Climbing Trends – Do They Live Up to the Hype?

Over the last decade, the world has benefitted from technological advances that allow for widespread access to information. The field of arboriculture is no exception; a plethora of training and safety information is available at the click of a button. Even social media has its positive influence on the industry. It has connected me with people from across the world and introduced me to lifelong friends. I follow industry legends and learn tips and tricks from their videos. I’ve participated in groups where I have learned from successful business owners who helped me grow my own company. Unfortunately, this access to information can be a double-edged sword.

Bypassing a limb using the “staying-on-rope” technique. All photos courtesy of Ryan Torcicollo.

As someone who cares about the up-and-coming generation of tree workers looking to the internet for information and training, I’m concerned about the quality of information being produced and viewed across Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms. Social-media “influencers,” with tens of thousands of followers, are producing content exhibiting unsafe practices and creating work trends that may “look” cool or have thousands of likes, but that are more dangerous, less productive and sometimes in violation of ANSI standards or gear-manufacturer user guidelines.

Trend #1: “Dragging tail”

A practice becoming increasingly trendy is “dragging tail,” which suggests that when crossing a union, the tail rope is not pulled through the union with the climber. The intention of this practice is to increase speed in the tree. While this could work well in certain applications, the time savings do not outweigh the safety risks. A few years ago, I competed in a tree-climbing competition and I saw firsthand what this practice can do to a rope. During a speed-focused team event, we were bombing through unions, holding the falling end of our line to pull the exact amount down we needed. Over the course of that day, we ended up cutting multiple ropes nearly in half (from friction) and were completely unaware of the impact we were having on our systems.

An example of a “staying-on-rope” setup.

It all could have been avoided by simply tailing the ropes completely to the ground, but we were fixated on speed, oblivious to the safety risks we were creating. Not only does this practice of “dragging tail” stress our gear, but it also could inhibit an aerial rescue. The risks during an aerial rescue or self-rescue include not having enough tail to reach the ground, the rope getting knotted around a limb or a multitude of other unforeseen situations, and that added rescue time could be a life-and-death difference.

Trend #2: Rope-wrench climbing-system hacks

I am always looking for innovative ideas to keep my climbing system concise and efficient, but some of the emerging rope-wrench trends – specifically short tethers and hitch breakers – can be cause for concern. User guidelines from ISC, Ltd., the manufacturer of the Singing Tree Rope Wrench, state, “A suitable tether allows 8 cm (3 inches) of room between the hitch and the Rope Wrench in an engaged and fully equalized setup.” Many times when I’ve seen short tethers or hitch-breaker systems posted online, the pictured system violates the ISC guidelines.

I can see why the short tether could be appealing to climbers – it looks cool and is a significantly smaller, more compact system. Unfortunately, most times I have seen this in a real-life application, the use is less than the 3-inch manufacturer’s guideline.

The same goes for hitch breakers. Hitch breakers can be manufactured or homemade pieces attached to a climbing rope above your hitch that open the hitch quicker, are easier on the hand and eliminate potential burn when descending quickly. I run a hitch breaker above my Prusik on my wrench setup with a long tether. However, as with the short tether, this setup can easily be non-compliant if not done correctly. While it is possible to get away with violating manufacturing standards without issue, the speed and convenience benefits do not outweigh the risks. In this case, a disengaged rope wrench could mean a catastrophic free fall.

Trend #3: “Staying on rope”

A lot of people are trying out the new trend of “staying on rope.” Staying on rope is when you connect to your climbing rope above the climbing system, as a secondary/temporary tie-in, keep the rope weighted and then remove your primary SRS system to move it around a different union. I utilize this technique at times and can see a practical application for it, particularly when there is not a suitable secondary tie-in point. However, its use should be limited, because removing your climbing system is always a calculated risk.

Misconfigured gear and too short a tether, causing the hitch to be within 3 inches.

