There are many different models of canyoning harnesses on the market. Fundamentally, there are two types whose properties differ greatly:
- The “high” attachment point harness, with a webbing loop, mountaineering type
- The “low” attachment point harness, closed by a special carabiner, caving type
Why do two types of harness exist? What are the technical implications of a high attachment point on a harness? The question, of course, is to know which is the most adapted for the practice of canyoning. This is a reoccurring subject among canyoneers, and it is not resolved: certain schools endorse the high attachment point, others the low, and others accept both. ICOpro requires its members to use the low attachment point harness, and the following will explain why.
The high attachment point harnesses, with a webbing loop, are designed for climbing and mountaineering. These climbing (on rock) sports are practiced on dynamic ropes which cushion the falls that inevitably arise during an ascent. Dynamic ropes do not serve as a means for progression but for protection. And a high attachment point harness minimizes the risk of a climber being flipped upside down in the event of a fall.
The low attachment point harnesses, closed by a semi-circular carabiner, are designed for caving, which is a sport that climbs (on rope) and descends. In this case, ropes are mainly used as a means of progressing. They are, therefore, static. The attachment point is better situated lower on the harness than for mountaineering because it isn’t important to avoid flipping upside down from a fall (which shouldn’t occur), but instead to optimize the technique for ascending on a rope. And the key point here is the position of the chest ascender on the stomach: it must be as low as possible.
Returning to canyoning, we often hear that a low attachment point, by lowering the center of gravity of a canyoneer when rappelling down, increases the risk turning over and ending upside down during descent. This could definitely cause problems. Remember that a canyon bag may be worn on the back, which can get caught in the waterfall and also turn the canyoneer upside down during a rappel. In a waterfall with flow, it is compulsory to attach the bag on the harness, throw it from the top or down on a guide line, but in no case is it carried on the back.
Apart from the issue of bag management, a similar situation, the risk of turning upside down is certainly higher with a low attachment point than a high attachment point. This is mechanical. But this is not the only problem, and there are sound arguments in favour of the low attachment point that counter it. Thus, we proceed further.
First, if the canyoneer is turned upside down on the rope, it is primarily because the water flow was too strong: he would simply not descend directly in the flow (or not carry the bag on his back). Essentially, the problem here is not just the position of the attachment point, but largely the choice of rigging on the waterfall. The risk of turning upside down must be anticipated during the rigging and passing of an obstacle. A guided rappel solves this problem, as it often does. Then again, it is perfectly possible to turn upside down in a strong waterfall with a high attachment point too. So the guided rappel is obligatory, and it consequently negates the risk of turning over.
The argument in favour of the low attachment point is based upon rescue and intervention techniques, or more precisely, on rope ascending techniques, and therefore on the position and use of the chest ascender. In fact, the question of the harness attachment point is inseparable from the chest ascender. Let me explain myself; in almost all cases, you will have to ascend the rope, if only a little, to get out of a tricky situation: passing a knot, freeing something jammed on the rope, performing a balancier or transferring weight, ascending the rope to help a teammate in trouble… Nearly all the rescue techniques require, at one time or another, switching to an “ascent” mode. And just as there are tools thought of and designed for rappelling (descender) or for cutting a rope (knife), there are tools specifically thought of and designed for ascending a rope. And the most effective of them all is the chest ascender.
The chest ascender is already considered by many canyoneers to be superfluous; they see it as unnecessary, because they say they have never had to climb up a rope. And even if they had to, they can use prussiks, much lighter and less bulky (which is highly debatable). Others pretend they do not need helmets because they never fell, or they try to make fire with stones while there are matches… The serious schools, therefore, teach the use of a chest ascender, and its use is spreading slowly. It’s use is a good thing.
But this is precisely where our problem arises, because we see a lot of canyoneers carrying a chest ascender on a high attachment point harness, which is indicative of how the canyoning world views the importance of being perfectly comfortable and most effective and efficient while ascending. In fact, from a pedagogical view point, we should first focus on mastering ascending and conversion techniques before working on descent and rigging. It remains that from the perspective of personal and collective safety, it is clear that the risk is reduced if practitioners have mastered descending and ascending techniques, and they are utilizing optimized techniques. Those who can do more can do less…
The chest ascender has been designed by cavers, because it is equally important for them to be efficient at ascent as descent. Efficiency means here: “to obtain the biggest distance possible between the chest ascender and hand ascender before standing up in the footloop.” And if the cavers use the low attachment point harness, this is precisely because the chest ascender is a tool thought of and designed for being carried on this type of harness, a simple matter of performance optimization and efficiency of the tool.
Surely you have already seen canyoneers ascending a rope using a chest ascender attached to their “high attachment point” harness via a small carabiner or a maillon (quicklink). Once again, the high attachment point harnesses are not designed to accommodate a chest ascender, so it is necessary to add a carabiner to connect it, which increases the length of the tool and diminishes its performance. In this case, the canyoneer finds his chest ascender at face-level (since it is attached abnormally high) and thus he obtains the smallest distance between his chest ascender and hand ascender. It is also more difficult for him to stand up vertically in his foot loop. In short, his performance and efficiency during ascent is greatly reduced.
Returning to the subject, why do we wear chest ascenders? We have already said, “to be able to react quickly in case of a problem while preserving our energy.” Not forgetting to take into account that an unexpected or dangerous situation generates stress, and stress greatly reduces physical ability and critical thinking, even before intervening or acting. Not to mention the performance of your equipment, your abilities are greatly diminished even though you must be efficient and quick to react and solve the problem to avoid the worst. So, additionally, if you find your chest ascender at the level of your teeth when you stand up, then you are not out of the woods yet. Or you’re risking an additional accident.
Carrying your chest ascender on a high attachment point harness is, therefore, non-sense from a technical standpoint: it works, but it’s counter-productive, it’s not adapted, and it’s not made for it. This is like playing tennis with a ping pong paddle. Or the contrary, it is possible, but it may not be easy… If you consider that you’re carrying your chest ascender because it is a tool for rescue or emergency, then it must be used in a way that it is most economical and efficient, hence, on a low attachment point harness.
The harness that is most adapted for the practice of canyoning will thus be a harness that permits both the position of the descender to maximally minimize the risk of flipping upside down and the position of the chest ascender sufficiently low enough to optimize the ascent on rope. A harness with a double attachment point, one “high” for the descender and one “low” for the chest ascender. This kind of harness does exist on the market, but the concept is not adapted for canyoning.
Until such a harness is made, ICOpro considers that in terms of safety, the advantages of carrying a chest ascender correctly on a low attachment point largely offsets the risk of turning upside down. ICOpro therefore requires its autonomous members to use a low attachment point harness and a chest ascender. In fact, following this logic, the organization requires all its professional members to use a low attachment point harness, a chest ascender, personally tailored cowstails, a compact hand ascender (always carried on the long cowstail), a light and compact footloop, and a chest harness.
Beyond safety, requiring a certain type of material also has many advantages from a pedagogical standpoint. This will be the subject of my next post.