Climbing Rope Buying Advice
By McKenzie Long ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Monday March 5, 2012
As a climber concerned with safety, a rope is the most important piece of gear (and one of the most expensive) that you will purchase. When faced with throwing down a large wad of cash and with placing your life on the line (literally) it is important to make the right choice, selecting a rope that will function correctly, be easy to use and be worth the price. Here is our breakdown of the different options on the market and the characteristics to consider when buying a rope.
All modern ropes are made with a kernmantle construction, meaning a braided nylon core (kern) with a woven protective and abrasion resistant sheath (mantle) on the exterior. This construction is meant to optimize the strength, durability, and flexibility of a rope for climbing. Ropes with thinner sheaths tend to be lighter, however they don't last as long since it takes less time for the sheath to wear out.
Dynamic vs. Static
As the most basic classification of a rope, it is also one of the most important distinctions. A static rope is much less expensive than a dynamic rope, but it is not normally used for belaying a climber. A dynamic rope has stretch incorporated in its construction, so when a leader falls the force is reduced on the gear and the falling climber. Without this stretch, a fall could result in gear pulling or a broken back for the leader. A static rope is used for hauling gear on big walls, or fixing lines that will be jugged, not for actual climbing on.
Single vs. Half vs. Twin
It is imperative to know the rated function of your rope. All ropes when purchased are labeled with this information, as rated by the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme.)
A single rope is rated to catch falls by itself. Most typical climbing scenarios, such as sport climbing, or single pitch trad climbs, require a single rope. Single ropes range in diameter from 8.9mm to 11mm.
Half ropes are rated be used with a leader tied in to both ropes, alternating which rope is clipped into each piece of gear. In theory, halfs should not be used as twin ropes, meaning both ropes clipped into the same piece of gear, because they are too thick. When both are resting in a single carabiner they rub against each other in an unfavorable manner. Twins are thin enough that this does not occur.
The half rope strategy is useful on zig-zagging trad climbs to reduce rope drag, or on a longer alpine climbs where 2 ropes are needed to rappel down. Technically each rope on its own could catch a fall (which is why one rope is clipped to each piece of protection) however, they are not meant to be climbed on alone. The second rope is there, clipped into the piece of protection below, in the event that the first one fails.
Half ropes are slightly thinner in diameter, ranging from 7.7mm to 9mm, so together are much lighter than climbing with 2 single ropes.
Twin ropes are the skinniest of all ropes, reaching as small as 7mm. Twins are meant for the leader to be tied in to both ropes, and clip both ropes into each piece of protection. They should not be clipped separately since the ropes are not rated to catch a fall by themselves. Twins are useful since together they are lighter than climbing with 2 halfs, and can be used as two ropes for getting down.
Dynamic Single Rope Features
The most common type of rope used for climbing is a dynamic, single rope, but there are many options to consider within this category, such as length, diameter, pattern and dry coating. In order to select the ideal rope for you, consider all the possibilities.
What type of climbing are you planning on using your rope for? For alpine routes you want the skinniest and lightest you can get away with, and probably something with a dry treatment. For sport climbing you want a lighter rope that can take a lot of falls, and probably something long. For aid climbing you want something thick and durable. Maybe you want a versatile rope to do almost anything. Once you decide how you will be using your rope, then you can select the features that suit your needs the best.
With recent advances in technology, rope diameters have been getting increasingly skinnier (and thankfully, so have belay devices.) Where a rope with a diameter in the 8mm range used to be considered a twin or a double, now there is a single rope on the market at 8.9mm!
The thicker the diameter, usually the stronger the rope is and the longer it will last, however it also gets heavier. Certain situations, such as big wall climbs, call for a thick and burly rope where weight doesn't matter much. Other times, you want the lightest rope you can get away with. Most of time, it will fall somewhere in the middle. The ropes in this review fall into three general categories:
These are the thick and beefy ropes, like the Bluewater Eliminator and the Sterling Marathon Pro, that can do anything. They are good for big walls, aiding, lots of top-roping, working on projects, and generally can hold more falls.
Medium Diameter (9.9-9.8-9.7mm)
These are the most versatile ropes, such as the Petzl Nomad and the Mammut Tusk. They are lighter than the Fatties, work better in a gri-gri than the Skinny Ropes, and work in just about any climbing situation you could want to use them for.
Skinny Ropes (9.5-9.4-9.2mm)
Skinny ropes are the ultimate “light and fast” climbing accessory. Ropes such as the Mammut Revelation, Bluewater Dominator and Petzl Fuse are strong ropes with a fraction of the weight as the fat ropes. These ropes are ideal for hard sport sends, all day alpine or multi-pitch routes, and amazing feats like freeing a big wall.
UIAA rates ropes with worst case scenario, severe falls. If a rope has the UIAA rating of 8, it means that it will likely take more than 8 falls, because a typical climbing fall will not generate the forces that UIAA is measuring. In general, the higher the rating, the stronger the rope. Usually the higher rating means your rope will last longer, however your rope should always be inspected because a single fall or belay over a rough edge could damage your rope.
