Rope care and maintenance is one of those things that climbers neglect at their peril. One aspect that is frequently debated among climbers is the question of how to clean a rope.
I’ve cleaned ropes using all the methods described below, many of which I learned from other climbers, read about in magazines, or read about online. In all of that research, one thing I’ve never read is someone raising the bigger question, which is: Do you actually even need to clean your rope, and should you?
I ask because every time I’ve washed my rope, I’ve noticed that the rope begins to degrade more rapidly. I don’t why, exactly. I wash the rope, enjoy a few days of grime-free rope-handling, but then it seems to get dirty and break down even faster. I find this to be especially the case with dry-treated ropes.
That said, there are definitely circumstances where washing your rope is a good idea. If your rope is covered in something disgusting, like poop or pine sap, absolutely. If you’ve been climbing near the ocean, you rope could have picked up a bunch of salt, which shouldn’t be allowed to sit on your rope. And in general, excessive amounts of dirt worked into the fibers can weaken their integrity.
Another thing to consider is if your rope has a dry treatment. Dry-treated ropes are ropes that have been coated in a waxy, hydrophobic polymer that prevents the nylon from easily getting saturated with water. Dry-treated ropes are not only helpful but essential for any type of cold, wet environments such as ice and alpine climbing. They can also be useful for those who climb in rainy weather.
The downsides of dry-treated ropes is that they’re more expensive and, more to the point of this article, they tend to get super dirty. Dry-treated ropes pick up dirt from the ground and aluminum from carabiners more easily than their non-dry-treated counterparts, and this turns the ropes black. Rope handling and belaying on these black ropes turns your hands black and makes them feel really greasy, which obviously isn’t ideal for climbing.
Ask yourself if you really need a rope with a dry treatment. In my opinion, non-dry-treated ropes are a better option for sunny cragging. They are cheaper, and they last longer (because they pick up less grime).
As with many problems, the best treatment is prevention. Keep your rope in a rope bag, use a tarp when belaying, and try to avoid dragging it through dirt, muck and grime.
That said, if you must wash your rope, then there are two options. You can wash your rope in a front-loading washing machine, or you can wash your rope in a bathtub.
If you choose to put your rope in a washing machine, most people recommend that you “daisy chain” the rope—which is essentially a form a climber macramé in that you are creating an ornate, complicated pattern by threading successive bites through overhand loops until the whole rope looks like a giant friendship bracelet that you’d get at summer camp.
The purpose of daisy chaining a rope is to keep it from tangling. Personally, I think it’s fine to just throw a rope that has been coiled in a mountaineer’s or butterfly coil, so long as you don’t use the spin cycle. Your choice. A bit of mild laundry detergent is safe to use, but a dedicated rope cleaner is the best option. Set the machine on a delicate or wool cycle.
My recommended option for cleaning a rope is to use your bathtub. Flake your rope into a tub of warm water, add a bit of mild detergent or rope cleaner, and gently swish the rope back and forth. You can use a specialized rope brush like the one made Beal or a sponge to scrub the dirtiest parts (say if you get tree sap on one spot), but otherwise, a lot of the dirt just washes off.
It’s important to dry your rope properly, which means: don’t let it sit in the sun. UV rays are bad for nylon in general, and you don’t want to hang your cord out in directly sunlight.
One option is to simply flake your rope onto a giant bath towel and let it sit there for up to two days while it slowly dries.
Otherwise, find a perfectly shady spot outside that has some breeze, and flake your rope over a laundry rack or even some chairs, keeping the rope well away from touching the ground. The breeze will have your cord dry and ready in eight hours or less.