How to choose the right climbing rope
As a Sterling Athlete Team member, I have the benefit of having as many as 12 ropes at any given time in my quiver. I know this is a luxury most don’t have, unless you are a Mountain Guide. If your budget only allows for one, two or even three, I have a few tips on rope choice that may help you choose. The abundance of ropes on the market and the many games we play can make it difficult. An informed choice when shopping for the right cord for your style of climbing and your goals will definitely give you better results.
Most climbers purchase ropes based on price, weight and diameter. Not necessarily in that order and, of course, pretty colors come into play as well. UIAA and EN/CE standards thankfully make it possible to trust all the critical details, but knowing just a tad more can help you pick the right rope without geeking out too much on the specs. Let’s have a look…
Dynamic – For the purposes of our discussion, I’ll refer exclusively to dynamic single ropes. Stretch in a climbing rope is what makes it suited to catch a fall, absorb energy and reduce the impact force on our body, our protection and our belayer. Single ropes make up 80% of my quiver and I use them 95% of the time. Details on UIAA/EN/CE ratings are abundant on the web, so I’ll focus on the qualities we’re interested in for each category and a few techniques manufacturers are using to increase performance. They can generally be identified in the following categories. I’ll refer to specific Sterling Ropes for the best in class, but you can generalize across different brands, which all have their own representatives.
Workhorse Ropes – 9.8 – 10.4mm cords that weigh in at more than 60 grams per meter. If the majority of your climbing is top roping, big walls, working hard projects on course rock, this is your best choice for durability and a lot of climbing. This is your burly marathon rope that will outlast all others. It will take more falls, resist more abuse and sharp edges than any other rope.
These are two Sterling Ropes in my arsenal I recommend: The iconic 9.8mm Evolution Velocity. It weighs in at 62 g/m and has a sheath that will outlast the rubber on your shoes. It’s by far my go-to cord in the workhorse category. The 10.1mm Marathon Pro is a close contender at 63 g/m and my go to rope for lots of top roping, big wall projects or cragging in Joshua Tree.
All-Around Ropes – 9.4 – 9.7mm cords that weigh in between 57 – 60 grams per meter. These make up 55% of my fleet. Durability is excellent, weight is reasonable and stretch is manageable. These are your versatility masters for sport, trad, multi-pitch, ice climbing, alpine mountaineering and a reasonable amount of top rope action. The lower the diameter, generally the lower the weight meaning when I’m 165 feet out and pulling up to clip, the less I feel the heft of the cord. A workhorse adds to your pump here, indeed.
Sterling’s 9.4mm Fusion Ion R has been my go to rope as long as I can remember. Weighing in at 57 g/m it’s light enough for long alpine routes where it’s durability matters. It’s the workhorse in its class with a sheath that endures mileage. The new competition in Sterling’s line is the 9.5mm Evolution Helix weighing in at 59 g/m. Have a close look at this one if you are looking for one rope that does it all. With a burly 41% sheath to core weight ratio and lighter core construction, this rope gets my vote for best in category for it’s remarkably good handling qualities, reasonable weight and durability. It has a softer hand than the Ion R, which many prefer.
Skinny Bitches – 8.5 – 9.2mm cords that weigh in as low as 48 grams per meter and up to 56 g/m. These little beauties make up 30% of my quiver. Ideally suited for alpine climbing, long multi-pitch routes, on-sights, sends, and ice they some have problems for everyday use. They are definitely sexy, but fortunately the price point beckons buyer beware. For more money you get less falls, less action. Less material overall compromises longevity no matter how you break it down. Low friction means your belayer better be on their game giving you a lead belay (seeBest Belay Ever). High stretch demands diligence with a tight rope for your partner above ledges or the ground and a bigger whip than often anticipated on lead. Low durability is often a harsh reality when that unanticipated core shot shows up on the scene. All combined with a high price tag makes these specialty cords less versatile, but as good as gold when you really need them, especially if you are carrying them very far on your back.
Sterling’s Fusion Nano IX is my favorite in class. This little beauty got a face lift in sheath construction and went on a diet, from a 9.2 down to a 9.0mm this year, weighing in at 52 g/m. Durability has improved, it has a tighter weave and resists water and friction better than its predecessor. Sterling’s new Evolution Aero 9.2mm is worth a good look if durability is your main concern.
