ROPE is one of the flashier and more expensive tools in your canyoneering tool chest. Because most canyoneers aren’t made of money, they want lots of great canyon days for the cash they shell out on a rope. Ropes are made from different fibers, for different purposes, and each one carries advantages and disadvantages. Here’s my two cents on canyon ropes and the materials used to make canyoneering ropes.
Static (Canyon) Rope vs. Dynamic (Climbing) Rope
Dynamic rope is built for elongation, stretching somewhere in the 6 – 12% range when weighted. Dynamic ropes are essential for protecting a rock climber’s vertical fall; the “unwinding” of the interior rope twists disperses energy, reducing the force on the climber’s body. To achieve this carefully controlled stretch, climbing ropes are made of nylon, with the interior rope core (kern) twisted tightly, and the sheath of the rope (mantle) woven more loosely.
Static rope, on the other hand, is built for low-elongation; it stretches in the range of 2-4% when weighted. In a static rope, the kern strands are twisted less tightly or are straight, and the sheath is woven more tightly, reducing the rope’s elasticity. Static ropes do not protect a climber from significant vertical falls because they cannot stretch to disperse energy. Static ropes are only intended for static loads – such as a rappeller sliding down a line.
Visiting climbers often ask, “Can I use my climbing rope for canyoneering?” Technically, yes, you can use a dynamic climbing rope for canyoneering; you can rappel down both climbing ropes and static ropes, but there are important disadvantages to climbing ropes:
1. Dynamic ropes degrade more quickly. The loose sheath of a dynamic rope allows sand and other debris inside the rope more easily, affecting its elasticity, handling, and performance. This will this degrade the climbing rope more quickly than an equivalent static line, and will convert your sweet climbing rope into an untrustworthy, top-rope-only rope with its first canyon descent.
2. Dynamic ropes bounce. When rappelling on a dynamic line, we notice a lot of “yo-yo stretching”, or bouncing up and down as we descend; the longer the rappel, the more bouncing. Each time we allow more rope through our friction device, the rope also stretches, and the rappeller bounces. While we are bouncing on the rope, you might imagine what is happening at the top of the rappel, where the rope is moving back and forth over the cliff edge, sawing the sheath. Yikes.
3. Dynamic ropes can be difficult to pull. A dynamic rope will pull easily on a short and clean rappel. But if the pull involves much friction (multiple edges, stuck in a mild pinch, rope caught against itself, etc.), the stretch of a dynamic rope can make it very difficult to pull. While a stout tug on a static line transmits most of the energy to the problem (point of friction), on a dynamic rope most of the energy simply elongates the rope.
If you are serious about getting into canyons, you owe it to yourself, your partners, and your pocketbook to invest in a static rope or two. It won’t take too long (2-3 canyons) before the money you save and problems you avoid more than make up for the cost of expanding your rope arsenal.
Dave Buckingham guides, outfits, and waxes poetic on all things canyoneering at Zion Adventure Company. When Dave isn’t exploring desert canyons or waterskiing on Lake Powell, you might find him fixing his boat, walking his dog, or tooting his own horn (it’s a trumpet) here in Springdale.