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Climbing, physics, and how to safely absorb gravitational potential energy.

There is something about rock climbing and mountaineering that entices physicists and engineers. MIT even have a course on "The Physics of Rock Climbing". A number of famous physicists have made an impression on the climbing community; Henry Way Kendall won the 1990 Nobel Prize for his work on the development of the quark model of particle physics.Simultaneous to carrying out this groundbreaking research, he was pushing the frontiers on California's Yosemite Valley with its spectacular kilometre-high vertical granite walls.Fall factor is a measure of how big a climbing fall is.

To be precise it is the ratio of distance fallen divided by the length of rope available to absorb the fall. This fall factor is what determines how much force is placed on the rope and accompanying gear. With normal single pitch climbing, people rarely generate large fall factors. They are perhaps around 0.2 or smaller, and this sort of fall may produce 3-4kN of force. But on a multi-pitch you can have the potential case where the first climber advances and falls before they can place a piece of gear into the rock. They would then fall down past their belayer (partner giving and taking rope) and the same distance again; this would be a fall factor 2.

Such falls can produce tremendous amounts of force even though the total distance fallen can be relatively small, it is falls like this that can snap ropes and yank bolts or gear out of the rock – some of the worst case scenarios for climbers.One of the most interesting things about climbing rope is that it's designed to break a little bit every time you take a fall on it, hence the dislike of fall factor 2. This is because the rope needs to be dynamic and have some spring in it to slowly absorb the energy released when you fall. If this energy were not absorbed, your rope may stop you hitting the floor but it would feel like a car crash when it caught you.

 

Climbing, physics, and how to safely absorb gravitational potential energy. There is something ab...

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