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Learning to Ascend and Rig Anchors (Rock Rescue Academy)

I've been an active Search & Rescue volunteer since 2007 with the Coconino County Sheriff's SAR Team in northern Arizona.

Bob, practicing ascending in the Search & Rescue building

Bob, practicing ascending in the Search & Rescue building

What Goes Down Must Come Up

That's what they told us in Search and Rescue training. Our instructors -- my experienced teammates -- told those of us who are new to high-angle rescue that we should never go over a cliff edge if we can't get back up on our own.

They said we can never rely on being raised and will always have to be prepared to ascend under our own power.

And that means I have work to do before I ever go over the edge during a rescue mission.

This past weekend was field training session #2 of the Rock Rescue Academy. Last week, we practiced rappelling. This Saturday, it was time to learn how to get back up once we go down. Needless to say, going down is the easy part.

We each practiced ascending a rope hanging from a tree limb before graduating to the 80-foot cliff. It took me a few tries to get the hang of it.

We each practiced ascending a rope hanging from a tree limb before graduating to the 80-foot cliff. It took me a few tries to get the hang of it.

Ascending: The Equipment

This is what we used:

Mechanical Ascenders: (See the example pictured below.) These are sometimes referred to as "Jumars," which is a brand name. An ascender has a cam that allows the device to slide in one direction--in this case, up -- but keeps a firm grip on the rope when pulled in the opposite direction -- down. A locking mechanism with a trigger prevents the mechanical ascender from coming off the rope. Each ascender is attached to the climber's harness by a piece of webbing or sling (see "Daisy Chains" below), and then clipped onto the rope with a locking carabiner.

How to ascend a rope

How to ascend a rope

Etrier or Aider: This is what I call the "stepladder." Those we used in our training were commercially made out of webbing, and each had several loops--or steps. It was up to the individual to decide which step worked best for him- or herself. When ascending, you can use either one or two etriers, with one or two feet in the steps, to push yourself up with your legs.

Loop Chains or Omni Cord: We used commercially sewn loop chains or Omni cord as the slings to attach our ascenders to our harnesses. The loops of the chain or cord allowed us to adjust the distance between our harness and the mechanical ascenders, so we could make them shorter or longer until we figured out which length on either side worked best for us.

Locking Carabiners: These are a gated connecting devices, usually made from aluminum or steel. Carabiners are either non-locking or locking (we always use locking 'biners) and hinged to snap shut when released.

Seat Harness: This harness has a waist belt that sits just above your hips, and two leg loops, as well as loops for gear, the belay line, the climbing rope, and a haul line. The life of a harness is said to be about 3 years but can be shorter or longer depending on how frequently it's used and under what conditions. Falls, abrasion, heat, sunlight and corrosives such as chlorine bleach will shorten the lifespan of the harness. Make sure to test the harness for comfort before purchase by hanging in it if possible. The day after this training, during which I was in the harness, on the rope, for long periods of time, I'm feeling every bit of that harness, even though I took it off nearly 24 hours ago.

For descriptions and images of various types of harnesses, and a good diagram of the parts, visit

Chest Harness: A chest harness can be fashioned out of webbing, with the ends tied with a water knot, or you can buy one that's commercially sewn. A chest harness is worn in combination with a seat harness, with the purpose of keeping the person on the rope upright after a fall.

Helmet: Head protection is a must, not only to protect you from trauma in case you fall or slam into the rock, but in the event a falling rock, piece of gear other other object hits you from above. Helmets should be UIAA and CE approved.

Gloves: I can't imagine doing any of this rope and rock work without gloves. Those that allow dexterity are your best bet. I bought a pair of leather, finger-tipless gloves, Metolius brand, at a local climbing gym for about $30.

Here, a few of my teammates are getting their gear ready, adjusting their seat and chest harnesses, gloves and helmets....

Here, a few of my teammates are getting their gear ready, adjusting their seat and chest harnesses, gloves and helmets....

Ascending a Rope: The Moves - Some people make it look easy.

Ascending, as I'm referring to it, does not mean using one's hands and feet like rock-climbers do, where they make use of cracks, ledges and other features that the climbing route provides.

The type of ascending we were doing with the mechanical devices and etriers is aid climbing, which is done when rock faces are essentially featureless with very thin cracks that a person really can't fit fingers into well enough to make the holds useful. This type of ascending is also employed in rescue work.

