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Comparative Review of Ascenders
By Matt Smith

The sport of canyoneering is going downhill. You start at the top of a canyon and, with the help of ropes, descend through the drainage and exit at the mouth of the canyon. You might wonder where the need for ascenders comes in. Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people. Ropes occasionally get stuck, potholes aren't always full, and once in a while, vertical rope techniques force you to pass knots, rebelays, or other deviations. It is those situations that require the use of an ascender or rope clamp. I tried out several leading models, testing them for functionality, comfort, ease of use and rope friendliness. Here is what I found.

Handled/Basic Ascenders

USHBA Titanium Ascenders
Petzl Ascension and Basic Ascenders
CMI Expedition Ascenders

Mini Ascenders

Wild Country Ropeman Mark II
Petzl Microcender

Specialty Rope Clamps

Petzl Shunt

USHBA Titanium Ascenders

USHBA Titanium Ascenders Both the handled and the basic USHBA ascenders work by clamping the rope rather than penetrating it with sharp points. Even after several ascents, my rope showed only minimal signs damage, similar to what you might see after having rappelled several times. The clamping mechanism is nearly identical on both models and the only significant difference is the handle. The handgrips are large enough to render the ascender useful even while wearing gloves or mittens. When the ascender is loaded, the placement of the rope in the device allows the handle to rotate into a nearly horizontal position. I found it much more comfortable to have my wrist straight, in a position similar to the position it would be in when doing chin-ups rather than bent into a position similar to climbing the rope with out an ascender. The orientation of the handle is unique to USHBA. All the other handled ascenders tested force your palm to be almost parallel to the rope. Another feature I really liked about the USHBA ascenders is there's no cam to release to downclimb. Simply rotate the device so the handle is in the vertical position and the ascender slides easily down the rope.

USHBA Titanium AscendersIn spite of the functionality of the device, there are a few downfalls to the USHBA ascender. At $74.95 for the Handled ascender and $69.95 for the Basic ascender the USHBA ascenders are the most expensive in the group. Although the handled model is slightly heavier than the other handled ascenders tested, (at 9.5 oz/ 270 grams) you get the added strength of titanium over aluminum. There is a slight weight advantage with the Basic model (at 4.3 oz/ 124 grams). Since the cam on the device is located at the bottom, and pivots on the rope when loaded, it is possible to jam the two devices together as load is transferred from the upper ascender to the lower ascender ,especially if they are close together. Also, due to the shape of the device, if you aren't careful, it is relatively easy to jam the upper ascender into the lower ascender when you unload the lower ascender and load the upper ascender. Doing this can produce sharp edges on the back of the lever that clamps the rope. A little practice can reduce the likelihood of this happening.

The USHBA is slightly more difficult to put the device on or take it off the rope with one hand than the other ascenders tested. For that reason, if you plan to pass a lot of protection, knots or deviations the USHBA may not be the best choice. In my opinion, the USHBA Titanium Ascender is the best for ascents where it is not necessary to repeatedly remove the device from the rope.

The Basic model also makes a great self belay when you are on single ropes. It slides along the rope easily and grabs fast and hard when you drop.

Summary: For long, straight ascents I liked the USHBA the best. I found it to be the most comfortable and by far the most rope friendly ascender in the group. It does cost a little more, but I think it's worth the money.

USHBA equipment is distributed by Advanced Basecamp and can be contacted at 801-954-0741.

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Petzl Ascension and Basic Ascenders

Petzl Ascension The Ascension is surprisingly light for its size. The sleek ergonomic look is perhaps the most attractive in the group. Fortunately, the beauty of the Ascension is more than skin deep. The ergonomic handles are angled slightly away from the rope and are a bit more comfortable than the CMI Expedition Ascenders. The handle is sized large enough to accommodate gloves or mittens. The large plastic cam release is shaped just right, and is positioned so you can release the cam with your thumb, without changing your grip on the handle. The cam release also doubles as a catch to lock the cam open. The catch can be released simply by pushing it down a bit. When released, the cam springs back against the rope. Being able to lock the cam open makes passing rebelays, protection or knots much easier. I found I could operate the ascender easily with one gloved hand.

