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 you’d 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 you’d initially think. Nobody wants to deck from a snapped rope, and you certainly don’t want to question your rope’s strength while you’re climbing—but at the same time, you want to get the most out of your investment.
To make it more difficult, there isn’t 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 rope’s longevity has so many factors that manufacturers can’t 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 you’re using it daily, and three years if you’re 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 don’t know your rope—you do. So it’s entirely up to you when to retire your rope, and the more you know about ropes, the better you can determine when it’s time.
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, doesn’t necessarily save you, but it does protect the core from factors that cut into the rope’s longevity.
There are also two types of ropes: dynamic and static. Static ropes are generally used only for rappelling in canyoneering and hauling. Dynamic ropes have a bit of give to catch lead falls comfortably. This article focuses solely on dynamic ones because most climbers use those.
Pictured above is a retired rope illustrating the inner core and outer sheath that make up a climbing rope.
The majority of ropes (if not all of them) come with a fall rating from the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alinisme (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 aren’t exactly your run-of-the-mill falls in places like gyms or when you’re right next to a bolt, but they also aren’t the biggest whippers in the world, either. They’re those harsh falls in which you feel a painful impact in your hips from your harness. Roughly speaking, they’re 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 there’s 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 it’s the impact falls with high factors that you need track.
In 2010, the International Technical Rescue Symposium (ITRS) tested some climbing ropes’ strengths after coming in contact with water and dirt, and the results were disheartening, to say the least. Water weakens ropes by a striking thirty percent, and dirt deteriorates ropes’ innards (the core) from anywhere between twenty and forty percent. You would assume that these results would mean that you should wash your rope often so it doesn’t stay dirty, but ropes are very sensitive to chemicals found in the safest soaps, too. ‘Dry’ ropes may stand up a little better to water, but they still are subject to damage from moisture.
Other things that can weaken your rope are age, sunlight, and friction. Dynamic ropes lose their elasticity over time, meaning that you might have to retire your rope even if you haven’t climbed with it for years, or especially if you never climbed with it for some extravagant length of time like ten years. Ultraviolet rays from the sun degrade the nylon sheath, leaving the core exposed to tearing and failing. Heat can also degrade the sheath. Whether it’s from friction against carabiners, like when you’re lowering, or leaving your rope baking in the sun, it’s going to take its toll.
Your rope should show signs of wear if it’s been exposed to any of the above. Obvious signs are dirt and water. Most ropes look a little dirty, but there’s 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 shouldn’t be trusted. A core shot is simply when the sheath has given way to expose the core—and nobody wants to climb with an exposed core.
Avoid placing your rope anywhere near dirt or water. Get a rope bag with a tarp to protect it from dirty, muddy climbing areas. Don’t stand on your rope and don’t 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 aren’t obvious signs when this happens. So, for your sake, don’t step on the rope.
Be sure to switch the ends you lead climb on. If you’re falling on the same side each time you climb, you’re only weakening one portion of it, and you’ll 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.
Only 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 you’re climbing, always place gear early on to avoid high-factor falls in low areas. High-factor falls tend to occur more when you’re close to the ground or near your belayer, and placing one piece can divide the fall’s factor in half. If you take a high-factor fall, record it somewhere so you know when your rope can’t take anymore falls. Also be sure to record the times it got excessively dirty, wet, or washed.
But despite all your precautions, there’s no way to keep a climbing rope for your entire climbing career. Aside from tracking your rope’s 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. It’s pretty normal for the sheath to look fuzzy or have some tears in it, but if any tears expose the core, it’s time to put it out to pasture.
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 aren’t 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!