Rock climbing is becoming more and more popular as gyms pop up all over Southern California. This sport, like all sports, has many components that have been analyzed and optimized by engineers. Rock climbing brings its own unique challenges, most of all the balance between safety and weight. The more safety gear a climber uses the heavier they are and the more likely they will get tired and make a crucial mistake.
Climbing ropes are the major staple for safety gear. A climbing rope must be strong enough to catch a falling climber, tough enough to withstand almost constant rubbing against rough rocks, and still stretch enough so that the climber isn’t injured by a quick stop from a long fall. This is quite a bill for any rope to withstand but climbing rope does the job incredibly well. For a class project, standard nylon rock climbing rope was tested and compared to nylon 550 paracord and standard polypropylene utility rope. The differences were very apparent. While the paracord and utility rope broke fairly easily the climbing rope withstood more weight and stretched beyond the range of the testing machine. Try as we might we could not break the climbing rope within the range of motion that we had. This rope had a few interesting properties that led to its great success. First there was a protective casing of a tough material that could resist abrasion very well, then within, in the load carrying section the fibers had a special weave. This weave allowed the rope to stretch very far without breaking and slowly load the fibers that made up the rope. Some engineer did their job very well.
The very act of rock climbing can be helped by a brief engineering analysis. First off is conservation of energy. A climber’s muscles have a limited amount of energy in them so that energy needs to be saved for actual motion on the rock. When a climber is hanging on the rock, looking for the next hold or clipping in the rope their arms are fully extended allowing the weight of their bodies to be held by their bones, a rigid structure, rather than their muscles, an energy devouring structure. Another concept is as simple as balance, when a climber can just hang on a rock rather than resist swing or spin they are in a low energy state, even if this means that they are horizontal to the ground. A trick for this is being aware of your own center of mass as a climber and ensuring that it is perpendicular to the hold surface.
The more a climber can think about the physics of climbing the more energy they will be able to conserve and the better technique they will have.