Whale tail descenders

Custards

Active member
Hello all,

Does anybody here have any experience with whale tail descenders? I've seen the pictures and the diagrams of use but individuals with hands on experience of using them are far harder to come by it seems. From looking at them, and comparing them to the devices currently in circulation, I can hazard many a guess as to why they fell out of favour. Nonetheless I am still curious about them and if anyone has one they'd be willing to let me borrow / buy I'd greatly appreciate you reaching out.

In my experience few of my student caver peers aren't even aware of whale tails as a concept, and I'd hate to see knowledge of any caving devices die out (not least because if their inadequacies were forgotten, someone might try and make one again!!)
 

Fulk

Well-known member
Here's a little anecdote for you:

One day (many years ago) a group of us (organized by Andy Eavis) went to Malham Cove to see how hot various types of descender got in use on a long pitch on a dry rope, using a thermocouple attached to a very long wire. At one point someone was kneeling on the edge of the (220-ft) Cove about to abseil on the whaletail (basically a big chunk of aluminium bar with several ‘spigots’, looking a bit like mushrooms, down one side, around which the rope is wrapped), when somebody tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I think that thing’s threaded wrongly’. The caver beat a hasty retreat from the edge of the Cove, and we had a good look at the descender – the thing is that superficially he’d threaded it the ‘obvious’ way . . . but the ‘obvious’ way was the wrong way. So we set up a little trial abseil on a tiny crag just above the Cove, threaded the descender the ‘obvious’ way, and sure enough, as soon as it was loaded it flicked off the rope . . .
 

mrodoc

Well-known member
If you are in the Journal exchange scheme the latest Belfry Bulletin has article by Robin Gray extolling the virtues of the Whaletail. Re the last posting I have commenced an abseil with a rack threaded the wrong way. Fortunately there was a ledge and I wasn't underground at the time.
 

Fulk

Well-known member
I see that those Spelean Whaletails have a sliding bar over some of the 'mushrooms', presumably to stop the rope slipping out; ours didn't.
 
I became familiar with them back in 1980 whilst living in a land downunder, they work similar to a rack, mine had a sliding bar across the top 'mushrooms'. Didn't have any issues although mainly used on short pitches, but they are a big lump of aluminium.
 

PeteHall

Moderator
I believe the sliding bar over the top 'mushroom' is to provide an additional protection if it is rigged backwards; this being the biggest risk, particularly to a novice user.

My own (limited) experience, is that they are great on a long free-hanging pitch. Try doing a rebelay (eg under Event Horizon in Titan) and it's a total pain in the arse as it's so long.

If you want to borrow one, @Custards, I may be able to arrange it, as a friend has one he lent me before.
 

JJ

Member
I have one (with sliding bar) that you can borrow/have. Personal Australian import from memory and with very little use!!

PM if interested, available in the Dales or cavers post.
 

Fjell

Well-known member
It’s an evolutionary dead end. The Bobbin won, quite easily. I was always under the impression it was the brainchild of someone with a bunch of alloy bar and a milling machine, a Bobbin is harder to engineer.
 
I used to have one and thought it quite good but with some snags. Mine had a safety gate held on with a wingnut, so there was little danger of the rope entirely pinging off, though I was always a bit nervous of it. Apparently earlier models didn't have a safety gate at all and you just had to be careful. In fairness it shouldn't ping out under load, but there was still that doubt of pulling out more than you intended if reducing friction.

Generally very smooth and comparable to a rack, albeit lacked the later's option to squeeze or seperate the bars for fine tuning friction.

Excellent heat dissipation - perhaps the best ever device for this

Quick and easy on-and-off

Less annoyingly jangly to carry than a rack, though still a big chunk of metal.

With loose sheath ropes tended to get stuck as the sheath bunched up. Only had this one one particular set of ropes the Club had. This also caused a nuisance to those following.

Anyhow after I bought a Stop I never really used it afterwards and scrapped it eventually
 

mrodoc

Well-known member
1698578373662.png

Robin Gray's Whaletail for those not familiar with them
 

Custards

Active member
Thanks everyone for all the responses! You've been very helpful in building up a greater picture of them. To the couple of you who could potentially put me in contact with one, i'll send PM's to you about it. Sorry I wasn't more on it with responding over the past week, but I've been all tied up.

Thinking about it, a re-run of the Malham Cove affair might be a fun weekend activity - however hopefully without any close calls a second time around haha - I'll suggest it to some pals...
 

Custards

Active member

Ship-badger

Member
Gary Storricks excellent museum appears to have gone completely offline. I can't find it anywhere. If anyone knows where it is now I'd be much obliged.
 
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