Learning the Ropes
Unraveling the Mystery
Our gear holds our lives in our hands, and our rope sits at the heart of that web of safety. With such a crucial piece of gear, being inundated with fancy terminology, a range of applications, tables, data, and countless brands, it can quickly become overwhelming. --“What rope do I buy?” -- Whether this is your first rope or your tenth rope, I seek to guide you through many of the ins and outs of finalizing that purchase. I’ll give my take on what data is important, and provide some knowledge to evaluate a rope yourself. Unfortunately, no system is perfect. The tests applied to ropes do not adequately portray real world scenarios, and regardless of all the data, associated brands use an array of materials, proprietary weave patterns, and more that affect the feel and performance in ways tests and data just can’t portray. So, knowing that most of us don’t have unlimited funds to purchase all the ropes in the world and test them out until we figure out which one suits us best, hopefully we can make the next rope purchase just a little bit more confident than the last.
There are certain standard assumptions I’m going to make about your knowledge of rope. Which is to say, when it comes to some of the basics like rope diameter, rope length, dry treatment, and what application you are using this rope for (mountaineering, cragging, alpine climbing, etc.) that you already have some knowledge about at least what this stuff is. One could easily write a book on this topic if they weren’t careful, and I aim to bring to light some of the less talked about statistics on ropes to provide a more eclectic knowledge of your rope purchase.
An Edelrid 9.8 or a Mammut 9.8?
Have you ever felt two ropes of the same diameter and thought to yourself: “Wow that’s crazy I could swear these were different thicknesses?” Sure enough, however, the labels both claim “9.8 WORKHORSE! ALL-ROUNDER! YOUR GO-TO!” As much as we as consumers would love if companies let us make decisions about what rope stats we like, they seem to disagree. UIAA allows a .3mm tolerance for “advertising purposes.” What this means is that a company could make a 9.5mm rope to save on material then slap a 9.8mm label on it and undercut the competition. Or they could slap a 9.2mm label on it and say, “Strongest 9.2 on the market! Shows abrasion resistance on the same level as a 9.5!” Oh wait, that’s because it is… -- So how do we compare apples to apples when Company B is throwing in oranges? Well, a great place to look is actually the grams per meter. The reality of the situation is that two ropes that are similar strength and sheath percentage, should weigh pretty close to the same. There are not a lot of ways to shave off weight without getting rid of material. This means that if two ropes weigh the same, accept the same number of falls, and have the same sheath percentage, normally they should be fairly close in diameter. Now the exact materials and weave can obviously affect this to an extent, but it will be a much more reliable method than reading the “mm” label. Overall, diameter gives you a glimpse into what category the rope falls into, but truthfully you should be looking into some more key areas. How much weight am I carrying? How durable is this rope going to be? How much stretch and force will there be? Think of diameter more as a consequence of having a certain set of features less so than a feature on its own.
The End of the Line
(Retiring a Rope)
There are a lot of things that can end the life of a rope. You could nick the rope with an ice axe. You could take a whipper onto a sharp piece of rock and watch fearfully as a bit of core becomes exposed. Maybe the rope takes one too many whippers and becomes core shot, or maybe the rope is just too old. So, with all this said, what factors make a durable rope? Well, it’s got to be the thickest rope available right? --- Not so fast. Again, there is variance in exactly what you are getting, so you have to be careful using rope diameter anyways, but first let’s look at what typically retires a rope. If the biggest concern was taking one too many falls causing the rope to fail, then you’d obviously want as many UIAA falls as possible. What if it’s a concern of the rope getting cut? Well, we need to protect the core at all costs, so more sheath is needed. This could manifest both in a thicker rope or just a rope with a larger sheath percentage, meaning that the sheath makes up a larger portion of whatever diameter rope you have purchased.
