Climbing Rope Selection – It’s Your Life on the Line

Yale Cordage Kernmaster climbing line on the braider. Kernmaster’s 48-carrier construction is unique in the arborist market. The white, nylon core is seen entering the braided cover. This is the last manufacturing step before quality control, testing and packaging. Photo courtesy of Yale Cordage.

Criteria for selecting climbing rope is similar to that of rigging rope (“Ins & Outs, Ups & Downs of Rigging Rope,” TCI Magazine, July 2020) in that it all boils down to application and use.

“When I started climbing, rope selection was easy. There was one choice; it was a multi-plait rope that was one color and simple to splice with basic tools,” says John Trenchard, a United Kingdom-based consultant in the areas of product development, demonstrations and training for Teufelberger, an 18-year TCIA Corporate Member company based in Fall River, Massachusetts. He is also a working arborist with Arbor Venture Tree Care, Lymington, Hampshire, England.

“It got the job done, but it was very inefficient and hard work. Nowadays, climbers have a massive range to choose from with fancy names, cool colors and some very clever technology in their construction to make tree work a bit easier.

“But with so much choice, it becomes difficult to make sure you have chosen the best rope for any given application. It depends on many things, such as climbing techniques and the type of work you do, down to the equipment you are going to use to climb.

“Modern ropes in their construction are described as kernmantle,” he explains, “‘kern’ meaning ‘core’ and ‘mantle’ meaning ‘sheath’ or ‘cover’. So the ropes we use today have a cover and a core that share the load in different ways, depending on their application and construction.”

Understanding the different types of rope will help climbers make an informed decision on what is best for them, Trenchard says.

He starts with a 12.7 mm, 16-strand rope. Typically, he says, “Teufelberger’s Braided Safety Blue has a cover made up of 16 braided strands and a woven core that incorporates blue yarns – these are there as a visual warning, to indicate the rope is dangerously damaged if these are visible. Most of the strength of the rope is in the outer sheath. The core yarns are there to prevent the rope from flattening when it is pulled over branches. Being made up of 16 large strands, it provides very good grip, which is particularly beneficial to climbers who are using traditional body-thrusting techniques. Its size and feel help to avoid hand and arm fatigue when climbing.”

Ever the instructor, Trenchard says, “As climbing techniques have evolved, climbers have started to use different types of friction hitches and to incorporate pulleys in their systems to advance the rope, or take slack in with one hand, and also to place pulleys at the tie-in point to reduce friction. The addition of simple devices such as foot ascenders makes the climb easier, with less strain on the arms and shoulders. But to achieve this, climbers needed a different type of rope that was firm and flexible but would have less bounce.

“This led to the development of a double-
braided rope, with a tighter, braided cover and a woven core, both of which share the load equally. Teufelberger’s Tachyon was one of the first ropes developed for arborists with a 24-strand cover and a woven core, providing strength and stability. Tachyon actually has an additional inner core to help keep the diameter consistent in a loaded state that suits friction hitches.”

He adds, “Double-braided ropes, in their construction, have continued to evolve with climbing techniques to help provide climbers with the correct rope depending on their needs. By changing the core, as in Teufelberger Fly rope, from a woven core to parallel fibers, you have a rope that is very tactile in your hands but has low elongation with minimal bounce. This benefits climbers using stationary rope systems (SRS).

“With the development of SRS methods for climbing, many climbers have moved away from tying friction hitches and are using mechanical devices,” Trenchard continues. “With the need for ropes to cope with mechanical devices, including foot and knee ascenders with toothed cams for SRS climbing, ropes have been developed with a tightly braided cover. Xstatic and drenaLine (both from Teufelberger) have a 32-strand cover and a parallel core to cope with the demands of mechanical devices. Xstatic has been developed with stiff characteristics suited to SRS, while drenaLine is more supple and is aimed at the climber who employs both moving-rope and stationary-rope methods in their climbing.”

He recognizes that, “There are climbers who prefer to access the tree with a devoted access line using cammed devices and then switch to another rope to work around the tree. The benefit of a dedicated access line is that they are very low stretch, which makes ascent very efficient, with low energy leaks. But they are not always the best to work from. Ideally, the climber would switch to a standard climbing line to work the tree.”

