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How Long Will My Climbing Gear Last?

How long will this gear last?

 

This is a question commonly asked of me when I meet novice climbers.  Thankfully, there is a failsafe answer that I commonly respond with where I don’t really know the answer!

 

“It depends!”

 

But, what does it depend upon?

 

Well, the lifetime of any piece of climbing equipment is a very subjective matter and careful consideration needs to be given after taking into account all relevant factors, including how old it is, how much it’s been used, abused, fallen on and left out in the midday sun.  

 

Ropes

Manufacturers will often suggest a shelf life for a rope; unused and kept in a dry and dark environment at ‘room’ temperature, a rope may be said to last around 10 years.  For occasional use, say once a month, a rope may last around 5 years.  Under regular use, say every weekend, a rope may last around 3 years.  Under heavy use, perhaps by a professional instructor, a rope may only last a year or so.  The environment in which the rope is used is also an important factor.  Ropes used on sandstone will wear quicker due to the particles of sand they pick up working their way into the core.  Ropes used on very rough granite or gritstone will likely wear through the sheath more quickly than if used on, say, the polished limestone of the Avon Gorge, urghh, horrible stuff! 

Retire a rope when it attains sheath damage i.e. you can see the core through it, it gains flat or soft spots, it becomes stiff, or if it should hold a single high-impact fall.  A rope should also be retired if it comes into contact with battery acid or similar corrosive materials.  (Black Diamond has an interesting piece here http://www.bdel.com/scene/beta/qc_kp_archive.php about some rough tests on a rope that had been urinated on by a climber’s cat!  It seems that the rope was ‘slightly’ weaker in drop tests than a comparable new rope.  The cat’s owner would probably have survived a fall on it, but we’re not told whether the cat survived its owner’s wrath!)

Ropes can wear through to the core very quickly in the right (or is that wrong?) circumstances.  E.g. I have seen a rope wear through to the core in a matter of minutes where it has been ‘sawing’ over an edge while someone top-roped a route and repeatedly put their weight on the rope.  I have also seen even static ropes wear through to the core on an abseil where the rope has again been ‘sawing’ over an edge (even static ropes will stretch a little under body weight).  So, when abseiling I always prefer to use a rope protector to preserve the life of the rope (and my own!).

 

Harnesses, slings and other nylon webbing

The expected lifespan of this nylon equipment is often not dissimilar to that of ropes.  The approach to care and washing is also similar.  Harness failure is very unusual, though there has been at least one very well publicised example of when it has happened (the death of Todd Skinner in 2007 after his harness belay loop had apparently visibly worn out).  That said, harnesses conforming to UIAA and/or European (CE) safety standards are actually made to be much stronger than they are ever likely to need to be (the CE standard for a harness belay loop is basically that it should hold a 15kN force for 3 minutes – that’s the weight of 1.5 tonnes for 3 minutes – considerably heavier than even the keenest pie-eaters!).  Notwithstanding this minimum requirement, many belay loops on harnesses today are capable of withstanding forces of over 20kN.

Anecdotal rough tests by Black Diamond have shown that a belay loop on one of its harnesses that has been cut through by up to 50% of its width would still pass the CE standard!  Also, that belay loops showing signs of abrasion on the webbing and/or stitching will continue to hold far in excess of the level of forces required to pass the CE test.

Interesting stuff, especially given that nylon webbing can show signs of abrasion after relatively little use on coarse rock.  Though I think my harness would be headed for the bin if I noticed any degree of cut in it, never mind a cut going 50% of the way across the belay loop!

The following advice is summarised from the care and maintenance instructions issued by certain manufacturers of harnesses, slings and other nylon webbing (many of these principles are also applicable to other items of climbing equipment):

-          It is OK to machine wash your harness and other nylon equipment in warm/cool water (or just rinse them in the shower or bath).  If you want to use soap (it’s not really necessary) then use only a natural soap, with no bleach.  Also, if machine washing, ensure the machine has been cleaned out of soap and softener residues beforehand.

-          Always allow nylon equipment to dry before storage, but do not place on a heat source or expose your nylon equipment to extreme temperatures.

-          Do not modify your harness in any way.

-          Store your nylon equipment out of direct sunlight, away from heat sources and gnawing rodents and pets.

-          Protect your harness from chemical contamination (e.g. battery acid) and prolonged exposure to ultra violet light, e.g. after prolonged use at high altitude you may want to consider retiring your harness.

