Early climbing ropes (from the 1700s up to the 1930s) appeared around alpine villages like Zermatt, Switzerland, and were made of braided hemp, flax, manila, cotton or horsehair. These early experiments resulted in climbing cords with terrible strength-to-weight ratios, poor durability and low elasticity. They snapped in falls easily, often resulting in tragedy. The mantra of the era, “The leader must not fall,” wasn’t just a catchy phrase.
World War II was a catalyst for innovation in the climbing world, with advances made in carabiners and pitons. However, nothing revolutionized climbing as greatly as the introduction of ropes made of nylon, a material Arnold Wexler of the U.S. Bureau of Standards concluded, in 1945, was superior to all other materials for this application. In 1953, the German rope manufactuer Edelrid introduced the kernmantle rope, an even bigger innovation that resulted in extremely durable ropes that didn’t kink or twist—and best of all, they could handle repeated lead falls. A kernmantle rope has a strong braided-nylon “core” of strands (the kern) that are encased within an abrasion-resistant sheath (the mantle). All modern climbing ropes now use the kernmantle design.
Today, climbing ropes are extremely reliable. “The leader must not fall” has been replaced with “If you don’t fall, you’re not trying hard enough!” There are over 100 different climbing ropes on the market, all of which come in various lengths, diameters, and categories. It’s important to understand how ropes are classified before making a purchase. Here is a basic primer for getting onto the sharp end.