A Rope to Catch Every Fall


Rock climbing in Green Valley Gorge near St. George, Utah Photo credit: Kiffer Creveling

Taking a 20-foot whipper on a lead climb can result in cuts, bruises or injury. At the U, one math professor has envisoned the perfect rope that will catch falls sooner and smoother and he’s even found an equation for it.

Graeme Milton, professor of math, and Davit Harutyunyan, research assistant professor of math, theorized a rope that would decelerate the speed of the fall as breaks decelerate a moving car. Milton’s ideal rope utilizes the concept of shape-memory alloys, also used in peripheral artery stents and heart valves. The nickel-titanium alloy currently used —Nitinol — is far too heavy and expensive for climbing. Its qualities, such as its ability to return to a memorized shape, could be recreated in a new material for ropes.

With this conceived material, ropes would provide a constant breaking force during the climber’s fall while slowly retracting and absorbing the energy of the fall, preventing a sudden jerk that can cause injury.

Still, this ideal rope is far from a reality. With only a pen and paper, Milton was not able to measure the energy from the stretching rope converted to heat. Plus, current ropes exert a constant force on climbers who fall, while the ideal rope would exert a braking force only after it reached its full length. While the rope won’t stretch as much, it will absorb the same amount of energy as competing ropes.

In climbing, there are “ideal” jug-holds, cam placements and belay partners, but, in the end, they take what they can get and hope for the best. Maybe with these ropes, the ideal will become a reality.

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