Buying your first climbing rope can be a daunting task. With all the different options of sizes, lengths, treatments, brands, etc... it can be difficult to know what rope is the "best". I have been asked hundreds of times "what is the best rope to buy?" and unfortunately there is no simple answer to that question. I can't just tell someone to go out and buy a certain rope made by a certain company. Just because a rope may be the best rope for me does not mean it will be the best rope for someone else.
This purpose of this article is not to tell you exactly which rope to buy, but rather to assist you in making your own educated decision when it comes to purchasing your first climbing rope.
And away we go....
Dynamic Ropes vs. Static Ropes
Make sure the climbing rope you are buying is a DYNAMIC rope. Static ropes are not meant to be climbed on. Dynamic climbing ropes are designed to stretch when you fall. The stretch absorbs a great deal of the force created by a fall and lessens the force applied to both yourself and your equipment. Static ropes do not stretch and are meant for building anchors, hauling, and pretty much anything that does not include you tying in climbing and on them. Think of it like bungee jumping, but with a static rope instead of a the bungee cord you would have a steel cable tied to your ankles, that may be a bit of an over exaggeration but the point remains.
The distinction between the two is painfully simple, and yet I run into people every year who are both top roping and leading on static ropes. Know how to use your gear.
Make sure you buy a DYNAMIC climbing rope.
Type of Rope
To keep this category as simple as possible I am going to start with the answer-
Your first climbing rope should be a "Single Rope"
All ropes are categorized into a type of rope. The main categories of ropes are Single, Half and Twin ropes. When a rope is referred to as a "Single Rope" it means that it is meant to be used for climbing by itself without another rope. When you are shopping for your first rope you can disregard any ropes that are not rated as a single rope. All single ropes will have the number 1 with a circle around it located on each tail or on the package.
Ropes come in a variety of different diameters. A ropes diameter is always measured in millimeters (mm) and generally ranges from 9-11mm for single ropes. Some general rules of thumb are that thicker ropes will last longer than thin ropes and you will not climb any harder just because your rope is thinner and lighter. While the 9mm ropes may look and feel really cool they are fairly unnecessary for the type of climbing you will be doing while starting out. For your first climbing rope I would recommend something in the 9.8-10.5mm range. With a thicker rope you will get more life out of it and therefore more value for your money. The other bonus is that thicker ropes are usually cheaper to begin with so your money will go that much farther.
Fair warning, if you do end up getting a 10.5mm rope there will inevitably be a day when some shirtless dude comes over and comments on big your rope is and how "he didn't even know they still made them that big." When this happens try to refrain from using any of the hundreds of slam dunk retorts he just set you up for and just politely ask to borrow his beanie so you can send.
I recommend a rope that is between 9.8-10.5mm as your first rope. It will be generally a better value and longer lasting than its skinnier counter parts.
The length of your rope is going to depend on where you climb. Ropes are available in 50m, 60m, 70m, 80m lengths. You will notice that ropes are measured in meters making this is a good time to start familiarizing yourself with the metric system.
Here is a approximate cheat sheet for those who would rather not familiarize themselves:
We'll start by narrowing down the options. Unless you're climbing ridiculously long cave routes in Greece you can almost certainly eliminate the 80m option. Next is the 50m option, 50 meters used to be the standard length for ropes but as they have become thinner, lighter, and stronger over the years the 50 meter length has become more and more obsolete. Unless the routes at your local crag are extremely short and you never plan on climbing anywhere else I recommend crossing 50m off the list.
That leaves you with two main options, 60m or 70m, and the choice between the two really depends on what and where you will be climbing. Most single pitch routes these days are bolted for a 60m rope and in general this is the most popular rope length. There are many locations though where a 60m will be fine for most routes but not all and this is where a 70m can be really nice to have. A little research goes a long way for this one, www.MountainProject.com is great place to do some research on your home area and see what rope length would suit you best.
If I could only own one rope I definitely would lean towards a 70m rope and here is why. There are many places, including my home area of Colorado Springs, where a 60m ropes will suffice for most climbs but not every climb. You may very well be content not climbing anything that needs a 70m rope as your starting out. The problem with climbing though is that it is an addicting sport and it's safe to assume that as you progress you will want to climb bigger and better things. Buying a 70m rope to start off with will save you the trouble of having to buy a second rope a year or two down the road. Keep in mind though that 70m ropes will cost more than 60m ropes, so if you simply don't need it then you don't need it.
I recommend a 60 or 70 meter rope depending on where you will be doing most of your climbing.
Just like rope length this category will depend on your local area. Seeing as this is a guide to buying your first rope we are going to take ice and alpine climbing out of the equation and focus solely on beginner rock use. Generally ropes come in two options, dry-treated on not dry-treated. Simple enough right? What dry-treatment does is minimize the amount of moisture that your rope will absorb when climbing in a wet environment, it can also protect the sheath(the outside colorful part of the rope) against general wear and tear a little better than non-treated ropes. To keep it brutally simple, you want your rope to absorb as little water as possible when using it. Obviously you don't plan on climbing in the rain anytime soon, so you may be asking why you would need a dry treated rope? If you live in Colorado springs or most of Colorado for that matter, the short answer is that you don't really need dry-treatment. It may be beneficial however to have a dry-treated rope in places that see more moisture and have consistent seeps and trickles of water around the routes, you see this more back east.
Again, Mountain Project or your local shop/guide service are great resources to determining your needs for this category. Whenever seeking for advice like this I recommend contacting the local guides in your area over the large outdoor retailers. Unlike the retailers, guiding operations have a lot of experience using all different types of ropes and should be able to give some really good insight into what is best for your area. They are also not trying to sell you your new rope(Just a private lesson on how to use your new rope) so you will generally receive some good honest advice.
