Ascending and Descending Tools
Traditional climbing methods use a rope which is hung over a branch, tied with several knots into a loop, and connected to the climber’s saddle with a life-supporting carabiner. The climber ascends and descends by using the knots to shorten or lengthen the rope loop. This climbing system, formerly called doubled-rope technique (DRT) has a new name: “moving rope system” (MRS). It’s the only climbing system in the world that makes use of a rope that moves over an object (anchor point).
In this section, we'll talk about mechanical devices that can be used with MRS, SRS (stationery rope system, formerly called single rope technique [SRT]) or both systems to help make climbing easier or faster. Some of these devices are for ascending only, some are for descending only, and then there are the devices that can be used going in both directions.
Mechanical ascenders are devices that can be attached to your rope, feet, or knee to help with movement up the rope. Some experienced climbers like these devices because climbing with them is easier or faster than in the traditional knots-on-rope system. These tools should be used ONLY after you have mastered the traditional knots-on-rope system.
Hand ascenders are used only with stationery rope systems (SRS, formerly called single rope technique). The traditional ascenders with handles come in a couple of forms. One is made for a single hand, while the other has two handles so both hands can be used. Handled ascenders have a hinged cam with teeth that grab the rope when loaded. These little teeth are either straight or at a 45-degree angle. The teeth that are straight are considerably kinder to the rope than the angled type of teeth that mangle the rope if the climber falls.
Foot ascenders are used with both MRS and SRS systems by climbers who want to avoid too much use of their arms. This is helpful because leg muscles are much stronger than the arms. The foot cam ascender straps on to one of the climber’s shoes. There are different styles of these devices, but they all do the same thing. The foot ascender is not meant for “life support.” The climber must be tied in with a life-supporting attachment to the saddle. Think of foot cams as an aid to make climbing less strenuous, more ergomic, and faster.
Warning! Make sure you take off your foot ascender before descending. If you don’t you’ll find yourself hanging upside down in a complicated situation.
Knee ascenders are used to make a “rope-walker” system. This sytem incorporates a foot ascender to give you a “stair walk” up the rope. The rope walking system can be used with either a moving rope system (MRS) or with a stationary rope system (SRS, formerly single-rope technique). The system is gear-intensive.
Descending tools are metal devices used for coming down the rope (also known as rappelling). Typically the rope is wrapped or weaved over metal surfaces to create friction. There are many different kinds of configurations. Descending devices have their place, but are fast becoming “old school” as systems are developed that go both up and down the rope.
Be careful if you are using a descending device. The old-school figure 8 will drop you to the ground if you let go of the rope. Other devices, such as a rack, will drop you down slowly if you let go.
Cammed descending devices incorporate a handle that you pull to come down. Some have “panic stops” that stop you if you pull the handle down too far; this prevents uncontrolled descents that are too fast. These descenders are much safer than traditional figure 8 descenders.
Remember: The traditional moving rope system that use knots and one double-locking carabineer will you get you up and down a tree. It’s not fancy, but it is just about bomb proof. It’s also very inexpensive. That’s why new climbers and hotshot speed climbers should be familiar with the basic traditional system first. If you drop one of the parts of a more advanced system out of the tree without having a spare, it could be embarrassing if not dangerous if you are not familiar with the traditional system.
Tools Used for Ascending AND Descending
There is a whole new group of devices that are used with a stationary rope system (single rope technique). One tool toes it all: they allow you to go up and down the rope. The bad news is that they are expensive; the good news is that they operate predictably if you know how to use them. The one thing these devices have in common is that they will cause you to slide down the rope very quickly if you pull on them too hard. Use them with respect. They can hurt you if used improperly.
New systems are being developed every year. It really is incredible how many tools and techniques are showing up in the catalogs with enticing copy explaining their virtues and how they will change your climbing life. But beware! There have been some mishaps using new climbing technology. Climbers can do some funny things with gear. Sometimes our imagination can lead to accidents, also known as user errors. Often the user doesn’t get the right training or has not learned the gear’s limitations. Read the instructions carefully! Remember the rule with new gear and technique:
The three most popular ascending/descending systems in use today are the Unicender, the Rope Wrench, and the Rope Runner. There are other two-way systems on the market, but they have not been thoroughly tested by years of use. That’s one of the problems with new climbing technology. Flaws are either discovered through time or develop with use. What’s new isn’t always safe.