How to choose a rope for climbing and mountaineering

Learn about the different kinds of climbing and mountaineering ropes and the safety standards regulating their use.

As with most safety equipment, the correct use of climbing rope is made clear by the certified standards it complies to. It is therefore essential to understand these standards when choosing a rope, be it for mountaineering, climbing, canyoning, caving or any other outdoor activity.
Each kind of climbing rope has to comply with tough, legal safety standards in order to go out for sale. These standards provide the consumer with a guarantee of the durability and properties of the rope and clearly indicate its use. A different kind of rope is required, depending on the type of climbing, type of route and logistics implied (single, half, twin, semi-static, etc.). The right rope should be chosen for the right activity and you should never use, for example, a rope marked only as a half rope for single rope climbing, or any other combination.

 

UIAA 101, EN 892:2012, EN 1891

The standards that ensure quality and use of sport climbing ropes are indicated by UIAA 101 & EN 892:2012 (both for dynamic ropes) and EN1981 (for static ropes).

 

The standard for the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) is the only standard that is globally recognized and complies with legal guidelines, which in the case of climbing, are regulated by the European Standard EN 892:2012

 

Traditionally, the UIAA (Association formed by most international mountaineering federations around the world), together with the manufacturers affiliated to their Safety Commission created the norms and tests that the ropes had to comply to. These were the only standards for some time.

 

The European Union then created its own standards basing them on the UIAA norms. Nowadays most ropes in Europe are labelled with the UIAA and EU norm.

 

These standards are extremely rigorous and the equipment has to pass a series of tests before it is guaranteed. Once approved, the performance, wear and damage depend on how it is used by the consumer, but even this is partly regulated, as we will see with the standard that ensures a certain number of falls.

 

Even though the European Standard EN 892:2012 is very complex for the average user, the UIAA has published a user-friendly version that is available for consultation.

Once the use of the rope is clear, it’s time to consider other factors and here, the climber has more say about which features are most suitable for the situation: a range of diameters are available for each use, chemical treatments, such as water-repellency or abrasion-resistance. The climber should also consider how the rope will perform in the kind of belay device to be used.

 

Here, we are going to talk about the different features of climbing ropes and their purpose. As the certified label defines the specific use of the rope, we will also look at the European and international standards which apply.

 

At the end of the article is an appendix which explains the technical parameters used to certify climbing ropes, such as the fall factor, impact force or number of falls. This is extremely useful in order to understand how and why each rope functions as it does and understanding these parameters is directly related to belaying and handling the rope correctly and will help avoid serious problems.
This is logical, as the standards guarantee the essential properties required in a mountaineering rope. The safety tests simulate the rope in use and inform the climber of useful information, regarding belaying, rappel and so on.
The fall factor, for example, is something every climber should know about, because this is directly related to how to belay correctly.

 

PARTS OF A ROPE

Core: the heart or inner section of the rope. It is not visible and is made of thousands of filaments that guarantee approx. 70 to 85% general strength of the rope. Depending on the rope, it can be made with different filaments: parallel filaments for static rope, twisted filaments for dynamic rope.

Sheath: outer part. This protects the core from the elements, abrasion, etc. and provides 25 to 30% rope strength.

TYPES OF CLIMBING ROPES
Now that it is clear that the safety of a climbing rope is guaranteed by rigorous European standards and by entities superior to the actual manufacturers, it is time to look at how these standards categorize climbing ropes. The first main category divides ropes into dynamic, semi-static and static.
DYNAMIC ROPES
These are used for climbing and mountaineering. The high elongation percentage is specifically designed to absorb and cushion a fall. These ropes comply with the EN 892:2012. norm.
This classic climbing and mountaineering rope can be single, half (or double) or twin.
Again, we should stress that each rope can only be used for the activity it is rated for and never use belay techniques which are specific for one kind of rope on another (a single rope for a half or twin belay device or any other combination)
This said, ropes are becoming more and more versatile and many are now double or triple rated for use as twin, half and single.
There are three standards:
  • Ropes Rated for Single Use (1)
    Single ropes are extremely popular, especially for indoor and sport climbing. A single rope is easy to clip onto carabiners and simple to use on sport climbs. Just clip the rope to the anchors as you ascend, following a line that is as straight as possible until you reach the top, where you are then lowered back to the ground.The symbol that marks a single rope is a number 1 inside a circle.

    Dynamic ropes are used to belay rock climbers and mountaineers.

    Dynamic elongation (of a fall) during the first fall must be equal to 40% with a weight of 80 kg. Sheath slippage must be under 20mm and the core percentage above 50%. The maximum impact force must be below 12kN with a 1.77 fall factor with an 80kg load. Under the same conditions, static elongation must be under 10%
    It is important that a single rope has a halfway mark, to locate the middle quickly when preparing a rappel.