For Colorado Springs, I recommend saving some cash and getting a non-treated rope. In general though do a little research and find out what is best for your area.
Keep in mind that the only down side to purchasing a dry-treated rope is that it costs more.
This is something many people over look when purchasing a rope. All middle marks are not created equal and not all ropes have a middle mark. The middle mark itself is fairly self-explanatory, it's a mark that tells you where the middle of your rope is. This may seem like a minute detail but it is one the most convenient touches in climbing and can really help you stay out of trouble, I highly recommend a rope with a middle mark.
There are 3 types of middle marks. The most common type of middle mark is a manufacturer applied dark spot or multiple dark spots/dashes. This type is found on almost all ropes and is the cheapest of the middle marks. The down side to these middle marks are that they are not permanent. With regular use the middle mark will fade over time. Having said that, you can always re-apply or touch up the middle mark with a special rope marker.
The second most common type is called a bi-weave or bi-pattern rope. A bi-weave rope has a sheath that has two different patters and where the patterns meet/transition is the middle of the rope. While it is not technically a middle mark in itself the weave of the rope ensures than you can never lose the middle of your rope. The The upside to these ropes is that the middle mark can never fade and it is relatively easy to find in fading light. The downside to a bi-weave is that it will generally cost substantially more than a standard weave rope.
The third type of middle mark is what I call orange fuzzies and to my knowledge this type of mark is only used by one manufacturer. The upside to this type of mark is that it is a very distinct mark that you can both see well and also feel as it goes through your hands. The downside is that these seem to have the shortest lifespan of any of the middle marks and there is no way to replace the orange fuzzies.
If you have extra cash on hand, I recommend a Bi-Weave rope.
If you're on a budget, like most climbers, a standard dark spot/dash middle mark is great place to start.
At the end of the day it doesn't really matter what brand of rope you choose. What matters more is that you purchase your rope new(do not buy a used rope, I don't care how cheap it is) and from a reputable outdoor retailer(not home depot) or the rope manufacturer directly.
So what rope should you buy?
Here's a quick recap of my recommendations for your first climbing rope:
Any rope you purchase needs to be a DYNAMIC climbing rope that is rated as a "Single" rope.
For a higher budget I recommend a 70 meter bi-weave/bi-pattern rope that is between 9.8-10.5mm in diameter. Dry-treatment depends on your area, but you may find that most bi-weave ropes are dry treated.
Approximate cost: $220-$300
For a lower budget I would recommend either a 60m or 70m rope with a diameter between 9.8-10.5mm. Make sure it has a middle mark and unless you live in really wet area you can probably skip on the dry treatment.
Approximate cost: $150-$220
All of the categories covered in this article should be taken into account when buying your first rope. When shopping around you may notice a few other categories and ratings that I did not cover here. There are a number of more in-depth ratings that are give to ropes other than the ones I covered. These were omitted for the sake of simplicity and because this is a beginner's guide. Despite what the hourly sales person at your nearby large chain outdoor retailer says, your ultimate decision on what first rope to buy should not hinge on the number of UIAA falls or elongation percentage.
As always, if you have any questions or comments about anything above please just let us know by leaving a comment below or sending us an email!
- John McDonough
Director of First Ascent Mountain School
This past weekend First Ascent Mountain School hosted an American Mountain Guides Association Single Pitch Instructor Exam. For those who are unfamiliar with the AMGA, they are the only internationally recognized organization in the U.S. who provide training and certification to rock, alpine, and ski guides. We brought in AMGA SPI provider Josh Kling, owner of Kling Mountain Guides, to administer the exam. This was the second time we had worked with Josh, the first being for an SPI Course earlier in the year, and it was a pleasure as always to have him back at First Ascent.
The Single Pitch Instructor program consists of a 3-day course and a 2-day exam. Candidates are required to complete the course and fulfill a series of prerequisites before being eligible for the exam. For this exam we had 6 students, including myself, and 2 examiners. Candidates were tested and evaluated in 9 categories including Risk Management, Client Care, Technical Systems, Application, Terrain Assessment, Mountain Sense, Movement Skills, Professionalism, and Instructional Techniques.
Day 1 of the exam took place at Castlewood Canyon just south of Denver, Colorado where candidates were tested on their technical skills and traditional leading abilities.
SPI candidates Sam and Jamie take a minute to enjoy the view on a beautiful October weekend.
SPI candidate Shane is demonstrating his rescue skills while performing a counter balance ascension to a stuck climber.
Candidates Ben and Chris construct anchors while co-examiner Ryan looks on.
SPI candidate Sam performing a 3-1 assisted raise.
Day 2 took place at Garden of the Gods as SPI candidates were tested on their group management skills and were required to guide a group of volunteer clients for the day.
Here Chris is teaching a lesson on knots to the days group.
Shane looks on as his volunteer clients, Krista and Tiffany, perform a textbook belay. (Check out the superman socks)
SPI Candidate Ben performs a counter-balance lower with his client as Shane ascends the rope to assist another "stuck" client.
Ben belaying Tiffany from the top of the climb as she learns to rappel.
As a candidate for the exam, having two examiners look over your shoulder all weekend definitely took some getting used but eventually you do stop noticing them. When the exam was over, Josh and Ryan were able to give myself the other candidates some great feedback from the weekend. They also gave me some good tips for moving forward to my Rock Instructor Course. All in all, I could not have asked for a better weekend.
I want to extend a huge thank you to all of our volunteer clients who came out for the exam, without our awesome volunteers it would not have been the same! I also would like to thank our examiners Josh Kling and Ryan Hammes for being true professionals and putting on a great exam. I am already looking forward to hosting our next AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course this spring at First Ascent Mountain School.
- John McDonough
Director of First Ascent Mountain School
First Ascent Mountain School Blog