What sort of rope would be ideal for glacier travel? I have a 10mm 60m rope, but this is quite heavy. Would a 9mm 50m rope be suitable for a team of three, crossing glaciers in the Swiss Alps?

  • Based on a comprehensive Mr.Wizard's answer, I'd like to add, that it may still be a good idea to use a single rope (maybe a 9-mm single rope), if you are planning more than crossing glaciers by well-know paths. In case of getting lost or emergency you might need more than a 1/2 rope. – Steed Feb 21 '13 at 12:28
  • @Steed I don't think I can agree with that advice for the reason described here. The sheath of a skinny single is just too thin, and quoting: "People also need to recognize that even though these are single ropes, and even though the diameter is larger than our Genesis half ropes, under conditions where the main danger is cutting or abrasion the thicker rope might actually be LESS durable and have a lower safety margin." – Mr.Wizard Feb 21 '13 at 13:09

Beal Ropes has a guide that covers this. Read the page but here are two images for quick reference:

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A robust half rope such as the Mammut Genesis is probably a very good choice; such a rope is much lighter than a 10mm Single but still has a thick sheath.

See also: A Comparison of Stretch and Forces Between Low and High-Stretch Ropes During Simulated Crevasse Falls

  • Thanks for the article link. Actually, it seems that stretch ability of the rope plays even less role when walking, because the holding person is not fixed to the ground. The thick snow acts as a shock absorber and friction provider pretty well. – Steed Feb 21 '13 at 12:33
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    It should also be taken into account that the type and diameter are not the only factors determining whether a rope is suited for glacier travel. Another really important factor is that the rope is water repellent. If you use an old fat gym rope for glacier travel you might be save but the rope will suck all the melting water it can get and gain some kilos. Not to forget the harder handling and the possility of the rope icing up if it gets cold on the evening. – Manziel Mar 11 at 7:39

Mr. Wizards answer provides nice pictures supplied by Beal about what type of ropes can be used on ice/snow and rock. Quick recap: On ice/snow you can use every rope type (single, half and twin) with a single strand. If there is rock involved the single rope can still be used with one strand, while twin ropes have to be used as two strands immediately parallel to each other at all times. For half ropes there is more to it, but it is not relevant to glaciers, so I do not want to get into it here. The full difference between half and twin ropes is in my opinion not clear from just the second picture and is generally complicated enough for its own question.

This addresses what is ok to use, but not what is optimal. And in recent times static ropes made from dyneema/kevlar have come into use for mountaineering on glaciers as well. I will first shortly introduce the latter and then evaluate the benefits of the options.

Traditionally one uses the same dynamic kernmantle rope made of Nylon (name of various polyamide fibers) for mountaineering in pure snow/ice or on rock/mixed. For bigwalling so called trail/haul lines which are static are often used for rappelling or hauling material up. Recently I have seen such/similar ropes used for ski mountaineering (e.g. the Mammut Rappel Cord 6.0, no affiliation). The line being static is not a problem when holding a fall into a crevasse. While the initial pull is more abrupt (it is already quite abrupt with dynamic ropes anyway), braking is smoother. In tests by the Petzl team they did hold 60% of the falls with the dynamic rope and 80% with the static rope (bergundsteigen article in German). Together with personal tests this seems to indicate that it is just as possible to hold a fall with such a static rope as with a dynamic one.

As dyneema ropes are about half the weight and much less volume than a typical half rope and as an extra do not hold water, this is in my opinion the ideal rope for glacier mountaineering. If you will only use the rope on glaciers and for rappelling, it is perfectly suited. If you need to belay even the shortest of climbs on rock or steep ice, you need a dynamic rope. So if this is the case or you do not feel comfortable for whatever reasons with a static rope, any light and impregnated rope will do, no matter the type. Impregnation of either just the sheet or all involved fibers helps to keep water out of the rope. Water is an obvious issue on glaciers and will make the rope heavier and less dynamic.

  • @Mr.Wizard I am not sure what it is exactly you take issue with: The paragraph you cite in the comment and your picture is about belaying two seconds. This is a very specific use case, I was talking about the "normal" situation of just two climbers on the rope (or more, but not in parallel). The case with two belayers is in my opinion unclear, as stated - so I do not (want to) make a claim on that in this paragraph. The article about static ropes on glaciers is: bergundsteigen.at/file.php/archiv/2014/3/… – imsodin May 18 '16 at 7:56
  • It seems to me that the question, my answer, and the page I reference do not pertain to technical ice or mixed climbing and do not illustrate those cases. For travel along a rocky ridge a Half rope may be used yet you wrote in specific relation to my answer: "If there is rock only the single rope can be used with one strand" and I believe this is incorrect. (Thank you for the link; I just found it in another answer of yours which I also upvoted.) – Mr.Wizard May 18 '16 at 8:07
  • @Mr.Wizard Thanks for explaining. Indeed I rewrote this sentence too many times and in the end it did not say what I wanted anymore. I adjusted it once more and hope now it is clear, that I just want to express that there is more to it with half ropes than just "yes (no) single strand is (not) ok" and I think this is not relevant here. But again thanks for insisting that I clarify my misleading wording. – imsodin May 18 '16 at 8:20

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