When it comes to comfort and safety in the outdoors, material construction is as important as coatings and treatments.
In some ways, Funke says, little has changed for climbers over the past 20 years. “In the end, it's still about you and the rock. You have to use your technique and your force,” he says. But the so-called dynamic ropes that climbers use have certainly improved. “They are thinner and lighter these days,” he says. “They are easier to carry and handle.”
Credit: Science Source
A thread of nylon being pulled from a dish as chemicals react in the dish to form the polymer.
Unlike static ropes, dynamic ropes are slightly stretchy, meaning they can absorb the shock of a sudden fall without snapping—a quality that has no doubt saved many climbers' lives. Dynamic ropes consist of a core of thousands of braided polymer fibers (usually nylon) wrapped in a tough outer layer, or sheath, of smoother nylon strands.
Nylon 6 is formed through a ring-opening polymerization. A small amount of initiator, which can be water or a strong base (water is used in the example below), is added to the cyclic caprolactam starting material.
This linear intermediate attacks the carbonyl carbon of another molecule of caprolactam to extend the chain and the reaction continues to form long polymer chains.
Nylon 6,6 is formed through a condensation reaction, in which the nitrogen atoms in hexamethylene diamine attack the carbonyl carbons of adipic acid and displace the OH groups. Water is formed as a byproduct. Stringing these molecules together forms the long polymer chains that are used as the raw material to make the rope.
Another textile construction technique, downproofing, ensures that the down (feathers) or, alternatively, synthetic fibers in sleeping bags stay in place, helping keep outdoor sleepers dry and warm. A typical downproof nylon may have a total count of 320 threads per square inch, with 190 threads on the warp loom and a fill of 130 threads, explains Gary Peterson, managing director at Western Mountaineering, a sleeping bag manufacturer. “Our thread counts tend to be over 400 in most cases and they are all either perfectly balanced or very nearly square in terms of the number of yarns in the warp and fill directions. This leads to a more balanced fabric that is tighter, more downproof, stable and also more water resistant.
Embrace the great outdoors
Even after all these years, Funke still marvels at the beauty of Tarifa's rugged coastline and its cork and olive tree-covered hills. Sure, the gear may have changed, but he still sees the same scenes at day's end: Tired hikers peel off garments, campers snuggle up in their sleeping bags, and climbers pack up their ropes. Only now, the clothes are waterproof, the sleeping bags are downproofed, the ropes are dynamic, and there's a new hue to the nightly diorama: the glow of smartphone screens charged up from stored solar energy.
New chemistry continues to make getting out into nature easier and more comfortable. But there is one major improvement Funke would still like to see. It's not from chemistry, though; it's from us.
“There are so many adventure sports,” he says. “Enjoy life in the outdoors more.”