Experienced climbers may be forgiven if the trend of ever increasing rope lengths strikes them as marketing hype. Even in the 8 years that I’ve been climbing, the standard has gone from 50, to 60, to now perhaps 70 meters. Many older guidebooks will note if 60m ropes are required for a certain pitch or rappel, since this was considered extra-ordinary at the time.
There are many reasons why a team might choose a shorter rope for a given climb: less rope is less weight, shorter pitches require less gear and allow better communication, and less rope makes hanging belays easier to manage.
BUT, that said, my primary ropes for the last few years have been 80 meters long, and I think that longer ropes offer many advantages when used wisely. With modern skinny ropes, it’s also possible to upgrade to a longer rope while cutting weight, if your old line was a larger diameter.
Comparing the weight of skinny 80m ropes with fatter, shorter cords:
80m Edelweiss Performance 9.2mm: 52g/m X 80m =
70m Edelweiss Curve 9.8mm: 64g/m X 70m =
60m Edelweiss Geo 10.5mm: 71g/m X 60m =
Climbing on a longer rope allows you to:
–Lead longer pitches. Last winter, about halfway up the 400m West Face of Aguja Guillamet in Patagonia, I was on lead. My trusty 80 trailed off below me, over roofs and past corners, down to my partner’s Grigri on an unseen ledge.
Already 55 meters into the pitch, I had exhausted most of my rack, only a few finger-sized cams remained. Above, I could see a handcrack splitting a roof. Sure that a belay stance awaited just beyond, I chugged up the handcrack and over the roof… only to find 20 more meters of unrelenting handcrack! Other than downclimbing, the only option was to run it out to promising ledge above. Each jam was as secure as the last, making this nerve-racking run-out simply an exercise in mind-control, and before long I manteled onto the tiny ledge and thankfully found perfect placements for my remaining cams.
Pulling up the slack to put my partner on belay, the rope came tight after just one arm-length: that pitch was nearly 80 meters!
While I don’t recommend launching into unknown, steep terrain with just a meager rack and naïve hope that belays will appear, I do think that this story illustrates the value of a long cord. Adventure climbing is all about options, and those extra 10 or 20 meters could prevent a mandatory, and sketchy, simul-climb to reach the next stance.
That feeling of being adrift, far from the belay, like an astronaut on a spacewalk, is what makes climbing big routes so unique and satisfying.
–Use extra rope to build anchors. When you do finally reach that miraculous belay ledge at the end of a long difficult lead, a solid anchor can sometimes be tough to construct. You might find one good piece here, another way over there. I love using the rope to rig together these far-flung pieces into a coherent anchor. With an extra-long cord, you can have complex rope-rigged anchors at each belay, and still have plenty of rope for the pitch.
–Make longer single-rope rappels.
It’s a truism of mountain climbing that the summit is just the halfway point. Descending can be time-consuming and dangerous, so I’ll use any method or trick to stack the odds in my favor. The standard rappel setup in the big mountains is two 60m ropes, knotted together to allow for 60m rappels. While this is great for steep clean raps, it can quickly lead to tangles and stuck ropes on more blocky alpine terrain. In these situations, I prefer to make shorter single rope raps, which reduces the potential for tangles and eliminates the biggest cause of stuck-ropes: the knot. The 40 meter raps allowed by my 80 seem to be a good compromise, and any time lost in making extra raps is inevitably regained by avoiding tangled, stuck ropes.
A good strategy is to pair an 80m lead line with a thin 60m tagline, which would allow for 70m long raps if you do find yourself descending huge, clean faces or snow slopes.
–Fold your rope for 40m doubles.
If you’re rope is rated as a double or twin rope, in addition to a single, you can fold it in half to quickly create a two rope system.
A Double rope system, in which you alternate clipping the left and right strands to each successive piece, is great for difficult, wandering pitches. With Doubles you can clip pro far to the left and right of your line, without using tons of long slings or saddling yourself with drag.
A Twin rope setup, in which you clip both strands through every piece of pro, provides redundancy on very difficult ice or mixed pitches, where you might be afraid of damaging a single strand with sharp tools or crampons.
Again, it’s important to only use ropes only for their intended purposes. Some thicker single ropes don’t provide adequate stretch for a dynamic catch when used in two rope systems, and hence are not rated to be used in this manner. Luckily, many of the new generation of skinny lines are “Triple Rated”: approved for Single, Double or Twin setups. The Edelweiss Performance 9.2mm is one such rope.
Finally, if you’re facing a long section of simul-climbing, I prefer a shorter rope to allow for greater communication and less drag. One option would be for each climber to take coils, as shown in the above link. This allows for easy adjustments of the rope length, and a quick transition back to normal “pitched” belays. Another option, which avoids the added bulk of coils, is to simply fold the rope. Here, one climber ties into both ends, and the other attaches to the middle with a figure 8 knot and 2 locking carabiners.
–Cut off a damaged end and still keep a usable rope.
The last few meters of ropes tend to take most of the abuse, since they’re always in use. With longer ropes, when you inevitably need to cut off a core-shot section, you’ll probably still be left with a 60+ meter cord. If you do this, and your rope was bi-patterned or mid-marked, be sure to note the new middle to avoid rappelling accidents!
–Lower off long single pitches
This is probably the most popular reason for folks to buy longer ropes, and it certainly allows for fun cragging! Lead single pitches up to 40m long, and enjoy the convenience of just clipping the chains and lowering back to the dirt. Always make sure to tie a knot in the end, so you don’t accidentally drop the climber when attempting these shenanigans!
Some concerns about long ropes and mega pitches, and how to alleviate them:
Insufficient Rack. Bring extra stoppers, which are lightweight. When prudent, back-clean gear and run it out at least 3-4m between placements. Try to build belays with natural features, such as slung horns or blocks, to preserve the rack for the leads.
Rope drag. Visualize the pitch above you, and notice where you’ll be traversing or passing a roof. Use long slings, back-clean gear when possible, and run it out strategically to allow the rope to make the straightest possible path.
Poor Communication. Know your partner, and work out a system in advance. Rope tugs (3 tugs means “off belay!”, 4 means “you’re on!”, e.g.) can work well. Radios are handy, especially when climbing with newer partners, or in areas with tons of background noise (river, wind, road, etc). If all else fails, the follower should keep the leader on belay until the rope comes tight, wait for a minute, and then begin climbing carefully.
Rope Stretch. Following a long pitch on a skinny rope exposes the follower to potentially huge top-rope falls. Avoid long pitches in situations where the crux comes low on the pitch and ground/ledge fall is possible. The leader can use a simple 2:1 hauling system to keep an extra tight belay. The follower should (of course) know how to prussik back up if they fall and stretch too far off the rock.
Core-shots: Skinner ropes are less durable, all else being equal. Avoid jugging on them. When belaying on a ledge, you can pad edge by jamming your chalkbag between the rope and the sharp rock, while keeping it tethered to you or the anchor. If you do notice a fuzzy spot forming during a long expedition, use a lighter to melt down and smooth out the fuzz.
Long pitches are extra tiresome: On pumpy terrain, or at higher altitudes, try leading in blocks to make sure both climbers get adequate rest.
Tangled ropes at belays: Extra rope means a bigger mess at hanging belays, if you’re not careful. Make a plan for the rope as soon as you arrive at the anchor, depending on who will lead the next pitch. If you’re swinging leads, begins making long loops and progressively shorten them. If you’ll continue leading on the next pitch, begin with short loops and gradually lengthen them, so that you can flip the entire stack onto your partner.
More potential benefits of longer ropes? Other concerns? Cool stories about a mega lead?! Share them below in the comments.