I’ve owned many over the years—climbing ropes, cords, lines, klettertau auf Deutsch. As a teenager, I was perversely proud of my first real climbing rope, an 11mm in bright yellow. With that thick snake coiled fat and heavy over my shoulder, I was a climber, by God. Ignore the tall, gangly, mettle-mouthed kid awash in insecurity. See this rope? Yeah, I’m a climber. I had knickers, too, for a while, obsessed as I was with the world of classical European alpine climbing. I even shook Riccardo Cassin’s hand once, so sit down and shut up. But it was the rope more than anything that symbolized my new-found identity. Once, while waiting for a friend to get out of class, I walked the halls of my high school with that first rope over my shoulder, showing it off, basking in its reflected glow. It made me exotic, staked out a small patch of adolescent turf that helped me navigate that difficult time, even if I now cringe at the memory. I couldn’t talk to girls, but I could begin my training in the vertical arts, and those fifty meters of golden nylon were my path out of the emotional mud pit of high school. My first climbing friend, Jim, admired my new rope, too. And his mother was Swiss, and he’d done guided climbs in the Alps. It just didn’t get much better than that. For a long time that rope hung off the end of my bed as I drew pictures of big mountains and read through every climbing book I could find, the stylish moves of Gaston Rébuffat playing across my youthful dreams.
The Northwest Tooth in the Matterhorn Peak range of northern Yosemite became my first alpine ascent. I’d been bouldering and climbing obsessively that year. This was in the 1970’s, before climbing gyms, sport climbing, and endless Youtube clips of superstars flashing the gnar. At sixteen I was almost always the youngest climber in any gathering, hanging out around the intimidating older men, but Jim and I resolved to do this expedition on our own. He piloted a fine old Mustang over the Sierras, through Bridgeport, and up to the Twin Lakes trailhead where we shouldered huge frame packs and pounded the dusty miles up to the shining granite of our ambitions. With virtual alpen stocks, we climbed the steep snow slopes, bridged the moat, tied in to that beloved rope, and clambered up the mid-fifth class rock in clunky mountain boots heavy with steel eyelets and stout Vibram soles. It’s what Rébuffat wore, so that’s what we used. We were real mountaineers at last. On the descent, we even had to rappel, trusting our lives to that symbol and fact of our connection to the mountain, to ourselves, to each other.
I don’t remember what happened to that first rope, but I’ve loved and left many. There was that stout length of purple steel cable my friend used for a while, a Chouinard rope of fearsome handling qualities. I’ve cursed an old-school Maxim with a mantle slipping inches, the tip dangling like a flaccid miniature elephant trunk. I’ve fought devilish kinky knots as I hung from overhangs, the brake side of the rappel line wrapped around my thigh going numb as I worked diligently to clear the entanglement. My life improved dramatically when I learned the butterfly coil for carrying and throwing. Like a fool in a hot blacksmith shop, I quickly dropped Satan’s method of sitting on the ground and throwing the rope in quick loops around my knees and thereby inserting a twist into the line with each stylish toss.
There are few experiences with gear as sensual as taking a new rope into your hands for the first time, that slippery silky promise of adventure. Of course, the old hemp and goldlines of yore were hard, unforgiving, and dangerous, but the modern kernmantle cord is a sexy beast first developed in 1953 by the German company, Edelrid, a brand I’ve used more than once. I’m no fundamentalist prude when it comes to rope ownership. Indeed, polyamory is encouraged. Sample many and find your true loves: Edelrid, Edelweis, Mammut, New England, Maxim, blond, brunette, redhead. You’ll need a time machine to latch onto one of those steely Chouinard cables, however, since Yvon dropped his climbing gear company long ago. While you’re back there, check out the foam-back storm gear, too, for some old timey sweating.
A reliable belayer and a trusty rope have saved my bacon more than once, helping me rappel off stormy peaks and arresting unanticipated circus tricks at the crag. On a recent outing to a small lump of crusty quartz monzonite, my wife, Jodi, fed out the new favorite, a Mammut 9.5mm, as I scampered up the edges and slopers of a route we discovered on the grimly named Tombstone. Perhaps forty feet off the deck, I stepped gingerly to my left and latched onto a comfortable but gritty finger rail—nice. More ascents should clean this right up. A few feet shy of the anchor, I saw a perfectly shaped knob that would allow an easy hang while clipping. I quickly glanced down the rope as it now led some distance down and to the right, passing through three bolts and into Jodi’s capable hands. Hmmm, I thought, that would make an interesting fall. I pulled in and up on the rail and slipped the fingers of my left hand over the knob—oh, this was a good one—a perfect lip and texture to accept my eager grip. Curl, lock, hoist—snap! With most of my weight committed to the knob, there was no fighting gravity this time. I pitched off and accelerated hard, a 185 lb. meathead arcing towards the deck. With a loud “Oomph!” I hit the end of my swing, winched Jodi’s hundred pounds into the sky, and together we bounced about ten feet off the ground. Bug-eyed, both of us looked at each other. “Should I lower us?” she asked. “I guess so,” I replied, and the excitement was over. We lowered, I saved the hold for the menagerie at home, and we climbed the route without further drama. The rope worked, and Jodi saved her husband from actually needing a Tombstone instead of climbing one.
Ropes have always worked for me, but of course that is not the case for everyone. The most famous rope failure of all time was the broken hemp of the Whymper party on the fateful descent from the first climb of the Matterhorn in 1865. Ironically, the weak rope saved Whymper and some of the party because it failed. Unanchored to the mountain, had the rope held, the entire party would have zippered off the mountain to their deaths. A hundred and thirty three years later, Dan Osman would fall to his death when a weathered and worn roped freefall line broke and sent him to the ground. He’d left it up for weeks, and the park service demanded he take it down. One more jump couldn’t hurt.
And then there was the case of a rope working too well.
For pitch after pitch, Simon Yates had lowered his injured companion, Joe Simpson, down the snowy face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Whiteout conditions blanketed the wall, and Yates couldn’t see that Simpson had slipped over an ice cliff and out into space with insufficient rope to reach the bottom. Holding the full weight of his companion, Yates was slowly being pulled from his unanchored seat in the snow. Simpson dangled in the icy gloom, too injured to ascend the rope and unable to communicate with the increasingly desperate Yates, who knew that little time remained before he, too, would be pitched off the mountain. Yates did the only thing he could. He took out his knife, made sure all the loops of rope were clear, and cut loose his friend, certainly killing him. We can hardly imagine the grief and horror of such an act. As chronicled in Touching the Void, Simpson survived his deadly fall. Perhaps, in this case, cutting the rope saved both their lives.
The rope from my Tombstone fall has been retired now. It sits in two pieces and a partially constructed rug on our living room floor, a summertime project for Jodi. The ends were getting puffy and worn, frizzed and frazzled. When you start to have doubts, it’s time to let them go. Sorry, old friend, but we had to part ways. No hard feelings, eh? It was good while it lasted. We’ve got your mate in the rope bag now. She’s new, shiny and slim, 9.5mm across, 70 meters long, dry treated, knows how to take a knot, over $300 worth of kernmantle glory. Like you, I know she’ll treat us right.