One significant advantage of the Ascension is the location and orientation of the cam relative to the rest of the device. Since the handle is below the clamp it is nearly impossible to jam your upper ascender into your lower ascender. The handle is thin and offset so that even if the cams of your ascenders are right on top of each other, there is very little interference between the devices. The cam has inclined teeth, which definitely helps clear out mud and grime that may accumulate in the device as it moves along the rope. The Ascension is one of the lighter handled ascenders in the group at 196 grams.

The Ascension cam opens easily after being loaded and slides easily up the rope. Although the teeth on the cam are relatively large and very sharp, they were surprisingly kind to the rope. When used properly the teeth did cause slightly more wear than the USHBA ascenders, but less than the CMI Expedition Ascenders. I found that the only time any significant rope damage occurred was when the device is slid down the rope without the cam being fully open. Once conscious of this problem, I was able to avoid it and didn't have any more trouble.

Petzl BasicThe Basic is essentially the same device as the Ascension without a handle. The features on the basic are nearly identical to the handled version. As with any basic (no handle) ascender, it is slightly less convenient to ascend using the Basic than the Ascension, but you do save 60 grams. Because the cam must be in the open position for the Basic to slide down the rope it cannot safely be used as a self belay while rappelling. Petzl does make a small ascender, the Microcender which is excellent for self belay.

Because it is lightweight, easy to operate with one hand, and nearly fool proof I think the Ascension is best suited to climbs where you have to pass a lot of protection, where every gram counts and where simplicity makes a difference.

Summary: Although the Ascension it not the most rope friendly device in the group it is kind enough to the rope. The Ascension is also lighter than the other handled ascenders. For ease of use, cost ($47.50) and versatility I think the Ascension is great.

Contact Petzl America at 877-807-3805 or on the internet at www.petzl.com.

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CMI Expedition Ascenders

CMI Expedition Ascenders The CMI Ascenders are lightweight, functional and relatively inexpensive. At 250 grams the Expedition Ascenders are slightly heavier than the Petzl Ascensions, but lighter than the USHBA Handled Ascenders. The $57.50 price tag makes the CMI Ascender land square in the middle of the price range for the handled ascenders. The cams held the rope solidly when ascending and the relatively small teeth are slightly more rope friendly than the Petzl Ascension Ascenders.

I found the CMI Expedition Ascenders difficult to operate with one hand. The cam release lever is small and there is no easy way to pull the cam down without adjusting your grip on the ascender. The only way I was able to release the cam was by rotating my hand slightly and using my index finger to move the cam. There is also no way to lock the cam open, which may slightly increase safety, but the inconvenience is not worth the minor risk reduction. Down climbing with the ascenders was very tedious due to the inaccessibility of the cam. As a result I experienced much more rope damage with the CMI ascenders than the Petzl Ascenders, in spite of the smaller teeth.

The handles on the CMI Expedition Ascenders are large enough to use easily with gloves. The handles seemed large and bulky, but admittedly this could be due to my relatively small hands. The double attachment points on the ascender make using separate carabiners for your aider and your daisy possible, A feature the Ascension and the USHBA lack.

The location and orientation of the cam on the device is similar to the Ascension. As with the Petzl Ascenders I found it much easier to avoid damaging the ascenders by inadvertently jamming them together. Although I may seem to be hard on the CMI ascender, it does have its redeeming qualities. The Expedition Ascender slides up the rope very easily, even near the bottom. I also found that they grabbed the rope very securely and I never had problems with slippage. Since I tested all the devices from a canyoneering point of view, I don't have information on how well they perform in icy conditions.

Summary: The CMI Expedition Ascender was difficult to operate with one hand and lacked some of the features I found important. I also felt it was less comfortable than the Petzl Ascension. Weight was the only issue that may swing me towards the CMI, but the extra cost counteracts the benefit in my opinion.

