What the whipper?!
It was a typical Tuesday night at the gym. After warming up, I was ready to start getting after it. Maybe I'm insane, but I genuinely like getting shut down on climbs. After you get thrown off the climb a few harsh times, there is that brief, but glimmering moment when you do finally stick the move - the “ah” that comes after a brilliant break through and boomshackalackalacka! I made it one clip higher and only fell... five times. Cha ching!
After climbing a route that gave me a serious run for my money, my partner and I moved to a new climb. I was getting ready to tie in and noticed a big, scary, gaping tear near the sharp end of my rope. It was about three feet from where I would have tied my figure eight. It looked like a mouse had been gnawing on it.
I had been using the rope in question for a year and a half. Her name is Bonnie. She has been my sole indoor and outdoor rope the entire time. It’s an edelweiss 9.8, 70 meter rope, that last summer got stuck in a crack on the descent of Devil’s Tower, yanked on, wedged deeper into the crack, and saved the next day by a couple of good samaritan climbers from Zion.
Bonnie has been through a lot. I should have retired my rope six months ago due to how much I have used, and abused, her. After the shock of seeing how busted this portion of my rope was, I came to the dangerously belated realization that it is important to check my gear. Often.
I bought a new rope. I think it’s smart to have ropes for different occasions. A rope designated for sport, one specifically for trad, one for the gym, one for projecting, one for strong climbing days, one for when you're feeling weak, one for when your mom's in town, one for when you're trying to impress a guy, one for when you're trying to look younger than you are, one for when you're training for the fall, one when you're trying to look older than you are, one for when you're training for the spring, one for rest days, one for when you're training for Psicobloc, amiright?
On a serious note, you do at least want a rope specifically for indoor use and one specifically for outdoor use. The only reason I didn't buy another rope is because I am also trying to buy more cams. And get my shoes resoled. And finally get a pair of Chacos so I can look cool at the crag too. And to ensure that I always have at least one box of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, oui oui?
Bonnie's breaking point has instilled a newfound caution and attention in me. It has enlightened me to how accidents can happen unexpectedly. We all know that there are many variables in climbing that can make our beloved, obssessive activity fatal. All of these variables are avoidable, but we have to be constantly on the look out for potentially hazardous scenarios.
HOW TO CHECK YOUR GEAR
Run your hand down the length of the rope. Squeeze and feel for anything that might be abnormal, particularly at the ends.
- Are there worn parts in the sheath?
- If you can see any part of the core of your rope it needs to be cut, or retired
- Avoid using a rope with a fuzzy or torn sheath
- If the rope gets really flat when you bend it that’s no good!
- check if there are any hard bumps
- never buy a used climbing rope
- try not to lend your rope out even if you trust your friend and there is promise of a six pack of your favorite beer
- Retire your rope after a year if you are climbing on it a lot, otherwise a rope can last three or four years
When projecting, each fall can progressively feel more painful. Why? Your rope needs to “rest” between falls. You can also switch ends before trying the crux move again. The rope absorbs the most energy in the system. Between loading scenarios, like an elastic, the rope needs time to relax so that it can continue to absorb the maximum amount of energy. Dynamic belays are also crucial.
Does your belayer know how to give a dynamic belay? Do you?
Your rope is your lifeline. Be on the lookout for wear and abuse. Note the falls and impacts your rope has been taking over time. Take care of your rope. Keep it out of the dirt. Grit and dirt cuts away at the fibers. It’s best to keep all climbing gear as dry and dirt-free as possible. Don’t sit on your gear when putting your shoes on. Avoid throwing your rope at the base of a climb. Use a rope bag, or tarp. Store it in a cool, dry place. Heat and UV rays can degrade your rope. Rappel as often as you can. Lowering creates friction, which creates heat, and your rope doesn’t like heat.
I’ve heard of people washing their rope in a front-loading washer, and giving their rope a bath. Washing your rope could only help grind the grit deeper into the core and the soap could act as a lubricant. Most likely the grit is not soluble. Do your best to keep your rope out of the dirt in the first place.
Check your carabiners for sharp edges. If a route has fixed draws it is particularly important to inspect the draws for grooves that could cut into the rope. You should also be looking for this at your local gym, although the employees should be on top of this. The way to reduce this from happening to draws is to a) stand underneath the first draw when belaying (or somewhere nearby that first draw) and b) lower the leader under the first draw and NOT ten feet away from the wall. Your rope picks up dirt and grit which can also grind away at your belay device and biners.
