Some while ago I witnessed two climbers making a perfectly well executed abseil approach to Trevallen in Pembroke. Unfortunately they weren’t intending to climb at Trevallen that day, and had taken the wrong right-hand turn on the way to the infinitely more accommodating St. Govan’s Head. After walking around for several minutes, desperately attempting to interpret the guidebook in way that would give them a way out that they could manage, they settled on the fact that they were, indeed, in the wrong place. For those of you who have yet to sample the delights of Trevallen, it should be pointed out that the ‘escape route’ is HVS – with a stiff start, and excusing a very long crawl through bird droppings, the only other non-climbing escape is to go back up your rope.
Fortunately one half of the intrepid couple had a pair of shiny new Petzl Tiblocs, which he quite properly arranged on my abseil rope and proceeded to remove the sheath. Or at least he would have if those around hadn’t stopped him, and instead organised a power-assisted top tope of The Hole (The HVS) for him and his partner. The first moral of the tale, is to know you never know when you’re going to have to climb up a rope, the second is to practice your skills with your gear somewhere a little more forgiving before you find yourself at the bottom of a sea cliff with no routes out. Of course, I can talk. The first time I used a set of tiblocs was ten pitches up Steck Salathe in Yosemite, in the dark. They weren’t my tiblocs (I hadn’t even brought anything), and I too, proceeded to skin my rope. Fortunately it was very dark at the time and there was nobody around to laugh at me.
The article is not going to prepare you for climbing up a rope. Even if you learn of a new skill, only by getting on a rope and having a play will you actually gain a new skill, and that’s what counts when you’re stuck at the bottom of a rope on a big cliff.
Prussic-ing, Jumaring, and Jugging are all terms used to describe ascending a rope (or ropes). All these methods work in fundamentally the same way, the rope is attached to at two points, one connecting the climber’s harness, one connecting one or both feet. By sliding each connection point up the rope in turn and standing in a foot-loop, progress is made. In this article, we will look at the range of gear that can be used to do this, and different techniques that can be employed to make it all work.
The Prussic Loop
The original! The Prussic loop is a short piece of cord tied into a loop using a double fisherman’s knot. The diameter of the cord is crucial, with 5mm being about right – though the important thing is that it locks, not that it is thick. The Prussic loop can be attached to the fixed rope by a variety of knots – besides the prussic knot, though the name prussic loop (or prussic) has stuck. Here are two of the most popular means of attaching a prussic loop to a rope:
The Prussic Knot (below in the photo)
Take a bight of your prussic loop either side of the rope, making a larger loop on the ‘knot side’ of the prussic loop. The larger loop is passed through the smaller loop to make a larks foot, then passed around the rope and through the loop again to make a prussic knot. This should jam when the loop is weighted, if it doesn’t, the prussic loop is too thick or too stiff (tape and spectra cord is no good for tying prussic knots).
The Klemheist Knot (above in the photo)
Less prone to jamming up, the Klemheist can also be tied in tape. Simply, the loop is spiralled (around five turns should do it) around the rope with a long loop remaining at the bottom (the knot end) and a short loop at the top. The long loop is passed through the short loop, and the whole thing should jam when loaded.
The following devices can all be used interchangeably, with any device above or below the other, this is because they are all releasable when the rope they are fixed to is taught
The following devices are all mechanical attempts to improve upon the humble prussic. Apart from the Shunt, they all work only on a single rope. Fine if you need to ascend a fixed line like an abseil rope, but not so useful if the twin ropes you’ve just abseiled down are stuck and you want to ascend back up to get them free.
Wild Country Ropeman
Specifically designed for ascending single ropes, the Wild Country Rope Man (or Rope Men – there is a Mark I and a Mark II) is compact, discrete, and effective. Effectively a swing pulley with a cam built-in, these use the karabiner itself to complete the functionality, and are popular gadgets.
A clever design with absolutely no moving parts, these are the closest thing to a prussic in terms of simplicity. Their only flaw is the fact that their teeth are quite aggressive, and that if they are not correctly ‘set’ onto the rope, they will slide down damaging the sheath and scaring you half to death. Easy when you’ve had a bit of a practice.
Petzl Handled Ascender
The Petzl Ascender is the Rolls Royce of rope ascending. Quick, comfy, safe, and fast. But heavy, and not cheap. This is what you take when you are sure you’re going to be climbing up ropes. The device has an ergonomically shaped handle, and a brilliantly designed lock/trigger that you can operate with one hand. At the top of the device is a hole that you can put a karabiner through to ensure that the devices is locked onto the rope – handy if the rope you’re ascending is steeper than vertical. At the base of the device is a big hole – for a karabiner and a smaller hole, which can be used to permanently attach a foot-loop. You can also attach to it by putting a sling through the handle.
