Review of the Helix 9.5 mm
This review was originally posted on Outdoor Prolink. Updated only to remove competitors’ rope model names.
The Sterling Helix; “small but mighty”. Usually, that term is reserved for a cocktail party and snickering amongst friends but in this case, that phrase is exactly what we want to hear. The modern paradigm of climbing ropes has become “lighter and skinny is better” while expecting these skinny ropes to have the same attributes of those fatter ropes that preceded them. This evolution holds true for the Helix and Sterling in my opinion nails it.
I won’t sugar coat it, my previous experience of Sterling was not a good one. Much akin to a jealous partner, I held aimlessly onto anger and distrust without reason over an experience in the past. When the opportunity arose to be able to test this product, I was excited to be able to heal my past with Sterling, and give the Helix a chance to hold up to my standards and earn its place among my other ropes.
Currently (and for the last 18+ years) sport climbing has been my life. I work in the moment as a travel nurse and have the ability to climb in different areas for an extended amount of time which allowed me the ability to test this rope in a myriad of locations on all sport routes. My home crag of Rifle, Colorado and travel location of the Red River Gorge provided many opportunities for abrasive rock, harsh conditions, and most importantly large falls. In a perfect world we’d never fall on our climbs, reaching to the top effortlessly every time sans fall. However, gravity is a bitch and most days feel like a memory from Sisyphus pushing his boulder. I need a rope I trust, to push myself, knowing when I give it my all that my rope will be there to reciprocate.
Skinny but Powerful
I’ll never forget my first “skinny rope” and how once I was liberated on the sharp end feeling weightless and powerful, I vowed to never go back to a “normal rope”. Luckily these days it’s becoming harder and harder to even purchase a thicker rope. While obviously they still exist, the crag norm is becoming thinner and thinner. The argument against these little Ferrari’s of the vertical world has been durability and longevity. While no rope is a bad rope, there are subtle differences that our personal preferences allow us to favor certain ropes over others. When looking for a new rope the specifications to look for are; feel/handling, dynamic elongation percentage, impact force/fall rating. and above all look, cause let’s be honest a beautiful rope is just a sexy thing…
The Sterling Helix accomplishes all of these tasks with flying colors- no pun intended. The testing of this Helix was no exception to the rule and it was passed amongst many friends to rack up over 200+ pitches in a relatively short time.
Feel and Handling
The feel of a rope might be my most important attribute. My rope is my lifeline and I treat it as such. The catch of a rope favors a myriad of variables where the handling qualities of a rope is based solely in the rope itself. The Sterling Helix handles quite well with a “soft” quality I appreciate and desire. After many pitches and catches the sheath and rope handle as they did the first time out.
Sterling offers a DryXP treatment which augments handling in my opinion while simultaneously repelling dirt, extending the rope life. Sterling uses their UIAA certified repellent to create less than 5% water absorption. Sterling’s 2×2 weave pattern sheath means it withstands a high amount of abuse while limiting fraying and improving handling for longer. This means a “slicker” feel through our hands and belay devices for longer.
This rope faired quite well withstanding the harsh conditions of the Red and Rifle. Both places tend to have a fine dirt at the bases which really seems to eat into the rope after a while. The RRG in particular is harsh on gear, in my opinion, due to the abrasiveness of the rock, constant humidity, often wet environment, and extremely fine sand at the base of the majority of the crags. Couple this with countless large falls and you’re lucky to have a rope last longer than 3 months. While I am still focusing on abusing this rope, after 200+ pitches it is still looking and handling like it has much more life in it to go.
Dynamic Elongation and Fall Factor
The next factor I look for in a rope is the dynamic elongation factor and impact force. Think of this as the stretch of our ropes. Most skinny ropes these days tick in at around 30%. The Sterling Helix is a 31.9%. A catch has so many variables to it, however in my opinion a rope with a higher dynamic elongation factor means there is more room for error on the belayers part and a softer catch is still provided.
For those of you that don’t know, all UIAA certified ropes are put through a lab test creating essentially perfect forces/falls on ropes that then the ropes must meet these set standards to achieve UIAA rating. These forces are rarely perfectly replicated in real-life situations but in theory, could be. This is where ropes get their fall ratings and elongation/impact force ratings from. The number of falls of a rope comes from continuous factor two falls in repetition being placed on a rope. While factor two falls happen in climbing, they can never happen the way the UIAA creates them so don’t fret when you see your rope holding only “7” falls. This number means seven continuous factors two falls which are essentially impossible to replicate in the real world. The higher the fall rating, the longer the rope will last. The Helix 9.5mm comes in at a respectable 7 UIAA falls. Impact force is another measurement of how soft a fall can feel. Most modern 9.5mm ropes clock in around 8.8-9%, so the difference is negligible however the lower the rating means again a “softer catch”.
Last but not least, is look. This is honestly the bread and butter of the marketing of ropes. There are differences in the technical specifications of ropes amongst the industry but people, and specifically climbers, like bright and shiny things, and this quite honestly, sells ropes. With many color options available, Sterling holds one of the highest places in the market for this option. The Helix is offered in six color options with two of them being a Bicolor option. The rope I chose was the Bicolor Orange. Striking when new and fairly resistant to fading with dirt this color option was not only satiating to the eyes it’s also a point of safety. Quickly being able to determine the middle mark on a rappel is imperative when fatigue and twilight sets in.
The Final Word
Other attractive attributes of Sterling is the offering of many different sizes from 40m-80m with the DryXP option available in 60-80m lengths. Couple this with industry-leading technology, time-honored reliability, and great value, Sterling is a great choice. Much like my shoe fetish and am constantly seeking the best rope.
Previously I overlooked Sterling with no exact reason other than perhaps a fluke bad experience that could have been any rope. However, after testing this rope in multiple locations, taking large falls without hesitation I’ll absolutely be tying into another Sterling rope in the future.
About the Gear Tester:
Joe Anderson is an Emergency Room RN/Flight Medic and has been a Ski Patroller in Durango, Colorado for 12 years. When not at work flying around the Four Corners Region in a helicopter, he spends most of his time off high above the ground climbing or chasing the sunny weather looking for the next pitch of rock, ice or pristine slope to ski.