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How to Choose a Climbing Rope: Beta from Steph Davis

With nearly two decades of hard free ascents, free solos, and mind-boggling BASE jumps under her belt, it’s clear that Backcountry athlete Steph Davis knows her stuff.

The Backcountry video crew caught up with Steph for a day of world-class crack climbing and the chance to learn from a true master in Utah’s renowned Indian Creek. Learn from Steph as she explains the different types of climbing ropes and the situations that each rope is best suited for.

The Basics: Static or Dynamic

With ropes you basically have two options: static ropes and dynamic ropes. Dynamic ropes stretch. Static ropes don’t. For general climbing use, meaning all-purpose lead climbing—like sport climbing, trad climbing, multi-pitch climbing, ice climbing, and top roping—you want a dynamic rope that has stretch. When it comes to technical utility purposes, like hauling, rigging, jumarring, and rappelling, you’ll want a static rope because it doesn’t stretch.

If you’re just starting out in climbing, the first rope you need is a good all-purpose dynamic rope, and for most people that’s going to be a rope with a diameter between 10mm and 11mm. You can lead with it, you can top rope with it, and it’s going to be a lot more durable and confidence inspiring because it’s a little thicker.

Medium Dynamic Ropes: 9.2mm-10mm Diameter

If you already have good workhorse dynamic rope, the next thing you’ll probably want to check out is a medium-diameter dynamic rope, and across the board this is a really standard rope for most climbers. This is in the category of about 9.2mm to 10mm in diameter, so what you get is a little lighter weight that makes it easier to carry and climb with, but it still has pretty good abrasion resistance and durability. This is the rope you’re going to want to use for your hardest climbs when every ounce counts.

One thing to keep in mind is that the weight of the rope isn’t just the weight in your backpack, which of course matters, but it’s also the weight of the rope as you climb. The higher the pitch goes, the more weight you’ll be carrying. Here at Indian Creek, we have these big, 160-foot pitches. I’m definitely going to choose a lighter rope because at the top of the pitch, there is so much rope out that it becomes difficult to even clip carabiners. So if you’re doing multi-pitch climbs where you’re pulling the rope up all the time or you’re trying to redpoint your hardest sport route, then you’re going to want to go a little thinner in diameter to reduce rope weight.

Half and Twin Dynamic Ropes: 7mm-8.5mm Diameter

The third type of dynamic ropes we use are about 7mm to 8.5mm in diameter. Almost always, these ropes are used together as a twin rope system or a double rope system, and this is going to be for things like ice climbing, alpine climbing, and really wandering traditional routes.

Static Ropes

Static ropes should never be used for lead climbing because they don’t stretch. But because they don’t stretch, static ropes are really useful for a lot of other things. Things like jumarring, rigging, hauling gear, rappelling, and shooting photos of a climber from above. It takes a lot longer to jumar up a stretchy rope than a static one.

A static rope with a diameter between 9.5mm and 11mm is a good, workhorse static rope. These static ropes are very durable and a bit heavier because of the thicker diameter. There are also skinny static lines, which can be really useful for hauling and for tag lines. I’m talking really thin, like 6mm diameter. Personally, I like to use this for a tag line if I’m leading a really long pitch and I don’t want to get marooned up there with no contact to my belay, or I’m multi-pitch climbing and think I might have to rappel. Just make sure that you match the length of the tag line with the length of the lead rope you plan on using. So if your lead rope is 60 meters, get a 60-meter tag line. The bottom line on choosing a static rope is picking a diameter that makes sense for what you plan on doing with the rope.

Steph Davis

Other Considerations

Length

Once you’ve decided what category of thickness you’re looking for in a rope, you’re going to have to decide the length that you want and make some decisions about other features. Usually ropes come in 50, 60, 70, and 80-meter lengths. It used to be people would always buy a 50-meter rope and that was plenty. These days, 60 meters is the standard for most single-pitch climbing. I would actually recommend purchasing a 70-meter length because over time the ends tend to get beat up, and then you can chop them off and you’ve still got a 60, so it can add some extra life to the rope. Sometimes people want an 80-meter rope for a specific pitch that is really long. It’s heavier to carry, but if you’re sport climbing, you may as well buy an 80-meter because you know for the next couple of seasons, you can keep chopping the ends off and save your rope for a longer time.

Dry Coating

The other question you have to decide is if you want to have a dry coating. Dry coating is a finish they apply to the rope so it doesn’t absorb water. If you plan on doing a lot of ice and winter climbing, you’ll want a rope with a dry coating.

Pattern

Another thing to consider is if you want a bi-pattern rope. On a bi-pattern rope, half the rope is one weave and half the rope is another. This makes it easy to keep track of the middle mark of the rope, which is important for getting back to the ground safely. If you really want to always know where the middle is for sure, no mistake, I prefer to get the bi-color. I think it’s totally worth the extra cost.

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1Comments

Here's what the community has to say.

PJSweeney

PJSweeney

Good article, Steph. Would have liked to have heard your thoughts on weight and strength (fall rating). There are a lot of confusing ropes out there (8.5mm ropes that can be single or twin) that might not work as expected with GriGris and ATCs. I think an advanced article would be good.
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