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Climbing Rope Maintenance | How to Guide

by Jonathan Doyle

We all keep our cars clean and well maintained in order to avoid disaster. It affords us a sense of security and pride knowing that we are taking good care of one of our most prized possessions. But what about our climbing gear, the equipment that saves our lives every time it is used? Unfortunately, it appears that in general too few of us extend this special care and attention to our climbing equipment, a simple act that could both protect our wallets and our lives.

When properly maintained, all of our climbing gear can have a good long life before it should be replaced, however our climbing ropes do tend to require a little extra love to ensure they reach a ripe old age before retirement. Here at Rock + Run, we have compiled a guide to help you get the most out of your beloved climbing rope.

Keep a Gear Log

When you buy some new climbing gear, it's a good idea to keep an up-to-date log of each item, noting the date on which you bought it and when it has taken any large falls or impacts. This is especially important for climbing ropes as they are only rated to withstand a set number of high-force falls before they should be replaced. Of course all ropes are different, so take a look at your rope manufacturer’s literature to see what you can expect from it. 

Rope Storage

Once at home, it is important to store your new rope in a cool, dry place and out of direct sunlight because the UV radiation from the Sun breaks down the rope’s fibres at an accelerated rate. This damage dramatically reduces your rope’s life, its ability to stretch and increases the chance of failure when catching a large fall.

A rope bag is not only a great way to store your rope at home, but it is also incredibly useful at the crag. It allows you to easily carry your pre-flaked rope to the day’s climbing destination and as a bonus, it is good to go right out of the bag. Not only does it allow for efficient climbing, but it also minimises the amount of grit and dirt your rope picks up. In turn, this means you have to spend less time scrubbing it in the bathroom and more time hauling it up a rock face. Finally, when using a rope bag, it is a good idea to regularly rotate the end you use in order to spread wear across the rope.

For those who have never used a rope bag before, here’s a handy little video to guide you through the basics. Note the use of different knots at each end allows you to easily identify which one is the top and which is the bottom of your rope when your bag is not colour-coded.

Protecting Your Rope in the Field

If you’re the type of climber who loves dogging/working hard sport routes and find yourself frequently falling off a sequence, it is good practice to consider top-roping the section to get the moves dialled. As you would expect, taking many falls on the same short section of rope can quickly damage the rope as it bends at a tight angle around the quickdraw carabiner.

If you find yourself frequently abseiling off the top of a crag, whether it be descending down a sea cliff or inspecting some particularly hard moves, another top tip is to take along an old piece of carpet / length of hose that you can place under / thread the rope through to protect it from rubbing over the edge.

Finally, if you’re a salty sea-dog and love a good sea-cliff adventure, you’ll need to wash your ropes (and your metalwork) frequently as the salty water degrades your equipment quickly, promoting rust and stiffening your cams and quickdraws. We have an article on cleaning your rope, check it out here: How To Clean Your Climbing Rope.

Cutting Your Rope

There may come a day when disaster strikes, you run your rope over a sharp edge and end up damaging the sheath of your rope. If you can see the core of the rope, you will need to chop off the offending section in order to preserve it’s structural integrity, and in turn allow you to continuing using it, albeit for shorter routes. If you do find yourself in this position, you could first ask your local climbing gym if they would cut your rope for you (I know my local would if I asked them really nicely). They often have hot knives designed specifically for the task and it is by far the quickest and easiest way of doing it. If this is not an option, then the next best method is to do it at home. You just need to heat up an old knife over your hob until it is glowing hot, then quickly slice through the rope. Make sure you do this over something you don’t mind getting melted plastic on. Finally seal the end of the rope with the hot knife to ensure no further fraying occurs. Another method is shown in this video. It is also a good idea to measure how much you have cut off and make a note of this in your gear log. This is because a few months down the line, you’ll more than likely have forgotten the new length of your rope, which could well land you in a sticky situation!

When to Replace Your Rope

In general, most manufacturers recommend a rope has a lifespan of no more than 10 years, however this is only a guideline for when it is very rarely used and kept in immaculate condition. The official recommendation from the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) suggests that a rope’s lifetime can be reduced to even just a couple of months if it is used intensely every day.

It is important that you carry out regular checks of your rope to ensure minimal damage has been attained and that the rope remains flexible throughout.

Key factors to look out for:

  1. Fuzzy sheath
  2. Cuts and localised abrasions
  3. Stiff/lack of flexibility
  4. Liable to kinking/twisting

Of course, it is impossible to provide you with an exact lifespan as to when you should retire your rope as they are all used so differently, but in general, the more you use it, the shorter the lifespan. However with a good maintenance regime, you will be able to maximise your rope’s working life before you downgrade it to a lowly abseil or top rope.

Other Useful Info

The BMC has an extensive document on climbing ropes including everything you could possibly need to know about climbing ropes, and can be downloaded here.