Ropework in traditional climbing - the rope
There are different ropes designed for every occasion these days, so choosing the right rope is a daunting task. An inspection of rope techniques to best suit each climbing situation, alongside a résumé of the main types of rope available will help you.
Top-roping on a single rope
- UIAA Rating: 1
- Diameter: 8.9mm - 11mm
- Designed to be used singly in a wide variety of situations, hence the big range in diameters. Consider the weight, handling properties, tightness of sheath and finish when choosing a single rope.
- Sport routes - Quick clips and belaying easier with only one rope to fumble with. Good handling important and lightweight desirable for harder routes.
- Indoor walls - Durability and simplicity important. There are ropes designed specifically for wall use, these have a higher proportion of sheath to core and therefore greater durability, this means a stiffer rope that is harder to handle but wears well.
- Top roping - Abrasion resistance important so you want to choose a rope with a big diameter and tightly woven sheath. This adds weight and decreases rope handling but this is fine for the situation.
- Traditional routes - Unless the route is in a straight line the rope drag can be unbearable. So short, hard lines or most routes up to VS in grade work well with a single rope.
- Abseiling - Abrasion resistance and non-kinking are most important. Low stretch ropes are often used as dedicated abseil ropes.
- Simple to operate for climber and belayer. Less opportunity to create rope tangles.
- A good choice if you climb mainly indoors, on sport routes, or if you've recently started climbing.
- Rope drag on complex routes.
- Abseils limited to stages of half the rope length (i.e. retreating from a long multi pitch route would be difficult).
- UIAA Rating: 1/2
- Diameter: 8.1mm - 9mm
- Confusingly also called 'half ropes'. Intended to be used as a pair but many climbers clip the ropes singly into runners, often alternately.
- Traditional routes - long multi pitch routes on complex terrain with traverses.
- Mountain or sea cliff routes - as above with the comfort that if you need to retreat you can abseil the full length of the rope by tying them together.
- Winter climbing - unless you're in a snow gully you'll want the advantages of double ropes on complex winter terrain. Waterproof finish important.
- Minimum rope drag and more likely to reach sideways for that extra-but-slightly-out-of-line runner.
- Better protection when reaching to clip the next runner.
- Better options for protecting the second especially on traverses.
- Less likely to damage both ropes in a fall or if hit by rock.
- Longer abseils.
- Belay technique requires more practise.
- Greater rope tangle possibilities, rope management problems on small or hanging stances.
This helps determine the impact of a given fall. Divide the total length of the fall by the length of rope paid out.
A fall from 10m above the belay with no runners results in a 20m fall.
20m divided by 10m = fall factor 2.
A fall factor 2 is the highest you can generate in a normal climbing situation. To reduce the fall factor simply place runners.
A fall from 10m above the belay with a runner at 5m results in a 10m fall.
10m divided by 10m = fall factor 1.
A fall factor 2 puts high stress on all aspects of the system and can result in gear failure. Always place a runner as soon as you can when leaving the stance, even on easy ground and even if it's the only one you get on the pitch, it could still make a difference.
It's not just protecting you, it's protecting the belay too (and even your rope!)
Rope care and maintenance
Manufacturers must give ropes a 'shelf life'. Use this information but also assess the rope for signs of damage. Flat sections and discolouration are bad news. Furry bits are quite common but not necessarily a serious problem, whereas any nick that exposes the white core is serious damage.
Ropes are only designed to take so many big falls, keep a note of such events and check for damage afterwards. After top roping check for abrasion damage at the rubbing points.
- Run the rope through your hands as you uncoil it, feeling for damage.
- Use a rope bag to minimise trampling and transit damage.
- Wash the rope warm water after muddy or sea cliff excursions
- Keep the rope away from nasty chemicals and sharp objects.
- If in doubt get a second opinion.
- Choose your rope according to its intended primary use.
- Single ropes work best indoors, for top roping and sport routes.
- Double ropes are best for long traditional routes and in the winter.
- Place a runner as you leave the stance on multi pitch routes to reduce the fall factor.
- Always check your rope for damage
- Wash the rope in clean water if it becomes muddy or sea drenched.
- If your rope is over five years old, has flat sections, nasty nicks that expose the core or discoloured sections, it's probably time to retire it and buy yourself a new one.
Libby is a highly qualified mountain leader with over 25 years experience, having worked as an instructor at Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin and also having travelled the world seeking out the best climbs. She offers bespoke guiding, instruction and coaching sessions in climbing and mountaineering in her local area of North Wales - one of the best areas in the UK for outdoor sports.
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