The adage I used to hear was that nylon was to be retired after 5 years even if you left it on a shelf the whole time. Then the question gets asked, well how much use warrants shortening that number and by how much? The difficult part is that we are playing with averages when we start to discuss real life use. The reality is that it’s entirely possible, though highly unlikely, to core shot a rope on its maiden voyage the year it was made. It’s also entirely possible that you could climb on it for 5 years without the rope ever being in danger of failing you. To add insult to injury, many companies have amended their previous recommendations to a 10-year shelf life. How much does nylon really degrade anyways? Again, it gets a little foggy here as well. So many environmental factors from temperature to humidity to sunlight and more can play into this shelf life, not to mention the real-life use. I’ve seen some studies claim that nylon webbing degrades from 22kn when new to 19kn after 10 years. While that’s not the manufacturer’s original claim, I’d trust something that could hold 19kn of force. The average lead fall doesn’t exceed 5kn, but there are also no studies that prove this to be a consistent drop. It could be only 3kn difference sometimes and 15kn others.
How can one really inspect their rope with all these varying statistics out there? I’ve attached a link to Petzl’s recommendations on inspection at the bottom, and will include a few of my own nuggets as well. Throughout the summer, the shop staff here inspects a ridiculous number of ropes. I’ve had days where I’ve easily checked twenty ropes or more after a bunch of courses come back. If we are lucky, and there was a worrisome fall or injury the rope incurred on the trip, a guide will give us a heads up, but this is quite rare. At the beginning of the season, we will check through our ropes to figure out when they were manufactured. If any of them have gloriously stood the test of time and survived through their shelf life, we ceremoniously retire them then and there. After that, we inspect each rope after it comes back from a course. No rope goes out on another course before being checked. You don’t have to check your rope this often, but checking it regularly is definitely not going to hurt anybody. Sitting back in our foldout chairs we start basically flaking the rope out. Personally, I try to have three fingers on the rope at all times (pointer, middle and thumb) while the other hand pulls it through. You need to pull slow enough to give a good visual inspection, (looking for immense amounts of fraying, visual cuts or anything out of the ordinary) and your three fingers are feeling for any strange changes in the rope like bumps, stiff sections, or flat spots. If you see extended fraying (it occurs for a few inches of rope) immense amounts of focused fraying in one spot, or cuts in the rope, especially ones that expose the core, that section of the rope is no longer useable. The sheath will not provide adequate protection for the core without being fully intact. It’s normal to get little spots of fraying here and there but it shouldn’t be extensive. As far as the finger inspection, when you find something that piques your interest, it’s good to give it a bit of a wiggle to move the material around and then go ahead and try to fold it on the point of concern. If the core is intact and running smoothly through the sheath, you shouldn’t be able to fold the rope fully in half. It will maintain an even smooth loop. However, if the core has been partially or fully severed, it may start to flatten. If you can imagine the sheath as a hollow tube that houses another rope (or bundle of ropes) if that tube was filled with material (the core) it wouldn’t be able to fold very easily. However, if it were truly a hollow empty tube, (the core has snapped or severed inside) it would then be able to fold in half. If you are unsure, compare it to another section of rope that you feel is in good shape to see if it is folding more than other portions of the rope. Even if it’s not folding completely in half, but is folding more than the rest of the rope, this could indicate a partial severing of the core which is also not good. Sometimes I’ll decide the strange spot is fine and move on. If, however, I am unsure or can tell that it is in fact a point of concern, I will tie a bite of rope off to mark it and move on. If at the end of my time doing this, there is enough rope to salvage, I’ll chop off the spots that have been totaled (This should be done with a hot knife to prevent fraying. I would not recommend cutting a rope with a regular knife, then burning the end with a lighter or torch as you can end up with a lot of sheath slippage from doing this. I have seen people successfully heat up a cutting tool with a torch and cut a rope with that, but attempt at your own risk. It is certainly not the safest option and not my recommendation. Your local gear shop, REI or even sometimes hardware store should be more than happy to give a couple cuts for you with their hot knife.) and re-label the length of the rope. If the rope is too far gone, then I will retire it and move on. Here at The American Alpine Institute, we have very high standards for our rope inspections, and if there is any doubt what so ever we retire or cut the rope. It is not worth the risk of our client’s or guide’s safety. It has not been unheard of to have someone question why we are retiring a rope that seems totally fine. Everyone has their own risk analyses chart in their brain, and when checking a rope, yourself, you’ll have to make your decision as to what that risk threshold is, but obviously my personal recommendation is to not put your trust into a rope that you are unsure of in the slightest. Dropping $200 on a new climbing rope does suck, but so do broken bones, let alone potential death. It’s just not worth risking your life over the cost of a new rope.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of data on what typically ends the climbing life of a rope. In my personal time checking ropes, it tends to be core shots. We will find a core shot and chop off a portion of rope until the rope is no longer long enough to be practical. However, keep in mind these are guiding conditions. These ropes are put through the wringer everyday by people who know how to evaluate hazards very well. This means they are typically going to do a decent job of avoiding sections of rock that could put a disastrous amount of wear on the rope, such as sharp rocks that could slice into the sheath. (Though let it be noted I’ve most certainly seen ropes come back with fearfully disturbing cuts put into them) It also means that the rope is exposed to a lot of new climbers who may step on the rope, fall more, get it stuck behind them on a climb, and generally not know how to take care of a rope. What this means to me (though this is mere conjecture on my part) is that the sorts of wear on a rope in guide service isn’t typical of that in the use of a hobbyist. Ropes in our service are lucky to last more than a calendar year, and hopefully we get more than that out of our personal ropes!
