The Catch on Rope Retirement

Story by Zoë Zulauf Ware /

My relationship with my climbing rope was supposed to be purely transactional, with a fairly straightforward expiration date.

I paid a sum of money for it. A small fortune, really. It provided me with useful services––namely, catching me whenever I’d punt off sport routes and attaching me to any friend I could convince to join me on a multipitch. Trimming the fuzzy, flattened ends gradually shortened it from a 70m to a 60m, and after a few years of recreational battering, it was time to delegate it to dog-leash fodder and get a new rope. We had a good run! For this particular rope, it was three years, countless crags, and completely satisfactory product performance. So why, exactly, do my eyes get a bit misty when I think about retiring my rope?

I’m not the only person who’s this sentimental (or miserly, at least) about these ridiculous, filthy, inanimate mounds of nylon. Whether it’s saying goodbye to the rope you ‘sent the proj’ or learned to climb with, or just the mere thought of shelling out big bucks for a new cord, making the call to retire an old rope feels like a punch in the gut.  It’s almost as if I can hear Cyndi Lauper cooing, “If you fall I will catch you––I will be waiting…” as I start to search for DIY climbing rope rug patterns on Pinterest. The shame of it all. 

And remember how I mentioned ropes have a fairly straightforward expiration date? Let’s talk about that, too.

As comforting as it would be to punch numbers into a rope retirement equation, it’s ultimately a subjective call on a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. What I can offer is this––my take on the relationship between the three major factors:

(AGE x FREQUENCY OF USE) + WEAR AND TEAR = “THE CALL”

We’ll go into each of these, but first, who makes the rules on all this stuff?

 

UIAA, Ratings, & Fall Factors

First and foremost, the UIAA makes the rules. UIAA stands for the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, and if you’re thinking, “wait, those letters don’t match up,” you’re right. Caught ‘em! They’re known elsewhere by their French name, Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme. You can call them what you please or poke at their acronym, but they still serve as the governing body for safety standards in the vertical world.

The UIAA Safety Label. Check for this puppy on your next big gear purchase. Source: uiaa.org
The UIAA Safety Label. Check for this puppy on your next big gear purchase. Source: uiaa.org.

The UIAA Safety Commission performs extensive testing to determine how many high-factor falls a rope can withstand before it’s no longer safe to climb on. Then, it partners with companies and manufacturers worldwide to implement these safety standards and certify products. When you purchase a climbing rope, the product information will contain the number of UIAA rated falls it can withstand before it must be retired. Nearly all climbing goods purchased from a reputable brand or gear retailer are UIAA certified, but if you’re not sure, you can check on the UIAA website (we climbing gym employees sure will love ya for it, too).

A fall factor is the distance a climber falls divided by the total amount of rope in a system. The higher the fall factor, the more forceful and harsh it is on both you and your rope. So, if you’re leading and take a 10 foot fall with 50 feet of rope between you and your belayer, that’s a factor 0.2 fall. If you take a 5 foot fall with 15 feet of rope between you and your belayer, that’s a factor 0.33 fall. Petzl provides excellent explanations on fall factors and impact force theory if you’re a visual learner; take a peek at their article here.

The theoretical fall factor explained with a diagram. Check out Petzl for more! Source: petzl.com.
The theoretical fall factor illustrated with a diagram. Check out Petzl for more! Source: petzl.com.

Dynamic climbing rope absorbs the energy of our falls, thus the more of it exists in the climbing system (ie. between you and your belayer), the more it can perform that critical task. This Climb Safe piece by Rock and Ice mag goes into further detail on the physics of rope performance and elucidates that though we may feel a sense of security when we’re closer to the deck, the shorter overall distance of rope in the system can redline the amount of force generated even in smaller falls. For testing purposes, the UIAA considers high-factor falls as anything over 1.78. Considering the above examples, that’s a pretty huge testing value to generate. To experience a factor 1+ fall, a climber must fall a greater distance than the length of rope in a system, such as falling above the first clip on a multipitch. Most falls a climber experiences––especially if the rope is used primarily in a single-pitch setting––will be under that. However, factor 0.5 falls (ie. falling a distance equal to half the length of rope in the system) aren’t negligible; they’re frequently more than enough to be gut-wrenching, and not in the purely figurative sense. Do take care to place good protection early on in the climb, especially if it’s possible to fall below the level of your belayer.

Overall, UIAA ratings don’t mean that it’s time to turn your rope into a doormat after you’ve hopped off your sport project seven times with a similarly categorized cord, but it does mean you should be aware of the type and severity of falls you’re taking. Many moderate falls are to be expected in the lifetime of a rope, but the big ones are worth tracking. Keep a log in your rope bag or phone to record these notable falls and when they happen. Next time you’re trying to make a call for a rope on hospice care, you’ll be glad you did.

 

AGE

We all love a good set of vintage stoppers or a retro fleece, but that same type of love can’t penetrate and re-elasticize shoddy old nylon fibers when they’re past their prime. Even if you have a “BRAND NEW” old climbing rope, it might not be safe to climb on. When do dynamic climbing ropes go kaput without any use? Most rope manufacturers, including Petzl, state that properly stored unused climbing ropes have a “shelf life” of ten years. Nylon degrades over time, and a decade of storage also means more possibilities of exposure to common basement or garage-dwelling enemies of rope: heat, chemicals, and nibbling creatures.