 

 

These ropes are sometimes treated for greater abrasion-resistance against sharp edges or for water resistance, depending on what they are used for. Sport climbers don’t usually climb in wet weather or on wet walls, and if you tend to climb in very dry areas, water-repellency treatment is probably unnecessary. If you climb hard grades with overhangs, you may not want a rope treated for abrasion-resistance against sharp edges.
The greater the diameter, the safer the rope, but this will also be heavier and more difficult to manage. Nowadays, single rated ropes are available with a narrower diameter, but each climber has to decide on which combination of weight-safety-durability is most suitable for his/her situation. As a precaution, climbers weighing over 80kg should avoid using the narrowest ropes because these ropes resist a lower number of falls.
Another important factor to consider when choosing a rope is that the diameter must be compatible and certified for your belay device.
  • Half (or Double) Ropes (2)
    These are the most popular for trad. climbing. With half ropes, you will always use two ropes for belaying and both must be certified as half ropes – marked 1/2 inside a circle.These ropes have a smaller diameter than single ropes and during an ascent, the climber clips one rope and then the other onto alternate anchors. On zig-zagging routes, this means each rope follows a more vertical line and reduces rope drag. This would not be possible with a single rope.Ascending an alpine route has several benefits. With two ropes means you have a second rope if one becomes damaged by a sharp edge or cut by rock fall. Unlike a single rope, which can only use half its total length for a rappel, 2 half ropes allow you to use the full rope length. Half ropes are stretchier than single ropes and the lower impact force is essential for mountain routes which may have dodgy anchors that would come loose under higher impact force, in the event of a fall.
    Half ropes are clipped onto alternate anchors for a more vertical rope line
    These are the only climbing ropes that allow a roped team of three, where the leader belays two climbers.

    As half ropes are mainly used for mountain environments, most of them are dry treated or abrasion-resistant against sharp edges.
    It is important that each of the two half ropes are a different colour, so that the belayer can easily distinguish which one is in use.
  • Twin Ropes
    Of these three kinds of climbing ropes, twin ropes have the smallest diameter. They must always be used together for belaying; as if they were one rope and unlike half ropes they must both be clipped onto the same anchors.The mark of a twin rope is two overlapping circles.Twin ropes are preferable to single ropes when mountaineering as they get you out of a situation if one of the ropes gets damaged and give twice as much length for a rappel as a single rope. Unlike half ropes, twin ropes can NOT be used for a roped team of three.

MARKED INFORMATION ABOUT THE ROPE

CE: complies with European standards
0120: Identifies the certifying body
A 10.5: Type A, diameter 10.5
Batch: The two last numbers, year of manufacture
EN1891: Standard it complies to
UIAA: Complies with the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (Union International des Associations d’Alpinisme)

SEMI-STATIC ROPES
The elongation percentage of a semi-static rope must not be over 5% and this reduced elongation makes a much stronger rope. Semi-static ropes are suitable for fixed rope ascents or hauling and suspension for work-at-height. Certified semi-static ropes are 9 to 16mm in diameter and comply with norm EN 1891.
Semi-static ropes are not for rock climbing or belaying, they are only for ascending fixed expedition ropes, caving ropes or canyoning ropes, which are all semi-static.

A semi-static canyoning rope

Imagine you have to ascend a fixed rope made of rubber; it would be practically impossible because it would stretch and shrink as you move, like a yo-yo. Therefore, the reduced elongation of a semi-static rope makes it perfect for descending, ascending, hauling and suspension, but not at all suitable for belaying, because, in the event of a fall, the climber would suffer sudden impact and possibly serious injury. The rope would also suffer and could even break due to the lack of impact absorption.

 

There are four kinds of semi-static ropes:

TREATMENT

The two most important treatments are for greater abrasion-resistance against sharp edges and for water-repellency.

The treatment to increase the abrasion-resistance of a rope usually consists of a particular braid and chemical treatment that makes it more resistant on rough rock and sharp edges. This treatment is essential for mountaineering ropes. Sports climbing ropes, however, are usually used on less abrasive rock or on climbs with overhangs, where there is no contact with the rock and in these cases the climber may prefer an untreated rope, which would give more supple and smoother handling.

Dry treated ropes have changed a lot since 2014. Until this date, each brand advertised its own dry treated ropes, but the process used was unclear. In 2014, a new UIAA standard, called “Water Repellent” was created and now all ropes must comply with this standard in order to receive the Dry label. Ropes of this type are tested in official laboratories in the following way:

