Phil Geng

Researcher, Climber, Mountaineer


The beginner's guide to climbing ropes

As the season of present finding rapidly gathers pace, many a climber will wish for a rope to be put under the tree (or any other suitable present location). Most climbers will have at least a basic understanding of what ropes they need to get, but having a bit more information has never hurt anybody.

Thankfully there aren't many actual myths around when it comes to ropes, so we're going to focus on a few basic rules instead.

1. Which type of climbing rope do I need?
Climbing ropes come in three types of elasticity - Static, Semi-static and dynamic. Generally most climbers will be looking at buying dynamic ropes for general climbing and for the sake of argument if you don't know the precise difference between the types - go with dynamic. Thankfully most ropes on the market are dynamic anyway and therefore this shouldn't be a problem. As a rule of thumb be careful if the rope is white or black as these are usually static or semi-static variants (not always though).
Dynamic ropes themselves come in three types as well and knowing the difference here is very important indeed.
Single Ropes are your most common indoor and sport climbing ropes. These ropes are designed to be used as they are out of the packaging without the need for other ropes to back them up. Tested to withstand a high number of "standard" falls these ropes can be nearly as cheap or expensive as you want them to be.
Half ropes are, as the name suggests, designed to be used as half a rope. In traditional climbing outdoors these ropes are often used to avoid rope drag on climbs that zig-zag over the wall are can be seen clipped alternating while leading. The individual ropes are still safe to climb on, but are not tested to the same number of falls as single ropes. Half ropes will usually be thinner than single ropes and as a result are harder to control or even unsuitable for certain belay devices. When half ropes are being used properly and the climber is trailing both up the wall, the belayer will have to be able to control two ropes safely at the same time - even experienced belayers can struggle with that.
Twin ropes are mainly designed for alpine used and provide a way to split the single rope in half. Twin ropes must, in line with manufacturer specifications, be used as two ropes running parallel at all times. The reason these ropes exist becomes apparent when you want to abseil the entire length of a climb but take your rope home at the end of the day.
Form this initial set let's say that unless you KNOW you need a different type of rope you will be looking at buying a Dynamic Single rope.

2. How long should my rope be?
There is no hard and fast rule about what length climbing rope you need. If all you are planning on climbing is indoors on artificial climbing structures, then chances are a 35m rope is all you will ever need. That said, there are walls that require longer lengths, but most walls where this is the case will advise on this BEFORE you start climbing.
Outdoors the length of the rope is the length of a piece of string. If you never plan on lowering back down on a single pitch climb, then a 40m rope is most likely sufficient. If you're looking for an all-round rope to tackle everything, then 60m is probably your friend and if you're looking at solely climbing sport routes on Portland, then 50m should do. Take a look in the guidebooks for the area you're interested in. Take the height of the highest climb you're planning on achieving in the next 3 years, multiply by 2 and add an extra few meters to the result. That's the length you need.

3. What treatment should my rope have?
In short - whichever you are willing to shell out for. Dry treatment is only really useful if you're climbing outdoors. Thermo treatment enhances the rope handling over time, but also increases your chance of rope burn (personal experience that...). [Insert fancy treatment name here] will probably do what the manufacturer promises, but whether it's worth it is down to you.

4. Is rope X safe to use?
Any rope sold by a respectable outdoor dealer in this country will be safe to use as they are manufactured against European Standards (EN 892 specifically). If in doubt check the rope has also been tested against the UIAA(101) standard and has passed the required number of falls, distance of elongation and sheath slippage that the UIAA have set. The UIAA will only allow the use of their logo and certification mark (the letters UIAA, sometimes within a depiction of a mountain) for approved and correctly tested equipment under their own standards, which extend and exceed the European Ones. In short, EN 892 standard is safe, but UIAA(101) is even better.

5. What is a UIAA fall?
A very, very, very long and hard fall that is unlikely to occur in your normal day-to-day climbing. Last time I read the specifications a UIAA test fall was of factor 1.78. This almost represents the worst case scenario in terms of a fall, as you would have soared straight past your belayer and come to rest the entire length of the rope beneath them. As a comparison a fall to the ground in a climbing center would be a factor one fall - if the rope caught you at the precise moment you impacted that is. Nowadays the UIAA appear to be more concerned with the force absorbed by a rope before breaking, but that's a whole different science to get stuck into.


For your first climbing rope used predominantly indoors I would recommend a 30-40m dynamic single rope from a reputable manufacturer at a minimum of 10mm thick. Which treatment you go for is up to you, but a thermo treated rope will remain smoother to handle over time. Especially in the chalked up environment of indoor climbing walls this can be a great bonus. Good, trustworthy rope manufacturers whos products I've used, abused and trusted in the past are Beal, DMM, Edelrid and Mammut.

If you are still unsure there is an excellent article on the British Mountaineering Council website about the technical ins and outs of climbing ropes and what the individual markings stand for.

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Categories: Climbing

Tags: Beginner, Climbing, Rope

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