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Greetings from the Philippines! I was horrified the other day when I chanced upon these climbers belaying with an ascender. I gave them my best advice because I thought there was about to be a disaster.—Pastor Noel, via email
LESSON: I can actually kind of see the logic behind these guys. The ascender will glide smoothly up the rope when the belayer takes in slack. If the climber falls, the ascender will lock up. (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the ascender is clipped to the belayer’s harness.) Unfortunately, ascenders are highly specialized devices. They are designed to do one thing: ascend ropes. Ascenders grip the rope with rows of metal teeth. Google image search “ascender teeth” for a visual. These work great under body weight loads. With higher loads, such as those generated in a fall, these teeth can shred a rope to bits. Also, feeding a rope through an ascender requires that you hold the cam open. If the leader were to fall when the cam was held open … you get the idea.
Beyond any safety issues, most ascenders cost around $80. The two most popular tube-style belay devices both retail for around $30. A Munter hitch is free. Not only is it safer to belay properly; it’s cheaper. In short, using an ascender instead of a proper belay device is dangerous and more expensive than actually using a device. The climbers you saw probably didn’t realize the risk they were taking. Next time, if you see this situation again, you may want to intervene and show them how to belay with a device.
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