An Interview with Rope Runner Inventor Kevin Bingham
Run as fast as you can, he's the Rope Runner Man!
We got the chance to interview Kevin Bingham, the inventor behind the Rope Runner and Rope Runner Pro manufactured by Notch.
Bartlett: Go ahead and introduce yourself!
What lead to the creation of the Rope Runner?
The Rope Wrench was created first. The Rope Runner was actually inspired by the difficulty of getting the Rope Wrench certified to any kind of standard because of its relation to the hitch.
At that time I was into climbing competitions. They wouldn't let me climb SRT with a hitch, so I figured that it would be easier to just go with a mechanical. Hitches can be complicated for some people to wrap their heads around because they are so variable, and they depend completely on the climber's skill in tying them. It is still true that the Wrench has a very awkward CE certification.
That led to me playing with mechanicals which really are just like hitches. They can be assembled any number of different ways to work. For example, you have the Michoacan, the Distel, The VT, etc.
For mechanicals you’ve got the Unicender, Bulldog Bone, Akimbo, Rope Runner, or descenders such as Petzl’s ID. There are infinite combinations to formulate friction on a rope!
How many prototype models were made and what materials did you experiment with in the creation of the Rope Runner?
There were so many models of the runner. The first models were hacked out of aluminum with a sawzall, drill press and a grinder. I dismantled A LOT of CMI pulleys for their sheaves and bollards. I also had a CT fixed sheave pulley that fit perfectly and used a hair tie for the spring.
Soon after, I found a tech shop that had all kinds of tools that I could use such as a water jet. There were plenty of days where I would leave my tree mid-climb, go make another prototype with improvements, and then I would return to the tree I was working on. Needless to say, I got pretty fast at making new experimental parts! I got into this rhythm of finding something that sort of worked, and then take it far out to the extreme so it wouldn't work anymore. I would then dial it back in slowly to a point where it felt good.
One model had a pulley on all three-friction points and it was SMOOTH! If I had taken that option to market, it would have been much more expensive and would’ve included more moving parts. After I found the model I was happy with, I created 100 test units to hand out to some brave early adopters.
Did you expect the Rope Runner to take off in popularity like it has now?
Yes, I knew right off the bat that many climbers would really love it. I knew that it was what I wanted to climb on, but I also knew it wouldn't be for everyone.
Was the original Rope Runner intended for MRS?
I climbed MRS for a long time. It's a lot of fun if you like twiddling with tricks and gear. I wouldn't recommend using a Rope Runner for MRS, there are better tools for that specific climbing style. I don't really climb MRS much except on crane jobs. The Runner does fine on a crane job as there really isn't a lot of climbing involved in crane work it is just up and down and cutting.
If I chose to climb MRS for a serious climb, I would much rather use a Hitchclimber. I haven't seen any better mechanicals than a Hitchclimber pulley when it comes to MRS. I like to keep my climbing simple and SRT allows me to leave the ground with no baggage and the exact amount of rope I need for whatever climb I am doing.
People think I'm crazy because I like to foot lock during SRS climbs, but that's mostly because I am too lazy to get my ascenders and gear out of the bag. Foot ascenders on my boots bug me and they can damage the tree. A lot of people climb SRS so they don't have to foot lock anymore. I'm old school and I still believe that if you can't foot lock or body thrust MRS, then you should just stay on the ground.
Is there anything you would like to address regarding the Rope Runner?
The Runner is a complicated device with a lot of moving parts. You have to take care of it, and you have to understand it to maintain it properly.
One of the biggest complaints about the original Rope Runner I got was that it felt floppy, and the tether plates were loose. This actually helped serve to keep the spring clean and it would shake out ice, dirt or sap. The Rope Runner Pro has a more solid tether and it doesn't feel janky. There are no big bolts on the side of the Pro, but the spring needs to be monitored more closely in dirty conditions.
When the Rope Runner Pro first began being manufactured, there were some springs that made it through the manufacturing process but then slipped outside of their containment and failed. We received 8 or 9 total devices that had this particular problem, although I'm sure a lot of folks did not send theirs back
By the way, if you have a problem with your Rope Runner, please send it to Notch ASAP. That is the only way they can know about issues. In response to the spring issue, we tightened the tolerances on the spring making at the factory and so far have not had any reported failures since that first batch.