    • The rope is submitted to an outer abrasion process that is equivalent to the wear suffered after days of use.
    • Afterwards, the rope is soaked in water, using specific methods, for 15 minutes.
    • The amount of water absorbed by the rope must not be over 5% of its weight.
    • The rope that complies with these requisites can obtain the official UIAA “Water Repellent” label.
    To get a clear idea of the importance of this new standard, and why it is necessary, according to the new UIAA tests, an untreated rope normally absorbs almost 50% of its weight, and most of the earlier ropes marked with Dry labels would absorb approximately 20% to 30% of their weight, in contrast to the 5% absorbed after this new standard was introduced.
  • Type A:
    These are the strongest and are used by professionals, large groups, for rescue or for fixed equipping and so on.They should have a minimum static strength of 22kN, 15kN with a figure-of-eight knot and 5 successive falls with 100kg from a distance equal to the length of the rope.Examples of Type A ropes are Petzl Club 10mm, Kordas Dana 10mm or the ultra-light Kordas Fina Titan System 9,5mm.
  • Type B:
    Offers a more reduced security margin. These are normally used for caving in small groups, canyoning, Big Wall and high mountaineering.They should have a minimum static strength of 18kN, 12kN with a figure-of-eight knot and 5 successive falls with 80kg from a distance equal to the length of the rope.The Kordas Dana 9mm, Petzl Push and Beal Aqua’tech 9mm are three good examples of this kind of rope.
  • Type C:
    These ropes do not comply to any standards and are not sold at Barrabes, but it is important to know they exist. Made of polypropylene, they gained popularity among canyoners because they float. But when used for dry abseiling, several problems soon became apparent, as the abrasion made them get hot and even led to cases of this rope breaking. Although it is useful that a canyoning rope floats in small pools, in strong currents it can get pulled and tangled and even cause accidents.
  • Type L:
    Type L ropes are not certified. They are very light and sometimes used by experts for caving in specific conditions. If you are not sure about using a Type L rope, it should be avoided at all costs.
STATIC ROPES
Static ropes are used for ascending and hauling loads. They are never used for climbing and belaying. They comply with the EN 1891 norm.
Be careful! Ropes used for mountain ascents, work-at-height, canyoning and caving are sometimes mistakenly referred to as static ropes, instead of semi-static.
A static rope, according to European standards, cannot have an elongation percentage greater than 3%. This means they absorb very little impact and these kinds or ropes are therefore only used for specific activities, such as adventure park zip wires.
APPENDIX
A FEW USEFUL DETAILS ABOUT NORMS
We have seen that ropes rated as single, half and twin have to comply with a certain level of strength, elongation and other factors, which are also extremely important. Here we will see how they can affect certain aspects of climbing, such as belaying or via ferrata climbing.

 

 

  • Fall Factor:
    This is the ratio between the length of a fall and the length of rope
    The fall length is divided by the length of the rope between the belayer and climber. The maximum value for rock climbing is 2. As an example, if a climber falls from a point 2m above a belay point half-way up a wall and there are no intermediate anchors, the fall would be a distance of 4 metres, so the 4m fall divided by the 2m rope would result in a factor 2 fall. This is the worst kind of fall for a climber…and for the rope. Both the climber and the anchors suffer a great deal from impact.It is therefore essential to place the first anchor above the belay point. Once this has been placed, the factor will always be lower than 2. During any climb, the longer the length of rope, the more metres climbed and the more anchors placed will result in a lower fall factor. For example, if you climb 20m, even if the last anchor is 3m below the climber, the fall factor will only be 0.3.
    This is the Theoretical Fall Factor. The Effective (or Real World) Fall Factor, however is not the same because the Theoretical Fall Factor doesn’t take into account rope friction. If the rope zig-zags on a climb, the sharp angles can cause enough friction so that the only the effective length of the rope is from the sharp angle to the climber, which means only this length can be used to calculate the fall factor. It is therefore essential to try and avoid zig-zags when clipping into anchors, to avoid friction and ensure a longer rope length is effective. The larger the fall factor, the more severe the fall of the climber.

    It is essential to understand that this fall factor is totally different for Via Ferrata climbing. This is because the length of rope that attaches the climber to the anchor is a fixed lanyard of approx. 1 metre in length. This is clipped to a cable as you climb the via ferrata route, so if you fall, the carabiner slides down the cable until it reaches the end of the section, anchored to the wall. If you imagine that the length of the fall is 5 metres and the length of the lanyard is 1 metre, this gives an extremely high fall factor of 5, which could cause serious injury. For this reason, Via Ferrata climbers always use an energy absorber with your lanyard, on via ferrata routes.
  • Impact Force:
    This is the impact of a load (or climber) in the event of a fall. The higher the fall factor, the greater the impact force, but several other factors are also related, as the energy of the impact force is transmitted along the entire safety chain: rope, anchors, dynamism of belayer as well as the actual climber and belayer.
    When arresting a fall, the energy is absorbed by the elongation of the rope, the movement of the belayer, the climber’s body…the energy is transmitted to the safety chain. This is the impact force. For the climber, it is the impact perceived when a fall is arrested.Impact force is measured in a laboratory, in standardized tests using a metal mass.
  • Number of Falls:
    This does not mean, that the rope breaks after the number of falls indicated, but it indicates the certification procedure in standardised tests. The rope must resist 3 falls with a specific impact force, during 3 minute intervals in order to be certified.

 

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