I've learned there are a number of ways to ascend a rope and none of them easy. But they say it's much more about technique and finding what works for you than it is about strength. I'm sure, eventually, I'll get the hang of this and not have to expend quite so much energy as I did on these first few tries.

After doing some reading, I found that what most of us were doing during the training was some version of "the frog" sequence, which is a sit-stand, two-cycle system. First, you bring your feet beneath you and stand, pushing your upper body up and hips in towards the rope, while using your arms to help you. As you stand, you push the upper ascender up. Then, you bend your knees and sit, and push the lower ascender up. The motion should be smooth. (Easier said than done!) It's said that each sit-stand cycle should move you up the rope at least 1/4 your height unless you are very tired or carrying a heavy load.

With one foot out of the etrier, I found it easier to stabilize myself against the wall, while keeping my other foot in the step and beneath me.

How to climb a rope

How to climb a rope

The Ascending Technique That Worked Best For Me: The Half-Frog from Texas?

After hunting around a bit, I found this video that demonstrates the mode of ascent that seemed to be the best fit for me. It’s a one-legged approach, where you have one foot in a “step ladder” — an etrier — made of webbing and the other foot free.

You’ll see this guy, Scott, approach the rope, attach his mechanical ascenders (in his hands), put his left foot in a step and start up. He’s using his left leg to push himself to a standing position and, as he does, he “throws” his upper ascender (in his right hand) up the rope. As he again bends his left leg, he’s able to slide the left (lower) ascender up to just below the upper ascender and repeat the process.

Scott is doing this much more smoothly and quickly than I was able to. Hopefully, eventually, someone can make a video of me doing this, and it’ll look the same.

But Why Can't We Ascend This Way?

Then again, if you’re up against a rock face, this could hurt!

Ascending the Rope

Read Rock Climbing Tech Tips from Chockstone, including ascending with mechanical ascenders, ascending with one or two friction knots and alternatives.

My teammate and I ascend 100-foot cliffs.

My teammate and I ascend 100-foot cliffs.

Anchors For Technical Rock (or Rope) Rescue

After spending the morning learning to ascend, my teammates and I moved on to anchor building "101."

Here, we're learning how to set up a tension back-tie, which reinforces the original anchor by connecting it to another anchor--in this case, another tree--directly in line with (behind) the first.

Rock rescue: Tension back tie

Rock rescue: Tension back tie

I'm so new at the whole world of rock rescue -- rappelling, ascending, belaying, anchor-building -- that I don't even want to attempt to explain the complex topic of anchors. When it comes to the physics and the numbers -- why things work the way they do, what doesn't work and why -- there's a lot to learn in order to truly be proficient, and I've only just scratched the surface so far.

But here are a couple of sources I've found that have been helpful to me in furthering my understanding of anchors:

Reading About Anchors: It's no substitute for professional instruction and practice, but, for me, reading helps, too.

Natural Anchors

I found this video, which seems to be a decent representation of the techniques we learned for using trees as anchors. As we do on our SAR team, the water knot on the "wrap-three, pull-two" is facing inward, so it can be seen, inspected and adjusted more easily.

Equalized Anchor Systems

This video gives a nice, simple demonstration of making an equalized, multi-point anchor, as well as how to prevent the load--the person or people over the edge--from falling potentially a very long way and getting hurt (or worse) should one of the anchor points give out.

Additional Rock (or Rope) Rescue Training Sessions

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Comments Or Questions About Ascending A Rope Or Rigging Anchors? Or this article?

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on November 08, 2011:

I am really enjoying learning the ropes (pun intended) alongside you in this Rock Climbing Academy series. I have a thing about heights, so I'm not sure how I will react when I am actually the one going over the edge of the cliff. These rope ascension techniques are very interesting. Thanks for sharing and expanding my knowledge base. The skills are yet to come. Wishing you much success and safety.

Nathalie Roy from France (Canadian expat) on March 04, 2011:

Blessed by the "rock climbing" angel :) and featured on:

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on September 27, 2010:

What goes down must come up? i think more on What goes up must come down and that's what worries me.

drifter0658 lm on May 20, 2009:

There was a time in my life that I really wanted to try this. About 5-10 minutes. Hey, I gave parachuting less time. ;)

Excellent lens Rammie.

anonymous on May 19, 2009:

All's I can say is you are one brave lady! And God Bless all of you for doing what you do!