This problem was separate from the problem of dirty Rope Runner Pros. The RRP has to be kept clean! I love climbing on it so much, but the device has to be maintained correctly just like any other mechanical.
One small difference in the Runners that I made and the ones that CMI made was the way the spring was affixed. One batch of 500 original Runners came out of the factory with the spring on backwards. The spring still worked that way, so it was fine from a functional standpoint. But when the spring was put on in the correct orientation, it worked out the set screw retaining the spring. This led to some sudden spring failures. Those first few months of a new product hitting the shelves is pretty terrifying. Our six months of six product testers can’t find the problems that a couple thousand climbers can discover in just a few days.
I get a lot of negative feedback about the Rope Runner Pro getting made in Taiwan. I get it. I really wanted the Rope Wrench to be made in Detroit. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way. The Wrench ended up being made in the UK. I felt like a sellout in a way sending it overseas to the UK, but I just had to let it go. I just wanted to climb trees and tinker with gear and I didn’t see a path forward to having it both ways.
I have been an avid bike rider for many years, so I'm used to seeing high end precision bike components from highly-respected brands made in Taiwan. From a manufacturing and quality perspective, I knew they had great capabilities. Another thing that gave me a lot of confidence was when one of the Notch engineers sent me a picture of himself and his team all attending the ISA Taiwan Tree Climbing Championships. They were totally excited to learn about the industry that they were making the product for. There's a tendency to stereotype products made in Asia as something made by people who don't care what they are making, and I don't think that is a fair judgement.
Yes, I would rather the Rope Runner was made here in Detroit, but I also just want to climb trees and not run a factory.
I have heard people say that the Notch Rope Runner and Quickie are rip-offs of Singing Tree. I am thrilled either way. Buy the Rope Wrench with the Singing Tree logo if you want to help fund me making more prototypes. I personally, love climbing on the Rope Runner Pro and throughout this whole adventure my main goal is to provide myself with the ultimate climbing experience. I don't think I'm there yet, but I'm going to keep climbing and keep tinkering.
What is your favorite rope to pair with the Rope Runner Pro?
I am pretty undiscerning when it comes to rope. I’ll climb on anything, and I haven't disliked a lot of rope except for 11mm HTP. For some reason I don't like that rope, but maybe I just need to spend more time with it.
There are some lower quality 24-strands out there that are also too mushy and flatten in the rope. Rope that holds its round shape is the best for the Runner. I don't really care about bounce too much, nor do I care about the number of strands either.
New rope is a rope I don't like! A brand new rope and a new Rope Runner are absolutely the worst combo! The Runner needs to break in and the anodizing needs to wear off the body at the very least. When the bollards and the body wear in a bit, it gets better.
I like my Runners set to all the way open if I can. A bad rope is one that doesn’t allow me to run it at full open. I expect to run it a bit tight with a new rope. A nice rope that has had all the sloppiness pulled out of it, has been pulled through a lot of tight branch unions and has been a memory of trees rather than a memory of the factory. I become very attached to my ropes over time, and it hurts my soul every time I screw up and nick or spur them. It's like stabbing a friend! I never throw my ropes away. I just cut them, and they become short ropes.
How often do you replace pieces on your Rope Runner?
Everything on the Rope Runner is replaceable from the bollards to the body. I don't really see changing the bollards much. I’ve rotated mine maybe once.
The body is the thing that sees the most wear and tear, and can even be worn through completely if climbers aren't careful. A gentleman in Australia went through it in a year of climbing, crazy! Derrik Martin went through his in 2 years but he does a lot of crane work and I think that is especially hard on them. You can tell when they are thin, so don’t push it. My worry is rope damage when it goes through. Both of the people that I've talked to about this reported no noticeable rope damage. The main thing is keeping the runner clean and lubed. In other words, always inspect your gear. Keep it clear of your body when climbing, double and triple check that all the pins are through and locked. Weight test it. Check your TIP again. Then CLIMB!
Thanks for speaking with us!
Thank you. I’m out here and always chasing perfection.
In final thoughts: enjoy your Rope Runner and treat it with respect! You can see the Rope Runner in action by watching this video below!