Climbing Ropes Are Alive

The Hell Gate Towers at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT.

After reaching the top of a four-pitch climb at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, it was time for my partner (Paul Robertson) and I to rappel the limestone wall, reverting all the work we had done to defy gravity. We threaded our single 70-meter rope through the anchors and descended the first rappel that took us to the anchors at the top of pitch-three. After pulling the rope, we mirrored the process performed up above and started down the line for a second time.

Paul went first and suddenly remembered that pitch-three was a short pitch when he found himself at the next set of anchors after 15 meters. Gazing further down, trying to find the ends of the rope that dangled ~25 meters below, he noticed that our rope almost reached the last set of anchors. He yelled up to me, “I think we might be able to reach the last rap station.” Unable to see what he could see, I told him “It’s your call.”

Paul Robertson leading pitch-one of Hell Raiser on the Main Hell Gate wall.

Paul Robertson leading pitch-three of Hell Raiser on the Main Hell Gate wall.

He opted to stay where he was and have me come down to him. From there I could see that the ends of the rope were sitting just above the anchors below. At that moment, we started theorizing about rope stretch and how our body weight might allow the rope to stretch enough to gain us safe access to the anchors—reducing our descent from four rappels to three.

With a backup plan in mind, I opted to test out our theory and continued down the line towards the last set of anchors. Upon reaching them, the ends of the rope went from being ~2 feet above the anchors to now being ~2 feet below. After clipping my PAS to the anchors, I kept rapping down until the rope-ends slid completely through my rappel device. What happened next not only surprised me but opened up my eyes. 

The craziest anchors we've ever seen and used to rappel. 


The moment that the rope was free of my weight, the ends shot up in the air and retained their position of sitting a couple feet above the anchors and out of my reach. The same thing happened to Paul as he reached the anchors, but this time we made sure that we kept ahold of one end so that we could pull the rope and finish the rappel.

This experience got me thinking about my dynamic climbing ropes and how they perform and reacts in various situation:

  • What was the length of my rope, right out of the package? 70 meters? 71? 72? 69?
  • How long is my rope now?
  • How long is it under body weight?
  • How long is it after a fall?
  • How long is it wet?
  • How long is it dry?
  • How long is it before and after a session of climbing?
  • How long is it after a day in my hot, stuffy trunk?
  • How long is it after spending a long winter stored in a plastic tub?

Don’t forget the ever changing diameter of a rope:

  • What’s its diameter brand new?
  • What’s its diameter after a year of use?
  • What’s the diameter when I’m hanging on it?
  • What’s the diameter when it gets completely soaked?

We use the term dynamic to describe the properties of our climbing ropes, but if we did the research to answer the questions above, we’d probably conclude that climbing ropes are alive and animate.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in a comment.