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From hemp to nylon The lifeline

Climbing ropes have come a long way from when they were made out of natural fibres. Here is an insider’s look at how they are constructed and what makes them safe. (Carlo Pisani, swissinfo.ch)

At the dawn of mountaineering in the second half of the 19th century, climbers were driven by adventure and risk-taking but accompanied by little else. At least as far as equipment was concerned.

Climbing ropes used at that time were borrowed from sailing and agriculture. They were made out of natural fibres like hemp, manila or flax. Sometimes even silk. As such they were heavy to carry, stiff to handle, absorbed water and froze in cold environments. They also made falling a game of Russian roulette.

Taking a fall meant not only that the rope could suddenly rip under the weight of the climber. It also meant that a fall could be fatal because the early ropes lacked the shock-absorption capabilities of their modern counterparts.

Chances of surviving a fall greatly improved after the Second World War. Undoubtedly the greatest paradigm shift in rope-making was provided by the introduction of nylon as a raw material. 

In addition, in the early 1960s, rope construction switched from the traditional woven goldline to the modern kernmantle approach.

Today’s ropes are much safer not only because they are strong but also because they are more flexible, which allows them to absorb energy in a fall.

That makes taking a fall less risky these days, although climbing will never be risk-free.