Trenchard is of the opinion that, “The problem for a climber, when choosing a rope, is that all ropes often fall into the same category of testing, EN 1891 Type A, and, of course, must conform to ANSI Z133 specifications for strength, diameter and elongation. But it’s important to remember how you need your climbing rope to perform. Most climbing ropes are designed with a small amount of elongation. Although this can be slightly frustrating during a long ascent, it is crucial in protecting a climber and his or her anchor point should a fall happen in the tree. Some ropes, such as Tachyon, actually have a high-stretch capability at high loads, which is designed to minimize the shock effect on a climber in the event of a fall.”

He says, “Even with some elongation, climbing lines are classified as static. They are designed to hold a static load (the climber) under an anchor point; they are not designed to cope with dynamic loading (falling) similar to what you find in a rigging scenario.

John Trenchard work positioning on Teufelberger’s drenaLine and Fly ropes. Photo courtesy of John Trenchard/Teufelberger.

“The difference between rigging ropes and climbing ropes is that a rigging rope is designed to deal with dynamic loading in its construction and choice of materials; a climbing rope is not. If a climbing line has been exposed to sudden strains or shock loading, this could result in rope failure, and the rope should be retired.”

He warns, “All climbing ropes should be inspected before use, looking for cuts, glazing (heat damage), contamination, abrasions, stiffness and diameter change. If there is any doubt about a rope’s safety, it should be referred to the manufacturer or a competent person for inspection. Ropes have a shelf life of 10 years but a working life limited to five years. Always check with the manufacturer – ropes must be retired sooner if defects are noticed.”

Trenchard says his advice to a colleague, in respect to rope selection, would be to:

• choose a rope compatible to your climbing style;

• buy a bright color;

• use a rope bag; and

• choose a rope with good end-user information, i.e., age, length, diameter.

In conclusion, he says, “In a climbing bag, I would recommend having two ropes, one suited to doubled-rope and one for single-rope systems. The best choice is to choose ropes that can do both. I use a 35-meter
Fly and a 45-meter drenaLine.”

Tom Daly, president of All Gear, Inc., an 18-year TCIA Corporate Member company based in Northbrook, Illinois, says, “Really, climbing lines can be broken into several categories.

“First, a lot of climbers started on manila, three-stand twister rope, then moved on to nylon or polyester,” he says. “You don’t see anyone climbing on three-strand anymore, but you do see basic 12-strand, which is popular among larger crews that have a lot of people. It’s an efficient rope and keeps the costs down. It’s also a great rope for natural-crotch climbing.

“Next,” he adds, “is 16-strand line, great for new climbers and also for experienced climbers using a doubled-rope technique (DdRT).

All Gear’s Norm Hall on the company’s new Mardi Gras 24-strand line, which is designed to be used with either SRS or MRS/DdRT. Overlay: Mardi Gras 24-strand line. Photos courtesy of All Gear.

“Then we move into 24-strand, also great for doubled-rope-technique climbing, but also for single-rope applications,” Daly says. “The 24-strand is relatively new and growing in popularity, because it can cover both techniques.” Daly says the company’s Mardi Gras 24-strand is its biggest seller, because it can do single or doubled technique.

In the end, he says, “The most common rope for single-rope systems is a 32-strand kernmantle, because in a single-rope technique, climbers rig to go up one foot for every foot of rope. But if they use a
doubled-rope setup, they go 6 inches for every foot of rope.”

Daly says what to look for is elongation of your climbing rope. “That’s one thing a climber is concerned about. Generally, they want no elongation or stretch,” he maintains. “They want it taut.

“Growing in popularity is the use of the sewn (spliced) eye, which is very reliable and durable in the field,” Daly reports.

“When is it time to replace a climbing rope?” poses Daly. “When even one strand has broken down is a clear sign. Any breakdown is the time to retire a climbing rope, one strand in 12, 24, 36 – any breakdown is the time to retire it.”

He also says to refer to your rope logs. Ropes need to be retired based on the number of jobs. Daly notes that, while the shelf life of a climbing rope can be long, the number of jobs a climbing rope has accomplished is another measure, which is why he strongly recommends keeping a log of jobs per rope. “It could be 100 jobs. An experienced climber will know,” he maintains.

