There are many reasons climbers need to attach themselves to ropes. Although knots and carabiners can get us by in most cases, ascenders are devices that allow us the freedom to move in one direction along a rope and to stop and hold weight in the other. Ascenders can be indispensable when climbing a fixed line, performing a glacier crossing, hauling gear or even people on a big wall or crevasse rescue.

The Four Ascender Types

A four ascender setup
Four types of ascenders in use. Image: Courtesy Petzl.

While the UIAA and EN use the term ‘rope clamps’ to describe this type of gear, WeighMyRack groups these devices by the more commonly used term, ‘Ascenders’ (though ascending a rope is not always their only function). Some are made to be pulled on, some are trailed along fixed lines or webbing as a safety backup, while still others are meant to be used as a simple progress capture or even fixed to the foot.

We break these devices into 4 categories based on their common uses which include the type of climbing situation, functionality, size and tested certification.

Hand Ascenders – Most Common, Most Functional

Hand 1

The most common type of ascender is made to be used manually in the hand and is primarily used to climb a rope above the climber, a process known as jugging. Hand ascenders are typically used in pairs (left and right handed models are available) with some form of ladder or foot loop attached to a bottom hole. This foot loop allows the climber to alternate weighting or standing on one ascender while sliding the other up the rope and weighting it, gradually making upward progress.

These are the most multifunctional members of this gear type because they have handles for gripping, though this makes them larger than other ascenders. It is not uncommon to see a single hand ascender used in conjunction with an assisted braking belay device to ‘self-belay’ up a rope when working at height, route setting, or photographing climbers, a jugging technique known as ‘frogging’. Depending on the attachment holes, hand ascenders can also be used in place of a chest ascender, which we’ll cover later.

People using ascenders to climb ropes.
Two common setups for using ascenders to frog ascend. Image Courtesy Petzl.

Hand ascenders (and their compact cousins which we’ll cover in a bit) attach to the rope via a toothed cam that is spring-loaded to bite into the sheath. A hole at the upper end of the device allows a carabiner to be clipped around the rope, making it impossible to accidentally come off while the cam is open.

Installing a hand ascender
A hand ascender attaches to a rope via a toothed cam.

There are also one or more holes at the bottom which allow the attachment to the climber or other devices like aid ladders or pulleys. These holes allow the hand ascender to function in a few different ways as a rope grab in a hauling setup, which can be particularly helpful for rescue situations or when someone or something needs to be attached to a fixed line temporarily, such as when crossing glaciers on trade routes.

Hand ascenders can have other accessory functions built into them such as pulleys or rollers (which can look like a pulley, but are not rated as such) that allow the rope to be redirected for mechanical advantage, or even used as a single-piece, low weight hauling system. It is important to note that none of these pulleys at time of writing are made to hold much weight (think backpack or bucket of climbing holds, not haulbags or people). Some manufacturers have begun adding additional holes for clipping higher efficiency or weight-rated pulleys to the ascender, making them even more multifunctional and safer in this respect.

The Black Diamond Index hand ascender is a straight-forward time tested classic design. The cam is designed to be opened easily with the index finger, making it easier to release than other models.

The Climbing Technology Quick Roll hand ascender has a built-in roller for redirecting the rope when frogging or hauling. This roller is not weight rated and only intended for light loads.

The Good

  • Most multifunctional
  • Easily removed or locked onto weighted rope

The Bad

  • Larger, heavier than other ascenders
  • Not always rated to catch a fall (see Certifications below)

Best Used For

  • Jugging ropes
  • As a rope grab when hauling
  • Backup chest ascender

Chest / Compact / Basic Ascenders – Less Comfy, Highly Functional

ChestBasic 2

This category of ascender has 3 subtype names because manufacturers use different terminology to describe ascenders that function in these ways. We chose to combine these because by and large their differences are a matter of semantics which stem from the language, country or climbing type their designs and functions originated from. Most everything in this category uses ‘Compact’ and ‘Basic’ interchangeably, and some have been made to be used as a ‘Chest’ ascender specifically; though pretty much all of them can be.

Chest ascenders require upper and lower holes that allow them to be attached to the climbing harness and a chest harness simultaneously. They often have a curved bottom hole which allows them to orient against the body better when used as part of a frog-ascending rig. This setup is a particularly useful hands-free solution in caving and rescue situations and makes them an ideal component of a top rope solo setup. Ascenders that function as a chest ascender but are also designed to be pulled on by the hands are considered compact or basic. Unlike a hand ascender, they do not have a handle to grip them with but instead have an angled top for the hand to squeeze around, which makes pulling down on them more difficult and strenuous for long, continuous jugging.

One big positive to this category is their size, which makes them a lower weight alternative to carry in the backcountry where it is often required to rescue stuck ropes or climb fixed lines on low angle terrain. They can also work really well as a rope grab in a hauling system as they are easily added and removed to the rope even when under load. The upper and lower holes on these ascenders allow them to either be trailed behind a climber during top rope soloing or pushed above a climber as a progress capture/safety backup.

The Petzl Croll L is a chest ascender that is made to hold larger diameter ropes (8-13mm) than its counterpart the Croll S (8-11mm).

