Selecting a Rope for Alpine Climbing

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


From the March 2006 edition of AAI's E-newsletter

I am looking at ropes for alpine glacier and couloir routes in the western mountain ranges and have had discussions on rope diameter, strength, weight, and length issues, not to mention brand quality and durability. I have heard of systems using a 30 meter dynamic rope with the lead and tail packing a 20 meter static or dynamic rope for rescue for a group of three or more. With this argument I have heard many climbers are moving away from the standard 50 meter rope. As for diameter, I have heard thoughts ranging from using 7.5 mm ropes to 9.5 mm ropes for average glacier and alpine travel. Personally, I would like to go with as small of a diameter as possible but hold on to length and be secure in a rope's ability to hold a fall. What has worked best in your experience? Thanks for your time and response.

- Brian Boggs (Boise, ID)


Dear Brian,

I frequently use 30 meter ropes - or even shorter - for some glaciated routes in the North Cascades. If I am planning to move together with my partners on the route (glacier travel mode, simul-climbing, or running belays), and if I think there will be little chance of doing any rappelling, then a 30 meter rope works great. I still like it to be a singe rope - and they now come in diameters as small as 9 mm. Many climbers use a "half rope" (typically 8-8.8 mm) in this application, but there are some disadvantages to the narrow diameter, particularly in rescue and hauling situations and if a leader fall is a possibility.

If I am doing a couloir and am belaying, or plan on doing some rappelling, then a 50 to 60 meter length works best.

Rarely, if ever, do I pack a 30 meter rope with a 20 meter static rope. I find myself either packing a 50 meter 5 mm static rope to go with my single 9 mm lead rope (for double length rappels) or just a 50 meter 5 mm static rope for routes that are not too technical but offer me the possibility of retreating off something if necessary. There are some concerns to be aware of when rappelling on ropes of different diameters and single ropes of less than 8 mm in thickness. Do not use these techniques without thoroughly reading up on these issues.

With a team of three on a standard, glaciated, non-technical route, I'll still take a 30 meter dynamic rope. It may even be a half rope - that is, around an 8 mm diameter, not suitable for leading but certainly strong enough for glacier travel. If there is significant rock on the route, then I'll use a single rope. The thinking here is that a team of three will prevent any significant crevasse fall and eliminate the need for additional rope to use in a rescue scenario.

Nearly any rope, static or dynamic, is acceptable for holding a fall in glacier travel. A dynamic rope will lessen the impact on the person holding a crevasse fall, which is very important and outweigh the disadvantages of some rope elongation when setting up a hauling system.

Good luck and have fun, Brian!

- Mike Powers

Click the link to return to "Ask A Guide" Letters.

Program Finder