Stop! Basic vs Deep Understanding

As an NCRC instructor, it turns out I’m eligible for steep discounts on equipment from a company called Petzl. I decided to take advantage of this a few weeks ago to get some new equipment for caving and just for practicing in general. One of the pieces, a new helmet was a no-brainer (in order to protect my brain). And I must say it’s so much more comfortable than my old helmet that I’m quite happy with it and has become my new default helmet. Well worth it.

Background (cavers (or anyone really) can skip this!)

But one of the other pieces I bought is a bit different. It’s called a Stop. For those who aren’t familiar with caving, first some background. Excluding cave-diving, which is a very specialized activity, caving is pretty much divided into horizontal and vertical. Horizontal caving doesn’t mean it’s perfectly flat, but does mean you can basically move through the cave using just your hands and feet and maybe a piece of webbing or short rope as a handhold.

That said, at some point, many cavers want to start to explore more caves that have more vertical relief and that require ropes to descend into. Unlike rock-climbers, cavers don’t actually climb the rocks (as a general rule) but the rope itself.

The general techniques used by cavers fall into a category known as Single Rope Technique (SRT). The emphasis here is that a single rope is used to ascend and descend. This article won’t go into all the different ways of ascending the said rope, but among the systems are what are known as Frog, Texas, Mitchell, Rope-Walker and homegrown ones. Cavers will argue infinitely over which one is better, but at the end of the day, much of it comes down to personal preference. (That said, the Frog system is by far the most common one used in Europe and the US tends to be far more varied.)

Generally the most common way of descending is to use a device that generates friction with the rope. Here is perhaps the biggest difference between European Frog users and American Frog users.

In the US, most Frog users (in my experience, I’m not sure I’ve seen a great poll) use what’s known as a micro-rack. (And yes, this does mean there’s a non-micro-rack. These are still used in some cases, but far less common).

Image shows a micro-rack on 10mm rope on the left and on the right, the fore-arm/palm of a left hand for scale,
Micro-Rack (left on rope in position of use, on right to show scale)

These are fairly simple devices that are durable and given the design, generally can provide a wide range of friction. Generally in American SRT work, once you start descending, you stay on a single rope and don’t need to move to another rope. I love my micro-rack and can, while hanging on the rope (from my climbing devices) change over safely to be able to rappel in well under a minute and I can do it blindfolded (that’s not an exaggeration, I’ve tested myself.) It’s a great device and it works.

But as I mentioned, this is in the US. In Europe, most cavers would look at me twice and wonder what the heck I was thinking. Over there a different device, generically known as a bobbin is used. In my case what I bought was a version from Petzl known as a Stop (among other things, it has a handle to help move one of the internal “pulleys” to vary friction)

Open Petzl stop on left, attached to rope on right

Stop! This is the part to read!

And now after all the long-windedness I’m finally getting to the meat of this post.

As I mentioned above, both devices rely on friction. Both require some device specific knowledge to use. For example, with the micro-rack you need to know which way to thread the rope. With the Stop, you need to be aware of the requirement of what’s known as a braking carabiner in addition to the Stop itself. In this case I’m using a specific carabiner Petzl sells called a Freino Z. Each device also has a specific way of doing what’s known as a hard tie-off. This is essentially a method of tying the rope around the device such that if you release both hands from the device and rope you will not descend. This is a critical skill to have.

So, after playing with the Stop on the ground a bit, I decided I had to try it as I would use it, i.e. 10′ in the air off the floor of my office while attached to a rope. I struggled a bit, but changed over from my ascent to descent safely and made it back down.

I mention this because I didn’t have anyone there to teach me or show me. I was reminded again that there’s a difference between what I’d call rote or a basic understanding and a deep understanding. I teach a lot of beginners how to change over from their climbing system to their descent devices. And it’s obvious at first that they are simply replicating the motions taught to them. I know I did when I started. Put this here, put that there. It works, they technically pass the requirements needed to take the class I’m teaching. But, if suddenly in the middle of a trip their equipment failed or they lost it (it’s not entirely unheard of for someone to drop their rappel device down the shaft) and had to change to a different piece of equipment, they quite honestly would be lost.

Their basic understanding is limited to the original device. They don’t fully understand how it operates as much as “how to do these steps to make it work”. Only with time and lots of practice does the basic understanding become deep understanding. This is to me, the fun and interesting part. I’m not saying you could hand me any device and I’d automatically understand how to use it. For example, unless someone tells you a braking carabiner is a required part of a bobbin setup, you wouldn’t know that just from looking at it. But if someone said, here’s the basic operations and here’s some details you’d need to know, then yes, you feel confident I could use a new device.

In the case of SRT, proper knowledge is literally a life safety issue. But what about databases. (Yes, I almost always find a way to tie my caving activities to databases!)

I saw a question on Quora the other night asking “How do I do a backup/restore in SQL Server.” The basic answer is readily apparent, even from a casual reading of the documentation. BUT, the deeper understanding should be to the point, where among other things in my opinion, when doing a restore with NO RECOVERY automatically flows from your fingertips. Sure, you might find that you’ve recovered exactly what you need with the first file and no additional logs are necessary, but how many of us have finished a multi-hour restore only to realize we forgot the NO RECOVERY and now can’t apply our logs and have to start over? This may seem annoying, but if it’s the production database, you’ve just more than doubled your recovery time and hence your outage. That’s not a good thing to happen.

Similarly, many of us have seen things like NOLOCK used in queries. We almost always cringe. Sure, the syntax may be correct, but 99 times out of 100, the usage shows the person didn’t have a deeper understanding of the implications.

So it’s about more than simply knowing the syntax (which I’d argue is similar to the rote or basic memorization on how to put a micro-rack or bobbin on a rope) as much as knowing implications of the syntax and why certain things are done.

I’m still working on getting as good with the Stop as I am with the micro-rack, but honestly, if you stuck me in a dark cave tomorrow, I think I’d do just fine.

And next time I restore a database, I think I’d do fine. Will you?

1 thought on “Stop! Basic vs Deep Understanding

  1. Just a random, but also kinda related, sidenote… I took a three month break from City Of Heroes last year – and when I went back, I couldn’t remember my game password. So I put my fingers on the keyboard while I racked my brain to remember – and then I found my fingers typing the password w/o really any conscious direction.

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