When renowned big wall climber Todd Skinner died in Yosemite at the end of last year, it was because the belay loop on his harness snapped. After a life of pretty gnarly free climbing, that's hardly the way you'd expect to go. Most of us can't exactly compare our climbing careers with Todd's - free climbing on El Capitan, anyone? - but we do at least all rely on harnesses - and ropes and hardwear - for our safety. So, his death was a bit of a lesson to everyone when it comes to looking after your gear ...
The question is, how often should you replace climbing gear, and how can you tell when a rope's had enough?
There are no hard and fast rules about how long climbing gear will last - it depends a lot on how often it's been used, how many impacts it's taken and, of course, how well it's been looked after. The key is to know the life story of your own gear, warts and all - in fact, especially the warts. If you only use a rope at the indoor wall once a week - and you haven't fallen off since cams were invented - then it should have several years more life in it than if you're out cragging on Stanage every night after work.
It sounds like common sense, but if you don't know how long or happy a life a rope's had, don't use it. There's a reason why second hand rope shops are in short supply!
If in doubt, chuck it out.
Causes of Wear
There are all sorts of reasons why ropes, slings, harnesses, and other safety gear might start to feel their age. Holding a fall is the most obvious ones. Each rope is only designed to take a certain number of impacts, and the user instructions on any new rope will state this as a numerical value, called the 'fall factor'. If you aren't sure how many falls your rope has left in its sinews, and you're not too keen on doing the calculations, it's best just to retire it. One really heavy fall alone can be enough to make a rope unsuitable for lead climbing.
Your favourite climbing territory comes into the equation as well. If you've been out on the sea cliffs a lot - or at all - then your gear will have been exposed to salt water, which rots its way through anything pretty fast. Inland crags tend to be rather gentler on your kit, and hence your wallet, as replacements are necessary less often.
It's not all about wear and tear though. Even if your gear hasn't been used at all, that doesn't mean it's safe to pass down to the grand children. UV causes invisible damage to most things so after a certain length of time you'll need to bin even an unused rope. Gear manufacturers give guidelines about how long their gear is likely to last when you buy it, although for obvious reasons, they're likely to err on the side of caution. Having said that, so should you!
If getting rid of your rope completely seems like too much of a blow, remember that a rope might still be OK for top-roping or abseiling once it's past its lead climbing days, as these activities place it under far less stress. Obviously, total retirement is inevitable eventually, but then, you can't begrudge a poor old rope its pension.
There are all kinds of scientific ways of testing rope strength - for example, the International Union of Alpine Associations uses something called the 'drop test', which basically involves throwing an 80kg weight off approximately 3 metres of rope and checking all's well and good afterwards. Most of us rely on them to do all that before we buy our gear though, and then resort to more practical measures.
It's not a bad idea to visually check your gear for damage on a regular basis. If you run the rope through your hands before you start climbing, you should be able to feel any kinks (bad news) and flat areas (seriously bad news). Even so, it's still important to remember that there can be internal damage caused by UV, small particles of grit, or chemicals, that don't show on the outside. Once again, if in doubt, get your wallet out, and - groan - buy a new one.
Prevention is better than cure (or disposal, in this case) and the best way to make your rope last longer is to treat it with tender loving care - because obviously a rock climbing environment is extremely well suited to that! - rather than treating it with chemicals, UV light, and long term doses of grit. In other words, don't store it where it's exposed to light or any kind of chemical, as they degrade it, and give it a good wash down (without using chemical detergents) after outdoor use. Particles of dirt, grit, and sand inside the rope can cause serious damage that's difficult to detect. Oh yes, and don't stand on it - they make floors for that:-)
There's lots of information out there about different types of ropes and how to take care of them. The BMC is always a good place to start on any matter like this - check their website for all things climbing related. Here are a few other articles we found useful too:
BMC - Learning the Ropes by Frank Bennett
Impact Force - Theory and Practice
Learning the Ropes: An Introduction to Climbing Ropes by John Walter
Ropes by Needlesports
Checking of PPE by Petzl
These are just a few handy hints for looking after gear; not a definitive guide. Check with the manufacturer, the BMC, and of course your own good judgment for more comprehensive advice.