Ascending and Descending Tools

Ascending and Descending Tools

The traditional climbing method uses 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 (DbRT) 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 more useful devices that can be used for going in both directions.

Ascending Tools

Mechanical ascenders are devices that can be attached to your rope, one foot, or both feet to help with movement up the rope. Some experienced climbers like these devices because climbing with them is easier or faster than the traditional knots-on-rope system. These tools should be used ONLY after you have mastered the traditional knots-on-rope (Blake’s hitch) system.

Hand ascenders are used only with stationery rope systems. The traditional ascenders with handles come in a couple of forms. One is made for a single hand, 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.

Most climbers are not using hand ascenders any more. They prefer to use combination ascending-descending devices instead.

Climbers who want to avoid too much use of their arms use foot ascenders with both the moving and stationery rope systems. Foot ascenders make more use of the climber's leg muscles, which are much stronger than arm muscles. There are different styles of foot ascenders, but they all do the same thing — they help make climbing less strenuous, more ergonomic, and faster.

The foot ascender is not meant for life support. The climber must be tied in with a life-supporting attachment to the saddle.

ct foot camCT "Quick Step" foot cam

Warning! The foot cam ascender straps on to one of the climber’s shoes. 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. Practice getting out of the foot ascender while on rope a few times before you take to the heights.

Knee ascenders are used to make a “rope-walker” system. This system incorporates a floating ascender that uses a bungee cord 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 system).

SAKA miniSAKA (self-advancing knee ascender)-mini
by Climbing Innovations

Be careful! Always be cautious when learning a new climbing system.

Start slow
Go low
Then grow

Descending Devices

Descending devices have their place, but are fast becoming outdated as newer 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 also if you let go of the rope.

Cammed Petzl IDPetzl I'ddescending devices, like the Petzl I'd, are used by canopy researchers and some redwood climbers. These 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. Professional climbers don’t use these descenders because of their limited use.

Remember: The traditional moving rope system that uses knots and one double-locking carabiner will you get you up and down a tree. It’s not fancy, but it is just about foolproof. 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.

All-in-One Tools for Ascending AND Descending

  • HitchHiker XF
  • Unicender


  • Rope Wrench

    Rope Wrench

  • Rope Runner

    Rope Runner

There is a whole new group of devices that are used with single rope and doubled rope technique climbing. One tool does it all: these devices allow you to go up and down the rope. The bad news is that some of these devices 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. You can get hurt if you use them improperly.

Three popular ascending/descending systems in use today are the Unicender, the Rope Wrench, and the Rope Runner. (The Rope Runner should be used only by experts; it's sensitive to touch.) There are other two-way systems on the market as well. Weigh the differences as to how you will use the tool. If you can, find a climbing friend who is using the tool, and ask questions. Do a little research. If it is a newly-designed device, it is sometimes better to be patient and wait to see if any flaws or upgrades appear. Problems are either discovered through time or develop with use. What’s new isn’t always safe.

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 error." 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:

Start slow
Go low
Then grow


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