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Your Complete Guide to Rock Climbing Ropes

Single? Double? Dry? Double dry? Here's what you need to know to buy your first climbing rope.

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I. “The leader must not fall.”

We live in the age of whippers, an age in which the phrase the leader must not fall” is generally (but not always) voiced in jest. But before modern bolts and cams, before harnesses with waist belts, and (to our purpose here) before the invention of the dynamic nylon rope, the concept that the leader mustn’t fall was a deadly serious one. The natural fiber ropes used by climbers from the 1860s to the 1950s may have been roughly the same thickness as modern ropes, but they were far weaker when subjected to static forces and easily broken when subjected to sudden loads—i.e. falls. 

Back then, ropes were acceptable for following, or for hand-over-handing through unclimbable terrain, but climbers strove skyward under the burdensome knowledge that their rope would very probably break if the leader took any fall larger than eight feet. Furthermore—and almost as bad—they knew that even if their rope did not break, a large fall on a static line would subject the climber to dangerously high impact forces, and that jerking to a sudden stop on a waist-only harness could easily result in a broken back.

This relationship between the leader and falls began to change in the 1950s, with the adoption of more dynamic nylon ropes and the development of dynamic catch techniques; but it was not codified by the climbing establishment until Edelrid’s 1964 invention of the kernmantle rope design, which remains the foundational design of modern climbing ropes.

Kernmantle ropes are two-parted: they’ve got an inner core (the “kern”) and an outer sheath (the “mantle”). The core is made of extensively twisted nylon strands and is the source of the rope’s strength and energy absorbing capabilities; the mantle is made of coarser nylon fibers and is designed to protect the core from abrasion, UV deterioration, sharp edges, and so on. Together, the kern and mantle determine all of the rope’s characteristics, including its resistance to water and abrasion, the extent of its static and dynamic stretch, and the fall forces it can withstand.

A kernmantle rope. The core strands are white. (Photo: David J. Fred)
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II. What to Look for in a Climbing Rope

Dynamic or static?

There are two main categories of climbing ropes—dynamic ropes and static ropes—and they’re very different in functionality. 

Dynamic ropes are what most of us think about when we think about climbing ropes. They’re called “dynamic” because they stretch significantly, which allows them to absorb the force of a fall. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably looking for a dynamic rope.

Static ropes, on the other hand, stretch very little and should not be fallen on. Instead, they’re designed to be used for hauling gear up big walls, serving as fixed ropes for jugging or toprope-soloing, and taglines. 

Single, half, or twin?

Single ropes. Single ropes are what they sound like—and what most of us think about when we think about climbing ropes: They’re a single strand that’s designed to be used alone rather than in tandem with a second rope. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably looking for a single rope. But two-rope systems are still worth explaining:

Two-rope systems. You’ve probably seen videos—often of people doing very scary things—of climbers leading with two thin ropes instead of a single thicker one. There are several reasons to use a double-rope system. They can reduce rope drag. They can minimize the horrendous prospect of a rope being cut by an edge. They can allow climbers to make full-length rappels (i.e. rappeling the full 60-meter length of a 60-meter rope) without dragging a tag line with them up the wall. The main downsides of a two-rope system are weight, cost, and logistics. It takes practice for both climber and belayer to manage two ropes at the same time.

There are two kinds of double-rope systems: Half rope systems and twin rope systems.

Half ropes are generally thinner than single ropes (diameter in the 7 mm to 9 mm range) but are nonetheless strong enough to catch a fall on their own even when used in a two-rope system. This means you can clip one rope into one protection point (on, say, the left side of a sharp arete) and the other to another (on the right side of the sharp arete)—essentially allowing you to climb two lines of protection at the same time. This is especially common on aretes (as mentioned) or on trad climbs that don’t follow a single line of pro (not a splitter crack) and instead involve significant lateral variation in the gear.