In my experience with my own ropes, as well as talking with the same guides and friends on their personal ropes, it often comes down to factors like age and overall wear from a plethora of factors, but the general consensus I’ve gotten in my very non-scientific research, is that abrasion resistance is one of the more important factors. If you are using a single rated rope for its intended purpose, (and this applies to other ropes as well, I’m just using this as an example) such as say a 9.8mm for cragging, once the rope is made well enough to pass the UIAA test fall minimum of five falls, the odds of most hobbyist climbers being able to cause the rope to fail from hitting that fall number becomes pretty difficult. There are so many factors that play into this ranging from how much rope is out when you take the fall, how often you fall, how big of falls you tend to take, which side of the rope you used during a particular climb, and more, that most would have to find themselves extremely unlucky to put all of that stress on the same section of rope. However, checking the ends of ropes for dead spots should be done fairly often. Tie-in-points are a relatively common spot of failure and stiffness that will get cut off earlier in the rope’s life than the rest. What can really do a rope in is all the rubbing against rough surfaces, elemental exposure (dirt, liquids, and sunlight), and knot tying. However, having a higher sheath percentage will first of all put more material between the core and the outside world making it more difficult to cut or gain exposure to outside material, and second of all, it can create a bigger bend radius within a knot so that the core takes less stress during a fall.
All of this should be taken with a healthy helping of salt, but what I’m stressing here is that UIAA falls are not the golden rule of the strength of a rope. If you are purchasing from a reputable brand, and operating within the parameters of the intended use of the rope, you can have some freedom to focus the purchase on what you want out of the rope as opposed to whether it will fail you. If ropes were failing left and right, climbing rope companies would be in much more trouble.
That Was a Soft Catch!
Another great place to look at on a rope, that is often overlooked, is the impact force. This tells you a lot about what the rope might be used for. Impact force refers to how much force is theoretically transmitted to the climber and other points on the rope like your belayer and protection. Now you might think “Well obviously I want the lowest impact force possible right? What’s the downside?” Impact force tends to be pretty directly tied to elasticity/dynamic elongation. A lower impact force usually means it’s absorbed by a rope that stretches more. Now sometimes, we don’t really care about stretch that much and would much prefer a rope with a low impact force. A great example of this would be ice climbing. Hopefully you are never falling so you’d never even experience the stretch of your ice rope, but if you are, you want as little force transferred to those screws as possible. Many ice climbers will tell you to treat it like free soloing and if you fall, pray that this wasn’t your time on the way down. Your gear might hold, and a lower impact force can definitely increase those odds. However, when the rope stretches, it can put you farther away from the point you fell, and introduce a lot of resistance and friction when hauling. For this reason, hardcore redpointers using bomber placements, or those spending countless hours with their rope on a glacier, may benefit from having a higher impact force at the tradeoff of less stretch. For the redpointers, you won’t have to retrace as far when getting back to the fall point, and for glacier travel, it’ll be much easier to haul a fallen climber if a snow bridge collapses.
