The climbing rope is the centerpiece of your safety system. Unless you’re bouldering, it’s your most critical climbing equipment. You may buy a one-size-fits-all rope, or build a quiver of ropes that suit each type of climbing you do.
Modern nylon climbing ropes use a kernmantle design, meaning they have a thick “kern,” or core, providing most of the strength, plus a thin “mantle,” or sheath, to protect the core. Extensive twisting of the core yarns gives a rope most of its stretchiness and energy-absorbing capabilities. The core and sheath work together to determine all of the rope’s characteristics, including UIAA fall rating, static and dynamic elongation, impact force, abrasion resistance, water resistance, and the rope’s “hand,” or feel.
Dynamic or static?
Ropes used for leading must be “dynamic,” meaning they stretch significantly to absorb the force of leader falls. “Static” ropes, which stretch very little, aren’t designed to hold lead falls, but have tougher sheaths and are the tools of choice for hauling, fixed ropes, and tag lines. Although some people toprope with static ropes, toprope falls with slack in the system can create shock loads just like lead falls, so it’s better to avoid static lines for toproping.
The standard climbing-rope length is 60 meters (about 197 feet). Except for special purposes, don’t buy a rope shorter than this. Many sport-route anchors are positioned so you’ll just make it down with a 60-meter rope, and too-short ropes have led to numerous lowering accidents.
It’s increasingly common for new sport routes to require even longer ropes, and the 70-meter (230-foot) rope is well on its way to becoming the new standard in some areas. Buying a 70- or 80-meter rope also allows you to extend the rope’s lifespan by cutting off the ends—which get abused from repeated knot-tying and short falls—and still have a “fulllength” rope.
For single-pitch traditional climbing, where pitches often exceed 30 meters, a long rope may allow you to lower off more climbs without toting a second rope for rappels. (One example is Indian Creek, Utah, where a 70- or 80-meter rope will allow you to lower off many climbs that once required a two-rope rappel.) Caution: Always securely knot the tail end of the rope and locate the middle mark before starting a lower-off.
Opinions are split on rope length for multipitch climbing. Sixty meters is standard, but some climbers like to link pitches by using a 70-meter cord. Others swear that a lighter, 50-meter rope is the way to go, since you seldom stretch even a 60-meter rope at most trad areas, and all the extra rope needs to be pulled up and managed at the end of each lead. If you do go short, check locally to make sure you’ll have enough rope for rappel descents. Other downsides of a longer rope are cost and the extra weight you have to carry on the approach.
All-around lead-climbing ropes average 9.8mm to 10.2mm in diameter. You won’t go wrong with something in that range, but your personal sweet spot for a particular type of climbing may vary from 8.9mm to 10.7mm.
Thicker ropes are easier to grab, lock more securely in belay devices, are more resistant to abrasion and less likely to cut over an edge, and last longer. For toproping and groups, bigwall climbing, or a first rope, go with something thicker than average: 10.2mm to 10.7mm. On the flip side, fat ropes are heavier, create more rope drag, and tend to give harsher sportclimbing catches.
Skinny (8.9mm to 9.5mm) single ropes are increasingly popular; they rule for redpoint or onsight burns on long, steep sport climbs. A skinny rope also gives you an edge on long, wandering trad pitches with lots of protection points, or any climb where weight is critical. The downsides of skinnies are many, including reduced lifespan, more chance of the rope cutting over an edge, and scary slipperiness in many belay devices. If you’re making the move to a skinny rope, check that your belay device (and your partner’s) is compatible with the rope diameter, and do some falling and catching practice to get used to the rope’s belay action and stretchiness.
This is the rope-maker’s term for the feel of a rope when you coil, knot, or belay with it. It’s a personal preference quality, and you’ll probably pick your first ropes based on how much you like the ones your friends use. Unfortunately, the hand changes as the rope ages. Generally, an older rope will feel softer and more supple, though it will be stiffer if it’s dirty.
When a rope gets wet, it loses a lot of its energy- absorbing ability, making it less safe for catching lead falls. And if a wet rope freezes during a climb, it becomes an unwieldy cable. If you plan to do any alpine or ice climbing, definitely get a dry-treated rope, but all climbers should consider this option.
Dry treatments coat the rope’s nylon fibers so they don’t absorb water. Standard dry treatments coat the rope’s sheath fibers, while “double-dry” treatments also coat the core. A dry-type coating on the core fibers may have other positive effects, such as reducing nylonon- nylon abrasion within the rope.
There are no disadvantages to getting a rope with a dry treatment except extra cost—typically $20 to $50 more for a 60-meter rope. Dry treatments aren’t permanent, especially on the sheath, so expect water absorption after some use. Several companies offer products for retreating the rope sheath, including Nikwax Rope Proof ($27.35, nikwaxusa.com).
