FAQs about Climbing Ropes

Rock climbers and mountaineers all know that one day, their life will depend on their climbing rope. Happily, modern technology produces ropes far superior to those of just a generation ago. Here are answers to some Frequently-Asked Questions about climbing ropes.
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Ropes are only one piece of equipment in a climber's closet. Yet they generate the most questions -- and the most misinformation.

Contents


How long a rope should I get?

A generation ago, 150 feet was pretty standard. Then it became 50 meters (165 feet). Now some climbs, especially sport-climbing routes, require 60 meter ropes. A few are even going up on 70-meter ropes. Longer ropes cost more, you'll carry more weight, and rope handling will become more cumbersome. So you want to get enough, without going overboard. Most traditional lead climbers will be fine with a 50-meter rope. If you do more sport- and aid climbing, particularly on newer routes, you may want to go to 60 meters. (Another benefit of the 60-meter rope is that you can cut off the ends a couple of times, as they get frayed or worn, and still have a useful length.) Whatever length you get, be sure it's enough for the climb you're on, before you head up.
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What if the rope breaks when I fall?

Well, yes, that would indeed be a problem.

It may reassure you to know that this is the first thing new climbers worry about, but comes well toward the bottom of the worries list for experienced climbers.

Climbing ropes are designed to stretch when subjected to heavy weight or falls. That protects you, by cushioning your fall; it also reduces the strain on the rope. In addition, climbing ropes are protected by a sheath around the inner core. This adds protection against abrasion and cuts.

Broken ropes are extremely rare in the climbing world, and are usually the result of a rope going over a sharp edge at the time of the fall. The rope is cut -- not broken. The consequences are equally unpleasant, of course, so climbers do need to keep an eye open for such edges.

Theoretically, a rope can break as a result of abuse or excessive age or overuse. It takes a lot of abuse, age, or overuse to get a rope to this stage. Still, most climbers choose to play it safe and keep well within the guidelines provided by the manufacturer.

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What's a "static line"?

If you're using a rope to haul gear, or for ascending ("jumaring"), you don't want it to stretch, and a "static line" is just that: a rope designed to stretch little, or not at all. You should not use a static line for actual climbing.

Theoretically, you'd also rather rappel on a static line. But most rappelling is done after (or just prior to) an ascent, and few climbers are going to carry an extra rope just for this purpose.

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What's a dry rope?

After a period of rain, or sitting in a pool of water, a typical climbing rope gets wet. Then it weighs more, and becomes harder to handle. Wet ropes also lose some of their strength. If the temperature is well below freezing, a wet rope soon becomes almost impossible to handle.

If you're doing ice climbing, or on extended alpine climbs, you'll want a dry rope, which has been treated to be more water repellent. However, these cost about 20% more. For typical day climbing in (usually) good weather, a dry rope is probably an unnecessary expense.

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Why do some climbers use double ropes?

Climbing with double ropes requires more technique, but offers several advantages over a single rope.

On zig-zag routes, where rope drag can become an issue, double ropes reduce the drag. Instead of threading a single rope through protection on the right, then the left, then the right, the lead climber puts one rope predominantly on the left, and one on the right. The result is that both ropes follow a straighter path, and encounter less friction.

Since each rope follows a different path, it become far less likely that both will pass over the same sharp edge and break, in the event of a leader fall.

On climbs that involve horizontal traverses as well as vertical climbing, careful use of the second rope can offer better protection to the second against a pendulum swing.

When rappelling (at the end of a climb, or if the climb must be aborted), double ropes allow you to go twice as far on the same anchor.

However, there are disadvantages. Two double ropes will weigh more than a single rope. Also, the belayer must independently feed each rope through the belay device, a technique which requires some practice.

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Do I need to mark the middle of my rope?

A center mark is helpful in several situations. When you rappel on a single rope, you want the center to be at the rappel anchor. As a belayer, it can be helpful to see the center mark slide through the belay, as a way of estimating how much rope is left. And some climbers use a butterfly coiling technique that begins in the middle of the rope, and thus coils it twice as quickly.

Some ropes come with the midpoints marked at the factory. The most convenient system is one in which the weave color or pattern changes, but these cost more.

You can mark a light-colored rope yourself with a marker that uses a dark, water-based ink, but this doesn't always stand out well. Avoid oil-based inks. Many climbers find that a piece of thin white adhesive tape works well: Wrap it one-and-a-half times around, to minimize drag as it goes through a belay device. You'll need to replace the tape periodically, as it gets dirty and less visible, and check occasionally to be sure it hasn't slid down from its original location.

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Should I wash my rope?