You don’t see half-rope systems much in Indian Creek or even Yosemite, but they’re more common in the UK’s sparsely protected gritstone crags and even at the Shawangunks in New York, where the cracks run in horizontal bands across the cliff. (Three notes: (1) two half ropes are generally heavier than one single; (2) half ropes generally come in pairs and are rated to be used together; don’t use one as a single rope unless it’s specifically designed to be used this way.

Twin ropes. Twin ropes, on the other hand, are generally thinner (7 mm to 8 mm) and rated for dual use—meaning that they must both be clipped to every piece. Though they’re less versatile for rock climbing, they’re thinner than half ropes and offer the lightest system for long ice or alpine routes with rappel descents.

Length  

Rope length has varied over the ages—and that variation is something you need to think about when purchasing a rope.

The ropes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, were generally 50 meters long, which means that most single pitch routes from those eras maxed out at 25-meters (80 feet). The standard rope of the 2000s, meanwhile, was 60 meters long, which meant single pitch routes put up in that era were about 100 feet long. Today, the new standard rope is 70-meters long—and 80-meter ropes are not uncommon.

Before buying a rope, therefore, you should do a brief census of your intended usage. If you’re planning on climbing primarily in Rumney, New Hampshire, where the cliffs are relatively short and most route development took place in the 1990s, you’ll be able to lower off most routes with a 60-meter rope. If you’re in a newer area, however, you may find yourself on climbs that require far longer ropes. And it’s worth noting that many older-school areas like Rifle, Colorado, are peppered with newer-school climbs and extensions that require a longer rope. In trad cragging areas like Indian Creek, meanwhile, where pitches often exceed 30 meters in length, a longer rope may allow you to lower off more climbs without toting a second rope for your descent by rappel.

The downside to a longer rope? Longer ropes are both heavier and more expensive.

For multi-pitch. People have different preferences for multi-pitch rope length. Sixty meters is standard, but some climbers like to link pitches by using 70-meter or 80-meter cords. Conversely, some traditionalists swear that the traditional 50-meter rope is better since it’s lighter and easier to manage on hanging belays. If you do opt for a shorter rope, do research before embarking on your multi-pitch descents: Some areas expect you to have a full 60-meter cord, while others will even expect 60-meter rope used with a 60-meter tagline.

How To Lengthen Your Single Rappel Rope When It Is Too Short

 

Diameter

Ropes have been getting longer and thinner over the past few decades. Today’s single lead ropes range from the ultra-thin 8.7 mm to hardy 10.2 mm workhorses—though 10.5 mm beasts are still not uncommon. 

Thicker ropes. The benefit of thicker ropes: they’re easier to grab, they tend to lock more securely into belay devices (though newer belay devices are designed with the thinner ropes in mind), and they’re heartier. A thick rope is more resistant to abrasion, less likely to be severed by a sharp edge, and can withstand more falls before wearing down. The downside? They’re heavier, which makes rope drag more of a problem on longer pitches. They’re also harder to clip into quickdraws. Thick ropes are great if you’re doing a lot of toproping or big wall climbing—or if you’re looking for a projecting workhorse, a rope that can weather many short falls.

Thinner ropes. Skinny ropes have become increasingly popular. They’re less of a burden (literally) on long climbs, be it sport cave epics or long wandering trad pitches—any climb where weight is critical. They’re easier to clip with and, when belaying, it’s easier for the belayer to give slack. The downsides of skinnier ropes: they don’t last as long, they are more at risk of being cut when running over an edge, and they can be a bit slippery in some belay devices—though, again, belay devices have evolved alongside ropes, so this is less of a problem than it was fifteen years ago. Thin ropes are great for performance climbing (redpoint burns) and for long climbs where rope drag can become a problem.

Sample use cases:

  • 9.4 mm and smaller. These are ultralight single ropes, great for multi-pitch climbs or limit redpoints. They are less durable than thicker ropes, so if you plan on (a) falling a lot (b) toproping a lot or (c) running them over sharp(ish) edges, pick a thicker rope.
  • 9.4 mm to 9.8 mm. These are all-arounders—walking the fine line between performance and durability. You can toprope and hangdog, but they’re also not going to weigh too much on long routes, and they’ll be moderately durable on rope-shredding mountain routes. (Chances are, if you’re reading this, you want one of these.)
  • 9.9 mm and up. Workhorse ropes! Gotta love them. They’re great for gyms, dogging around on projects, toiling on big walls, and frequent toproping—all of which lay serious wear and tear on your rope.