Maurice Pilotte teaching at a May 2019 arborist symposium using Petzl’s Flow rope. Photo by James Roh, courtesy of Petzl.

Maurice Pilotte of Quebec, Canada, has been an arborist for more than 30 years and is a certified splicer, product tester and technical representative for Petzl America, a 24-year TCIA Corporate Member headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. He maintains that the first thing one needs to do when selecting a climbing rope is identify the type of system, SRS or MRS, moving-rope system, also known as the DdRT, or doubled-rope technique. “There are different criteria for the two techniques,” he maintains, which include elongation. It may be, Pilotte explains, that one would want a rope with a lot of elongation for a long ascent. He says Europe requires specific elongation (EN 1891 Type A). “All Petzl ropes are tested and certified to the European standard,” he maintains.

“You have to know how to work with friction or friction-saving devices like pulleys,” Pilotte continues. “If you use a rope on bark, you may want 16-strand, or you may want 24- or 32-strand (for abrasion resistance.) Smaller rope with a lot of strands can be better for load sharing but will wear out faster.

“Most manufacturers will get you information (on things like mechanical devices that can flatten certain ropes and splicing capabilities),” Pilotte says, noting that the current era of ropes represents “the best practices and all the evolutions I’ve seen in 31 years. Today, there are more rope options with increased efficiency and technology and better manufacturing. I started with hemp in 1988. It was readily available and cheap. What we have now is much better engineered for working in tree care, because today’s ropes are specialized for what we are doing.”

He concludes by acknowledging that most climbers want to build their own systems, so it is important to “work with a manufacturer that can recommend the rope that works best with their devices.”

Speaking for Samson Rope, a 28-year TCIA Corporate Member based in Ferndale, Washington, is Lawrence Schultz, Certified Arborist and ISA Certified Municipal Specialist working as a California-based contractor specializing in climbing and rigging.

According to Schultz, “Selection of a climbing rope is dependent on the climbing style of the climber, whether old school or modern.” He sees the main criteria being “low-stretch rope with a tough jacket – 24-strand usually.”

In his opinion, the rope should not feel slippery. “Some have coatings that are slippery, and this is not good for climbers who make friction hitches. Obviously, they won’t like that,” he says.

For what Schultz refers to as a closed system that would require knots or the use of a mechanical device, such as an ascender, climbers would be looking for similar things – low stretch, maybe a tighter jacket and, again, usually a 24-strand rope. “Some of that is feel,” he explains, “and some are of the opinion that these ropes hold their shape better and stay rounder.

“Using a stationary rope system, climbers will look for rope like a kernmantle construction with a tight jacket and core,” Schultz says. “It has some give, but this is a matter of personal preference.” He warns, “If you are using a system with two cam ascenders, a kernmantle-type rope is rated for that. If you should slip, an ordinary line may shred, but a kernmantle can withstand it.”

According to Chrissy McGillveary, commercial sales rep for Marlow Ropes, relatively new to the climbing-rope lineup is Marlow’s 24-plait, polyester-jacketed and spliceable Vega product line. Vega is a lightweight climbing rope that the company says has a low (12%) elongation. McGillveary quotes company literature as stating, “Vega is designed specifically for the new generation of mechanical climbing devices and modern climbing techniques.” Photo courtesy of Marlow Ropes.

Schultz reiterates that, “Because some rope has more stretch, some climbers see that as a shock absorber if they slip.”

He adds, “If I am just climbing, I would likely select a regular 11.7 mm, 24-strand climbing rope. Many climbers will climb only on that.”

Schultz also has a warning. “Never, ever use the same rope for climbing and rigging. Never swap them out, using a rope for rigging one day and for climbing the next day. Ropes are made for specific purposes. When you retire a rope from climbing, whether fuzzy, covered with sap or other contaminants or just well used, it sometimes can be used for limited light rigging, but not heavy-duty rigging,” he says, adding that he still does not recommend that. “Don’t use washed-up climbing line just because you want to get more out of it.” Additionally, he says, from a cost standpoint, “You also do not want to use a climbing rope for rigging, especially if it is new.”

As John Trenchard says at the top of this article, there is a “massive range” of climbing ropes to choose from. This article should provide sufficient fodder to start a conversation with your supplier.

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