When taking pictures of climbers, our point of view often comes from one or two limited angles: directly above and below. To get better pictures that are closer to the action you need to be where the climber is, and this takes a bit of knowhow to do safely and effectively. Using just a few pieces of gear you can move up and down a fixed rope pretty easily, freeing your hands and focus to take high quality pics high off the deck. Saying goodbye to butt-shots isn’t too complicated, and it all starts with the ascender.

The hand ascender is the go-to choice for photography, as it allows you to actually grab the rope securely and manipulate and hold yourself in various positions. Leaning out, turning sideways and hanging in awkward poses is often required to frame a shot the way we want and grabing onto the rope is especially necessary when we’re shooting in overhanging terrain.

Shooting climbing from a rope lets us find unique angles and be where the action is. Photo by Irene Yee www.ladylockoff.com

The Hand Ascender

Hand Ascender Parts Diagram
The hand ascender is the main tool of choice for climbing photography.

Jug Ascending (Jugging) – 2 Hand Ascenders, 2 Foot Loops or Ladders

Photographer Corey Rich using 2 ascenders to jug a rope while photographing. Photo: courtesy Corey Rich Productions

One popular setup for photography is to use the classic jugging technique to ascend ropes. An advantage of a 2 ascender setup is having multiple handles and steps to maneuver around. When shooting in situations where contact with the rock is limited, such as steep overhanging routes, a second step can be a great help to counteract spinning and keep your body oriented toward the climbing. One drawback to this method is that it requires 2 ascenders and often multiple ropes or changeovers to switch between moving upward or down a climb. With practice and planning, this method allows for a lot flexibility in body positioning, but does require a bit more familiarity with working while standing in ladders rather than hanging in a harness.

There is another popular method using just one ascender that is used by photographers and riggers to ease movement on a fixed line, and you’ll only need one rope and a few pieces of gear. This method is sometimes known as frogging.

Frog Ascending (Frogging) – 1 Hand Ascender, 1 Foot Loop, 1 Braking Device

This method of ascending is often used when moving both up and down the rope are necessary, so it works perfect for photography. A single foot loop attaches to a hand ascender and as the climber stands in it, the slack is taken up by a descender or assisted braking belay device, thereby moving you upward on the rope. Now you can squat again, slide the ascender up and repeat the motion of standing and squatting (like a frog swims) while pulling slack through the device.

Ascending a rope using the frog method 2
A route setter using a frogging setup to climb a rope(yellow) with a hand ascender (green), a foot loop(blue) and a descending device (orange).

The great thing about this setup is that at any time you can pull the handle of the belay device and rappel yourself into a lower position, say to shoot a second attempt at the crux after the climber falls. One thing to note is that you will be essentially ‘self-belaying’ on the rope, so a standard practice is to tie knots below yourself every 10 feet or so which will catch you should the belay device disengage. 

A distinct advantage to this setup is the ability to use rollers or pulleys to redirect the brake rope over your head while frogging, enabling you to pull down on the rope to pull out slack as you stand. This massively increases efficiency when compared to pulling upward on heavy rope while standing and makes the whole affair much more comfortable.  Some manufacturers have begun building rollers directly into the ascender, while others include attachment holes where accessory pulleys can be added as needed. It should be noted that these rollers are not usually designed to hold or haul human weight, and are only intended to add efficiency in a system.

Frogging with a simple setup
Frogging with a basic ascender and a capture pulley as a minimal setup. Image courtesy Petzl

It is possible to frog ascend using a sling on a basic ascender above you with a rope grab or capture pulley on your harness. This method can be even more strenuous and uncomfortable and is really only recommended if you are limited in gear or in an emergency.

Helpful Ascender Features

Most ascenders within a type have a similar shape and function so it can be hard to tell if there are any helpful differences from one to the next. While most models are nearly identical, there can be slight differences or additional functions that could prove useful in some setups. There are even some features that can make using ascenders easier, more comfortable, and highly functional, specifically for a dangling photographer.

The CAMP Turbohand has a curved design which makes the top rounder and easier to pull on while positioning with a second hand. The pro version comes with a steel guide plate for the lower part of the handle (an available accessory if you already own the Turbohand) which keeps the rope aligned with the ascender while jugging. Both models have a roller built into the body just below the cam which not only eases efficiency when moving up and down rope, but also allows the Turbohand to be used as a capture pulley for hauling. This could be handy if you have a bag of equipment fixed to the end of the line below you that you want to bring up mid climb.

camp_turbohand_pro_3 3
Steel roller being used for hauling.

The A&D hand ascender from Grivel has the unique feature of an integrated rappel plate built into the body. Though this is designed to allow a climber to transition from ascending to descending in alpine and emergency situations, we see no reason that a photographer couldn’t use a feature like this to more easily transition from following a climber to lowering out for a wider or repeat shot. Be warned that this would definitely be a complicated setup, but one we thought worth mentioning.

AD-descending 4

The Climbing Technology Quick Roll has a built in roller for redirecting the rope while frogging or hauling heavy loads. Though this isn’t rated to hold much weight, it massively increases efficiency when performing either task. If you are expecting to use a frog setup, using a rolling surface instead of a carabiner to redirect is a real game changer, and having one built into your ascender means you’ll always have it when you need it, though you are trading for a bit of weight and bulk.

Different shapes and numbers of attachment holes in ascenders also aid in rigging for photography, allowing us to temporarily connect ourselves or other items such as ropes bags, backpacks or bosun seats to lines while we shoot. Edelrid’s Hand Cruiser ascenders have a massive bottom hole and additional mid attachment holes for clipping a ton of things to your rig. You can also use accessories like weight-rated pulleys that will allow for hauling setups that move with you on the wall while you shoot.

The top of the Cruiser has a broad, rounded top that makes pulling on the device more comfortable. Edelrid also touts this head design as ambidextrous.

A basic ascender like the Petzl Tibloc can be used with a capture pulley like the Edelrid Spoc to create a very simple frogging setup. Though this is usually the kind of thing you would set up in a crevasse rescue or to free a stuck rope in the alpine, if you find yourself wanting to climb a fixed rope for an impromptu photo shoot, having just a few small pieces in your crag kit can get you by.

Seeking Professional Help

Both methods of ascending rope that we have discussed here have one thing in common, that they require experience and knowledge with other components of climbing that we do not cover here. Things like fixing ropes at the top of a pitch, anchor building, rappelling and backing up systems all are required in order to safely do anything above the ground. As climbers we often learn a lot from our community around us but if you don’t have access to an experienced climbing partner who fully understands these concepts, it can be easy to get yourself into sticky and dangerous situations. Hire a professional to become familiar with these processes.

The AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association) is a group that certifies rock instruction of many types, from single pitch to ski and alpine. Though photography is not a particular focus, setting ropes and learning to use the gear to ascend and descend them safely is. You can search their website for an individual rock guide in your area or a guide company that can assess your needs and instruct you.

If you’re looking for instruction that is specifically pointed at learning to photograph climbers, there are a handful of professionals in the industry who teach courses tailored to climbing. Irene Yee (also known as @ladylockoff) regularly teaches a clinic that covers both of the above ascending methods in detail as well as information about editing and framing for climbing.  Irene also offers variable rates for BIPOC, Women and Non-Binary folks who may need it and has graciously allowed us to use some of her images for this post. You can check out her website to see more of her work and for more information about the clinic.