GEAR: What to wear when heading underground

Exploring glacial caves and 'moulins' requires serious gear. Caver Robbie Shone shows us the stuff.
Caving gear
The gear cavers need to survive.
By Robbie Shone

(Clockwise, beginning with helmet)

Whenever we venture underground and into the earth, we wear a helmet. The ice holds rocks and boulders, and as it shifts and melts they have a tendency to drop away, which could prove fatal. I have always used the old-style Petzl Ecrin Roc helmet.

Head torch
I love having a very bright head torch because you simply see a lot more of the underworld. However, there is a compromise: the brighter the light, the heavier the battery. Swiss manufacturer Scurion lead the way with LED caving light technology and this is my personal choice. Of course we all carry a secondary light, just in case the primary one fails.

Safety rope
The traverse line is made of semi-static or low-stretch rope fixed into the ice along the way using ice screws. You then have a lanyard (or cow's tail) which attaches to your harness at one end and the rope on the other. They're made of 'dynamic' rope, which is a bit more elastic to reduce the impact force on the body should you fall.

Ice axe
Ice axes are typically used to explore moulins and glacier caves for digging away at the ice before installing ice screws to belay the rope off. A lanyard eliminates the risk of dropping the axe down a hole. We tie it onto either our harness or our wrist.

Knee pads
Knee pads are really a standard piece of gear. I never go underground without mine, because I know so many people in their 50s who suffer knee problems. Also, when venturing into the unknown, you never know what you're likely to experience and sometimes you can end up on all fours crawling along small passageways. Without knee pads, the sharp rocks and pebbles that lie on the bed at the base of the glacier can pierce through the skin and it really hurts!

We need these to travel safely across the ice. No need for the really technical ones as we're not 'ice climbing' and working solely on our front points.

Sam Doyle, glaciologist, explores a Swiss moulin. © Robbie Shone

A moulin is a shaft within a glacier caused by surface water. This moulin originally started off vertical, then trended horizontal but at this point it's getting steep again. Every so often, there were 2-4m drops where water cascaded down in the summer months.

Exploring moulins on the Gornergletscher can be a dangerous exercise, so it is always important to work in a team, as a team. We often play to everyone's strengths and this eliminates most weaknesses. If one gets into trouble, there is always a second person close by to help.

Ice screws
Ice screws are our only form of protection underground and beneath the surface of the ice. However, when we set off down a moulin, up on the surface we always begin the belay either with slings wrapped around giant boulders or much longer and bigger stakes drilled into the ice, maybe 1m deep.

Wearing waterproofs is essential. We generally only explore these moulins in low water. In the summer months, that's at the dead of night when there is no surface melt water. In the winter, the moulins are all frozen up. So there is never any active water rushing through these, meaning that most of the time we never get wet.

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