A Climbing Rope
Word from the
editors: We'd like to thank Kathy and Leigh from MountainWoman.com
for this excellent piece.
Lots of people
ask about what to look for in buying a rope. It's a hard question
to answer because there are so many variations both in the properties
and features of ropes, and in the types of climbing that they are
best suited for. Balance the relative importance of various features
according to the type of climbing activity the rope will be used
The first thing
to think about when shopping for a rope is what kind of climbing
you will be doing, and in what kind of environment. From this will
come an idea of which features are important to look for, and which
don't matter to you.
I'll start by
describing the different characteristics and properties of ropes,
and then take a look at how those variations make different ropes
better fitted for one type of climbing versus another.
PART ONE: Attributes and Characteristics of Ropes
1) UIAA rating
The UIAA (Union
Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) has established standard
testing procedures to measure, among other things, how a rope reacts
to severe falls. Ropes are drop tested with a standardized weight
and procedure simulating a very nasty leader fall. This tells us
many of these hypothetical falls the rope can withstand before it
ruptures. Different categories of rope have different norms, but
the UIAA standard requires climbing ropes to withstand a minimum
of 5 such test falls. Virtually all the ropes on the market can
withstand the minimum number of test falls, while some are rated
to a much higher number.
The second thing
the drop test measures is the amount of force which is transmitted
to the falling climber. For all UIAA tests, these forces must stay
within a certain range, in other words the rope has to absorb a
minimum amount of energy.
The UIAA also
rates factors such as rope stiffness, sheath slippage and rope stretch
under body weight.
Half, and Twin ropes:
A single rope
is meant to be used alone. Half and twin ropes are a pair of separate
ropes which are used together, in parallel.
Half ropes are
often both clipped into each piece of protection, but can be clipped
to alternating pieces. This is particularly helpful when the line
of the climb would otherwise generate a lot of rope drag because
of zig zags or traverses. On traverses, leaving one rope out of
a piece of protection can provide better protection for a second
as well, as it will allow one of the ropes to be oriented upward
sooner than the other one, reducing the swing potential.
When using twin
ropes the leader must clip both strands to every piece of protection,
as the individual ropes are not meant to hold a fall on their own.
This makes them less useful than half ropes for reducing rope drag.
However, both half and twin ropes share certain distinctions from
single ropes, which provide advantages and disadvantages in certain
- while heavier
in total weight, they allow one to rappel twice as far as a single
- they provide
greater protection against abrasion or cutting over sharp edges
due to their redundancy and load sharing
- this is an advantage
in the mountains;
- two ropes are
more complex and difficult to manage in belaying, stacking etc.,
which takes up more time.
As the manufacturing
process and materials become more advanced and sophisticated, we
are seeing ropes become narrower and lighter without diminishing
strength and performance. This has allowed them to be longer without
increasing weight. Although longer ropes are always heavier and
harder to manage than shorter ones, still there are advantages in
many contexts to having more rope to work with: therefore standard
lengths have tended to creep upward over time.
One most commonly
finds ropes in 50m and 60m lengths. Longer ropes of 70 meters or
more are becoming more common and popular for some applications.
As a generalization,
greater length is less useful in a mountaineering context. Time
is always of the essence in the mountains, and the simplicity of
rope handling saves time. Also, one rarely needs or wants to run
out very long pitches in the mountains, or at least the frequency
and relative importance of doing this, is less than the importance
of lighter weight and relatively easy rope handling.
Longer ropes are
becoming more popular in cragging, sport climbing and top-roping
areas. Here, time is less important, and except at very high levels,
weight is also not so crucial. Longer ropes allow one to set up
longer pitches for "slingshot belays". At more and more crags, pitches
of 80 to 85 feet are not uncommon, so the danger of running out
of rope when lowering a leader from the top anchor is greater with