Say no to vintage ropes, say yes to vintage guidebooks. Here's the OG copy of Vogels's late 80s/early 90s J-Tree guide my mentor passed down to me in its natural habitat. Photo: Zoë Zulauf Ware.
Say no to vintage ropes, say yes to vintage guidebooks. Here’s the OG late 80s/early 90s J-Tree guide my mentor passed down to me in its natural habitat. Photo: Zoë Zulauf Ware.

FREQUENCY OF USE

The intersection of the age of a rope and how frequently it’s used is perhaps the most helpful assessment tool if no catastrophic falls or obvious signs of damage exist. This particular breakdown on how long climbing ropes should last based on usage comes from Mammut:

Frequent use: up to 1 year

You’re hauling this cord to the crag or gym nearly every single day and likely taking some whips on it. Yeehaw, partner.

Weekly use: up to 3 years

This rope is hardworking, but not all-consumed. It visits the gym for some lead laps during the winter and gets out for the scenic after-work special a day or two a week during the fall and spring.

Monthly use: up to 5 years

The weekend-warrior of the climbing rope world. You use this cord for an outing or two a month at most during spring, summer, and fall.

Yearly use: up to 7 years

This type of rope is likely a chubby ol’ 10.2mm type of pal used for your annual long weekend trip with friends or family. Mostly used for toproping. If you’ve used your rope in any capacity for longer than seven years, I’d implore you to reconsider.

These descriptions are solely to help you identify what category certain ropes might fall in; everyone’s gear closet and rope quiver is a bit different. For example, you may have a skinny rope that’s meticulously stored saved for your hardest projects, a dry rope that packs a month of daily ice climbing in at Ouray each winter, or a gym rope you whip on weekly. Take into consideration the type of climbing you do and the final piece: wear and tear.

 

WEAR AND TEAR

The final piece of the puzzle is the wear and tear a rope is subjected to. A pristine rope can get a core shot from crystal on its first day in the wild, effectively ending its life. Similarly, a rope that only sees action on one climbing trip a year can still withstand lots of damage from grit, dirt, and careless cragmates.

The easiest way to keep tabs on rope wear and tear is flaking your rope out frequently, if not every time you climb. This allows you to run your hands along the entirety of the climbing rope, feeling for nicks, fuzz, and any other abrasions in the sheath from contact with stone or sharp edges. If you can see the white innards of the core fibers, you cannot continue to climb on the rope without removing or isolating the section.

Flat spots or areas where the rope appears hollow are another reason for concern––it means the core fibers have been deformed (generally by high impact) and are no longer safe to fall on. Finally, consider the elasticity of the rope. If any sections feel overly stiff (like you couldn’t form a loop with them), it means more force will be generated for the climber, belayer, and any gear in the case of a fall.

If you find any of these during inspection and the damage is isolated towards the end(s) of the rope, you may remove the sections and continue to use the remaining length should it meet other safety qualifications. However, it’s critical to record the new length of the rope and double-check it before you climb or rappel on it again. The difference between lowering off a 35m route with 70m rope and a newly-shortened 60m rope could be disastrous. 

Additionally, ropes are damaged by sunlight, heat, water, dirt, and chemicals more substantially than one would suppose. While the good etiquette of not stepping on climbing ropes may seem like common knowledge, untrained four-legged friends and crag newbies can unintentionally grind sand, dirt, and grit into the core fibers of ropes without knowing the true impact. Pick up a cheap tent fooprint or rope tarp to keep your rope off the ground and practice good mentorship with groups of new climbers and crag companions. Intermittent washing with a very mild detergent like Dr. Bronner’s or a commercial rope wash is fine, but keeping your rope clean in the first place helps avoid accidental exposure to harsh, acidic detergents or other chemicals. Sunlight and heat speed the degradation of the climbing rope fibers, with the telltale sign of serious lightening or discoloration to alert you. Keep your rope bundled safely in a cool, dark, dry place to ensure its longevity.

Beware of sharp edges, corners, crystals, or constrictions in the rock. They're all desperate to chomp into your rope's sheath, and they plot to do so incessantly.
Beware of sharp edges, corners, crystals, or constrictions in the rock. They’re all desperate to chomp into your rope’s sheath, and they plot to do so incessantly.

The Takeaway

Think about how long you’ve had it, how much you’ve used it during that time period, and the damage it’s withstood. Think about the relationship between these three factors. When you know, you know. If you’re not sure… you probably know. If it all adds up to an okay-go but something just doesn’t feel right, go with your gut. I’ve never heard anyone tell me how happy they were that they milked another year out of a rope they felt uncomfortable on. Sure, ropes are expensive and they begin to feel like dear friends over time, but learning to make conservative assessments on their health and longevity means you get to climb for longer, which is the most important part here. A new climbing rope is ultimately an investment in your safety and an opportunity to make new memories, and our friends over at IME would be happy to help you pick one out. Plus, that DIY climbing rope chair isn’t going to weave itself now, is it?

 

Climb on, friends.

-Z

 

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