Last year, at the Outdoor Retailer trade show, there was an announcement from Petzl that caught the attention of the caving community: major new updates were coming to the much-loved Petzl Basic and Petzl Croll. To those of us who routinely count on these ascenders to carry us up and out of the dark places of the world, this was A Big Deal.
Fernand Petzl began producing his famous mechanical ascenders in 1968, many years after gaining world renown for explorations of caves in the Dent du Crolles mountain and the Gouffre Berger cavern. Over forty years later, the modern incarnations of these ascenders are still remarkably similar to their original counterparts. The Croll itself, of course, led to the development of the “frog” sit-stand climbing system, the most popular for caving around the world.
The new changes looked dramatic; the 2013 iterations would be much smaller and lighter, with a redesigned cam geometry, no longer approved for use with ropes thicker than 11 mm. Would they work as well on American-style rigging, and the 11 mm ropes we typically use? Would they have improved function,or would the smaller size in any way compromise their performance? We waited, patiently, for the new models to arrive… and now they’re here!
With that in mind, I picked up a pair immediately and went to work, attempting to answer those questions.
If these are redesigned, it means something must have changed, right? Well, yes. In fact, this is the most dramatic update to the size, shape and geometry of these ascenders since the 1970s. So let’s cut to the chase here — what’s different when compared with previous models?
The size difference is astonishing — these are truly tiny when compared with previous versions of the Croll and Basic. In fact, the weight difference alone will be a big deal in certain circles; after all, why carry a Tibloc and a round-cross-section carabiner like the Attache — 39g and 80g, respectively — when the Basic now weighs the same amount as the carabiner alone? That said, it’s unlikely that weight savings alone will entice many cavers to upgrade. Several of the changes, however, do appear to be specifically geared toward the needs of cavers.
First, let’s talk about the Croll. In previous versions, there were two common failure modes for the Petzl Croll after heavy caving use. The first is excessive corrosion and wear on the cam, specifically the teeth where the cam contacts the rope. The second is the eventual filing away of the top (or bottom) of the rope channel itself, after running many miles of mudddy rope through it; Al Warild, in his excellent book Vertical, laments that he wears out “five or six” Crolls for every Basic due to this type of wear and tear.
In regard to previous versions of the Basic, cavers who preferred using a Petzl Ascension as their upper ascender in a frog system often cited two complaints about the Basic. First, the old Basic only featured one small hole for connections at the bottom of the ascender, while the handled Ascension has always had two. This was problematic for those with a need to simultaneously connect both a lanyard and a footloop to the device.
Second, the old Basic offered nothing in the way of “ergonomics” when compared to its handled brother; indeed, having used a Basic as the upper ascender in my frog for several years, I can certainly confirm that it’s not exactly comfortable on the hand. It is also relatively easy to haphazardly jostle the cam release when grasping the ascender, causing it to slip briefly down the rope.
Petzl appears to have addressed all of these issues in one fell swoop. Cams on both devices are now stainless steel; this should prevent the corrosion and pitting common to the chromed-steel cams on previous versions, though only time will tell if the cam teeth themselves last longer with the new metal. The stainless steel wear plate on the new Croll addresses the long-term frame wear detailed above.
With the Basic, the bottom hole is enlarged considerably, to accommodate two full-sized carabiners. The new shape of the Basic also appears more comfortable to hold with either hand, and includes a black nylon grip above the cam hinge where your hand contacts the body of the ascender.
So… Petzl is listening to cavers! Exciting news, indeed. Would the new changes look as good in real life as they did in the press releases from last summer’s trade show?
I’ll spare everyone photos of the “unboxing” here — like other Petzl devices, these come in a relatively plain package, tethered to a safety notice printed in at least a dozen languages. The real shock was the size. I opened the Basic first, and when it tumbled out of the box into my hand, I found myself staring for several seconds. Really!? I’ve seen larger items come out of vending machines at the grocery store.
The Croll looked even smaller. In fact, the very first thing I did after opening up the Croll was rummage through the center console of my car for the smallest carabiner I could find, a Black Diamond Neutrino wiregate. I laid the two on the pavement together. Same size. Holy crap.
With these new ascenders, the question on everyone’s mind is Petzl’s decision to curtail the range of appropriate ropes: previously these ascenders were approved for 8-13 mm rope, but now are limited to 8-11 mm rope. The exclusion of 12 and 13 mm ropes are of little concern; while 1/2″ (12.5 mm) NFPA rope exists, it certainly isn’t used for sport caving. But here in the US, and especially in the American southeast including TAG, we use 11 mm rope almost exclusively. While this “IRT” approach to SRT rigging may be scoffed at by euro cavers, it works well for our caves and isn’t going away anytime soon.