At first glance, this looks like an Ascender on the cheap, I mean, there’s no handle for a start. It wasn’t until this year that I got to use a Croll – while filming a big wall in Sardinia, and immediately I understood that fast ascending could be spelt with five letter c-r-o-l-l. A Croll is a chest ascender, it attaches directly to your belay loop, and is held in place with a loop that goes around your neck. When combined with a full handled ascender and a double foot loop, the croll allows for a seriously quick way of ascending a hanging rope, because the associated technique allows both hands to be used on the top ascender, and both feet in the foot loop, it is less tiring than other methods.
Petzl Mini Traxion
This clever, multi-functional device can be used to haul, self-belay, and ascend. As an ascender, whilst not as user-friendly as a full-handled ascender, it is still a very effective tool.
Built-in pulley allows it to be used for hauling with ease.
The Shunt was designed to backup abseils, but can also be used to ascent ropes. It has the strong advantage of being able to handle two ropes, and if you find you need to descend, releasing the Shunt and sliding it down the rope is more easily achieved than with any other device mentioned here.
Auto Lock Belay Devices and their use
The following devices can be used as part of an ascending system. Because they are all immobilised when fixed to a rope that is under tension, they can only be used below a device in the above list of dedicated ascenders. The advantage in using an autolocking device as a part of your system is that it is one less item to take with you – using a device like a Gri Gri or SRC will also have the advantage of allowing you to quickly descend should you need to (such as if you are on a rope to take photos or watch a beginner on a lead).
Petzl Gri Gri (and similar)
The Gri Gri is quite a popular device for indoor route setters to use combined with a full-handled ascender. The Gri Gri provides a reassuring connection to the rope, and offers a quick and easy backed-up descent should it be needed. Whilst it could be used on the end of a foot-loop, the most effective setup is to attach the Gri Gri directly to the harness as though it were being used to belay with. A full handled Ascender is placed above the Gri Gri with a foot loop in place. Commonly, the dead rope is passed from the bottom of the Gri Gri up through a karabiner clipped through the bottom on the Ascender. As you step un on the foot-loop, the dead rope coming from the Gri Gri via the Ascender can be pulled through at the same time to make for a more natural feeling movement.
The Petzl Revero, Reversino and other ‘magic plate’ belay devices can be used on the lower part of a rope ascending setup. It requires two karabiners, but works quite well, and saves carrying an extra device, though it isn’t going to be as smooth as a dedicated ascender, it is well worth familiarising yourself with the rope ascending capabilities of a ‘magic plate’ belay device if you happen to have one.
Single Foot-loop Method
This is the most basic technique, and very straight-forward. It doesn’t matter whether you use prussic cords or full-handled Ascenders – or anything in between, the principle is exactly the same. Two attachments are needed to the rope. If one of the attachments is a magic plate, make sure that is at the bottom or you’ll be going nowhere fast. The upper attachment simply connects to the belay look of your harness, the lower attachment connects to a foot-loop. It makes sense to connect the lower point to your belay loop too, as a backup. Progress is made by stepping on the foot loop, moving the top attachment up the rope, sitting on it, moving the foot attachment, and repeating until you’re where you want to be.
Double Foot-loop Method
By using a pair of ascenders, you can make quicker progress by attaching a foot-loop to each one, and then connecting each one to your harness. Clipping in short allows you to ‘walk’ up the rope on just the foot loops, by making short steps.
Ascender / Croll Method
The quickest method I’ve used. The Croll is attached directly to the belay loop on your harness, and held in place by a sling that goes around your neck – or a chest harness if you have one. The full handled ascender is placed above the croll, and attached to a foot-loop – and also to your harness as a backup. Grab the ascender with both hands and stand up in the foot loop – the croll will be pulled up the rope (if it doesn’t, then try to weigh the rope down a bit, such as by coiling it and handing the coil from the end). The resulting action is less tiring than using a pair of ascenders – perfect for long ascents.
Ascender/Gri Gri Method
A similar setup to the Ascender / Croll method, only this time the Croll is replaced with a Gri Gri – or similar auto-locking belay device. Unlike with the Ascender / Croll method, the rope cannot be expects to flow through the Gri Gri, instead it needs to be pulled through manually. To make this easier, run the dead end from the Gri Gri through a spare karabiner in the Ascender, now when you stand up in the foot-loop you can pull on the dead end leaving the Gri Gri via the Ascender and assist.
Endnote: it is not possible to communicate every safety aspect involved in ascending, and this article assumes a certain degree of technical familliarity, not to mention common sense. The best way to learn is from a suitably experienced instructor.