Ascender Buying Advice for Big Wall Climbing and Aid Climbing

Buying Advice
By ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief, OutdoorGearLab - Tuesday February 16, 2010

Unlike a harness, where you can get a sense of how well it will work based on hanging around in it, there is no easy way to test ascenders in a store. The reason is that ascenders are not intuitive to use at first. They take practice to move efficiently and get on and off the rope. So more important than holding these in the store is asking the opinions of experienced big wall climbers.

Left and Right Ascenders

Ascenders are sold individually, not in pairs. So make sure you are buying one right ascender and one left ascender.

Showing the difference between left and right ascenders.

Ease of sliding up the rope

Of all the features to look for an ascender, this is the most important. It is how easily the ascender slides up the rope that will determine how tired your arms get over time. If the device slides up effortlessly, your arms will thank you.

Ease of taking on and off the rope

This is the second most important feature in an ascender. Remember that no ascender is perfectly intuitive to use at first; it takes practice to be able to quickly get them on and off the rope. So if you are testing ascenders head to head in the store, make sure you use them a LOT. For example, at first Chris Mac could not get the nForce ascender off the rope quickly and his friend Tim could not get the Petzl off the rope quickly. Then they both practiced a lot. In the end, after lots of practice, they found them both about the same to get off the rope.

Click to enlarge
The nForce ascenders around pitch 18 on Wall of Early Morning Light, El Capitan
Credit: Chris McNamara


Weight is not a big deal when you are using ascenders. But you will notice the difference in weight when they are clipped to the side of your harness. Since big wall racks already way so much, it is nice to have a light ascender on your harness when leading. Also, if you are alpine climbing, the lighter the ascender the better.
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara's life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris' sanity. He's climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, "Why?" Outside Magazine has called Chris one of "the world's finest aid climbers." He's the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.

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