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Ascending rope is a technique less used with mountain climbing, but still a skill anyone on rope should know and practice. For multi-level mine exploration, it's an absolutely necessary skill. Rappelling is easy. Just remember that 300 feet down is still 300 feet up and to ascend rope safely, you'll need special skills and equipment. I can't stress the use of a safety rope enough even in situations where it does not seem necessary.
This section will cover the design and purpose of various ascenders with the assumption that the end user already knows how to secure their own top rope. All ascenders work under the same principles of applying friction or a combination of one-way teeth on a spring loaded cam.
Short of brute strength and monkeying up a rope, the most basic ascender is a Prusik knot. (image below) Just as I recommend learning to rappel with a basic Figure 8, I recommend learning and continued practicing with the Prusik knot because of its fool-proof design. Downward pressure tightens the knot and creates friction around your mainline rope. There are other friction hitch knots you can use that serve this same purpose, but what makes this my preference over others is its simple pattern appearance. When I'm rigging line for others, I can visually inspect the knot and know with a glance if it's set right.
The Pantin works in the same fashion as the Ascension with one way teeth on a cam, but does so at the foot by strapping securely to your boot. To reduce ankle strain and fatigue, you'll want to use the Pantin with a quality hiking boot. The advantage this has over a standard foot loop ascender is the extra control since you're connected to rope at the top and bottom. This advantage is most noticable when ascending shafts where you may have a combination of free hanging and some wall contact.
You can better visualize the energy reduction in the ascending rig below. Each step up is ascending and more natural movement like climbing a ladder. (Image below)
I know a few people who love the Wild Country device, but as a primary ascender, I would say this is my least favorite of all ascenders I've ever tried. It seems to be popular among tree service arborists who have short ascents. My biggest complaint is it's not a very free flowing device which becomes a problem with long ascents.
Ascending with it requires you to relieve tension while you pull up on a wire cable attached to the cam. I also noticed that each time you pull up on the cam, some of the one way teeth catches on my rope. If you don't get a clean pull each time, you're damaging your rope the length of your ascent. The only instance I've found it useful was as a brake when I needed slack in the line when switching between devices, but even in that situation, I found application of the device clumsy and preferred a Prusik.
An ideal ascender would be free-flowing. Push up on the device and it easily glides up the rope. Add weight to the rope and it positively locks you in place. That's what you get with the Petzl Ascension (Image below. Top.) and Black Diamond NForce. (Image below. Bottom.) They really are that simple and effortless. They make them in a left and right handed design and both come with easy to manipulate lock controls. They've both had a few design changes over the years. You'll have more colors available and the larger handles are much more comfortable, but the cam principles remain about the same.
Whatever you choose, you should be able to attach an accessory cord or sling to the provided carabiner points of your ascenders to create foot loops. Doing so would shift the heavy climbing from your upper body to your legs. We use Speed Stirrups by Yates for that purpose. (Image below)
There are so many combinations of techniques and equipment that there really is no best way to ascend rope. For most, your budget will dictate how you build up your climbing rigs. Hopefully, these reviews will help you decide what is best for you and maybe save you a little money.
Advanced Equipment. Chapter 1: Introduction to rope
Advanced Equipment. Chapter 2: Climbing harnesses
Advanced Equipment. Chapter 3: Rappelling devices
Advanced Equipment. Chapter 4: Ascending devices
Ascending rope with a Prusik is a slow process. Each time you apply downward pressure to tighten the knot, you have to loosen the knot to move it up for your next advance. Depending on rope condition, Prusik's have been known to slip, so they do require more attention than most devices. However, it's just a knot and not a device, so it would be unfair to compare the two.
The Wild Country is a toothed device by Ropeman. (Image below) It's gone through a few redesigns over the years, but it's essentially the same product using spring loaded one-way teeth to create friction on the rope. After giving it some thought, the only positives I can offer is it's small and inexpensive at around $30-60.
The Speed Stirrups have adjustments for length and shoe to hold your foot in the stirrup and reduce the chances of becoming separated. The wide foot base distributes your weight better than just an accessory cord or sling. Additionally, there is a carabiner loop built into the excess tail that you can attach to your harness. Two connection points on a single device. Stand and apply foot tension to ascend or take a seat and rest on the attached Speed Stirrup tail.
Many will climb rope with just a couple ascenders and a single foot loop similar to what you see above. In most instances and short climbs that's sufficient, but for ease of use and long ascents, you'll want to make efficient use of your energy and minimize your climbing strokes. Some will use two ascenders as shown above with a foot loop attached to each. For many years, that's how we used to ascend rope until we tried the Pantin foot ascender also by Petzl. (Image below)
Advanced Exploration Equipment
Chapter 4: Ascending Devices