“The climb will go. Get rid of the rope. It's only distracting you.” - Jeff Lowe
Arguably one of the first things you should decide on is length. This can depend on a lot of factors that really require evaluating your use and where you live. For example, 50m ropes are practically inexistent in the USA but in the UK they are commonplace. I’ve seen people get away with 60m in much of their USA climbing, but go to Index, Washington, and suddenly a 70m is a necessity. So, with this one, do some research about where you plan to go and what you want to climb and see if this warrants a particular length rope. If you are a crag enthusiast in the USA, and don’t do a lot of long approaches I’d recommend a 70m. While a 60m will get you far and you can always use a tag line, especially for new climbers, a 70m can make things so much easier. It will also give you an added level of security when you start rapping down your climbs. That being said, if you want to save a couple bucks, a 60m is going to do plenty. Fortunately, it shouldn’t stop you in your tracks from doing any of your favorite climbs. You’ll just have to be a little bit more careful when picking routes, and you may have to pickup a new skill or two along the way, but even with a 70m you still need to be careful of how far you climb. Climbs can easily extend to 40m (requiring an 80m rope to rappel) and if you get on a particularly wandering multipitch you may find yourself in too deep, at the second pitch, far above a single rappel from the ground. So, to sum up, 70m is an extremely versatile length for cragging, but length really depends on your use case and where you are going. Be careful and do research before AND after your purchase.
A Wet Rope is a Heavy Rope
What does dry treatment mean and how do I compare different dry treatments? Any rope that claims to be “dry” must pass the UIAA standard of 5% absorption or less. This means that the rope, when saturated with water, shouldn’t gain any more than 5% of its weight in the amount of water it holds onto. So, you can at least know that if a rope claims to be dry it will have this going for it. If you are a climber that spends a lot of time in wet environments, whether that’s ice climbing, crossing creeks, navigating slushy glaciers, or anything else, you may want the BEST performing rope in this category. The first place I’ll point to is online reviews. Most good ropes out on the market have been tested and reviewed by a multitude of people. They will often have insight into how well a dry treatment performs in practice, or more specifically, how well it lasts. Some dry treatments, like the eco dry by Edelrid, have proven to not be as durable as others. For someone who guides weekly, this dry treatment may not be adequate due to the abuse it goes through, but for someone that only uses it for occasional glacier travel they may be totally fine making it last a long time. Unfortunately, there is no rating you can find on durability of a dry treatment so reviewers will definitely be your best friend on the matter. Another thing you may wonder is, “Do all ropes that pass hit around 5% or do some perform even better?” To this I’ll say look at the advertising from the company. There isn’t a source I have to back this up per say, but it just makes good business sense. If a company has a rope that only absorbs 2%, it’s going to tell you that because that’s a big selling point. If they barely passed the test then they won’t. So, if you are looking for the rope that holds onto the least water, look for the companies that specifically share the percentage absorption. One last matter I’d like to address on dry treatment is for all you craggers out there. While it may seem obvious for an ice climber or mountaineer to be concerned with water, even those craggers in rainy PNW may see it as a useless expensive feature. I mean who in their right mind goes out to send their project when it’s wet out? Well, one thing that can be nice from a dry coating, is it typically helps keep out other foreign material as well, like dirt and rock debris. All ropes can get dirty don’t get me wrong, but if you are concerned about all the dirt and debris shortening the life of your rope, opting for something with maybe a dry sheath as opposed to a fully dry treated rope, may be a good option to extend the ropes life, and keep your hands a little less dirty.
All Roped Up
The last bit I want to touch on ever so briefly (he says as he types one of his longest sections) is that of single vs half vs twin ropes. Single ropes are your standard one rope system that many of us are used to, especially in the rock world. These ropes will be generally the thickest of the bunch ranging from somewhere around 8.5mm to 11mm. Half and Twin ropes on the other hand tend to max out at around 9mm but can extend all the way down to something like the Edelrid Skimmer 7.1. Half and twin ropes are often double rated (meaning a rope will pass the tests to be classified as both a half and a twin rope *see below) and in rare occasions can even gain the coveted triple rating that includes single ropes. Using ropes as half ropes means that you will be tied into two separate ropes and will clip into gear, alternating which rope you use as you ascend. This is great for decreasing rope drag on wandering traditional (“trad”) routes, as you can clip all the placements far to the right with one rope and vice versa on the left. Double ropes on the other hand are clipped into every piece of protection together operating almost like a single rope.
