Rope-de Dope!

I recently found a post on a guide’s forum I am part of with a question soliciting opinions on the best ropes for parties of three on multi-pitch rock climbs. While there were plenty of opinions and personal preferences towards one rope or another, often extolling the virtues of one and draw-backs of others, I found my answer to be a bit more complex and nuanced than what the original poster had asked for. While a lot of folks want just one rope to do it all, I find the “best” is going to depend on a variety of factors, so I figured I would pass on my considerations to others wondering what sort of rope or ropes may work best for a given climbing application.

Even within multi-pitch rock climbing, there are numerous variables to consider: How important is weight? Are you leading with two ropes or one? How important is sheath durability? How important is rope stretch? How likely are these factors to be an issue for you and your party? Let’s take a deeper dive into these factors.

Nobody wants to carry and climb with more weight than they need to. So, weight is always a concern and, all things being equal, who wouldn’t want a lighter rope? The 8.5 mm Beal Opera is an amazing 48 grams per meter, the lightest and thinnest single rope on the market. If I’m leading with two ropes, that’s a huge savings. Not to mention, it’s ultra-thin and will pull through my belay plate with ease. Pulling thick ropes through a belay device (and there is a big difference between these – the Gi-Gi being the smoothest) can be a lot of work and lead to difficulty keeping up with fast-moving partners in the short term and elbow issues in the long term. So, if this is the case, why not just go with Operas for everything?

One reason is with that ultra-thin diameter comes ultra-long stretch when the rope is weighted. If I lead up 60-70 meters and someone on the other end falls near the beginning of the pitch, that fall can be over 20 feet with the rope stretch! That can put them at risk of hitting a ledge (the belay ledge) or just having to re-climb the difficult crux they just fell off of. Now, this can be mitigated strategically by cutting a pitch short when you can, especially if the crux is right off the belay, but this may not always be an option and sometimes having a rope with less stretch may just allow the leader to feel more confident about doing longer pitches without as much concern for this issue. Another factor to consider is sheath durability and with the Opera, for example, it is good, but that light-weight does come at a cost. If the rock surface is rough and/or the rope will be running across and over a lot of high-friction surfaces, then the sheath durability will be an issue.

When Josh Wharton and I climbed Jirishanca in 2022 we wanted the lightest possible kit we could find. However, the difficult rock on the lower 1,200 feet was high friction limestone and we needed our lead rope to remain in good shape for the rest of the climb and withstand the 30+ rappels we would have to do on descent. So, despite having an Opera on hand, we opted for a heavier, but more robust Edelrid Canary for this climb. That extra durability came at a cost of 180 extra grams for our 60-meter rope. For two 70-meter-ropes this is an extra pound! On top of that, the Canary does not stretch nearly as much as the Opera, so for some, the extra 3 grams per meter is worth it. For routes of primarily snow and ice or smooth glacier-polished slabs where falling is less likely, the Opera would be a better choice for me. If the descent is a walk-off, it’s easier on my ropes and nice to have a lighter set to carry in the packs.

Another way to save some weight is to use a shorter rope. It’s trendy for folks these days to see how many pitches they can link or stretch together with longer ropes on multi-pitch climbs. However, with efficient climbing movement and anchor craft, doing a few extra pitches, often does not take much if any extra time, can be more elegant and safer.

As well, the weight savings of carrying 10 less meters of rope (or 20 meters if using two ropes!) can be well worth it. With the exception of a few rock climbs where I know there are long sections between comfortable belay ledges, I rarely use 70-meter ropes for multi-pitch rock climbs. I prefer 60 (or shorter) when I can get away with it. That’s a fair amount of extra weight that we don’t have to carry around and pull up the route all day. It’s also more common for fixed descent routes (again, with rare exceptions) to be equipped for 60-meter rappels.

When climbing in a party of three, all these considerations are magnified, especially the weight issue. Climbing with two ropes is twice as heavy as with one. Of course, plenty of people may feel comfortable with using half or twin ropes for two seconds, but I prefer to stick with single-rated ropes for most applications. If the climb offers difficult cruxes, I’ll opt to climb one at a time, leading with just one rope, instead of dragging both ropes up with me. This method also allows a better belay for my partners if the pitch is more difficult for them, as well. In the scenario where I cut my crux pitches short, then this “caterpillar” style of leading takes a short time, after which I can return to leading with both ropes on the easier terrain. In other words, go fast where you can and make up time and go slower where you must. There are plenty of other tricks and techniques to help things out with the various systems employed at the belay station, but I’ll save that for another time.

Of course, there are many other factors to consider with every rope and the few examples I point out here are by no means the only ones. Being pretty weight-conscious, I tend to vacillate between the Opera and the Canary in different length considerations for multi-pitch climbs, but I also use a few bigger diameter ropes for those times when I may be setting up single-pitch or top rope rigs. Lastly, when I’m with just one partner and must do two-rope rappels, I tend to pair my rope choice with a 5 mm high strength tag-line for rappelling. There is one major consideration, though when rappelling with a dynamic lead rope and a static tag-line that must be addressed. Do you know what that is? Feel free to reach out to me if you don’t and want to know.

I hope this was good food for thought!

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