For many climbers, buying a rope is one of the toughest decisions they’ll make. Not only are they one of the most expensive pieces a climber will add to their kit, but with the massive array of options available it can be hard to figure out the best match. I’ll run through some terminology and choices to make the process a little easier! For climbers familiar with the basic concepts, feel free to skip down to the bottom for a simplified flow chart.
Rope Anatomy 101
Climbing ropes are composed of two parts; an interior core and a tightly woven outer sheath. These parts are composed of nylon, a durable and stretchy material. This stretchiness allows for falls to be caught safely, as dynamic rope stretches to absorb the force. When buying a rope for rock climbing be sure to choose a dynamic rope. Static ropes do not stretch and are not suitable for arresting falls.
The most common types of ropes are single, half and twin. Single ropes are the most common for rock climbing applications. With single ropes the climber ties into one thicker rope and clips the rope into protection on the way up the route. With half ropes, the climber ties into two skinnier ropes, and clips alternating ropes into protection. Twin ropes are similar, as the climber also ties into two skinnier ropes. However, with twin ropes the climber clips both ropes into each piece of protection. The latter two options are typically used for alpine, ice climbing, and trad applications.
Climbing ropes come in a huge range of diameters, typically from about 7 millimeters to 11 and pretty much every size in between. Rope diameters smaller than 9mm are typically reserved for double/half uses, and above 9mm are common for single ropes. The larger diameter a rope is, the more durable it will be. Of course, this comes at the cost of weight. More durable ropes will also be noticeably heavier to climb with and haul around. It’s not uncommon for climbers to own a “projecting rope” that is 9.8+ that’s capable of withstanding many falls, as well as lighter rope around the 9.2 range for a “sender” rope when going for redpoint attempts near their limit. That being said, most climbers just own one rope, typically in the 9.4-9.8 range. These ropes strike a balance of durability and performance.
While some rope can be purchased by the foot, most ropes come prepacked in increments ranging from 30 meters to 70. Shorter 30 and 40 meter ropes are great for gyms that require users to bring their own rope to lead climb. These ropes are too short for most outdoor climbing, but some shorter crags like the columns here in Eugene are perfectly climbable with a shorter rope! 60 and 70 meter ropes are the most common in outdoor climbing settings. A 60 meter rope will be fine for the vast majority of climbs, however it’s worth consulting a guide book, for longer climbs to ensure the rope will allow for the climber to safely lower/rappel. 70 meter ropes ensure that nearly every single pitch climb can safely be climbed and descended off of.
After figuring out the basic aspects of a rope, there are still a couple extra features that are commonly available. For climbers where price is critical, there’s no need to spend extra for features. However, for those with a little flexibility, there are some features that can aid in safety and longevity of the rope. Many ropes come in dry or non-dry options. Non-dry simply means that there is no water resistant treatment applied to any part of the rope. This means that the rope is more prone to absorbing water, dirt, and metal from hardware. When ropes absorb water, they loose elasticity and also tend to wear out quicker. Dirt and metal can also inhibit handling and suppleness of the rope. For those who are careful with their ropes and typically climb in dry, clean environments, a non-dry rope is perfectly fine! For those who aren’t as careful ensuring their rope is protected from the elements, or those who typically climb in wet and dirty environments, it may be worth investing in a dry treated rope. Dry treated ropes also help protect from rock abrasion. Dry treatment comes in several different option. The sheath, core, and both can be dry treated. Ropes that feature dual sheath and core dry treatment tend to be the most expensive, but also tend to last the longest.
One other common optional feature is having the option of a bi-pattern rope. This means that the woven sheath pattern switches halfway through. This makes it easy to set up rappels and also allows belayers to easily monitor how much rope their climber has left. As long as when the climber finishes a route the rope is still the same pattern, they can safely be lowered. If the pattern has switched there will not be enough rope left to lower the climber to the ground. Most ropes come with a black middle mark, but these can fade quick and some can be re-applied using an approved rope marker. The bi-pattern option eliminates the need to monitor the middle mark and adds an extra element of safety.
UIAA fall rating – You may notice ropes have a UIAA fall rating. The UIAA is the organization that certifies climbing gear. For ropes, they conduct a test where they subject ropes to forces starting at 9kn and gradually increase the force the rope is subjected to until the rope breaks. The vast majority of falls don’t exceed 5kn of force, so barring extreme circumstances a rope can withstand far more falls than the UIAA rating. That being said, it’s important to check one’s rope frequently for damage, especially after a large fall or a period of heavy use.
Elongation – Ropes also have elongation factors, which refers to how much they stretch when weighted. These are measured by attached about 175 pounds to the rope, and calculating the percentage it stretches first while lifting the weight off the ground (static elongation) and then by dropping the weight during the fall test (dynamic elongation). Skinnier ropes tend to stretch more than thicker ones.
Absorbsion – This test measures how much water is absorbed into the rope. As one may expect, dry treated ropes have lower absorption rates than non-dry treated ones.
If this hasn’t satisficed the need to nerd out on tech specs, our friends at Tendon have a comprehensive list of all the testing involved before a rope is fit to sell to the public.
Some favorite ropes among the Backcountry Gear crew include the Mammut Crag Dry 9.5, Edelrid Tommy Caldwell DuoTec 9.6, Sterling Velocity 9.8, and the Beal Ice Line 8.1, but with so many great options available, it’s hard to go wrong. Hopefully this blog made it a little easier to figure out what rope is right for you, but if you’re still unsure don’t hesitate to call up the shop or swing by our Eugene retail store and let us help you find the right match!