What is Climbing Rope Made Out of?


Rope Bag

The rope is one of the most important safety aspects of rock climbing, a good rope can save your life on a fall. Have you ever wondered what makes it strong enough to catch your fall? Have you ever played with the rope and looked and the ends and the sheath and wondered what was inside?

Climbing rope is made from nylon fibers that are braided and wound tightly together. This makes up the core, which is the part you can’t see, but it makes the rope strong.  The colored outer portion is also made up of woven nylon, but a flatter and smoother type, and is called the sheath. The core is what makes the rope strong and stretchy, and the sheath protects the core.

Nylon is used because of its strong abrasion resistance, durability, strength, and its elasticity. Many companies make rope and all must pass safety tests. How is climbing rope made? Where is climbing rope made, and who makes it? Why is it safe? Read on for answers to these questions about one of the greatest sport’s main piece of equipment!

Types of Climbing Rope

Remember that there are 2 types of rope: Static vs Dynamic. Static ropes don’t really stretch because they are designed to carry a load, not to softly catch a fall. Static ropes are generally used for caving, canyoneering, rappelling, and also work well with ascenders. Dynamic ropes are able to stretch, they have a little bit of give to provide a cushion to a falling climber to soften the impact. This provides protection for the climber and doesn’t compromise the rope’s integrity.  Read our post here about the types of rope and the different diameters of climbing rope.

Climbing ropes are dynamic ropes. These ropes are constructed in what is called a kernmantle rope involving 2 parts: the core and the sheath. The sheath is the colored outer part of the rope, and the core is the inside white portion that makes it strong.

Climbing ropes used to be made from hemp and other materials and then the answer to a stronger, more durable rope material was found in a very different sport… sailing! The ropes used on yachts and sailing boats were found useful in climbing and other rope sports for their durability and strength. Today climbing ropes are made to be a lot stronger than materials used in the past for better protection and better ability at doing tougher climbs.

The Inside of a Climbing Kernmantle Rope: 

The core is made up of 10-15 nylon fibers that are tightly wound together. These make up most of the rope, the thick white inner portion. You can slightly imagine what this looks like if you look at the end of the rope. The twisted nature of the core allows it to stretch and catch a climber’s fall without giving us whiplash.

The sheath is the colored portion on the outside of the rope that you can see which forms the protective layer around the core. It is made of smoother, colored nylon that allows the rope to have some stretch. Kernmantle ropes can stretch quite a bit, even up to the maximum 40% elongation.

 

What is Nylon?

Climbing ropes are made out of nylon, so what is nylon? Nylon is a plastic, silky-like material that can be processed into thin fibers. Nylon has good elasticity, resiliency, and can protect against a good amount of friction. These properties make it great for climbing ropes!

It can also withstand hot temperatures, and protects against mildew. Insects, heat, and water could potentially do damage to nylon climbing ropes, if not well taken care of. I have never heard of insects hurting someone’s climbing rope, but all the same you should care for, and store, your rope carefully. As for water, nylon can absorb water which increases its elasticity.

How are Climbing Ropes Made?

Machines do all the work in making climbing ropes, making the process fairly quick and efficient. Thousands of nylon fibers that are thinner, but stronger, than human hair are used. First, these white nylon strands are twisted and then woven together to create a thicker yarn. About 10-15 of these pieces are wound together to create the core of the rope. The core is created first.

Machines coat the strands with a protective coating and hold the nylon fibers at an appropriate tension for each individual fiber while being wound together. Next, for the sheath, dozens of colored nylon strands are braided around the white core. The ropes are checked for flexibility and strength and then find their way to rock climbers!

Who Makes Rock Climbing Rope? Where is Climbing Rope Made? 

The major manufacturers of climbing rope include companies you may have heard of such as PMI, Mammut, Sterling, Beal, Maxim, Edelweiss, Petzl, Millet, and Black Diamond. These companies make their ropes in the USA, Switzerland, France, Germany, Spain etc. Not all ropes are available from online retailers, so you might want to try your local specialty retailer if you are looking for a good rope. And vice versa! The US doesn’t sell all of the quality rope that Europe has to offer, and you may find some of these by looking online.

