s. making them visible and enabling conscious management there-of.

Sheck’s "Blue Print for Survival" identified ten elements that a cave diver needed to comply with in order to avoid the most common risks found in a cave:

- 1) THE GUIDELINE : In cave systems the most common cause of death was not using a continuous guideline from the entrance and not maintaining close proximity to that line.

- 2) AIR SUPPLY PLANNING : The number two reason for death was the inadequate provision of air/ gas. Gas planning should be based on at least the thirds rule and gas matching within the dive team.

- 3) TOO DEEP : The number three reason for fatalities was diving outside of individual depth tolerances, divers were going too deep, too soon and succumbing to amongst other things, narcosis.

- 4) PANIC : Coming in at number four was succumbing to panic. This can be avoided through effective training and continuous practice.

- 5) LIGHTS : Closely tied into most incidents was the inability to see (and so find your way out) which has led to the requirement of redundant lighting systems ( normally a powerful hand
held canister primary light with two stowed back up lights).

- 6) SCUBA : Many incidents could be traced to inappropriate equipment and the configuration there-of with divers diving with poorly serviced equipment and not ensuring full redundancy on life critical kit (every cave dive should be undertaken on at least a twin set with isolation manifold and two dv’s)

- 7) SILT : Yet another factor related to the ability to see. Here incidents could be attributed to the divers ability to reduce visibility through inadequate finning techniques that resulted in silt outs.

- 8) EMERGENCY PROCEDURES : In most incidents the divers had not practiced their emergency procedures which added another level of complexity to the situation that simply could not be controlled. Procedures such as buddy breathing and the ability to effectively communicate underwater were highlighted.

- 9) TECHNOLOGICAL EMERGENCIES : This factor talked to the divers ability to manage life threatening, predictable technological emergency’s underwater such as line entanglement and getting stuck. These are managed through practiced techniques such as the lost diver drills.

- 10) PHYSIOLOGICAL EMERGENCIE : The proactive management of physiological emergency’s (divers to be fit and proactively manage decompression risk, stress and narcosis)

These days all technical courses encompass every aspect of these basic principles. Indeed, it is not the norm for a qualified cave diver who follows these principles to die on a cave dive with most cave diving accidents and fatalities being attributed to sport divers who enter cave systems without training or appropriate equipment.
The unfortunate part of technical diving these days is that it as become too safe and as a community we are becoming too complacent. It is too easy for divers to apply the 'rules' on course and then ignore them thereafter. The problem is that every time they get away with it, they get bolder! As Nuno Gomes often says, there are two types of divers, old divers and bold divers. There are very, very few old bold divers.
The question you have to ask yourself as a diver is how you would like to die (because the only thing that can be guaranteed is that you will die, all you do not know is how and when) ? Do you want to be another statistic ...a diver who refused to listen and took shortcuts and so died ? Or would you rather be the diver who understood the risks and actively managed them ?
How often do you take shortcuts ?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One SPG or Two or Practical Risk Management

. Technical diving is not a world of absolutes. We can only plan for and predict a relatively small subset of all the possible options. With the right combination of training (or skills) and equipment one attempts to accommodate all the probable risk scenario’s, so for me it is important that as a technical diver you understand the decisions you make. The Hogarthian equipment configuration was designed to solve a particular set of risks, and it does so quite successfully. However that is not to say that it is the only solution.
Take for example the decision made to have only one spg (pressure gauge) on the configuration. The argument goes that you are diving open manifold, so one spg will tell you the same thing as two. The risk that the Hogarthian diver is more worried about is an spg failure. In their world, spg’s have a tendancy to regularly fail resulting in a catastrophic loss of gas (which then requires isolation and termination of the dive). Now when I listen to this scenario I start to get uncomforrable. Yes, I understand the risk of an spg failure resulting in a catastrophic loss of gas, but I protect half my gas, so it is not really an issue for me. What worries me more is having to leave the dive with absolutely no idea how much gas I actually have. The Hogarthian diver argues that you are leaving the cave, so it does not matter. You were diving on thirds so you must have enough gas in both cylinders left. Which raises the question how ? How do I know I have enough gas ? To which they answer, it hardly matters because if you don’t what can you do ? You can not magically find more gas ?
It is at this time that I nod sagely and walk away… to my twin set with two spg’s. Every diver has a hierarchy of risks and for me, I can not rank the possibility of an spg above not knowing how much gas I have. Why ? Because I want to survive! I want options and when I know how much gas I have I have the ability to make better decisions. How I exit will depend on how much gas I have. Think about it. If you have 50 bar are you going to swim fast and so increase your breathing rate ? Or are you going to take the time to slow everything down and resort to controlled methodical swimming that focuses on getting the maximum distance for the minimum breathing ? I know I would! Now, if you don’t know, but think that somehow magically you have enough gas are you not just going to exit as normal without any mind to gas management and so face a much greater risk, finding out that your last breathe was the last you will ever take. Now your only option is to hold your breathe and see if you can make the distance. Not a chance I wish to take.
As a diver I want as many options underwater as I can get. I am not advocating that as a diver you should throw away the concepts behind a Hogartian configuration, just that you take the time to think about why it is set up the way it is. What risks are they mitiating ? Are they your risks ? Are they probable risks on the dive you are planning ? If yes, then you have no need to make changes. If no, well hopefully you now have a better idea how to make changes.