Climbing ropes are not the ones you see spelunkers using to zip down into those dark holes they so love. Nor are they the
cords Boy Scouts rig to zip across canyons and streams. Climbing ropes, though they look much like the average nylon rope, have crucial distinctions.
Construction. Climbing ropes have a “kernmantle” construction consisting of a braided core, the kern, which supplies
most of the rope’s strength. The core is protected by a woven sheath, the mantle. Kernmantle ropes are durable, they are easy to knot, and they stretch.
When you fall, say, 50 feet, the rope will stretch five to seven feet to absorb the impact. In this way, a climbing rope catches you gently, lessening
the forces on you and your gear. The UIAA (Union Internationale des Association d’Alpinisme) in concert with the CE sets climbing-rope standards and
oversees testing. Only use a rope bearing a UIAA or CE certification tag.
Rated falls and real life. Each rope will be rated for a certain number of falls, indicating the number of falls the rope
can take in a lab before it breaks. Each rope is tested far more severely than you are likely to punish it ever, so don’t feel you have to retire your
cord just because it’s rated for five falls, and you’ve taken six. In real life, climbing ropes are subjected to hundreds of falls, and a rope doesn’t
fail unless it is running over sharp rock, which cuts it, or a worn carabiner with a sharp edge. Exposure to acidic chemicals such as bleach, battery
acid or even fumes from a car battery (think a car trunk or closet that has been used to store a battery) can cause a rope to break, and easily.
Examine the tag on the rope for Rope Designation, Diameter and Length. The numbers listed for Falls Held and Maximum Impact Force are good marketing, but
all certified ropes have passed the same baseline series of rigorous fall and impact-force tests, and will serve you well when you’re starting out.
Rope designations. Ropes come with a designation for Single, Half and Twin use. A single rope is the most common and is
used by itself, as a single strand. This is the rope you want. Single ropes range in thickness from roughly 9mm to 11mm. Smaller ropes are lighter,
but wear out faster. Leave the thin ropes for later, and get one close to 10mm. Be aware that the diameter of your rope may affect which belay devices
you can use it with. Some devices will not work well, or at all, with very thin or very thick ropes.
Half and Twin ropes are thinner ropes, 9mm or less, and are intended to be used as a pair. These ropes offer a greater margin of security against cutting,
since odds are that both ropes won’t cut, but they complicate belaying and leading. Double ropes are usually reserved for ice and mixed climbing, where
you need two ropes to rappel.
Relatively new on the scene are ropes that are certified for single and double, or even single, double and twin use. A rope of this design is a good idea
if you need one rope to climb rock and ice or for alpine climbing.
THE GYM ROPE
If you’re staying inside, you can purchase a gym-specific rope, which is shorter and less expensive than standard ropes, and is designed to handle
the savage beating that constant laps put on ropes. Most gym ropes are 35 meters long and about 10mm in diameter.Lengths. Standard rope lengths are 60, 70 and 80 meters. For cragging, where anchors are usually fixed 30 meters off the ground, get a 60-meter rope. Many newer
routes, however, might have anchors at 35 or 40 meters, making a 70- or 80-meter rope mandatory. Pay attention to route length, and make sure your
rope is long enough. If you’re staying in the gym, there are shorter ropes for indoor walls—they are usually between 30 and 35 meters and have
a tough sheath for the extra laps a gym allows.
Middle marking. If you’re going to do multi-pitch climbing, it is worth spending some extra bucks for a “bicolor” rope,
which will have a different color or pattern on each half. If you stick with a single-color rope there will be a mark on its sheath indicating the
midpoint. Knowing where the middle of the rope is gives the belayer a gauge for how much rope a leader has left on a pitch, and is helpful for rappels
where you need the middle of the rope perfectly centered at the anchor. Beware of ropes with middle markings that have been shortened on one end. A
rope that has been trimmed to remove a frayed end will have one side longer than the other, making the middle mark misleading. If you trim one end
short, trim the other end to keep the middle mark accurate.
Treatments.The final consideration is whether the rope has a “dry”
treatment. This water-repellent coating helps keep the rope from getting waterlogged in the rain or absorbing meltwater during a winter climb. The
primary advantage of a dry coating, however, is that it makes the rope smoother, so it runs across the rock and through carabiners with less drag than
if it was untreated.
New ropes are generally kinky and difficult to manage. Running the length of the rope through your hands or a belay device
a few times will straighten it. To keep your rope clean, uncoil it onto a rope tarp—dirt accelerates rope wear.
Retirement community. After three seasons your rope is as fuzzy as a squirrel’s tail and has flat and mushy spots. Is it
time to retire it? Probably. Flat and soft spots in a rope indicate internal damage. Ropes that are merely frayed are more difficult to judge. Slight
fuzzing is no big deal and can happen in just a couple of weekends of use. Severe fuzzing may or may not make a rope unsafe. As a rule, if you can
see a rope’s inner core, the sheath is worn too thin. Let common sense guide you, and when you feel uneasy, retire the rope.
READER’S TIP: SOAP ON A ROPE
Washing ropes is a matter of safety—grime and grit compromise a rope’s strength—but it can create a nightmare of knots. To prevent a mess,
first make a neat butterfly coil, and then girth-hitch the center of the rope with a sling or daisy chain. Stuff the rope into a washer without an
agitator (the plastic tower in the middle of a top-loading machine). Wash the rope in cold water on a gentle cycle. To dry, remove the sling/daisy
chain and flake the rope over the top of a door or on an indoor clothesline—whatever will keep it off the ground and out of sunlight.
—Jay B. Williams, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Check out Rock and Ice's climbing rope reviews here.