-          Inspect your equipment regularly, if it is damaged, retire it.

-          If your equipment has been subject to a severe fall but is not visibly damaged it may still be necessary to retire it.

 

How old is your harness?  Black Diamond quote on their website that they would expect a harness to last up to 10 years if it was never used and properly stored but, like any other climbing equipment, its lifespan may be reduced to just one use if it is subjected to a severe fall.  Under normal use, manufacturers suggest a lifespan of 3 to 5 years for their harnesses.  I honestly have never retired a harness after less than 5 years and don’t know anyone else who has.  Like I said, it depends!

 

Nuts / Wires / Hexes

Again, dependent on use and abuse, a conservative estimate of the lifespan of Nuts/Wires might be up to 10 years from the date of first storage, or 5 years from the date of first use.  However, several factors may reduce that lifespan to just one use, for example, falling on them, contamination from chemicals (e.g. battery acid), corrosion (e.g. from use in a marine environment), deformation (perhaps because of the way they have been forcibly placed or removed from the rock), loose, frayed or bent wires, or exposure to abnormal temperatures.

Where nuts/hexes are constructed using slung dyneema or other nylon materials, then the care and maintenance of that material also needs to be considered carefully.  It may well be that if your nut/hex has not suffered any ill treatment and you believe it is still strong after several years use you will nevertheless need to replace the dyneema/cord that it is slung with as it is most unlikely that the nylon will still be as good as new.  It is possible to return such equipment to the original manufacturer for it to be reslung, but (and quite sensibly) they will generally only do this if the equipment is less than 10 years old.  If you would like to resling your hexes yourself then you can buy static Dyneema 5.5mm cord from specialist climbing shops.  Because Dyneema is more slippery than rope or other static cord it must be tied with a triple fisherman’s knot (the same as a double fisherman’s but with an extra 3rd loop).

 

Cams

As well as being composed of various bits of metal, cams are commonly sold with some form of attachment tape/webbing.  Care, maintenance and lifespan principles for that tape are the same as those referred to above for sewn tape and slings.  As for the metal components in your cams, the lifespan would commonly be assumed to be similar to other metal climbing equipment, i.e. 10 years from the date of first storage or 5 years from the date of first use.  Once again, the use and abuse suffered by the equipment may reduce its lifespan to a single use.

It is worth occasionally lubricating your cams to ensure they maintain a smooth action and open freely once released in your chosen placement.  Specialist kits are available at climbing shops to do this but it is widely accepted that WD40 is adequate for this purpose as crude tests have shown that it does not harm either the metalwork or nylon slings of your cams.

Again, if you need to replace the tape on your cams they can be sent back to the manufacturer, or you can resling them yourself as explained above.

 

 

 

Karabiners

It’s a similar story here; basically lifespan is typically expected to be 10 years from the date of first storage or 5 years from the date of first use.  However, once again, the use and abuse suffered by the equipment may reduce its lifespan to a single use.

One important thing to remember about the lifespan of Karabiners is the fact that they can sometimes develop very worn and sometimes quite sharp edges where ropes have run repeatedly over them under tension.  This can sometimes happen with belay karabiners, especially when used regularly for abseiling.

Also, it is worth allocating one end of each quickdraw to be used consistently for the rope and the other to be used consistently for clipping gear/bolts.  This is because through repeated use, particularly on bolt hangers, the karabiner used to clip the gear/bolt can develop small nicks and grazes through coming into contact with other metal objects.  Those nicks and grazes may be harmful to your rope, particularly if an affected karabiner ends up holding your rope during a fall.  Quickdraws these days are commonly sold with different colour karabiners at each end, or different shaped gates, i.e. bent gate for the rope and straight gate for the gear, this makes it easy to recognise which end you have allocated to be the rope clipping end of your quickdraws.  (Don’t forget to tell your climbing partner which end is which if you are alternating leads and using your rack.)

 

And Finally

A diary will help document the use of your climbing equipment.  In particular it is worth recording things like how many falls it has taken and how big those falls were.  Most importantly, all of your gear should be subject to a regular inspection, ideally after every use, but at the very least after every fall and if you’re climbing well enough never to fall off then just check it at least once a year.

At the end of the day, if you’re in doubt about the strength of any of your equipment it’s probably time to retire it; do you really want that nagging doubt creeping up on you when you’re going for the crux move on your next route?  Finally, anytime you do retire a piece of gear, make sure you destroy it to prevent future use and please, don’t put it on E-Bay!

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