How to Choose a Climbing Rope

different climbing ropes
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What are the main points you should consider and which are the most important when buying your first climbing rope?

All the technical aspects may seem a bit overwhelming when you first look at climbing ropes: single ropes, double ropes, dynamic elongation and fall factors??!

We take a look at what it all means.

Rope Types

different climbing ropes

Single Ropes

These are the most typical type of rope you’ll find out there.

You see them everywhere at your local indoor climbing gym and they can be used for all types of climbing: top-roping, sport climbing and trad climbing.

Top-roping and sport climbing only use single ropes whereas other types can also be used for trad.

Singles do exactly what it says on the tin. It’s one rope running between belayer and climber.

Virtually all belay devices are designed to work with a single rope and they are definitely the go to choice when you’re starting to learn all the basic rope systems and techniques.

Double Ropes

As the name indicates, double ropes, which are also called half-ropes, are a two-rope system.

The climber is tied in with two, generally thinner ropes. This allows him to clip in either rope as he ascends up a winding route. The system has the benefit of greatly reducing rope drag in situations where the protection diverges from the main line or the line meanders.

Given that there are two full length ropes, they can be tied together for abseiling, meaning a longer abseil than when using singles.

On the downside they take more practice to belay with as it requires slack being fed at different paces with each rope. There is therefore a steeper learning curve when using these.

Popular assisted breaking devices such as the GriGri cannot be used with this system and climbers must stick to ATC-type belay devices.

Twin Ropes

Like double ropes this is also a two rope system.

While with double ropes the advantage is to be able to clip either rope into each piece of protection, with twin ropes you always clip both ropes, like with a single.

The main advantage is that if one rope gets damaged hopefully the other doesn’t.

This system is more common in ice or mixed climbing, where damage from the rock, crampons, ice axes or picks can damage a rope.

This system also has the same advantages as doubles for rappelling. They are tied together providing a rappel of twice the length of a comparable single rope.

Dynamic Ropes

Dynamic ropes are the usual ones you see in gyms and are what we think of when we say “climbing ropes”.

They’re designed to absorb high impacts by having a stretch incorporated. This type of stretch, or elongation, is designed to decrease the impact of a falling climber on the belayer and protection system.

Static Ropes

Like the name implies, static ropes, in comparison to dynamic ropes, have no give or stretch.

The idea is to not fall on them. This makes them ideal for fixed lines, ascending and hauling, such as in big wall climbing or more generally alpine environments.

Rope Purchase Criteria

understanding

There are many technical properties of ropes that we’ll discuss below but they aren’t necessarily the primary thing to consider when buying your first rope.

In general, as long as the rope you buy is UIAA certified you’re in good hands 👍

The most essential points you should consider when buying are:

  • Length
  • Diameter
  • Dry Treatment
  • Middle Marking

Length

man abseiling on a long climbing rope

There are multiple rope lengths available for the obvious reason: you need a longer rope for longer routes. You can find 40m ropes for indoor training, 60m for classic outdoor routes and 80m for those longer single pitches.

Very simply the main factor determining the length you need to purchase is the length of the pitches you will be regularly climbing.

If you’ll be climbing mainly routes shorter than 30m then a 60m rope will do. You may then need a longer rope for when you climb in crags which have routes over 30 metres. 

You can equally buy a longer rope which will also do the trick for shorter routes. This however has the downside of being heavier, more expensive and takes longer to handle. These factors may seem insignificant but if you’re regularly heading outdoors, they will become tedious after a while.

If you’re lead climbing indoors a lot it’s good to have a rope specifically for this. Say a 40m slightly thicker gym-beater rope.

Diameter

thick climbing rope

As the technology of ropes has evolved it’s become possible to find thinner and thinner ropes which maintain the strength of thicker ones.

The most common thickness or diameter tends to hover around 9.6mm-9.8mm. This offers a good balance between durability, weight and ease of use. Thicker ropes will be more durable and easier to handle though are much heavier.

Thinner ropes below 9.5mm will be very lightweight though not as durable. They have a distinct advantage for longer pitches over 35m where rope weight and drag becomes a real factor.  

No-one likes taking a whipper from the anchor because you were too tired to clip a heavy rope! 😅

The simple distinction is therefore that thinner ropes are lighter though more durable ropes tend to be thicker.