So… what does “11 mm” mean in terms of being the top end of the range? 7/16″ is actually slightly larger than 11 mm; for example, Bluewater’s website specifies that its 7/16″ Bluewater II is actually 11.4 mm in diameter. The larger size of PMI Talon, popular among some cavers for deep pits, is also listed as 11.5 mm in diameter.
IN addition, ropes that leave the factory as 11 mm may start to behave like a thicker rope as the wear from rappelling begins to “fuzz” the sheath a bit, and fixed ropes in popular caves may accumulate mud, gypsum grit or corrosion residue.
Would our worst-case caving ropes work with the new Petzl ascenders? What about fixed ropes in project/expedition caves? or may even swell with moisture? What about muddy ropes, which we all deal with regularly?
Upon arriving home with the new ascenders, I grabbed a coil of relatively new, but well-used, 11 mm PMI Pit Rope to see whether there was any sort of clearance issue. Great news: there isn’t. The photos above — showing both devices installed on the rope — don’t tell the whole story, so at right is a closeup of the contact point between the cam and the 11 mm rope. Plenty of room. I don’t feel any additional rope drag when progressing these ascenders versus previous models.
At Rock/Creek, we have a fixed piece of Bluewater II hanging in the climbing section of the 2 North Shore store. Perfect! Friday morning, I brought my frog system to work, intending to try a quick run-through on fat rope in the vein of the NCRC SRT skills check-off: climb to ceiling, change over, rappel 3/4 of the way back down, change over, climb again, down-climb to floor.
First, I installed the Basic on the rope while standing on the floor, intentionally twisting it sharply toward the cam side to see if I could make it slip — something that is possible while hand-lining with a Petzl Ascension but more difficult with the pre-2013 Basic. With the new model, I wasn’t able to replicate this failure mode at all; if it’s possible to adopt a bad-enough angle in order to cause this ascender to slip on 11 mm rope, I didn’t manage it. I can’t definitively say whether this is a function of the new cam angle & geometry, the narrower rope channel, or something else.
Actually, I suspect that raises more “time will tell” questions, especially about the Croll. I don’t have problems with my existing Croll slipping on rope while frogging, despite less-than-flawless technique, but I know those who do. Will the update eliminate this possibility?
Likewise, on the very rare occasions that I use a ropewalker, I’ve experienced issues with my Croll slipping when employed as a foot ascender in “stiff steps” — will this be a thing of the past? Will it become more difficult to accidentally jam a piece of webbing or cord into the Croll along with the loaded rope, due to decreased clearance between 11 mm rope and the rope channel?
I’d love comments/feedback on the new Petzl designs from those who may have experienced issues previously.
Regardless, the next step was to get on rope and run through the skills test listed above. What was I looking for? Honestly, for these to perform identically to previous versions. All of the changes to the new models seem geared to make them smaller, lighter and longer-lasting; the actual function of the ascenders, hopefully, would remain the same.
Indeed, I found this to be the case! They performed flawlessly on the 11+ mm Bluewater caving rope in the very controlled environment of a retail store. Actually, after the ascent-to-descent changeover and about 15 feet of downclimbing, I actually think the new Croll disengages more easily for these maneuvers than before. It’s a slight difference, but that’s a good thing, as many beginning cavers find disengaging a loaded Croll to be the trickiest part of those on-rope maneuvers that require it.
Also of note: for those who are used to “thumbing” the top of the Croll’s cam in order to disengage for downclimbing or changeovers, your gloved thumbs may no longer fit. I know my fat thumbs didn’t. However, I’ve been using my index finger to perform this maneuever for years. Petzl’s documentation for the new descender shows a diagram of a caver using their index finger, so this does appear to be the recommended technique.
The Basic feels much more comfortable in the hand. Rope drag, including the proclivity for the Croll to feed when self-starting, feels identical; apologies to those of you who were hoping for some kind of voodoo magic to that end. But we can only learn so much on a rope hanging at Rock/Creek. Let’s go caving!
