Vertical spelunking can be cold, wet, and extremely exhausting. Often the cave explorer is forced to rappel down a waterfall to get into a pit and then to ascend the rope, getting soaked and risking hypothermia. Early cavers used prusik knots, inefficient, muscularly taxing knots that don’t hold well on wet rope.
In 1965 my brother, Charles, showed me a mechanical ascender he had built. I set out to manufacture it. I built 65 ascenders and sold a few of them to friends for places like Neff’s Cave.
That fall, at the National Speleological Society convention in Lovell, Wyoming, Charles entered a rope climbing contest. Using the newly minted Gibbs Ascenders, he cut the record time in half. I sold out that afternoon. Word spread rapidly and orders began coming in, but it was a very small market.
George Lowe, well known mountain climber and fellow physics student at the University of Utah, started using Gibbs Ascenders on his expeditions and writing them up in climbing magazine articles because they held well on ice cover ropes and were easy on the rope. That spread word around the world and opened up a second, larger market.
The cam in the first model Gibbs Ascender swung freely. Rock climbers wanted it spring loaded. Thus the second model was born.
Soon mountain rescue crews were using them for raising litters and ski resorts were using them to extract customers from stalled lifts. For their use, I added a stainless steel model and thicker aluminum model. And to give them more holding power, I put indents in the shell of the ascender.
Fire departments and rescue crews often use ropes more than half an inch thick so I added three quarter inch models next.
Over time Gibbs Ascenders found many niches to fill besides ascending ropes, including setting up rigging for rock concerts and protecting tree trimmers. There have been many modifications for specific markets but the basic design remains unchanged.