Diversity? Certainly, but let’s get the balance right

Diversity is good, so they say.

Care for an example?

If you are investing in a portfolio of stock, you will probably want a degree of diversity that will act as a shock absorber in case of economic turbulences. The same holds true for ecological systems: biodiversity protects against single pathogens or pests that a monoculture would be defenseless against.

Having said that, over-diversification has its own pitfalls: if you over-diversify your portfolio, your return on investment may no longer be viable. A garden in which one is attempting to create habitat with too great a bio-diversity may in actual fact become less attractive. So, for example, planting three purple milkweed plants amongst many other species in a garden might attract some Monarch butterflies, but planting three dozen of them is much more likely to do so. Planting one or two turtlehead plants might attract a Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, but planting a hundred square feet of turtlehead is much more likely to be an attractant. Therefore, in a nutshell, planting a little bit of everything does not in itself ensure the creation of viable habitat.

So, as is true so often, there is a sweet spot in the balance between too little and too much diversity.

Why am I rattling on about butterflies and stock portfolios – both topics about which I really do not have much of a clue (none whatsoever, in fact)? Well, here in my world of tree climbing, I believe that we face a similar dilemma when it comes to the diversity we are encountering in ascent systems. During courses and workshops I have started focussing on the variations of ascent configurations that people bring along – and guess what?

Yep, no two are the same!

Is this a big deal? Well, if you compare it with other areas of work at height it is, to say the very least, a striking contrast. Other operators working at height are much more restricted when it comes to making choices of ascent configurations and tools, but not so in tree work. Here, the sky is the limit.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Do not get me wrong, I am all for allowing space for innovation. But there needs to be a degree of accountability and guide lines to ensure that systems are safe.

This is not what I am seeing.

Some of the configurations are, to be charitable, sketchy. Sometimes this may be due to being under-dimensioned, other time gear may be misconfigured, the result in both cases being a considerably reduced safety margin. And often as not, the climber is blissfully oblivious to this fact, as (and I have stated this before), we are not experts in systems failing.

What kind of issues am I talking about here? Well, here are a couple of examples…

No connector in the top hole to assure that the line runs fair into the rope channel, despite user instructions explicitly declaring this to be a necessity. On top of which, in a cluttered environment such as a tree canopy, this would seem to make a lot of sense to me.

For some reason, people seem to be prone to mixing up which hole to attach what into. Often as not, you will find the foot loop attached into the hole for the attachment lanyard – and vice versa. This does not make sense, as obviously the lanyard attachment hole shall be load bearing, whereas the foot loop attachment point, is… well, the foot loop attachment point. Manufacturers are obviously aware of this issue, so for example the new Petzl Ascension ascenders (in the image above, on left) only have one attachment hole, resolving this issue.

How to attach into the ascender? Girthing webbing slings (like the white Dyneema sling in the image above) into the eye is not a good idea, as the contact surfaces of the ascender are not very textile friendly and may well induce failure at quite low loads.

Using lines that are not suited or incompatible with ascenders, such as lines with very low elongation, e.g. HMPE lines, made of fibres such as Dyneema or Spectra. Due to their minimal elongation, in case of shock loading resulting from anchor point movement, slippage or failure, these lines can respond in a very different way from semi-static EN1891-type lines, leading to dramatic results, such as the cover shearing and the climber sliding all the way to the ground, or the line being completely severed, this also resulting in a fall to the ground.

The use of tools in a fashion that they were not designed to be used. The classic example for this being the use of Rocker/ Buddy-type devices in the stead of a chest ascender. This is not correct use of these devices, as, according to the user manual, they shall be able to freely run up and down the line – whereas in the chest ascender-type configuration, they are de facto being held high with a neck tether. From a standards point of view, this type of device will be certified to EN12841 type A, a back up device in a rope access system, EN358, a lanyard adjuster or EN353-2, a guided type fall arresters on a flexible anchor line. But NOT as an ascender!

This list is non-exhaustive and could go on. And on.

So is the range of these various configuration suffering from over-diversification? I certainly feel there is a lack of clarity regarding which boxes exactly we are attempting to tick when configuring these assemblies and systems. Which criteria do we apply, where are the reference points and best practice guidelines we are striving to conform to? Once we have gained greater clarity in regards to these questions, I believe we will be in a better position to redress the balance towards a healthy diversity, rather than being inundated in an apparent plethora of choices.

So whilst I am all for improving the way in which we work by making it more efficient, easier, more ergonomic and user-friendly, let us at the same time be diligent that we are ticking all necessary boxes by verifying that we are in-line with manufacturer recommendations, that we are considering correct configuration, neighboring component compatibility – and by doing so, assembling safe and reliable systems.

If in doubt, RTFM.