Neil Gresham On Rope Selection
It has become a cliché to say that ropes are both the most important and least understood items of climbing equipment. We expect everything from our ropes and yet we know very little about them.
Common tactics are to buy the cheapest or nicest coloured rope, after a degree of deliberation about length and diameter. We rarely consider technical issues such as sheath construction or the impact force rating? Who cares as long, as it’s cheap and matches your harness! Yet the demands we make on our ropes are so extreme and contrasting that it isn’t far short of a miracle that manufacturers have met them.
On one hand we take it for granted that our rope will arrest repeated falls and offer crucial shock-absorbing capacity, but on the other we expect it to be as light as a feather, to knot and clip easily and to glide effortlessly over the rock without dragging. The stakes are higher with ropes than any other pieces of climbing gear. Unlike a karabiner, if you show a knife or a naked flame to a rope it will cut through in an instant. Furthermore there is frequently just one rope in the safety system, meaning that the margin for failure is zero. I believe that our ropes are the pieces of equipment to which we owe the scientists and designers the most gratitude.
One of the reasons the ‘fountain of rope knowledge’ is so dry is that the subject is prone to being heavy-going. The endless graphs and tables of figures are enough to deter even the most hardened gear-boffs. Yet we owe it to ourselves to learn the basics. What follows is a practical, user-driven guide to rope selection. It is by no means comprehensive, but rather I have cherry-picked some of the most common areas of misconception to help you make more informed choices and get the very most from your ropes and your climbing.
The figures for number of test falls that are presented on the swing tickets can be regarded as crude indicators of the ‘working durability’ of a rope, but they should not be hailed as the sole determinant of overall performance. The impact force is a crucial additional consideration, which is much overlooked. In simple terms, the impact force is the ability of a rope to absorb fall energy and to reduce the amount of shock on your body. Elongation (or stretch) is closely linked to this. For sure you want your rope to stretch, to absorb the shock, but if it stretches too much you’ll hit the ground! One of the key characteristics of Beal ropes is that they have low impact force ratings without stretching excessively. This comes into its own on trad routes and ice routes where the gear is poor or a long way below you. Yet it is also a consideration on sport routes: if the rope is dragging around the lip of an overhang or on tufas and stalactites then this will massively reduce its ability to stretch and absorb fall energy. In short, low impact forces are crucial and well worth looking out for. One of the many reasons I use Beal ropes is that they maintain a low impact force throughout their working life. This is noted by the fact that they still exceed the safety standard for impact force after five test falls, whereas the safety standard only requires that they reach it for one fall.
Number of falls
The number of test falls is a good indication of how much punishment a rope will take. A comparison of the figures usually paints a picture that thicker ropes will out-last thinner ropes and that the ropes from higher quality manufacturers will out-last those from lower quality manufacturers! For those who are new to the subject, don’t panic that the number of falls appears frighteningly low at a first glance. Remember that the falls which are used in the test are extremely severe and are a much higher ‘fall factor’* than you would ever encounter in a typical climbing situation. God forbid that your rope would only take 6 or 7 of the much lower standard falls we take at the climbing gym!
(*The fall factor refers to the relationship between the length of the fall and the amount of rope available to absorb it. Commonly, fall factors are low in climbing, with plenty of rope available to absorb short falls, but in the rope test, a small amount of rope is used to absorb a relatively long fall, thus placing it under much greater strain.)
The diameter will determine the type of climbing to which a rope is most suited. The first obvious split is between single, double/half ropes and twin ropes, but note that this has now become a slightly more complicated topic as there is a small amount of overlap between these categories.
Single ropes: commonly 9 > 11mm : Double ropes: commonly 8 > 9mm : Twin ropes: commonly 7 > 8mm
Single ropes (9 > 11mm)
These are used most commonly for sport climbing or for trad routes that follow a straight line, such as cracks. Single ropes are convenient because of the reduced ‘faff-factor’ associated with managing two ropes, but they present major limitations for certain multi-pitch, trad or alpine routes.