Dry Treatments

When your rope is wet it loses a significant percentage (up to 30%) of its energy-absorbing capabilities—which makes lead falls more dangerous. Wet ropes also freeze when it’s cold, turning them into unwieldy cables. (This is why 19-year-old John Bouchard ended up free soloing the first ascent of the Black Dike, back in 1971, rather than rope soloing it.) So ice and alpine climbers definitely need dry-treated rope. But it’s a good option for all climbers, since the dry treatment also makes the rope less susceptible to dust accumulation, which is a big source of wear and tear for both rope and hardware.

Standard dry vs. double dry. Standard dry treatments are a bit like wearing a raincoat: The treatment coats the rope’s nylon sheath fibers, so the outside will not absorb water. Double-dry treatments also coat the core, which makes the inside of the rope less likely to absorb water, and has the secondary effect of reducing nylon-on-nylon abrasion within the rope and therefore increasing its longevity.

Why not get a dry treatment? The only real disadvantage is cost. You’re typically tacking on $40-$80 more per rope. Also, dry treatments aren’t permanent, especially the dry treatment on the sheath, so you can still expect water absorption after some use.

Middle marks & multiple colors

Most ropes come with a middle mark—some indicator of the rope’s center. Traditional middle marks are dark black colorations—but the problem with these is that they fade and rub off over time. Bipattern ropes, on the other hand, have two colors, with one side of the rope one color, the other side the other color. Some ropes change the weave pattern rather than the color. All of these methods make it easier (at least when the rope is clean) to tell where the middle of the rope is—crucial knowledge for both rappelling and lowering. The downside? Color and pattern changes add to a rope’s manufacturing cost, so they’re more expensive. But, unless you plan on staying in the gym or only on familiar routes, the safety benefit is worth the cost. 

How to Inspect Your Climbing Gear and When to Retire It

 

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III. What Do all Those Technical Specs Mean?

 Make sure your rope is certified by the UIAA (the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) and/or CE EN 892. Explaining what these labels mean, and the testing process involved, is beyond the scope of this piece. But if you see CE EN 892 or UIAA you know you’re getting a safe rope.

The following is quoted directly from Jeff Achey’s 2012 Climbing Gear Guide:

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.

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IV. Our Best Reviewed Climbing Ropes

Black Diamond’s Ondra Edition 8.6 Dry

From Black Diamond: “The Black Diamond 8.6 dry climbing rope is our slimmest diameter single rope specifically designed for your hardest redpoints. Featuring the durable 2X2 woven sheath, this 8.6 has a dry treated core and sheath for extra durability and weather resistance. The triple dash middle marker is easy to spot and adds a margin of safety, while the 80-meter length is ideal for the pumpfest enduro routes that test your limits and the length of shorter cords.”

Our reviewer:With only 5.7 percent static elongation and 30 percent dynamic elongation, the Ondra Edition stacks up stat-wise with ropes closer to 9 mm, and it did indeed feel like falling on a 9.1 or 9.3. Later in the session, though, after I took a big ride when I was too pumped to clip, I ended up a ways down, and as I looked up at all that skinny line above me, the thought of boinking up was daunting, so I lowered off. But this is not a problem that affects this rope only—any rope that’s sub-9 mm is not going to be your go-to hang dogging cord. You keep specialty ropes like the Ondra Edition in reserve for redpointing at your limit.”

