It is time for another Climbing Gear Review, and in this installment I’ll focus on the backbone of any climbing system – ROPE. As our direct connection point and lifeline, it’s worth considering the vast options before dropping a couple hundred dollars on a new cord.
Rope Longevity, Inspection, and Care
First, a word about rope life. Except in extreme circumstances, modern ropes do not fail. Ropes only fail when they are cut by sharp rocks or knives, bathed in cat pee or battery acid, or when they’re used for canyoneering (haha). So, when your rope starts to get fuzzy, don’t worry, it is unlikely it would break under any normal circumstances. Like most protection, however, if you have any doubts about your safety, it is probably time to replace it. I typically go through one rope each year. I retire a rope when it gets really fuzzy, has taken A LOT of BIG falls, and/or has soft spots (bend the rope in half and it should maintain a round shape).
When assessing a rope’s integrity keep in mind that the sheath (the outside layer) is deigned to protect the core. This is called “kernmantle construction”, and is standard construction for climbing ropes. The core fibers beneath the sheath bear the actual weight, which is why a fuzzy sheath does not necessarily imply any strength loss. Ropes are way stronger than most people realize. So while it is good to take care of your rope, it is not a delicate piece of equipment. (The notion that stepping on a rope and grinding small rocks and sand into the core will destroy it, is not really accurate.)
The length of rope you need all depends on where you are climbing. Longer ropes are going to weigh more, and require more rope management, but are necessary for long routes. 60m ropes are standard and, for most climbing areas, will be sufficient to get you to the top of a climb and back to the ground. I am in the habit of purchasing 70m ropes, because in many multi-pitch settings the extra 10m allows one to link pitches and make fewer rappels. Also, if you wear out a section near one end of the rope and have to cut it off, you still have a useful length of rope.
I have broken this review into three sections according to the three most common uses in climbing. Ropes fall into categories according to their size, weight, and strength. From the super thin “Euro Ropes”, the mid-range “Workhorse”, to the “Fatty” cords, there is a rope designed for every purpose.
The sexiest of all ropes, Euros are skinny (less than 9.8mm) and brightly colored (read: pink). These ropes have an amazing strength-to-weight ratio, but tend to be less durable and are not suited for top rope climbing. They are designed for the weight-conscious climber ascending alpine and long, multi-pitch routes, and doing hard redpoint/onsight climbing. I believe the best rope in this category is the Sterling Nano 9.2mm. Sterling has earned a firm reputation for making extremely durable ropes, and even a rope this skinny can withstand some significant abuse. My climbing partner has one that has put in a full season in Zion and is still in great shape. It is rated for use as single rope, meaning it is strong enough to protect huge lead falls on its own, but can also be used in systems using two ropes (ie. half, twin, or double rope systems). This is more common in ice climbing, alpine, and some sketchy or meandering traditional climbs. For the sake of brevity, I will say I rarely use two ropes in this way, because it is messy, and not necessary for most climbing in Zion. Skinny ropes are expensive and made for specific types of climbing. Those looking for a rope they can take on any given climbing day probably want a rope with a larger diameter between 9.8 and 10.2mm, which brings us to…
Good “workhorse ropes” are ones those that can take a beating but are also reasonably light for long approaches and use on big wall climbs. There are many great ropes in this category, but my favorites are the Mammut Tusk 9.8mm, the Sterling Velocity 9.8mm, and the Maxim Glider 9.9mm. These ropes have displayed great durability, have a nice “hand” (supple, smooth), and have kept me alive in many uncertain circumstances. Ropes with a diameter less than 10mm feature good balance of weight and durability, nice movement through belay/rappel devices, and a tendency of NOT breaking the bank. These ropes are most appropriate for lead climbing, but are also good for top roping so long as they are not moving across a lot of sharp edges. For people that are primarily top-roping, a thicker rope is more appropriate because there is simply more sheath to protect the core from abrasion.
“Fatty” ropes are great first ropes for new climbers. These are the type of rope you’ll find in a climbing gym, and they seem to last forever. I call any rope larger than 10.2mm a “fat rope”. While the weight difference is not tremendous, I avoid taking any rope bigger than 10.2mm on approach hikes of more than a half hour. This is the rope for cragging 5 minutes from your car, falling a lot on top rope, and jugging. Most ropes in this category are going to serve this purpose well, but I prefer the Sterling Marathon because it lasts forever (but tends to get very dirty).
I have not broken down the pros and cons of specific ropes, because it is quite hard to compare ropes in a controlled way. I offer this review as more of a guide for you to use while considering what type of rope is appropriate for the climbing you are doing. I appreciate comments about your favorite rope, horror stories, and unrelated questions alike.
Thanks for reading, and CLIMB ON!