What’s New & Improved in Climbing Ascenders and Friction Tools

The newest climbing ascenders and friction tools are changing the way arborists do their jobs. Shown here working aloft is Isobel Watson, owner of IW Tree Services of Linconshire, England. Photo courtesy of Notch Equipment/Sherrilltree.

When it comes to getting in and out of trees safely and efficiently, today’s climbers have more options than ever. And when it comes to ascenders and friction tools, there are some innovative devices out there that recently hit the market, having been introduced by arborist equipment companies in early 2019.

We contacted a number of manufacturers’ representatives to find out what their newest climbing ascenders and friction tools are and how they’re changing the way arborists do their jobs compared to, say, a decade or so ago.

According to Rudy Rutemiller, Eastern sales manager and in-house arborist for TCIA Associate Member company Petzl America, the changes have been significant.

“In arboriculture, you’re climbing the rope more than the tree itself, so there’s always been a need for a friction device in order to go up and down,” he explains. “A decade or more ago we used knots and Prusiks for that, before we had modern friction devices. You created friction with hitches like the Blake’s hitch, using your climbing line, or numerous other hitches with a Prusik and pulley. Both of these systems are still widely used today. It’s very inexpensive and gets the job done, but debatably not the best choice from a safety aspect. It all depends on tying the knot correctly, so there’s more human error involved. The modern mechanical ascenders take away most of that human error.”

Rutemiller, who worked as an arborist for Bartlett Tree Experts for several years prior to joining Petzl America, says he’s excited about the recently expanded tree care division of the French-based company, which also provides tools and equipment for recreational climbers. “It’s been awesome. We’ve updated our full line of arborist products this year.”

Among the arborist-specific equipment that was launched in April 2019 are the newly updated Zigzag and Zigzag Plus climbing systems, second-generation iterations of the original Zigzag, which was first designed as a progression device for doubled rope technique (DdRT), now known as a moving rope system (MRS). According to Rutemiller, MRS is the more forward-thinking term for a doubled rope system. “We found that people were using the Zigzag in a stationary rope system, and it was not originally designed for this,” he notes. “But now, by adding our brand-new Chicane to the Zigzag, the system has the right amount of increased friction, so you can use it safely in a stationary rope system (SRS).”

The Zigzag mechanical Prusik allows the user to move around efficiently in a tree using a classic Prusik pulley-system technique. The friction chain provides precision and fluidity when repositioning. Photo courtesy of Petzl.

One of the major improvements to this year’s new Zigzag and Zigzag Plus, according to Rutemiller, is the addition of a third hole. “This is pretty unique,” he says. “It allows for lots of extra options. For example, you can add a second climbing system to that third hole if you’re working with two ropes. It’s also convenient for tending your stationary rope system when ascending by adding our knee ascender into that hole.”

The Chicane auxiliary braking device allows Zigzag and Zigzag Plus mechanical Prusiks to be used on single ropes. It provides continuous additional friction on descents. Photo courtesy of Petzl.

Petzl also offers a range of knee, foot and hand ascenders for the arborist. Rutemiller says Petzl’s new Knee Ascent Clip makes ascending with the Zigzag in a stationary rope system much easier. “The clip is brand new, and it allows you to rope walk up, so both legs are working as you ascend instead of pulling or hip thrusting.”

When asked if any special training is necessary when using these new products, Rutemiller says a technical notice is provided with each product purchased that explains proper and improper usage and includes diagrams. “Training is always imperative, and most companies have good protocols in place for using these new products,” he concludes. “Though Petzl doesn’t do formal training like a training company, we do provide all the necessary information for correct usage of all our tools and equipment.”

Safer friction tools

“For the longest time, people were utilizing the rope-on-rope systems like tautline or Blake’s hitch, which are still common today,” says Nance. “They certainly are not the most efficient, but people learn on them and just keep going. They’re easy, cheap and require no added equipment. It’s good to know them as a basic system, though, because they help people realize where the new systems come from and how they’ve progressed in efficiency.

“The bad thing about using them is that they’re very physical and really hard on the body,” he adds. “The systems were easy (to learn on), but actually getting into the tree with them wasn’t.”

Historically, the tree care industry has utilized existing products from other industries, such as caving and rock climbing, which has assisted in getting the industry to where it is today, according to Nance. “Notch is looking to build products specifically for the arborist,” he says.

New in Notch Equipment friction tools this year, says Ziecik, is the Wrap Star Prusik Cord that comes in 8.1mm and 10.1mm sizes. It uses a proprietary blend of fibers that couple “high heat resistance with excellent abrasion resistance, and gives a fantastic grip.” Constructed from an HMPE (high modulus polyethylene) core and a braided polyester/Technora cover, the cords are used in conjunction with carabiners and pulleys.

Perhaps Notch’s most innovative product released recently is the Jet Step Foot Ascender, which Ziecik notes is the world’s only double-cam ascender. “And it’s toothless!” he adds. “Usually, these tools have a series of barbs that could damage your ropes – this is your lifeline, and you’re essentially creating microscopic damage each time you take a step with a barbed ascender. The Jet Step uses a ribbed cam rather than small barbs. We feel it’s a best-in-class product in the industry today.

“It’s been very well received,” he says, adding that the Jet Step was officially launched at TCI EXPO in Charlotte last fall, “and we’ve been having a hard time keeping up with demand.”

The Jet Step uses dual cams to operate with lower spring tension than competing models. That reduces the amount of drag and ultimately the amount of rope needed below the device to self-tend. Photo courtesy of Notch Equipment/Sherrilltree.