Any unanticipated event, say bees, for example, could cause you to lose your primary system in the tree, and then you have lost your egress. The same goes for an aerial rescue, which is significantly more difficult without a primary system. Losing your egress is too high a risk to use this practice without cause, and, when used improperly, it actually makes a climber less efficient. On social media, I often notice people staying on rope when not needed – if you have a lanyard around a limb or lead you were trusting for a tie-in point, then staying on rope is a waste of time. Like everything in tree work, there is a time and place for this trend; what makes a good climber is knowing the right applications.

Trend #4: Flashy new gear

Our industry is being flooded with gear. There are new manufacturers popping up, ropes are being produced in every color and style imaginable and gear is widely accessible at large retailers such as Amazon. Everyone loves flashy new gear, and I am no exception. I post pictures of my new confetti rope before I even remove it from the bag. However, as consumers, we need to pause, look beyond the flash and bang of the newest offerings and ask how mass gear production is affecting our industry. Most important, are these items subject to testing? What is the quality of the item? And are the pieces you use compatible?

“Dragging tail” through a union, where the moving rope end is under the loaded line, causing rope-on-rope wear.

Quality and testing are of the utmost importance when it comes to gear. Many foreign manufacturers are making replicas of reputable gear with inferior materials and no testing. Those knockoffs are then sold through mainstream retailers without their own manufacturing standards or quality testing verification. I will never forget looking at my co-worker in his brand-new climbing harness that he bought on the Wish website. It was laughable – clearly poorly made and ready to come apart at the seams. Your life and limbs are worth more than the $100 saved buying cheap, knockoff gear – buy your gear through reputable retailers!

In addition to buying well-made gear, you need to make sure your gear actually works when used together in a system. The freedom to choose my own climbing setup is one of the best parts of this industry – I love that I can manipulate my approach to climbing and allow it to evolve into what works for me, rather than having to follow a strict standard. However, because gear manufacturers are not required to do compatibility testing, that freedom puts a huge responsibility on each climber to do end-user compatibility testing on each unique system.

A few years ago, with hundreds of people watching me at a climbing competition, I took a 50-foot free fall before my hitch caught and stopped me. I was appalled; I’d been working with that rope on that same hitch system for three months. I thought about what had happened for months after. What I learned was that situational differences and rope variations both can affect how ropes and gear will react to each other. Changes in weight, speed or climbing style can affect the efficacy of your hitch. While it is difficult to pinpoint what went wrong with my climbing system’s compatibility, I assume the speed-focused competition climbing, in addition to rope wear, led to my hitch no longer gripping my rope.

As another example, for years I climbed on a VT friction hitch, but when I switched to using a large saw aloft, I had to change to an XT hitch, because there was too much friction with the added weight.

Slight rope variations also can affect the compatibility of your climbing system. A change in brand, type, wear and even color will affect your friction. It is hard to believe rope color could affect your climbing system, but it does. The chemical composition of the dye affects the rope’s breaking strength, shelf life and texture.

A knot that actually occurred below the author, not allowing full descent to the ground. When more rope is through the canopy, there is a greater likelihood of this happening.

An experienced climber can understand the application for a loose, minimal-friction hitch, but a novice climber seeing that setup online might be unaware of how even a slight weight difference could cause the hitch to no longer hold.

What works for 100 people on Facebook might not work for you, and we need to help new climbers who are watching videos understand the risks of using that trendy new hitch they saw online. Test your ropes low and slow, retest your compatibility each time you tweak your climbing system and remember, new does not equal safe or efficient.

The author trying to untie the knot pictured in the last photo.

Conclusion

There are thousands of tree climbers online with a plethora of different climbing techniques and many more trends than what I have discussed here. A trend becomes a trend for a reason – I have been experimenting with dragging tail, hitch breakers and staying on rope in my daily work, and have found them to be extremely useful. However, each climbing approach has its time and place. Each individual climber needs to understand the best uses for a technique and know how to weigh the risks against the benefits. Find a mentor, ask questions and stay safe.

Ryan Torcicollo, CTSP, is a safety and skills trainer for SavATree, an accredited, 36-year TCIA member company headquartered in Bedford Hills, New York.

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