It’s putting up solid competition, but I’ve simply had too many good times with the Nano to let it win me over. The Aero shares many qualities of the new Helix, boasting a 41% sheath to core weight ratio and impressive handling characteristics. At 56 g/m it’s a good balance of weight and durability for a skinny bitch.
At the skinniest end of the scale, weight reduction can be as much as 3 lbs. for a 60m rope when compared to the fattest of the all-arounder’s. That, combined with low friction over rock, through carabiners and belay devices adds to the appeal of skinny ropes in our fight against gravity.
Despite the downsides of skinny ropes, they seem to be hot sellers and manufacturers are responding to the demand with considerable and varied improvements in technology. If you’re paying close attention, you’ve picked up on the fact that while a rope diameters have gotten smaller, weight reduction has not necessarily decreased proportionately. Improvements in technology have enabled manufacturers to produce skinnier cords using nearly the same amount of material that fatter cords enjoy. So, if reduced weight is a key criteria for choosing a skinny bitch, you should pay particular attention to the gram/meter details. Buyer beware.
We could get all jiggy on the particulars of diameters. If you’ve shopped for skinny cords or had your hands on a number of them, you know the interpretation of diameter is all across the board. If the rope manufacturer has purchased an EN 892 standard (UIAA standards are free, easily accessed on the web), the rope diameter is one of the easiest tests in the control, albeit human error does contribute to inconsistency. Sterling Rope has purchased an EN standard and my rope Guru, Jim Ewing, gave me a simple explanation to help decipher what that means. In Europe (EU), UIAA certification is not a requirement, anywhere. Any product sold in the EU must have a CE mark, which means it must comply with the EN standard. In the US, there are no such requirements. You could essentially purchase a rope that does not meet industry accepted practices. Buyer beware. If you find a rope that has the CE standard but no UIAA, it’s as good as gold. If you are more confused than when you started reading this, pose your question on the comments section of our blog.
Back to weight. Weight is a relationship of core to sheath ratios, obviously affected by diameter. While ropes are getting skinnier, an increase in sheath proportion doesn’t reduce the weight with respect to diameter. Remember, advances in technology mean your skinny bitch may have as much actual material in her as her big-boned sister.
What does increase with increased weight, however is durability which is directly related your investment. If reduced weight is what you are looking for, pay close attention to the grams/meter specs. If durability is your goal, the same formula applies. I suggest directly comparing the specs on the two new Sterling Ropes I suggested above; Fusion Ion R vs. Evolution Helix and the Fusion Nano IX vs. Evolution Aero to get a better grip on new skinny rope technology.
The last criteria in rope selection is length. Many subscribe to 70 is the new 60. Age maybe, but with ropes this is a major factor for my daily rope selection and a 70m is usually not the winner. Surely for specific routes, it is. An additional 10 meters adds 1lb. 4+oz to the weight to anall-arounder, not to mention the coiling effort. 60m is my go-to, but there are many days I grab a 50m and even a 40m for longer alpine objectives. With good beta, a specific rope length on any given route can help cut the amount of time you pull in cord, reducing your effort considerably, as well as the weight on your back.
Another critical detail that needs utmost attention with rope choice is your belay device. Choose one that is specified by the manufacturer to work with your rope’s diameter. A V-shaped groove is going to help with the catch, especially important with skinny cords. I’m a huge fan of the Edelrid Mega Jul and the Mammut Smart. My clients belay me on these and my partners who don’t mind entertaining me, see the merits as well. Petzl’s Gri-Gri is fabulous in the right hands. I’m an avid glove user. Don’t let your guard down, skinny ropes are hard to hold and friction is your friend for a safe belay.
Dry Treatment or not? Yes. The added cost is worth it. Your rope will last longer, you will experience less rope drag and when it does rain or you are climbing ice, the payoff is immediate. Bicolor or middle mark? Yes. If you are doing technical descents or top roping, this will save you minutes which add up to hours in a long day. Half ropes vs. Twin is another topic all together. If you’re interested give a shout to our comments section below and we’ll dive into the nuances of choosing these ropes, with a more in-depth look at impact force, which is something that must be understood when you delve into more advanced climbing techniques
Angela Hawse is a Sterling Rope Team Member. She’s a co-owner and guide for Chicks Climbing and Skiing, a fully certified IFMGA/AMGA Mountain Guide and Instructor Lead for the AMGA.