Rock climbing with a brand-new rope is a joyous occasion for any climber. You and your partner should revel in its fresh color, impeccable strength, smooth handling, and trustworthy protection; because sooner than youíd like, its color turns dull, it weakens, its handling becomes more troublesome, and you gradually trust it less and less. You might start to consider retiring it, but knowing exactly when that time comes is more challenging than youíd initially think. Nobody wants to deck from a snapped rope, and you certainly donít want to question your ropeís strength while youíre climbingóbut at the same time, you want to get the most out of your investment.
To make it more difficult, there isnít an exact time when you should retire your rope. It would be nice if each rope came with an expiration date like milk does, but your ropeís longevity has so many factors that manufacturers canít possibly provide a specific time. They try their hardest though; whenever you buy a rope, it comes with a manual with information about retirement. Generally, it will tell you to retire it after one year if youíre using it daily, and three years if youíre only climbing on the weekends. Some companies like Petzl and Sterling even provide videos and more helpful hints to let you know when you should retire your rope. These are excellent sources to study, and you should definitely look through the manual right when you get your rope. But as useful as these tools can be, they donít know your ropeóyou do. So itís entirely up to you when to retire your rope, and the more you know about ropes, the better you can determine when itís time.
A Bit About Ropes
A retired rope illustrating the inner core and outer sheath that make up a climbing rope.
Every climbing rope has two sections: the core and the sheath. The core usually makes up the majority of climbing ropes. Rope companies will try to make the core as strong as possible, because the core is really the part that saves your life if you fall. The sheath, on the other hand, doesnít necessarily save you, but it does protect the core from factors that cut into the ropeís longevity. There are also two types of ropes: dynamic and static. Static ropes are a lot stronger, but you should only use them for top-roping because they arenít stretchy. Dynamic ropes have a bit of give to catch lead falls comfortably. This article focuses solely on dynamic ones because most climbers use those.
UIAA & Factor Falls Explained
The majority of ropes (if not all of them) come with a fall rating from the Union Internationale des Associations díAlinisme (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, aka UIAA). These fall ratings can be anywhere between five and twelve falls. UIAA tests each rope to see how many high-factor falls it can take. These tests consist of applying the same amount of pressure that you put on your rope when you fall, and then determining how many high-factor falls it can take before you should immediately retire it.
High-factor falls arenít exactly your run-of-the-mill falls in places like gyms or when youíre right next to a bolt, but they also arenít the biggest whippers in the world, either. Theyíre those harsh falls in which you feel a painful impact in your hips from your harness. Roughly speaking, theyíre measured, or factored, by the distance you fell divided by how much rope is out. For example, if you fall five feet with ten feet of rope, then that would be a factor 0.5 fall. If you drop twenty feet with ten feet of rope, then that would be considered a factor of two. Most falls should be lower than a factor of one, like falling twenty feet when thereís sixty feet of rope out (factor 0.33 fall), and UIAA rates their high-factor falls as anything over a factor of 1.78. This means that most ropes can survive many small falls, but itís the impact falls with high factors that you need track.
Signs of Wear
Your rope should show signs of wear if itís been exposed to any of the above. Obvious signs are dirt and water. Most ropes look a little dirty, but thereís a difference between a slightly dirty rope and one that looks like it was buried by your dog for a few months. Chemicals, sunlight, and heat discolor the sheath with a duller, whitened color.
The rope pictured on top has clear signs of dirt with its darkened color. The rope below it is in cleaner condition and maintains its original colors.
Telltale signs from high-factor falls include stiffness, flat spots, and core shots. After many falls, your rope might feel stiffer. This means that it lost its elasticity and can no longer absorb falls. Flat spots in the rope mean that the core is deformed and shouldnít be trusted. A core shot is simply when the sheath has given way to expose the coreóand nobody wants to climb with an exposed core.
Only You Can Prevent Early Retirement
Avoid placing your rope anywhere near dirt or water. Get a rope bag with a tarp to protect it from dirty, muddy climbing areas. Donít stand on your rope and donít let others stand on it. Beginners seem to gravitate towards uncoiled ropes on the ground, and dogs love to sleep on them. But when a rope is stepped (or napped) on, dirt gets pushed into the core, ruining it from the inside. This is very harmful for the rope, and there arenít obvious signs when this happens. So, for your sake, donít step on the rope.
Be sure to switch the ends you lead climb on. If youíre falling on the same side each time you climb, youíre only weakening one portion of it, and youíll have to retire it sooner than you really need to. If you have a choice between rappelling and getting lowered, always choose to rappel. Rappelling inflicts less friction than being lowered does.
Beal Rope CleanerOnly wash it when absolutely necessary, and use the cleanest soap you can find when you wash it in order to avoid acidic chemicals. We sell special rope soap, or you can just use a mild detergent like Woolite.
When youíre climbing, always place gear early on to avoid high-factor falls in low areas. High-factor falls tend to occur more when youíre close to the ground or near your belayer, and placing one piece can divide the fallís factor in half. If you take a high-factor fall, record it somewhere so you know when your rope canít take anymore falls. Also be sure to record the times it got excessively dirty, wet, or washed.
But despite all your precautions, thereís no way to keep a climbing rope for your entire climbing career. Aside from tracking your ropeís exposure to the above factors, you need to make a habit of inspecting it often. We recommend eyeballing it every time you uncoil it before climbing, and thoroughly examining it at the beginning, middle, and end of each climbing season. Look out for core shots, feel for flat spots and stiff areas, and watch out for any discolorations. Itís pretty normal for the sheath to look fuzzy or have some tears in it, but if any tears expose the core, itís time to put it out to pasture.
How to Retire Your Rope
Instead of tossing your rope in the trash or selling it to someone for gas money, there are many fun alternatives to turn your rope into something useful. Climbers have gotten very creative with their retired ropes, and the ideas are still coming. You can turn your rope into something as simple as a dog leash if you arenít that crafty, or you can get artsy and make some beautiful jewelry or a floor rug. Transform your retired rope into a hammock, and relax in it with a beer. Hell, you can even spare some strands to make a koozie for your beer. The ideas really are endless. Get creative with it and post your ideas in the comments below so we can all get in on the fun!