Notch is working on adding friction savers to their collection. “These are instrumental in decreasing the amount of friction generated, making it easier to ascend and also eliminating wear and tear on the tree and your rope,” Nance explains. “Our focus is on safety, so the more energy you can save ascending, the less worn out you’re going to be – and you’ll be safer in the long run when you’re not exhausted.”

He adds that any new products should be trained on “under the wing of a climbing safety professional. We always say, ‘Practice low and slow’ with any new product.”

Nance says Notch Equipment is in the process of coming up with new products “focused on the arborist.” Ziecik concurs. “We have a couple of huge debuts coming up, hopefully one being introduced at EXPO in Pittsburgh. But I’m not at liberty to say what it is just now,” he adds with a laugh.

Two cams in the Jet Step squeeze the rope from both sides, massively increasing grip strength, which improves performance on wet, muddy or frozen ropes. Photo courtesy of Notch Equipment/Sherrilltree.

New tools by arborists, for arborists

When it comes to the “working-atheight” industry – whether with arborists, fire and rescue or rope access – the tools produced by ISC Ltd. Of Wales are developed for efficiency and safety, according to Rich Hattier, ISC North America sales manager. This past April, the company introduced a brand-new Rigging Rope Wrench, building off its groundbreaking Singing Tree Rope Wrench. “Singing Tree is the brainchild of Kevin Bingham, an arborist from Michigan who invented the original Rope Wrench that allows an arborist to work on a single rope with a hitch-based system,” Hattier explains. “ISC collaborated with Singing Tree and started offering the original Rope Wrench nine years ago.

ISC’s new pulley-based Rigging Rope Wrench system takes the rope-wrench technique and applies it to a rigging application rather than a climbing application. In a two-person rigging situation, it allows the climber to control more of the process than the ground person, through aerial friction. Photo courtesy of ISC, Ltd.

“Our partnership with Kevin was developed to expand the reach of the stationary rope system to the point where it’s internationally accepted now,” he adds. “In a moving rope system, the rope is moving at all times and creating excess friction. The SRS creates less friction and allows the rope to travel more smoothly up, around and through the limbs and branches of the tree. It’s more consistent friction for safer climbing.”

According to Hattier, ISC’s new pulley-based Rigging Rope Wrench system “takes the Rope-Wrench technique and applies it to a rigging application rather than a climbing application. The Rigging Rope Wrench applies friction to a lowering line while anchored at the top of the tree. This means the device can be controlled by the ground person, or the control rope can be passed to the climber in the treetop, leaving the ground person’s hands free to tend the lowered section. This allows the climber to utilize the Rigging Rope Wrench to take the weight of the discarded limb, allowing the ground person to simply guide the limb away from the tree and clear of the working area with minimal effort.”

In a moving rope system, the rope is moving at all times and creating excess friction. The SRS creates less friction and allows the rope to travel more smoothly up, around and through the limbs and branches of the tree. Photo courtesy of ISC, Ltd.

Hattier says the feedback to this new tool has been terrific so far. “There are other similar devices out there, but because the Rigging Rope Wrench is purpose-built for this application, it maximizes strength and efficiency.” He adds that ISC will be exhibiting at TCI EXPO in Pittsburgh this fall and will be introducing the company’s in-the-works Rope Wrench device that’s optimized for 13mm rope, such as that used in utility line-clearance work. “It is designed to allow more efficiency with a larger-diameter host line,” he says, noting that more new climbing products will follow in 2020.

Another working arborist, Jaime Merritt of Santa Cruz, California, is the behind-the-scenes inventor of the newest friction tool, the Akimbo, offered by Rock Exotica of Clearfield, Utah. According to Brandon Lane, Rock Exotica’s sales and marketing manager, Merritt is “a talented arborist who came up with the original prototype. A number of arborists are good problem solvers and come up with innovative ideas.”

The Akimbo is “a mid-line-attachable friction device that enables you to ascend and descend with the same device,” says Lane.

The Akimbo is a mid-line-attachable friction device that enables you to ascend with a foot or maybe a knee ascender. Photo courtesy of Rock Exotica.

According to Lane, the Akimbo is unique in several ways – although it does share some characteristics with another Rock Exotica product, the Unicender, which also was originally developed by an arborist, Morgan Thompson. “The Unicender was first introduced in 2005, and we picked it up in 2009,” says Lane. “Interestingly, a lot of our product ideas come from experts in fields like tree care.”

The Akimbo and Unicender differ in some ways, and the choice of which to use is personal preference, says Lane. “While both tools can be attached mid-line, the Akimbo can be adjusted for varying friction levels with no tools, allowing the user to dial it in.”

That said, Lane asserts that the Unicender is selling better than ever alongside the brand-new Akimbo. “They represent new technology and new methods and are still being discovered. But more and more, the industry is embracing this new technique.”

The Unicender has the ability to be used in both moving rope systems (MRS) and stationary rope systems (SRS). It utilizes unique friction plates that allow it to advance easily with minimal friction and virtually no “sit back.” Photo courtesy of Rock Exotica.

The Akimbo launched at TCI EXPO 2018, some time after Merritt used crowd funding to get his idea going and Rock Exotica caught wind of it. “Jaime deserves most of the credit,” says Lane. “Our role was to test and refine it and make it ready for CNC (computer numerical control) manufacturing. Jaime is still very active with the process, and we try to keep him as involved as possible.”

Obviously, more new and innovative products in climbing ascenders and friction tools are coming out each year – often the result of “tinkering” professional arborists. Maybe you have the next great idea out there!

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