Double / half ropes (8 > 9mm)
Double ropes are used commonly for trad routes that follow meandering lines because they enable the amount of rope drag to be reduced significantly in comparison with single ropes. They also enable maximum rope length to be achieved for abseil descents and offer crucial a ‘back-up system’ in the event of one rope being damaged by rock-fall or a sharp edge. Double ropes can both be clipped into the same piece of protection (and hence used like single ropes) or into separate pieces of protection. (significantly increases the impact force on the anchor so best not to mention) The term ‘half rope’ is sometimes used and note that this does not refer to a rope that is half the required length, but rather a rope that is ‘one half’ of the protection system.
Twin ropes (7 > 8mm)
Twin ropes are the thinnest ropes used in climbing. Unlike double ropes, they can only be clipped into the same piece of protection, which means essentially that they must be used like a single rope. The added advantage (in comparison with a single rope) is that they maximize rope length for abseil descents and offer a ‘back-up system’ in the event of one rope being damaged. Twin ropes are most popular for alpine climbing and ice climbing, or for certain multi-pitch routes that follow relatively straight lines. These are rarely used in the UK because double/half ropes are better for our types of meandering routes.
Weight per metre – the link with durability
The weight per metre of a rope is usually directly proportional to its diameter, but note that this is not always the case and there will be a degree of variability between manufacturers. For example, a 9mm rope from one manufacturer may be heavier than a 9.2mm rope from another manufacturer. The explanation here is that construction will play a part: the heavier, narrower rope may be made from a greater number of nylon fibres, which are woven together more tightly, which in turn is usually an indicator of superior durability
Waterproofness – the link with durability
Waterproofing can be added to the outer cover of a rope (Dry Cover), to the cover + core (Golden Dry), or not at all.
The classic way that rock climbers attempt to save money on a rope purchase is to avoid models with any waterproof treatments. The need for Golden Dry ropes is obvious for ice climbing, but what use is there for a sport climber? It is worth remembering that Dry Cover treatments serve to minimize the amount of dirt and dust particles that penetrate a rope, thus lengthening its life significantly. If you opt to save money in the short term you will pay more in the long term. The only time it is justified to skip any waterproof treatment is for a rope that is being used exclusively indoors.
Neil's Favourite Ropes
Beal Ice twin 7.7mm : I use these for all my icefall climbing. They are super-light, the dry treatment has been invaluable on countless occasions and I know if I fall that the ultra-low impact forces will minimize the chances of an ice screw failing, not that I’ve ever tested that theory! They also take up a tiny amount of space in your pack.
Beal Iceline 8.1mm : My choice for British trad climbing and also for Scottish mixed. These ropes are sufficiently light and thin to offer minimal drag, yet they offer a reassuringly high level of strength. Ideal for multiple lobs on safe routes yet equally suited for reducing the impact force on dubious runners.
Beal Joker 9.1mm : The do-it-all rope that has no limits. My desert island rope that I have used for every style of climbing, ranging from multi-pitch ice to single pitch sport. For such a thin rope, it has vastly exceeded my expectations for durability and I’ve never known a rope last as long. My first Joker still looked completely serviceable after 8 years of sustained punishment around the globe and I was gutted to replace it. The 100m Joker has to be the ultimate weapon for the new generation of mega-long sport routes. It keeps drag low and provides you with the best chance of making the crucial final clip on a 45 metre pump-fest. I’ve also used my 100m Joker to do massive ice pitches, enabling me to cover the ground way more quickly. Go carefully with belay device selection and a belay glove is recommended for lighter belayers.
Beal Stinger 9.4mm & Booster 9.7mm : These ropes are both perfectly suited for sport trips where you will be doing a bit of everything. Light enough for onsights, yet sufficiently durable to withstand a fair amount of ‘projecting’. They also help the never-ending struggle to beat the baggage restrictions on low cost airlines!
Beal Flyer 10.2mm & Top Gun 10.5mm : I always use either a Flyer or a Top Gun on trips where I know I’m going to need a workhorse rope to siege a hard project. In fact I have left a Top Gun stashed in Kalymnos for the last five years and have used it for some of my favourite new routes out there. Not only will a thicker rope withstand the repeated punishment of working a project, but it can make it easier for the belayer to hold falls too, especially if they are lighter than the climber. My favourite system is to use a Flyer or Top Gun to work the route and then to use a Joker to go for the final redpoint.