Is climbing on an older well used rope the equivalent of knowing you have bald tyres on your car and hoping you don’t skid on a slick road?
Ropes are expensive and we all like to get the most out of them, but knowing when to retire or assign them to an alternative use is an important decision.
Lets first look at some approximate guidelines from manufacturers about the life spans per usage of a rope:
Daily usage: less than 1 year
Weekly usage: approx. 1 year
Regular monthly Usage: approx. 3 years
Regular annual usage: approx. 5 years
Rare annual usage: approx. 5-7 years
Never used: approx. 10 years
The above guidelines make for interesting reading as I know ropes get used way past their recommended lifespan all the time.
With any guideline and approximations, there is a degree of vagueness and manufacturers will err on the side of caution. These are also “normal usage” guidelines and don’t allow for what happens to the rope during the lifespan, the abnormal conditions it experiences, or even how its been stored and cared for when not in use.
A rope getting heavily stressed over an edge on its first day of use could be dangerously damaged, way more than one that’s barely used by its owner over a 5 year period.
Lets look at two identical 10.0mm dynamic single ropes I have purchased:
Purchased in 2011, the rope was used a lot at first for leading on trad, then for bottom roping and now gets used solely in a teaching capacity for demonstrating set ups. It has no fuzziness or swollen lumpiness, no sheath slippage and through touch and bend inspection, no apparent damage to its core.
Its lost some of it dynamic quality, but for the eye to see, looks in great condition. It is no longer ever used to climb on
Purchased in 2016, the rope was used as an all rounder at first and used often. It saw a good amount of work and was used on a good number of occasions for roped scrambling. It was used on multiple occasions to direct belay off coarse rock. Its diameter is visibly swollen, it now measures 12mm with a calipers and has a fuzzy and rough exterior. There is no bunching or sheath slippage or apparent damage to its core.
Its lost some a lot of its dynamic properties and is visibly in poor condition and is no longer used in any capacity.
The point of the above two descriptions of rope is obvious, the latter had a harsher workload than the former and as such measuring its lifespan by time alone is a useless factor.
As climbers, we must be diligent to record the various uses and hardships that a rope goes through and be willing to absorb the cost of repurposing a rope when its time has come.
The conditions we store our ropes in have a massive outcome on their lifespan. All manner of things can affect the quality and safety of the rope and often the damage can be hidden internally.
- UV damage to the sheath from over exposure to the sun
- Chemical damage from contact with solvents or corrosive materials
- Collected dirt/grit/salt damage grinding on the inner core
We must be as careful when we store them as we are when we use them. Below are some of the common issues leading to rope damage.
- Using regular ink to mark our rope rather than specialised marking ink
- Leaving ropes on a floor in the shed as cement dust is corrosive
- Oils and diesels left in the boot of our car coming in contact with the rope
- Some powerful batteries can give off gases, so be careful if storing ropes near power tools
Guidelines for good rope maintenance
Below are some tips for extending the lifespan and maximising the safety of our ropes.
- Regularly inspect your ropes by touch when coiling and flaking your ropes.
- Fully investigate any irregularities to the touch or feel of the rope or if unsure, ask a more experienced person to also inspect anything suspect.
- If you can see the core of the rope protruding from the sheath, its too damaged to use as a single piece of rope.
- Likewise if you feel a flat spot in the rope, consider the internal core too damaged to risk using.
- Wash them occasionally using just lukewarm water or manufacturer approved cleaning agents.
- Dry them properly and don’t store them wet or damp where they wont dry out.
- Use a rope bag when at a dusty/dirty crag to keep grit from working inside the sheath
- Dont buy a second hand rope, you cant tell where its been or what its done.
- Don’t lend a rope to somebody, unless you totally trust them to look after it and tell you how it was used/abused.
- Store the rope in a dedicated bag/box/area, where you can seal the container and contact with a chemical is impossible.
- Consider retiring any rope that has been subject to a fall with a very high fall factor rating. These types of falls are uncommon, but do occur.
- If the rope becomes stiff and unworkable, its possibly time to retire it, as its properties have been compromised beyond their intended usage.
To sum up, if your gut instinct tells you a ropes integrity might be compromised, either by its uses, appearance, how it feels or how you stored it, consider retiring it and buying a new one.
We change our climbing shoes all the time when we notice damage to them and they are considerably more expensive than the average 10mm single rope.
I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.