Advanced Techniques for Climbing and Rigging
By Michael "House” Tain
Arbor Age Magazine, March 2012
A discussion of "advanced techniques” in the print medium is almost guaranteed to be an exercise in futility for the writer in this day and age, simply because the industry is changing, developing, and spreading information so quickly. Much of what is discussed here may be considered old hat by many. But the reality is that the same basic principles apply to any new climbing, cutting, or rigging technique on the scene; and they should all be carefully evaluated for safety, efficiency and ease of use -- regardless of their source or popularity prior to being integrated into day-to-day production work.
In addition, a "real world” picture of the tree industry would show that for every cutting-edge climbing arborist up in the canopy, there are at least 10 to 20, if not more, on the ground trying to figure out how to use a throwline or get their spurs on the right feet. In that light, this article will discuss a few "newer” techniques and knots for both climbing and rigging. These techniques will function well for either a beginner or an old dog wanting to try some new tricks. The tree care world is one filled with new information and possibilities. This is a very pleasant change from the not-so-distant past, but also presents its own challenges as "traditional” climbers and new hires are confronted with techniques, knots and hitches not even thought possible all that long ago. This large amount of information makes it incumbent that the user new to a particular technique, hitch, or piece of gear fully research its capabilities and consequences "low and slow” instead of trying to bust a move 60 feet up in the air and finding the latest and greatest comes up just a little bit short.
Floating anchors in climbing operations provide a movable tie-in point (TIP) throughout the climber’s time in the canopy, functioning in the ascent, descent, and canopy movement sections of the climb if the user so chooses. This concept alone was a fairly revolutionary one when it first appeared. But as it has evolved to include single rope technique (SRT) and the newer gear available, it has changed tree work even more radically. While floating anchors have been in use for several years, there is still a great deal of gray area involved with regard to regulations and standards. So users should check the appropriate regulations for use in their geographic area, and recognize that most of the guidance provided on floating anchors has emerged from the tree climbing competitions around the world. Even though clear-cut standards may not be readily available, some basic principles and common sense will go a long way toward ensuring that the user gets all the benefits of a floating anchor system with none of the possibly catastrophic detriments. The floating TIP is going to be the climber’s primary means of support -- so all components should meet the applicable strength standards for "life” support for hardware and cordage, along with the correct locking mechanisms, load angles, and interfaces. The simplest floating anchor is a piece of cordage tied in a hitch around the ascent line with some type of termination that allows the installation of another climbing line. The current accepted and recommended safe practice is to back up the floating anchor with some form of stopper knot in the ascent line with a carabiner going both through the knot, and around the ascent line. This "backup” is intended to prevent the floating anchor from traveling completely down the ascent line in the event of failure. Current recommendations preclude most ascent devices being used as a floating anchor, and, in addition, require some form of backup even when used in the ascent. Cam loading ascenders are generally deemed more acceptable for floating anchor use than frame loading ascenders, but must in any case be backed up with the previously mentioned stopper knot-carabiner combination. Users should also realize that if a two-part or two-line system is being used, backups may be needed on both parts of the line even during the ascent and during use as a floating anchor, depending on the configuration.
The Halter Hitch is a relatively new rigging knot first observed being used by Wenda Li and Mark Cooke of Ontario. Although it may not seem that "advanced” to many at first glance, its speed and ease of use will quickly make it a favorite to those tree folks who add it to their mental tool box. There is, as far as known by this writer, no data available on strength loss created by the Halter Hitch, but its configuration is such that it is doubtful that it would exceed the "old” standbys of the Running Bowline or the Clove Hitch with Two Half-hitches; and the Halter Hitch is much quicker and easier to tie and untie. It is created by passing the end of the line around the branch, forming a loop, passing the working end over the standing part of the rope. This working end is then used to create a bight that passes under both parts of the line beneath the loop. The Halter Hitch is finished off by passing the tail over the both parts and through the created loop. Removing the tail from the loop and pulling it should easily release the hitch once the piece is on the ground.
Natural climbing redirects -- or using an existing branch or branch attachment point -- are probably as old as the tree industry itself. But new cordage and equipment have made the use of manufactured redirects -- one the climber carries aloft and puts in place as needed -- much safer and simpler. The goal of a redirect is most often to improve the climber’s rope angle so he or she can more safely get to a distant spot on a branch, or even access a spot that would have been impossible without the redirect. A manufactured redirect, if used and deployed properly, will not only remove the irritating friction of a natural redirect, but often have the benefit of being adjustable to provide the "just right” rope angle. Although using two ropes, two TIPs, and two hitches could be considered a manufactured redirect, a more refined and simpler version often called the "M” method, provides more control and ease of removal. In short, the climbing line is run through a pulley on the climber’s harness from the original TIP and then through a manufactured redirect. This simplifies the system to one hitch, while still allowing movement both vertically and horizontally. Users of this technique should keep in mind that a longer climbing line is a necessity, especially if a return to the ground becomes a priority in an emergency situation.
As mentioned previously, advances are always being made, and the hitches discussed here have been around for a while. But their proven functionality and safety make them an excellent starting point for a climber wishing to try some of the "new” hitches. All climbing hitches are very much fiber and climber weight/style dependent, so new users will be well served to try them out at ground level prior to moving aloft.
Schwaebisch -- Developed in Germany by Beddes Strasser, the Schwaebisch should look similar to an offset Prusik around the climbing line when tied properly. It will appear offset in that it will not have an even number of coils or wraps as would a Prusik. Instead, it will have one turn on the bottom and multiple turns on the top. This hitch is formed by making one turn around the climbing line in a downward direction, then taking the end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage up above the original turn, and making four more turns around the standing part of the line in a downward direction, going around the climbing rope in the opposite direction from the original turn. For example, if the first turn went in a clockwise direction around the climbing line, the last four will go around in a counter-clockwise manner. The ends should both exit from the same side of the knot beneath the bar, and are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.
Distal -- This hitch, developed by Uli Distal also of Germany, can look very similar to the Schwaebisch, but has one major difference. This hitch is formed by making one turn around the climbing line in a downward direction, then taking the end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage up above the original turn, and making four more turns around the standing part of the line in a downward direction, going around the climbing rope in the same direction as the original turn. For example, if the first turn went in a clockwise direction around the climbing line, the last four will also go around in a clockwise manner. The ends will exit from opposite sides of the knot beneath the bar, and are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.
Michoacan -- Martin Morales, a climber and splicer from Southern California, developed this hitch. Although it looks quite similar to the two discussed previously is actually tied much differently. The hitch is formed by making five turns around the climbing line in an upward direction, the upper end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage is than brought down and under the other end of the eye and eye tail, capturing it, before the hitch is completed by feeding the upper end between the standing part of the rope and the first turn. The lower end will exit from one side of the knot, captured by the upper end, which exits from beneath the first turn on the other side of the knot. Both ends are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.
Obviously there are a great many more advanced techniques, hitches, knots, and gear than discussed here. And in all likelihood, there will be even more before another month passes. However, no matter how "new and improved” the technique, gear or knot is purported to be, professional climbing arborists should always evaluate it with safety, ease of use, and efficiency in mind at ground level prior to using it aloft. A newly developed but untested software program "crashing” on first use is irritating, but a climber "crashing” using something "new and improved” is a tragedy that can’t be undone.
Michael "House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.