The general categories are:

  • Thin/performance: 8.9mm-9.4mm
  • All-round/standard: 9.5mm-9.9mm
  • Thick/workhorse: Over 9.9mm

Dry Treatment

man abseiling in the mountains

Many ropes also come with a special treatment which makes them resistant to water.

This means that your rope is protected if it ever starts raining or you can use it in Alpine conditions. A dry treatment will equally protect the rope from dust or dirt more giving it a longer lifespan.

If you’re mainly climbing in summer or dry environments this isn’t absolutely necessary but if you want to use the rope in the mountains or in places where there is a risk of water this will protect your rope and give it longer life. 

Rope Marking

different marking on climbing ropes

An important requirement on a rope is that there is a distinct middle mark.

Why?

Firstly, so that the belayer can tell when the climber has used half the length of rope. Secondly when abseiling to be able to equalize the rope and have two halves of same length.

One of the most common  accidents is when a climber is dropped off the end of the rope when being lowered due to the rope being too short. The belayer in such a situation should have been able to tell when the climber had used half of the rope on the way up. A distinct middle mark therefore allows to do this.

The classic middle mark is simply done using a black or dark dye. This however often fades over times with use and dirt.

Beal sell a rope marker which you can use to remark the middle of you rope if ever fades. You should never use a standard marker as the ink can potentially react with the rope material and have unknown consequences.

There also exists bi-pattern ropes. With these half of the rope is in one design with the other in a different design. This makes it much easier to distinguish the middle, although these are generally more expensive.

Rope Technical Specifications

Fall Factor

In order to address the severity of a fall and the impact it places on the climber, belayer, anchor or rope a term fall factor is used.

This is defined as the full length of the fall divided by the distance between the belayer and the climber (i.e the rope length).

fall factor in rock climbing

The largest factor you can have in single pitch sport climbing, when starting from the ground up is 1:

  • Example: The climber falls from 2m above the first quickdraw, which itself is at a height of 2m from the ground:

Fall factor = length fall / rope length = 4 / 4 = 1

The climber would technically hit the floor in this case…

In the case of multi-pitch or belaying from a ledge the fall factor can also be between 1 and 2 given that the climber can fall below the belay.

The maximum a fall factor can ever be is 2. This is the situation in which the climber places no protection. For example a climber has no protection and climbs 2 meters. Fall factor = 4/2 = 2.

Fall factors are used as a standard measurement when assessing rope technical characteristics.

Static Elongation

This measures how much a rope stretches when a 80kg weight is statically loaded on a rope i.e hangs directly on the rope. 80kg is used as an average male weight.

Dynamic Elongation

This measures how much a rope stretches when an 80kg weight experiences a 1.7 fall factor. This amount of stress places a large impact on a rope, leading it to stretch much more than under a static load.

Petzl have established the following for static and dynamic elongation:

  • Limited to 10% for static elongation
  • The maximum for dynamic elongation must be 40% with typical values between 10% and 40%.

For a typical 9.5mm rope:

  • Static elongation: 7.5%
  • Dynamic elongation: 33%

Impact Force

This measures the impact that an 80kg weight receiving a 1.7 factor fall would have on the protection and climber, similar to dynamic elongation.

In this situation the lower the impact force the less strain is placed on the protection (bolts or cams for example). This reduces the impact on the protection and climber and a smaller number is therefore preferable, especially in trad climbing.

UIAA Falls

Perhaps one of the most aggressive tests placed on a rope.

Again a 80kg weight experiences a 1.7 factor fall but this time it is repeated until the rope breaks. For a rope to pass this test it must be able to withstand at least 5 UIAA falls.

This however doesn’t mean that you should wait until you’ve had that many big falls until you retire your rope! The health of your rope must be constantly monitored, especially after taking big whippers.

If you experience close to 1.7 factor falls it might be worth considering retiring your rope.

For our typical 9.5mm rope:

  • UIAA falls: 6

Summary

woman abseiling

Overall the main points you should consider when buying a rope are:

  • Length
  • Diameter
  • Dry Treatment
  • Middle Marking

The following are good rules of thumb with example ropes we love:

Which is your favourite climbing rope?

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