Yes, if it's getting dirty, you can run it through the washer. Use cold or lukewarm water, and a mild detergent. Do NOT use bleach, and check to be sure your detergent doesn't contain bleach. Putting the rope into a cloth sack or pillowcase may keep it from getting tangled.
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Is DEET bad for ropes?

Certain chemicals will weaken a nylon rope. At one point, rumors circulated in some climbing circles that insect repellents with the DEET chemical would dissolve their rope. Since there's usually no way to wash your hands after applying lotion in the wilderness, prior to handling a rope, this forced climbers to choose between protecting their rope, or their skin.

Lab tests have found no evidence for this rumor. It still seems like a good idea to keep chemicals away from your rope when you've got a choice (and defiitely keep it away from acids and bleaches). But you can apply that insect repellent without sacrificing your rope.

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My partner has taken a dozen falls on a rope that's only rated for eight. Isn't he living dangerously?

Probably not. At least, not because of this. Let's look at just what that fall rating is all about.

Motivational leaders like to tell us "That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger." It doesn't apply to ropes. Even if a leader fall doesn't break your rope, it has a small, usually invisible weakening effect.

The fall rating, developed by the UIAA (the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme), represents an effort to quantify just how many falls a rope can endure before it's weakened too much to be used.

For purposes of this test, the UIAA subjects the rope to a fall which is far more severe than most climbers have ever taken. Specifically, they tie one end of the rope to a static (non-moving) anchor. An 80 kg. weight is tied 2.8 meters from the anchor. The weight is then raised 2 meters above the anchor, and dropped, thus falling a total distance of 4.8 meters. Then the testers wait five minutes and do it again, continuing until the rope finally breaks. Most ropes break after somewhere between six and fifteen falls.

You can climb for a lifetime without ever subjecting a rope to a fall this severe. First of all, the fall factor (the ratio of the distance fallen, to the length of the rope) is 1.7 -- a short section of rope is absorbing a longer fall. The fall factor for most leader falls is well under that, more often in the range of 0.2 to 1.0. In addition, the test is done with a static belay. That is, the anchor doesn't move an inch; the full force of the fall is absorbed by the rope. If your partner was belayed by you or another climber on his dozen falls, some of the force of each fall was absorbed by the belayer.

So to get back to your question: Your partner's twelve falls probably subjected his rope to far less strain and damage than it's designed to take. But if even a few of those falls came close to creating the impact of a standard UIAA test, then many conservative climbers would say it's time to retire the rope.

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How much abuse would it take to make a rope fail?

Lots. The precise limit is hard to quantify: One person's abuse is another person's foreplay. But, bad jokes aside, it would be difficult to find a climber who has ever heard of a rope breaking from a heavy fall, simply because the rope was old or worn.
Sean Cleary, who sounds like a fun guy, decided one day to see how much of a fall his worn out old rope could take. Quite a bit, as it turns out, and his rope-test story is reassuring. (Then you can return here with your BACK button.)

That's why experienced climbers don't consider rope breakage to be a serious danger. But they're still conservative about retiring a rope as soon as there's any doubt about its reliability.

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Why does everyone say not to step on the rope?

Because that grinds rock fragments, perhaps even glass particles that were on our shoe, into the rope, where they'll eventually cut the fibers. Granted, you'd have to step on the rope quite a bit to seriously weaken it, but why push things?
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Is it okay to cut the end off a damaged rope?

Yes. If the damage is limited to one section, near an end of the rope, you can cut that off and use the remainder of the rope on climbs where the full length isn't needed.

This is one argument for buying a longer rope, especially for sport-climbing routes, where the end of the rope often gets particularly hard wear.

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How long can I use a rope before I should retire it?

That depends on how much use it's getting, and what kind of usage.

If you're climbing every day, taking some leader falls, then you shouldn't expect to get more than a single season from a rope. Weekend climbers can usually go for a couple of years.

After five or six years, even a rope that never gets used will have lost some elasticity, simply due to age. You can still use it for top-roping, but it's time to get a new rope for lead climbing.

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How do I know when to retire my rope?

Any of the following signs means it's time to stop using a rope for lead climbing:

Thin spots. Feel along the entire length of the rope. If one spot feels thinner, or squishy, or has an hourglass shape.

Damaged sheath. If you can see the inner core through a tear or worn spot in the sheath. A high degree of glazing or abrasion are also danger signals.

Too much history. Yes, admittedly that's pretty subjective! Too many falls, too many fast rappels, too much time in the car trunk with battery fumes, the time you loaned the rope to a friend who perhaps didn't admit how many times he fell on it, the screamer you took with a fall factor of almost 2. Life is full of decisions that must be made with general guidelines rather than hard, quantifiable rules. That's part of the fun of climbing. As you climb, and talk to other climbers, you'll develop a better sense of when it's time to get a new rope.

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