A sharp edge or worn carabiner can be dangerous when you are falling on it. It can cut the rope, or at least, severely damage it. It’s best to swap out gear if you have any inkling that it is no longer safe.
My first harness was second-hand from the back of my ex-boyfriend’s car. He had no idea how it got there. A free harness? Wonderful! And so I wore it for the next 2-3 years until many months later my ex and I broke up and my new, trusty climbing partner threatened to never climb with me again until I got a new harness. I had that dusty, janky black diamond harness from the early 2000s (late 90s?) for nearly three years too long.
Though it was a sketchy introduction, her integrity rang true. That harness caught thousands of falls, my own and my partners’. It took weeks of my partner's relentless bawking for me to finally replace the ancient artifact around my waist. $70 later I had a new harness. The world changed. Suddenly, I could breathe deeply. I could walk around more freely. I belayed lighter. I climbed lighter. I was able to shake it at the summit like never before.
There is varied opinion by the climbing public as to what consitutes wear and tear. Someone can look at a harness with no apparent structural damage and describe its condition as “poor,” while another describes a harness with a worn belay loop and heavy damage to the lower tie-in point as being “satisfactory” or “fair condition.” It’s a little disconcerting.
How long have you had your harness?
How often are you taking lead falls? 13 times a year? 300 times a year?
Did you get your gear second hand? Have you ever inspected it?
Rock and Ice did a recent study on used harnesses from the general public. The participants were able to rate and assess their harness as they saw it, and the Rock and Ice testers inspected and strength tested their harnesses. It turns out that many people are oblivious to the true age or history of the harnesses they climb in. Specimen A: me.
A lot of people were climbing in second-hand harnesses, many didn’t regularly inspect their harnesses, many claimed to use a harness though it had visible damage, and many harnesses looked severely damaged and in need of retirement, yet they were still in use.
The results in the strengths tests varied. Some harnesses that were visibly mangy and designated as potential failures were concluded as inappropriate for use and broke below the test values. However, there were some harnesses that looked fine, but proved to be unsafe because some of the components failed in the tests. This shows that though a harness or piece of gear can look perfectly okay and safe to use, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is.
Generally speaking, the older a harness, the greater risk of degradation of its structural components. The number of days a harness had been used directly affected its breaking strength. The more days a harness had been used the lower the average breaking strength of the belay loop and leg loop tie-in point. Logically, the number of days a harness had been used along with falls suffered also lowered the belay-loop strength.
Harnesses that are frequently exposed to the outdoors, dirt and UV rays had lower belay and leg-loop strength than indoor harnesses.
The test also spoke to the correlation of the average strength of belay loop with lower leg tie-in point. It was found that a harness with lower average strength at the lower tie-in point, also has lower average strength at the belay loop. It can then be deduced that a harness that is taking lead falls, is also catching lead falls, thus decreasing the integrity of the harness - an added stressor to a harness’ structural components that many people might not think to consider.
Since climbing harnesses are made with webbing, it's important to retire them after five years at most; maybe sooner depending on usage. Visible damage to your harness is always a sign that you need to retire your old friend, but sometimes it’s not so clear that a harness is faulty. It’s important that as a climber you take the responsibility of your life in your own hands and read into acceptable lifespans, conditions, care and use of your gear. Inspect your gear on a regular basis. A worn out harness costs anywhere from $40 - $150 to replace.
You can’t buy another life.
Know the history of your gear. Gear wears out. If gear experiences a strange, or peculiar event - retire it. Why question it? It’s your life on the line. It’s not worth the worry when you’re fifteen feet above the last piece of gear and you’re wondering if your harness will withstand the whipper you may take, or if that old carabiner is sharp enough to sever your rope.
When transporting your gear keep it stored in a backpack, bag, or bin. Keep it away from jumper cables, spilled oil, chemicals, etc. Replace your gear every five years at most.
Got some tips on Gear care?
Let me know below! There are differing opinions on how to take care of gear and when to retire it. This article is just my opinion and I'd love to hear yours. Please share your tips and thoughts. Let's start talking and never stop!