What makes the perfect TR solo tool?
Below is another extract from my upcoming book on top rope soloing (TR soloing) called On the Line.
Before you can pick the best tool on the market, you need to know what the best tool would do. Here are the key features you want in a device:
A: Safeguard the user if they fall while climbing. This is a no brainer, and the foundation on which you work out what works best for you. For example, a friction hitch will do the job, but what would be the failure rate over a thousand falls? You want a device that has zero failure rate when weighted, which means using a high quality, fully functioning mechanical rope grab. Zero failure should only be assumed for the device when used correctly, as stated in the manufacturer’s instructions, but not taken for granted when used outside of standard use, namely TR solo. Zero failure is generally not possible, with many black swan factors coming into play, which is why the focus is on a system that has zero failure. What is important is that you establish a solid and confident working relationship with your device(s). Having a device that makes your asshole pucker up each time you fall on it is not conducive to relaxed climbing unless that’s what you’re into (take up BASE jumping instead).
B: Allow the climber to move upwards on the rope without requiring manual feeding, snagging, or undue friction. This is vital for many reasons, with the obvious one being that it simply allows you to climb smoothly, with ease and flow and freedom, as climbing is meant to be done. Having a device that keeps sticking, digging you in the groin, or looking as if it’s not going to catch you, is not conducive to mindfulness. You’re doing this to feel free but safe, not encumbered, harassed, and shit scared.
C: Designed to withstand a catastrophic factor 2 fall without breaking the device or the rope. This is important because sooner or later you’re going to make a mistake, and having a device that has some reserve capacity at keeping you breathing will be what you’ll need to do just that. Luckily, all the devices here are tested for this kind of eventuality.
D: Simplicity: If the safest device ever designed for TR soloing ended up being complex to use correctly, and rich with potential human errors, then you’d probably be safer with a less safe device that was just simpler. How the device you’re using works, its ordination to the rope, and how it should be connected to you, should all be clearly understood. Devices with hard to translate markings, multiple clip-in points, or alien mechanics you don’t understand, should be avoided. This is not to say that you want idiot-proof devices, as all devices require a level of skill and competency, but rather, some devices make even the skilful feel incompetent.
E: To only work as a rope grab when the climber falls or fully weights the device. Beyond safety, this is one of the most important features of a perfect device. A sprung rope clamp, especially one using an eccentric cam featuring teeth, is designed to only travel in one direction, up the rope, so uni-directionally. The moment the clamp attempts to reverse direction, even by one millimetre, the cam will lockdown on the rope like a Rottweiler, only letting go when either the sheath breaks or the device.
This is obviously an advantage when it comes to rope climbing, as the clamp can be moved up the rope effortlessly, yet locks down instantly, with almost no loss of height caused by a delay or cam creep. This makes this style of rope clamp the most efficient form of progress capture device, but also perhaps the worst TR solo device.
An unweighted unsprung rope clamp, one that features a smooth cam face, typically a type 1 or 2 level cam, will usually be able to move up and down a rope, making it bi-directional. It only grabs the rope when the cam is fully loaded, with the greater the load, the harder it will grip. This makes this style of rope clamp less efficient as a progress capture device, as you always bleed some progress when loading and unloading, but makes a bi-directional rope clamp ideal as a self-tailing fall arrestor.
F: The device should capture the rope fully, being locked in place so that it’s impossible for the device to detach from the rope accidentally. Most rope clamps are designed to allow the rope to be inserted and removed easily, as this is vital for transitioning to and from a rope, especially when cleaning gear or passing re-belays. The downside of this is that in many designs the rope is only kept in check by the action of the cam locating the rope within a rope channel of bent alloy, with a safety trigger being used to keep the cam in place. Accidents do happen in which the rope escapes the device. Some devices, notably type 1 and 2 lever cams and rocker cams, tend to be locked in place by a cam that is fully secured within the frame of the device, meaning the rope cannot escape. This feature is vitally important to avoid the user releasing the device from the rope accidentally when attempting to gain slack by manipulating the cam and safety.
H: The device should still grab the rope even if grabbed by the user in panic, or is depressed from above by the climber clinging to the rope. This is another important feature if one wishes to avoid black swan events, with ‘panic grabbing’ being a very common cause of device failure. There is also a scenario in which having two devices on a single rope (tandem set-up) can see both devices fail if the top device fails to lock, perhaps due to being grabbed, which then pushes the lower device down the rope. This style of failure would be most easily demonstrated by tandem rocker devices.
I: Once the device has grabbed the rope, it must be released when unweighted. This is important as a device will be called on to lock and unlock many times when working a pitch.
J: Function as an effective ascender. This is important for self-rescue, as very often it’s easier to quickly ascend the rope to easy ground, or the anchor, rather than transfer from ascent to descent.
K: Have duel function of being both a rope grab and descender. This allows a climber – on falling into space or off the line of the route – the option of simply rappeling down, without the need of going into self-rescue mode. This is a tough ask, and although some devices may achieve this functionality, it’s generally at the cost of more important functions. For example, an ABBD (GriGri for example), achieves this, but at the cost of requiring the climber manually feed the rope, as well as other issues. The only device I feel achieves this point without too heavy a cost is the Lov2 and 3.
L: Low cost/Multi Function. Most climbers view TR soloing as something they will do as a last resort, or for a specific project, and so will want to invest the minimum amount of cash into any device. Ideally, you want a multifunctional device that can be used regularly for other tasks, such as a micro progress capture pulley (PCP), like the Petzl Micro Traxion, or micro ascender like the Kong Duck, so that the cost per use is maximised.
M: Weight: This will be of limited concern for most climbers, as most TR solo climbs will be done at easy to access crags. Although wilderness TR soloing is rare, if weight is an issue, the device chosen will generally be multi-functional, such as a chest ascender or micro PCP.
Is there a winner?
So, does any device get full marks? No. That’s the rub. Some devices hit more than others, while some devices, although close to perfection, sacrifice a crucial feature or function in order to be close to perfect. There are no perfect devices, only compromises.