How Heavy are Climbing Ropes?

You might be interested in knowing the weight of a rock climbing rope, especially if you have to carry it for a longer hike to the crag. The weight of a climbing rope is largely determined by the diameter and length. A skinnier rope is lighter than a thicker rope, but could be heavier depending on the core. The standard for rope weight is to be listed as grams per meter, so you can check when you are buying rope. If it says 59 grams/meter then you know that a 60 meter rope will be 3540 grams, or almost 8 pounds.

Climbing Rope Breaking Strength

Many companies make rock climbing rope and all must pass safety tests and be certified by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA). This tests involves repeatedly dropping a weight on the rope until it breaks. Ropes are rated to withstand at least 5 test falls (usually more severe than regular climbers would take) before they break. There are also safety ratings regarding other aspects of the rope such as elongation.

All rock climbing ropes must pass the safety tests and meet certain standards set by the UIAA including weight and number of falls held. Test conditions are designed to simulate a hard fall. The strength of the rope is tested by the number of falls a rope can hold before breaking.

More and more hard falls make a rope weaker, and ropes are usually safe if they are retired after about 5-8 hard falls, depending on the rope. Ropes have to hold at least 5 hard falls before breaking (test falls are way more intense than any real-world fall). Ropes that can sustain more than 9 falls before breaking are labeled as a “multifall” rope.

In real-world climbing, ropes rarely break due to a fall, usually rope failure happens in situations where a rope has been cut or damaged from abrasion and sharp rocky edges. Avoid situations where a climber is resting their weight on the rope while moving over a sharp edge, making the rope vulnerable to abrasion while it is weighted.

How Much Weight Can a Climbing Rope Hold? 

Climbing ropes can easily hold hundreds, if not thousands (according to my knowledge…) of pounds. Heavy loads don’t ever seem to be the cause if a rope breaks. Impact force and sharp rock edges are the most to blame for any broken ropes.

Tests are usually performed using 80kg weights (used to represent the weight of an “average” climber), which is about 176 pounds, to see when the rope breaks. So should you be worried of the rope breaking during a fall if you weigh more than that? Not necessarily. The overall impact force, called the fall factor is the important part.

Hard falls are calculated by the distance you fall and divided by how much rope is out, this is called the fall factor. Most falls should be lower than a factor of one. Most ropes can survive many small falls, but the bigger falls with the higher fall factor could cause the rope to lose the ability to absorb the force of falls.

When to Retire a Climbing Rope

Each fall weakens the rope and serious hard falls can affect the strength of the rope, without you even knowing. Falls don’t create obvious outward signs of wear on the rope. A hard fall is a definition of a fall that is about 10-15 meters or more. Manufacturers often recommend that ropes be retired after an extremely hard fall.

Ropes are usually rated up to a certain amount of falls, such as 5-9 or even more. Climbers need to keep track of any falls a rope has sustained and retire the rope after about 5 falls, depending on how hard of a fall and the condition of the rope.

What is the Lifespan of a Climbing Rope? 

You need to take into consideration many different factors in order to know when it is best to retire a climbing rope. This includes age of the rope, abrasion and wear on the rope, number of falls taken, etc.

Ropes typically last about 3 years with casual use, less with more use, and more with less use. If you never use your rope, it will probably last about 10 years, but if you use if often it might last less than a year. This is based on the material strength and if it lessens with age.

How to Inspect a Climbing Rope

Before use, test ropes for stiffness, flat spots, and places where the core is shot. Stiff ropes have lost their elasticity. Flat spots mean there is something abnormal and deformed with the core.  When the core is shot it means that the sheath is starting to be rubbed through so you can see the white core of the rope. This makes the rope less safe to use.

Be smart, It’s best to be careful and not use a climbing rope that is old, fraying, and weak. Invest in some new ropes every so often because this is your life you are dangling from that cliff!

See Also:

What is the Best Diameter Rope for Climbing?

Is Indoor Rock Climbing Dangerous?

Is Rock Climbing a Sport?

Katherine Harmer

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a weekend warrior who loves rock climbing, canyoneering, camping, mountain biking, and anything to get outside. Also a cool mom.

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