*There are reasons as to why you may want a rope to specifically pass just one of these tests as it normally means it’ll fill a more specific niche. A great example of this is the Beal Ice Line. Known for its extremely low impact force, the rope stretches quite a bit. They were not able to get the static elongation within the parameters to pass the half rope certification without losing their amazing impact force, thus the rope is rated only as a twin rope setup.
There’s plenty of history as to where each type of rope was more popular, and what the purposes of them are, but I merely want to take the time to address what may give them space in your choice of ropes in today’s climbing world. A great place for double rope systems nowadays tends to be in the alpine word, especially alpine ice. Since there are two ropes that run lighter than your standard single, you can sort of split the load between multiple climbers. Though, the total will likely be a greater amount of weight overall. You also gain the ability to rappel the full length of the rope since you have two 60m ropes, for example, that can be tied together, and lastly there is the matter of sharp objects. When ice climbing you have sharp tools swinging around and crampons attached to your feet. While climbing and maybe even more worrisome, falling, it is entirely possible to catch a rope and cut it. Though unlikely, you could entirely sever the rope in the process and a double rope system would provide you with a backup rope in the event of failure. This is not as necessary in rock routes, as the odds of blowing a rope are so slim, but in an ice environment, there is definitely a healthy following for double rope systems.
As for half ropes, they tend to be very popular among trad climbers, especially with alpine rock. You don’t really get to decide where the rock placements will be, as nature kind of decides that for you. So, if a route goes all over the place, then you just kind of have to go with it, and having half ropes in your quiver will give you the power to reduce rope drag significantly. Another great place for half ropes or double for that matter is with simul climbers. If you are intending to simul climb a route and want to save on weight, take one twin or half rope. You can fold it in half, climb 30m apart or less, and still have a 60m rappel capability. Obviously, this has its limits and shouldn’t be done by everyone, but for those climbers that love to sail up routes well within their skill level, this is an extremely viable option. It is important to keep in mind with all of these multi-rope options, that it will complicate your rigging a bit from time to time. The belayer will now need to manage two ropes, and in the case of half ropes, will need to do so fairly independently. Some devices people like to use, such as a Petzl Grigri, Micro Traxion and more, will not accept multiple ropes. So, if you are a simul climber that often places a Micro Traxion above the crux of a climb for your follower, plan accordingly when taking out half or twin ropes.
Lastly, lets address the coveted triple rated rope. Who are these for? Is it the one and done do it all rope? Is it just a gimmick? Why can’t just any single rope operate as a double and twin when folded in half? I’ve linked an article below that talks about the tests that lead to these conclusions in depth, but essentially single ropes will provide too much friction in a belay device most of the time to be usable, and more importantly, they have far to high of an impact force to be considered safe when folded in half. I don’t believe that triple rated ropes are a gimmick. Far from it. They are amazing pieces of equipment. However, I also wouldn’t recommend them to my weekend crag friend, as they simply don’t tend to be durable enough for that kind of abuse. Who they are great for, however, is the avid lover of everything alpine. Light enough to not weigh you down, they compete outstandingly against more traditional single rope systems. They still provide the benefits of a double and twin rope system, especially in short sections of ice, rock, or any places you feel comfortable simuling for an extend period. They make amazing glacier ropes, providing you with a strong, durable, light, and long rope, and when all is said and done, you have a full-length single rope ready to go when the leading becomes more extended. These ropes excel at taking alpine adventurers and mountaineers through a variety of conditions, even if they aren’t the perfect rope for specific niches.
Tying it All Together
Ultimately, the choice of a rope is an intimate and personal one. What I have hopefully done in this blurb, is not necessarily sway you any particular direction with ropes, as you are not me and your climbing is not the same as mine. What I want you to walk away with is a bit more confidence evaluating what statistics on your rope choices will tell you what you need to know, and how to evaluate if a rope will in fact fit your needs. If you are a bit of a nerd on the fine print of where the stats on a rope come from, I’ve linked below some blogs that go into a bit more detail on the numbers of it all. A rope purchase is never made lightly, as it’s arguably one of the most expensive individual pieces of equipment many of us buy, but an informed purchase is a confident one. So do some research, find some reviewers, and in the end, trust what your gut is telling you, because one person’s favorite will not necessarily be your own.