The Climbing Technology Chest Ascender+ has a hole in the cam lever for clipping a carabiner to aid in opening it in the event of freezing.

The Good

  • Multifunctional – Can ascend or be a backup
  • Smaller than hand ascender but almost as functional
  • Rated as PPE to catch a fall (see Certifications below)

The Bad

  • Not the most comfortable in hand for jugging or hauling

Best Used For

  • Lighter alternative to hand ascender
  • Backup/emergency ascender
  • Toprope soloing
  • Caving or arboriculture

Backup / Rope Grab / Capture Pulley – Small Parts of Larger Systems

BackupPully 3

Backup ascenders and rope grabs make up a small subset of ascenders but many of them still function as multipurpose devices. It is best to think of a backup ascender as a component in a system rather than a stand-alone ascending device. Backups tend to be rigged on secondary lines next to or behind a climber while working at height such as route setting, rescue, rigging or arboriculture. They work quite well at being out of the way and small, but can still arrest a fall if the rest of the system breaks down.

Because of their ability to cinch on a rope, they can function as an emergency ascender to jug a rope or to replace a prusik or friction hitch in a hauling system where they often perform much more efficiently.

Their very small size makes backup ascenders great candidates for components in rescue or crevasse kits and they can be easily carried on harnesses for emergencies. These have been used in top rope solo setups for a long time, and some folks have been incorporating them into roped solo rigs as well, though manufacturers have always maintained that no device is made or tested in such a way.

Some ascenders in this class may also have weight-rated pulleys integrated into them which allows them to function as a standalone hauling system; these are known by another name: capture pulleys. We’ve included these devices as rope grab ascenders because they share the EN 567 certification to function as such. One distinct feature of some rope grabs is their ability to work on flat webbing as well as rope, allowing them to function as a length adjuster on a tethering system.

Many ascenders in this category often have to be ‘opened’ before they can be installed on a rope, which may make them more difficult to use quickly than ascenders in other categories. Because they tend to be very small they can be difficult to pull on directly and almost always require a carabiner to function as a handle when used as a rope grab for hauling. Again in this situation they are best used as part of a system that may include pulleys or other grabs to gain mechanical advantage.

The CAMP Lift backup rope clamp uses a toothless cam to grab onto rope in hauling or rescue situations.

The Kong Duck was developed to clamp on webbing as well as rope.

The Petzl Micro Traxion is a form of backup that also has a weight rated pulley for hauling.

The Good

  • Often pocketable, tiny
  • Can be great for hauling
  • Some work on webbing

The Bad

  • Difficult to pull on with hand
  • Can be harder/impossible to add/remove when rope is weighted
  • Not always rated to catch falls

Best Used For

  • Lightweight rope grab
  • Crevasse kit, self rescue
  • Increase hauling efficiency

Foot Ascenders – Standing on the Rope

Foot 4

Foot ascenders are very rarely used by rock climbers. They’re often used in caving and climbing-adjacent endeavors like ascending trees or structures where there are no means other than a fixed rope. Since many climbing brands list this type of ascenders under the “sport” side of their offering (versus just the “professional” side) we have decided to include them in this post and on WeighMyRack.com/ascender.

Like their hand-oriented cousins, foot ascenders usually come in a left and a right version. They include strapping to attach to the foot and operate with a cam much like hand and basic ascenders. One large difference is their lack of holes to be connected to other devices, as they are made to be used in conjunction with other PPE devices and never alone. Foot ascenders are not made to catch falls generally and should never be used as a form of personal protection.

A good way to think of a foot ascender is as a device that lets your feet gain purchase on rope in an otherwise difficult to grab situation. Because they are difficult to remove once deployed on a rope (by design) they are regularly used in caving where wet, muddy conditions and darkness often make it difficult to see or assess your feet.

The Kong Futura foot ascender has a lock-out hole for clipping a carabiner which ensures that it doesn’t come off while climbing.

The CAMP Turbofoot has a built-in roller that allows it to be used to haul small loads, but is not weight rated.

The Good

  • Comfortable climbing overhanging terrain

The Bad

  • Difficult to disengage while climbing
  • Attaches foot to rope, difficult/impossible to climb rock

Best Used For

  • Caving
  • Arboriculture

Which Ascender is Best for My Needs?

The majority of climbers seeking ascenders will likely be for the purposes of jugging rope or as functional rope grabs for hauling systems, but as we researched so many devices we realized there can often be a lot of overlap and added functionality with some of the unique features out there. So we’ve created several filters for comparing ascender features that we didn’t even cover here, things like tooth type or number of holes for carabiners as well as other features you’ll just have to see for yourself. We have stuffed even more info on the product pages about ascender certifications, rope ranges and best use to help narrow down your search. So why not head to the ascender page and compare them all for yourself?

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Jeff Jaramillo

Jeff Jaramillo

Jeff currently lives in the Midwest and spends most of his free time answering questions nobody asked. When not plugging gear on moderate warmups and calling it a day, he can be found whining about whipping on bolts in the gym or at the local pub waxing poetic about climbing saving humanity and the planet.

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