Ascenders are Essential Big Wall Climbing Equipment

How to Use Ascenders for Climbing

Learn how to safely and properly use ascenders so you can jug up fixed ropes on El Capitan in Yosemite. Photograph copyright Jerry Dodrill/Getty Images

Ascenders are mechanical devices that attach onto a climbing rope and allow a climber to ascend the rope. Ascenders come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have different uses. Some ascenders are best for use on big walls, while others are used in caving, ascending frozen ropes on high mountains, or for rescue work. All ascenders are characterized by a toothed cam which clamps onto the rope when the ascender is weighted, creating a solid point for a climber to move upward on the rope.

Use Paired Ascenders

For most rock climbing applications—climbing big walls, following aid pitches, and ascending fixed ropes — you need a good pair of handled ascenders, that is paired ascenders with a handle for the right hand and one for the left hand, although some climbers like ascenders that can work with either hand. Get a pair of ascenders like those made by Petzl, CMI, and Black Diamond that are specifically made for rock climbing. The ascenders in a pair usually come in different colors so it’s easy to tell right from left. Make sure that the ascenders are easy to use with one hand; that the handle grip is comfortable; and check out the cam teeth. For most rock climbing uses, you don’t need cams with big aggressive teeth, which work best on icy and frozen ropes. These teeth also abrade your rope.

Stand in Aiders and Slide the Ascender Up

To ascend a fixed rope, the climber stands with his feet in aiders or slings, which are clipped to a hole in the ascender base.

When a climber stands in the aiders, his weight on the ascender allows a cam with teeth to bite into the rope and prevents the ascender from sliding down the rope. A weighted ascender cannot be moved up or down. When the ascender and aider are unweighted, the climber is able to easily slide the ascender up the rope with one hand.

Use a Rhythmic Motion to Ascend Fixed Ropes

A climber ascends a rope by alternately weighting one ascender and pushing up the other in a rhythmic motion. While this sounds relatively easy, it’s not. Ascending a rope efficiently requires lots of practice with ascenders on fixed ropes. It is easier to use ascenders on a slab or vertical face than an overhanging wall, which requires more strength and stamina. To clean gear from aid pitches, which is the usual situation when you will be using ascenders, requires, even more, practice since you will be ascending a tightly fixed rope that diagonals, traverses sideways, and goes over roofs. Pitches that have pendulums like King Swing on The Nose of El Capitan require lots of ascender trickery and skill to safely ascend the fixed rope.

Jugging Ropes is Dangerous

Ascending or “judging” a fixed rope can be a dangerous business, especially since you are totally relying on your gear, including your ascenders; how you are clipped into your ascenders, aiders, and harness; the integrity and strength of the fixed climbing rope; and the anchors that the rope is attached to.

Rules for Safely Using Ascenders

Here are some rules for safely using ascenders:

  • Always clip both ascenders into your harness using daisy chains and locking carabiners.
  • Always tie knots in the rope below you as you jug upward and clip them into your harness belay loop.
  • Always use locking carabiners on ascender attachment points including daisy chains.
  • Always double check to make sure your ascenders are properly attached to the fixed rope, especially if you have to remove one to place it above a piece of gear on overhanging terrain.

Jumars and Jugging

The first ascenders in common use were Swiss-made Jumars. These paired ascenders, first introduced to America in Yosemite Valley, became a useful climbing tool for climbing big walls using the Yosemite method. Back in the 1970s, all ascenders used in America were simply called jumars and the technique for ascending a fixed rope was called jumaring, which was later bastardized to "jugging," a term still used by climbers when referring to ascending a rope with ascenders.