Climbing Ropes: How do you choose?

In the world of climbing, the rope is the most important piece of gear. It is a literal lifeline connecting you to your climbing partner, and the rock face you are scaling. It is a sacred piece of kit, yet when it comes time to choose a new rope, there is a tremendous amount of choice out there. Half Ropes, single ropes, fall factors, static elongation, dry treatments. What do these all mean and how do you choose?

There are three types of climbing ropes out there: Single Ropes, Half Ropes, and Twin Ropes. All of these are dynamic ropes, meaning they are designed to stretch when loaded, resulting in a bungee like ‘soft catch’ which is far safer than falling on a static rope.

“A single rope designation means the rope is safe to use on its own as the sole source of protection on a climb.”

The single rope is the most commonly used rope, makes up most of the ropes seen on shop walls, and can be applied to most climbing scenarios. These ropes are generally 9.5mm-11mm in diameter, but can be found as small as 8.6mm. A single rope designation means the rope is safe to use on its own as the sole source of protection on a climb. Single ropes 10mm and greater in diameter are great for frequent top-roping or gym scenarios that are generally harder on the ropes. The thicker diameter sheath offers a bit more protection, at the expense of weight. Ropes below 10mm diameter are the flavour of choice for most lead and multi pitch climbers who wish to have a lighter rope which will feed better through a belay device, and offer less resistance when clipping. A skinnier rope is a little less durable, but it means a lighter pack for the approach!

“When climbing with half ropes, the ropes are clipped into alternating pieces, greatly reducing rope drag.”

Half Ropes are thinner (7.5-8.5mm), lighter ropes that are used in tandem, common on alpine and wandering trad routes. When climbing with half ropes, the ropes are clipped into alternating pieces, greatly reducing rope drag. They are less common as their complexity demands much more skill from the climber to use them effectively, and rope management becomes more of a concern as you are essentially doubling the amount of rope you are dealing with at the belay. However, the benefits are big in some scenarios. The ropes can be knotted together for descent, essentially doubling the length of each rappel. You also have a backup rope at all times, so if a rope is damaged by rock fall or lead fall, you still have a rope. These are more of a concern in the alpine and on big multi pitch routes, but can be of note at the crag as well.

“Twin Ropes, generally thinner and lighter than most half ropes, must both be clipped into each piece, just like a single rope.”

Twin Ropes are generally thinner and lighter than most half ropes, but instead of being clipped into alternating pieces of protection, they must both be clipped into each piece, just like a single rope. This eliminates the advantage of reduced rope drag that you achieve from single ropes, but retains the benefits of longer rappels and a redundant rope in the event of damage. Twin ropes are most commonly used in ice climbing scenarios.

Among these three types of ropes, you will see a lot of diversity in specs, styles, rating, dry treatments, weave and more. Some ropes have a weave pattern that changes at the center mark (see example). This makes it very easy to discover the mid point of the rope, which is very useful when encountering a multi-pitch rappel or running out long pitches. These bi-pattern ropes tend to come at a slightly higher price, but can be worth it for the time savings and the simplicity they offer. Dry treatments (see example) are applied to some ropes to ensure the nylon fibers do not absorb water. This is done to ensure they perform normally in wetter conditions. A wet rope will see up to a 70% reduction in dynamic performance, meaning it may not stretch as much in the event of a fall. This becomes a significant safety concern. If planning to climb alpine, ice, or any conditions where a wet rope may be a concern, it is important to have a dry treated rope.

A note on fall ratings. All of these ropes come with a specification on the number of UIAA-falls before breakage. These tests are designed to simulate the most extreme fall a climber can take, being repeated at 5 minute intervals. The UIAA-falls for the rope is determined by the lowest number of falls achieved before breakage in these tests. This level of fall is rare, and your rope can probably handle more average lead falls than the UIAA standard. Having said that, it is extremely important that climbers frequently inspect their ropes for damage and retire when necessary.

“Rock fall, climber falls, care and storage, environment, rope drag, sharp edges, and that buddy of yours who always seems to step on your rope can all have an impact on the longevity of your rope.”

So when do you retire a climbing rope? This is a difficult question for many, it is hard to let go of a piece of gear, but the reality is that it may be time to retire sooner than you may think, depending on how much you climb. A rope used a couple times a year can last 5-7 years.  Constant weekend warrior use will generally get you 3 years, and frequent 2-3 days a week use will demand a new rope every 1-2 years. Of course, all of this depends on the many situations a rope encounters during its life. Rock fall, climber falls, care and storage, environment, rope drag, sharp edges, and that buddy of yours who always seems to step on your rope can all have an impact on the longevity of your rope. Sometimes they will last longer, sometimes a little less. The big take-away is that the rope is your lifeline, treat it as such and inspect it frequently, and replace when necessary.

As always, the right rope comes down to finding the correct tool for the job. There are as many types of climbing as there are climbers, and every climber has a different idea on what is the perfect rope. Think about what type of climbing you are hoping to achieve over the lifetime of the rope, and know that you will likely be making this decision again in a couple years or less. Many climbers have an array of ropes in the gear closet for a vast variety of applications. Perhaps you have an epic alpine objective that requires a fast and light approach, or perhaps you just want to do some after work cragging with your pals on a few summer evenings. The two scenarios have different needs, but the perfect rope is out there for both of them.

Shop here for climbing ropes on VPO.ca.