The most obvious question when buying a rope: 50, 60, 70, or 80 meters? Some climbers have recently bragged about buying a 100 meter! “Yes, it came on a spool.” A 50 meter rope might get you by somewhere old school like Yosemite or Tuolumne, but many places require longer ropes to get you back to the ground. Sixty meter ropes have been the standard for a while, but now that doesn't even cut it a lot of the time. Many newer sport crags are being developed with the idea that almost everyone has a 70 meter. Now there are a number of people who climb with 80 meters almost all the time so that they can link pitches without a worry. However, if you plan on climbing in shorter pitches the extra long rope would be cumbersome. The added weight and time spent on rope management will slow you down.
BI-PATTERN, MID-MARK OR NONE
If you plan to do much rappelling with your rope, we highly recommend getting a bi-pattern rope, one that has 2 distinct colors or patterns on either end, or at least a rope with a middle mark, a black marking signifying the center of the rope. (If you choose a Bluewater rope, or another kind that doesn't come with middle marks- you can buy a special rope marker to make one of your own, but don't just use any old sharpie.) It makes the arduous process of getting off a long climb so much easier and safer to have a quickly visible mid-point. This feature also allows the belayer to easily calculate how much rope is remaining and inform the leader. Bi-patterns are definitely more expensive, and sometimes seem like a luxury, but they can be very helpful when multi-pitch climbing.
DRY COATING OR NOT
Dry coatings can be a fantastic feature, especially if you plan to ice climb or alpine climb with your rope. If a rope takes on water, it takes on unwanted weight- and it can be a lot of weight. It also becomes fatter, more difficult to handle and according to BlueWater, loses up to 30% of its strength when soaked. A dry rope doesn't take on all that weight and makes it easier to continue climbing, (or bail!) in unsavory weather. Dry coatings also seem to protect ropes and make them last longer than they would otherwise. However, even when you buy a rope with a dry coating, it eventually wears off. The dry coated Mammut Revelation was wonderful to handle, even if it got a little damp. After about a year of frequent use the tester got caught in a sudden rainstorm in Tuolumne Meadows and had to bail off the climb. As they rapped down the “dry rope” had droplets spurting out from the water logged rope through the belay device. Don't let that deter you from getting a dry coated rope if you think you will need it. Dry coatings tend to cost a little more, but still are worth it if you are likely to be climbing in wet conditions.
Sterling rope has a great climbing rope technical manual (PDF) that answers many frequently asked questions about rope construction, rope care and rope terms.
When to Retire Your Rope
Just as important as knowing what kind of new rope to buy, is when to give up the ghost on your old rope. Climbing ropes are the piece of gear that should be replaced most frequently, and is also one of the most important pieces in the system for keeping your life in tact. Ropes should be inspected on a regular basis.
The sheath is the outer protection of your rope, taking more wear and abrasion than the core. Fuzziness of the sheath is normal, but once it reaches excessive amounts of unraveling, it is time to hang up the rope for good. Keep an eye out for any single spots with extra damage to the sheath or any melting of the sheath due to the friction of a fall. These spots indicate instances where the rope took a bit hit, and the core may be damaged. If the core ever shows through the sheath, retire your rope or if it is on an end, trim that section off.
The core is the strength of your rope, and if it is damaged, the ability of your rope to catch a fall is compromised. Inspect your rope by running it through your hands feeling for any soft spots, stiff spots, or flat spots, all of which indicate damage and are a good sign of need for a new rope.
The ends of your rope get fuzzy, and the sheath will sometimes slip a bit one way or the other, either exposing the core at the end, or bunching the sheath at the end. The life of the rope can be extended with careful trimming and re-sealing of the trimmed end with a lighter (to prevent more sheath unraveling.) Make a careful note of how much shorter your rope is, and remember that if you only trimmed one end, your middle mark no longer signifies the center of the rope. Don't make the mistake of lowering a friend off of your newly trimmed rope.
Obviously, your rope is intended to catch falls, and a lot of them. However, once you start taking falls with a lot of force, such as falling past your belay without much rope out, then your rope may be approaching the end of its life. If you take any fall generating forces that qualify as higher than a factor one, then you should consider retiring your rope, no matter how new it is. (Fall factor = distance fallen, divided by amount of rope to catch fall.)
Another thing to keep in mind is that nylon has a shelf life. If it is never exposed to sunlight and outdoor elements, it is only expected to last ten years. Since your climbing rope will be seeing a lot of the outdoors, obviously the nylon in it will not make it that long. Even if you don't uncover any particular weak spots on your rope during an inspection, after a few years your rope is ready for retirement. Time to make a braided floor-mat or donate some fixed lines to your favorite hiking trails or Yosemite climbs.
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