ATN Top Climber – An Observer’s Review

I had the opportunity to “witness” the ATN Top Climber mast climbing system the other day.  One of my boat neighbors used his to go to his masthead to install a wind instrument.  I stood on the pier and watched.

My boat neighbor climbing his mast in the ATN Top Climber

First, you can read about the system on their website here: http://www.atninc.com/atn-mastclimber-sailing-equipment.shtml

The system works by attaching yourself, via ascenders, to a halyard that is fixed in a static position. The halyard is simply a standing line pulled taut with your winch, upon which you climb with the ascenders.  You sit in the harness, which has a hard seat incorporated into it, and put your feet into the “stirrups.”

You sit in the seat, and there is a strap that goes behind. I think it must feel pretty secure while you’re in the seat.

You can see his feet in the stirrups and his hand moving the ascender up the line

The seat is attached to one ascender, and the foot-loops are attached to a second ascender.  While seated with your weight resting on the upper ascender, you pull your feet-ascender up about 18 inches and clamp it onto the line.  Then you stand up, adjust your seat-ascender up 18 inches, and sit down to raise your feet-ascender again.  Repeat until you reach your destination.

Approaching the mast head

Basically, it works – with caveats.  I watched my neighbor achieve the mast-head this way, BUT… it is not easy.  And, the higher your mast, the more difficult it is.  Why?  Because you are pushing yourself straight up for 30 or 40+ feet, and it’s exhausting.  Also, you tie off the bitter end of the halyard – typically to the toe rail, or a convenient cleat, and the climb is at the angle created by the slant of the line.  You are dangling under the line as you climb.  You climb around shrouds, spreaders, and any other fittings or lines that are in the way (this is true with any mast climbing system).  Finally, when you get to the top, you can only see above the mast-head if your halyard goes to the mast-head.  If for some reason it terminates somewhere below the masthead, you will not be able to see over the top or do much effective work.  Remember, you have about 24 inches of webbing between the feet-ascenders, and your foot-loops that you stand up in.  If you can only clip the ascender to within several feet of the mast-head, you will have lost that many feet of height, plus the 24 inches (or so) between your feet and the ascenders.  You think, why won’t that be high enough?  Imagine this:  you are sitting in the harness near the top of the mast, and in order to see over the mast-head you have to raise your feet-ascender up to where your hips or waist is(are) because at some point your seat-ascender and feet-ascender are going to meet because you’ve run out of halyard.  Then you have to stand up from a full squat position while you are leaning backward from the mast.

Here he is at the mast-head. Note that he has tied in an additional piece of line because his halyard was too short otherwise. The knot prevents him from rising any higher. Note also that the ascenders are “two-blocked.”

I’m here to tell you, it’s a difficult proposition.  My very athletic neighbor had a difficult time with it.  By the time he was in range, he was pretty tired.  Is it impossible?  Not at all.  Again, it depends on how your halyard runs.  I suspect that if it goes right over the mast head, it is easier because you can slide the feet-ascender closer to the top, and you can more easily rest in the seat just below the top.  If the halyard exits the mast through a slot, there is another problem: the line is so close to the mast that the ascender can’t fit in the space it needs, so you have to clip it lower down.

Conclusion:  It’s not as easy as the adverts indicate.  It does work… but you should take your time on the ascent.  Carry water with you.  Rest periodically on the way up.  Make sure your halyard will enable you to go all the way to the top.  Most importantly, use a safety line with the necessary helper(s) on deck.  Actually, you can’t have too many helpers looking after the safety factors.  Check your halyards. Check your cleats for securing the halyard.  Check your seat attachments and ascenders for grip. Hang from the Top Climber just above the deck before you ascend to check the security of the ascender’s grip on the line.  Check your safety harness, and hang from it also before you go up.  Make sure you tie all your lines to your harness – don’t trust the shackles you use to attach the sails – this is your life we’re talking about.  Even the best gear can be used unsafely, so think through the ascent and don’t get in a hurry.  Think through the decent as well.  Do it right, or postpone your ascent until you can get the right safety equipment and helpers.  Review the process with your helpers and make sure everyone knows their role.

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11 comments
  1. My goodness, I’d faint from the exhaustion and height fright! You are right, safety is utmost importance, it is in all aspects of boating. It is a wonderful recreation but can be very dangerous if your senseless. You can never be too safe on and around the water.

    • The day my neighbor climbed his mast was a hot day. By the time he got back on deck he was dripping from exertion (he climbed 40 feet straight up…) and having the sun beat on him. He was all done in.

      In those conditions dehydration and fatigue are as dangerous as the height to which one is climbing.

  2. Very good review, thanks. I have one. As you say, it is VERY strenuous. Only the fittest and/or youngest ones will find it manageable.

    First time I tried it a cheap ring pin for the foot straps snagged on the halyard and pulled out. I didn’t even see it until I came down. Fortunately the clevis pin held by friction.

    ATN went for another $0.25 profit and risked our lives, if not injury.

    • Thanks for your comment. Close to 900 people have referenced this review since I posted – I had no idea it would become such a reference staple for this device, but then, everyone wants to know if it really works, and what’s the skinny on it anyway! Anytime you’re 50 up in the air hanging by a thread (as it were), it’s good to know what’s keeping you there.

      So glad you were able to descend safely. It’s always the unexpected problems that are the most concerning – how can you anticipate something like that? The only way to go is to never trust anything but your own eyes by inspecting all your gear for a climb every time.

  3. Roly Stanley said:

    I’m pretty happy with my topclimber. Although some stitching is pulling a liittle. I feel a bit top heavy with it an prefer to
    use my harness as well for a secondary attachment when standing on the loops at masthead. Otherwise pretty good.
    (66yro with various ailings!)
    I have no problem getting over the mast top but then I’m 6’2″.

    • Glad it’s working for you, Roly. Your halyards just also run to or very near the top. Good for you for using a harness also. Provides that common-sense insurance against mishaps.

      • Fred said:

        At the age of 70 I bought one, it is difficult to attempt. Releasing the feet strap seems to be my problem. I think there should be a attachment to increase you leverage on the ascender/descender. Your halyard must be very tight, this will help some. I’ve tried it twice ascending above my boom, making practice runs. Bottom line it is not as easy as video shows it and the video does show the complet ascention and descention from start to finish. After attempting several more times I will report back.

      • Fred, I think it’s a difficult climb no matter what method you use. I hate being that high off the deck, and will go to any lengths to make it stupid-proof safe. It is certainly one way of getting up there single-handed. You’re right about needing to get the halyard very tight. It definitely is not as easy as the video makes it seem.

  4. Roly Stanley said:

    Having used it many times now I wouldn’t be without it. Beware though, nuts undo, securing jamming lever. Replaced with Nyloc. A little disconcerting being at MH and seeing nut missing!

    • It’s all your life is worth to check every component of your mast climbing rig before ascent.

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