CMI can be contacted at 800-247-5901 or on the internet at www.cmi-gear.com.

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Wild Country Ropeman Mark II

Wild Country Ropeman Mark II Small and light at 57 grams, the Ropeman Mark II is the smallest ascender in the group. It is recommended for use on ropes from 8.5 - 11 mm. I used the device on 9 mm and 10.5 mm ropes. I found that with a locking carabiner and a 10.5 mm rope, I was barely able to get the cam far enough out of the way to disengage it from the rope. The cam is spring loaded, which makes it hard to down climb with larger ropes, but on the other hand the device grabbed the rope securely and I felt safe hanging on the tiny chunk of aluminum. I think the Ropeman Mark II is best suited to ropes less than 10 mm.

The device has a small cable you can clip to your carabiner, greatly reducing the chance it might be dropped. The Ropeman Mark II is small enough to fit into your pocket or hang permanently on your harness. At $32.50 the Ropeman Mark II costs nearly as much as a handled ascender, but weighs much less and takes up much less space.

Summary: For a tiny device you can rely on to get you out of those unexpected circumstances, the Wild Country Ropeman Mark II is great. This device works best on smaller diameter ropes, especially if you have to climb down the rope.

Contact Wild Country at 603-356-5590.

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Petzl Microcender

Petzl Microcender Larger than the Ropeman Mark II, but still small enough to leave on your harness is the Microcender. The ingenious design makes it possible to leave the cam attached directly to your carabiner at all times. There are no true teeth on the Microcender, rather several smooth, round ridges. The ridges allow the device to slide down the rope when overloaded. The device has no spring is very rope friendly, yet still grabs the rope securely. The device is recommended for use on 9-13 mm ropes. I used it on 9 mm and 11 mm ropes. The rope slot was large enough to easily accommodate the 11 mm rope yet small enough that the 9 mm rope didn't slip. The hole in the cam for the carabiner is large enough that a locking carabiner slips in easily.

The lobe on the cam that the carabiner goes through is convenient for disengaging the device when you need to go down the rope. I had no trouble getting the Microcender to slide up the rope. The device is also fairly rugged. Although it is surely psychological, I found the sturdy design made me feel more secure than other mini-ascenders. At 162 grams the Microcender is nearly three times the weight of the Ropeman Mark II. I liked the Microcender for self belay when descending long rappels. The cam is easy to hold open and grabs hard when allowed to close. The Microcender retails for $55.00.

Summary: The size and versatility make the Microcender a little like garlic. At first the life was a little awkward, but after using it with a few different dishes, I knew I couldn't live without it. The Microcender gets a big plus in my book.

Contact Petzl America at 877-807-3805 or on the internet at www.petzl.com.

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Petzl Shunt

Petzl Shunt A must for every canyoneer, the Shunt is one of the few devices that can clamp double (same diameter) ropes. The channels can accommodate 8-11 mm double ropes or 10-11 mm single ropes. I ascended using the shunt on 9 mm, 10.5 mm and 11 mm double ropes. I never had a problem with slippage. The larger diameter ropes require a little more effort to get in than smaller ropes, but still not bad. The cam on the Shunt is spring loaded, which requires the cam to be held open when down climbing. I didn't find this to be a problem since the large lever makes a nice handle to hold the clamp open. The Shunt also makes a nice self belay when rappelling on double ropes. There are no teeth whatsoever on the device making it very rope friendly.

The main disadvantages of the Shunt are weight (188 grams), and the fact that you have to completely remove any connection between the Shunt and your carabiner when putting it on, or taking if off the rope. This significantly increases the chance of it being dropped. You might be able to keep a small cable or very small accessory cord tied to the hole in the cam release lever, but it makes putting the device in the rope more of a challenge.

Summary: Don't leave home without it! This is one of my essential devices that I would recommend goes into every canyon with you, and never gets far from your harness. The Shunt sells for about $40.00.

Contact Petzl America at 877-807-3805 or on the internet at www.petzl.com.

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Matt Smith is the canyoneering specialist at GearReview.com.


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