Saturday, I finally got the chance to take these underground: to a 400+ ft deep cave in Tennessee featuring 6 roped pitches. For reference, here are the components in my personal frog system, beyond (obviously) the Basic and Croll:
Our pits ranged from about 15 ft (~5 m) to 165 ft (50 m), and we used a combination of 8 mm and 11 mm of ropes. The 11 mm was PMI Sport with the max-wear sheath; the 8 mm was a custom PMI max-wear fabrication that, despite the nylon core, felt closer in use to 8 mm Bluewater Canyon Pro than, say, Cancord’s 8 mm caving rope. Conditions were relatively dry, with a bit of spray near the rope at the deepest pitch. All SRT was simple US-style rope work, with no rebelays or complexity.
Overall, I felt both ascenders functioned just as I’ve come to expect from their precursors. The Croll was a bit fussy about self-starting on the 8 mm, but I so rarely climb on 8 mm static rope that I don’t really have a frame of reference there. It behaved exactly like my old Croll on the 11 mm stuff.
The new shape of the Basic is a definite improvement, and I appreciated it more and more as we headed out of the cave and the on-rope footage piled up. I suspect most cavers will now find the Petzl Basic more comfortable than a handled alternative.
I typically wear my vertical gear between pits, unless there is good reason not to, and I didn’t think I’d be able to feel a difference while caving between rope drops. I was wrong; I caught myself looking down periodically to make sure my Basic hadn’t fallen off! Neither device weighs more than the locking carabiners I use for rigging.
The shape of the cam release has changed slightly on each model. They engage and disengage just as smoothly as the old models, but those of us you who, like myself, had grown overly accustomed to the specific action of the previous models are likely to fumble the first few times you attach and detach these from the rope. I didn’t realize how “automatic” those motions had become for me until this trip.
Potential drawbacks? Few. These aren’t likely to work on 1/2″ NFPA general-use ropes, but those aren’t used in caving anyway. For some in the rescue field, this may be a substantial issue; I don’t have any on-hand to test with, but it’s safe to assume the big stuff is out, based upon Petzl’s own specifications.
Beyond that, the smaller hole atop the Croll could perhaps be more restrictive when using chest harnesses that thread through it more than once, such as with certain configurations of the Petzl Serpentine. While the bottom hole of the Basic allows for two carabiners, I found actually having two in there leads to conflict with the Croll at the top of each frog stroke. Some ropewalker users have typically clipped a carabiner through both holes at the top of the old Basic; the new one has a single hole, and it’s unknown if this will affect this type of climbing system.
Is it too late to offer a short version of this write-up? Well, here it is: the new Basic and Croll …work exactly like the old Basic and Croll. Time will tell if there are any issues I didn’t uncover in the four days that I’ve had these in my possession, but the initial returns are positive. These are simply lighter, smaller versions of the ascenders we already use, with a few additional tweaks in the name of durability and ease of use.
If size and weight make a difference for you, make the switch. For cavers, the story here is really about the size decrease and durability; my weight savings by swapping both pieces is only about 3 ounces. If you have issues with cam corrosion and Croll rope channel wear, Petzl has heard your complaints and answered them. On the flip side, if you’re expecting some magic performance boost, or a change in the way these function, you’ll be disappointed.
If you occasionally encounter 1/2″ NFPA ropes hard-rigged in caves, these ascenders probably won’t meet your needs (Has anyone tried it yet? Comment below if so). If you intentionally rig your caves with 1/2″ rope, I am sorry for you, and please don’t buy these.
The verdict? These were already the best ascenders available, and the new versions appear to be another step forward.
UPDATE, 2013-02-04: Had a little bit of trouble getting the new Croll to feed on some 11 mm fixed ropes in a Tennessee project cave. Too early to tell if it’s an issue of more friction between the rope and the rope channel, tension from the new spring or what — but there’s reason to have reservations about self-starting with the new Croll on 11 mil. Basic continues to perform flawlessly. More testing required. Post below if you’ve had the chance to use these!
UPDATE 2, 2013-02-18: After using these more extensively in-cave, the new Croll is consistently difficult to self-start and feed, even as high as 25-30 feet off the ground. This is a non-issue for Pantin users, but likely a deal-breaker for US cavers employing a “standard” French-style frog system without foot ascender. It’s possible that Petzl is assuming, at this point, all froggers are using the Pantin, which has certainly seen an increase in popularity (especially in Europe).
If you use 11mm ropes and no Pantin — or if you’re ropewalking! — you’re not likely to enjoy the new Croll. Unfortunately, after further testing, I cannot recommend this ascender for this application. The new Basic remains highly-recommended for frogging, though would likely suffer from the same issue when employed in a double-bungee system.