Knowing the midpoint of your rope is essential for rappelling and lowering. Most ropes—but not all—come with a factory-applied middle mark, while some ropes change the weave pattern at the halfway point. Hands down, a midrope pattern or color change is the best way to mark the middle of a rope: It’s much more visible, never wears off, and you always know whether the middle has already passed or if it’s still coming.
Unfortunately, creating a bi-patterned or bi-colored sheath complicates the final cutting process and requires stopping the big, expensive braiding machine to do a mid-rope adjustment or sheath-yarn splice—operations that usually add $50 or more to the price of the rope. For many climbers, especially those expecting to do a lot of long, single-rope rappels, it’s worth it.
It’s possible to lead on two thinner ropes instead of a single thicker one—this is a common technique for trad climbing in certain places, such as Great Britain or New York's Shawangunks. Two-rope systems nearly eliminate the terrifying prospect of your single lead rope cutting over an edge, and they allow you to make full-rope rappels without dragging along a “tag” line. With two lead ropes, you can greatly reduce rope drag on pitches that wander, and better protect your second on traverses. The main downsides are weight, cost, and the fact that this system forces the belayer to mind two separate ropes.
There are two kinds of double-rope systems. By far the most common in the U.S. uses two half ropes, each of which is certified for individually catching falls (when used in a two-rope system). This means you can clip one or both ropes to any protection point. Twin ropes, in contrast, must both be clipped to every piece, making them less versatile for rock climbing. The upside is that twin ropes can be even thinner than half ropes, offering the lightest system for long ice or alpine routes with rappel descents.
Make sure your rope is certified by the UIAA, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (and/or CE EN 892). If it is, you’ll be getting a safe rope, and that may be all most climbers need to know about the rope’s technical specifications. That said, here’s a guide to decoding the many specs used to describe, compare, and evaluate ropes.
UIAA Fall Rating. This is a measure of a rope’s ability to absorb energy in a harshfall scenario. The test involves dropping a 176-pound (80kg) weight 5 meters on 2.8 meters of rope, with the rope running over a carabiner-like edge near its static attachment point. This is a vicious fall—like a 16-footer directly onto the belay anchor, minus all the natural shock-absorbing factors such as rope slippage and belayer movement. It would be almost impossible to duplicate the UIAA test fall in an actual climbing situation. Still, this test allows ropes’ overall force-absorbing stamina to be compared apples to apples. Each test fall damages the rope’s ability to stretch and absorb energy, and the test is repeated until the rope breaks. To gain a UIAA certification, a single lead rope must withstand five test falls.
Though some buyers believe fall rating is the rope’s key statistic, it’s probably the least important for determining how useful and safe your cord will be. For example, it does not reflect the number of normal sport-climbing falls you can safely take on your rope—most ropes will hold many, many more falls during their lifespan. If the rope withstands the UIAA test’s rapid barrage of five incredibly harsh falls, it’s more than strong enough for climbing. If you take even a single fall comparable to the UIAA test fall, and live to tell the tale, you should retire the rope.
Impact Force. This is a very important statistic— the one you would experience the most in real life if you brought a bunch of new ropes to your local crag and proceeded to take testwhippers. It simulates the amount of force exerted on a climber during the standard UIAA test fall. High impact forces injure falling climbers and rip out protection, so you want this number to be low.
Controlled rope stretch is what lowers impact forces. Keep in mind that all rope construction involves compromise, and many of the design features that make a rope stretchy also make it less durable. It’s easy to make a stretchy core, but hard to make a durable sheath that’s equally stretchy. Plus, you don’t want a rope that’s too stretchy—see “Dynamic Elongation” below.
Sheath Slippage. Look for a low number. This is, in effect, a measure of durability. The sheath slipping relative to the core—either from a difference in stretchiness or too-loose construction—eventually will create soft or lumpy spots in the rope, signifying the end of that rope’s useful life.
Working Elongation. This measures the rope’s stretch when holding a 176-pound weight. This is most relevant for big-wall and toproping: Less working elongation is better.
Dynamic Elongation. This is the amount the rope stretches during its first UIAA test fall (see above). It is related to impact force—the more elongation, the less impact force. Too much elongation, however, means a potentially hazardous, bungee-like catch—if the rope stretches too much, you might hit the ground or a ledge. To balance these contrasting requirements in a rope, the UIAA limits dynamic elongation to 40 percent.
Sheath Thickness. This statistic is a little harder to find, but it’s relevant to a rope’s durability. Since most of the UIAA stats can be optimized by dedicating more fibers to a rope’s core, there is some market pressure to make ropes with the thinnest possible sheaths. Unfortunately, the first thing to wear out on most ropes is the sheath, not the core; a thicker sheath also gives the rope better resistance to cutting. On the other hand, a too-thick sheath can make the rope stiff and unpleasant to handle. As in all rope characteristics, the art is finding just the right compromise.