Type: Single / half / twin (rated for each use)

Length: 80 meters

Price: $349.95

Buy the Ondra Edition 8.6 Dry on Backcountry.com

Trango Agility 9.1

From Trango: The Agility 9.1 is designed to be the only rope you’ll ever need.  Triple rated to serve duty in a single, double, or twin setup, available with or without dry treatment, and featuring Spider Wear for enhanced durability, this lightweight powerhouse goes anywhere and does everything from alpine to sport to trad.  The Agility 9.1 includes the proprietary RED FLAG treatment marking the final 5M of each end a bright, contrasting red and providing a clear visual indicator of approaching rope ends. Easy to locate ends give climbers enhanced levels of safety during the riskiest parts of rappelling and lowering. This rope combines futuristic performance with revolutionary safety features to make our most advanced rope yet.”

Our reviewer: The Agility presents a life-saving idea that, really, all ropes should use: a dye—“Red Flag” contrast dye, which stands out starkly against the rope’s silky, bright-yellow 1×1 Spyder Weave—for its final five meters, to warn about the inbound rope end. The Agility also has a mid marker, but the red ends were the big selling point, not only for safety while lowering or rapping but also for easily finding the rope ends in the rope bag. The 70m I tested had Duo Dry treatment, and held whippers and fed like a dream; it weighs 56 g/m and also comes in an 80m length.”

Length: 70 meters and 80 meters

Type: Triple rated (for use as single, double, or half)

Dry: Comes in double dry or standard

Price range: $370 (non-dry, 70 meters) to 479 (double dry, 80 meters)

View the product on Trango.com

Buy the product on Backcountry.com (Dry) (Standard

Edelrid Boa Eco 9.8mm Rope

This single color rope was included in our 2020 Editor’s Choice Roundup.

Our review: Bluesign-certified and made of up-cycled yarns (yarns left over from the manufacture of other ropes), the Boa Eco points to an exciting new direction: recycled/up-cycled done right, with no “greenwashing” or compromised performance. “The Boa Eco was stretchy enough for a soft catch, but not so much that I was a pissed-off toproper,” said one tester of the rope, which has an impact force of 8kN and weighs 62 g/m (same as the nonrecycled 9.8mm Boa Pro Dry). It’s your standard high-end 9.8mm, though ran smoothly through devices like a skinnier rope. It fed great off the coil, and had a clear middle marker and unique aesthetic (ropes vary due to the yarns) that had testers dubbing it ‘Stephanie.’ ”

Length: Available in 40 meters (for the gym) or 70 meters.

Price: $189.95

Buy on Backcountry.com

Fixe Hardware Roca 9.6 Siurana Endurance Rope

Our review: “The Siurana Endurance handled like a skinnier, pricier cord—“It felt expensive and high-quality,” raved one tester. The rope is stretchy and supple (36% dynamic elongation, 6.5% static), which made for soft whippers (“like falling onto a pillow”); it also had negligible break-in and fed smoothly on belays, with no tangles or coils. The Endurance sheathe tested well on abrasive Flatirons sandstone and sharp Sinks Canyon limestone, with zero fuzzing. The only considerations with such a soft rope are “springy” topropes and needing patience to form a stiff loop to stick-clip.”

Type: Single

Length: Available in 40, 60, 70, 80, 100, and 200 meters.

Price range: $108.99 (40 meters) to $469.95 (200 meters)

View the Roca 96. Siurana Endurance Rope

Sterling Quest 9.6mm (70m) Rope Review

Trad ropes need to withstand abuse, which typically means choosing a workhorse (read: heavier) rope. Sterling’s new Quest 9.6mm provides that workhorse durability yet still handles like a smaller-bore redpoint rope—at 61 g/m, the 70m weighs less than 10 lbs, light given its 8-UIAA-falls rating. With over 100 pitches of testing from the granite of Colorado’s South Platte, to Red Rock Canyon’s Aztec sandstone, to the basalt of Northern Arizona, the Quest showed minimal wear and retained its smooth sheath. One tester noted, ‘It clipped like butter on lead and handled well with a Grigri. Feels great in the hand.’ The Quest excels as a trad rope, project rope, or all-arounder; also comes in DryXP and bicolor options.”

Read our full review

Type: Single

Length: 40, 60, 70, 80 meters

Price range: $159.95 (40 meters, one color) to 459.99 (80 meters, bi-colored)