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Technical Advice: Rope life

How to decide when to retire a rope A rope in need of retiring..

Deciding when to retire a rope is always going to be a difficult business and the BMC receives literally hundreds of calls each year asking for advice on this subject. Ideally we could say that after a given time and,or, pattern of use that a rope should be retired. Unfortunately there are too many variables for such a simplistic answer to be honestly given. Responsibility lies with the rope owner to make a judgement, based on knowledge of how the rope has been used and of the factors that will degrade a rope.

To further confuse the situation manufacturers are now required to give advice on when to retire ropes with their 'product user information' supplied with each rope. This puts them in a difficult position and understandably they will tend to play safe and give conservative figures for lifetime. This is usually three to five years, regardless of pattern of use. Such figures are not particularly helpful when deciding when to retire a rope as an unlucky rockfall or severe abrasion will ruin a rope on its first outing whilst another rope may have sustained no damage or falls over five years of light use.

Knowledge of a rope's history is vital when making decisions about when to retire or downgrade it. Every traumatic event suffered by the rope causes some damage to it and severe falls can cause serious damage. Consider downgrading any rope that has sustained a serious fall (fall factor greater than 1). Apart from knowing the number and severity of falls a rope has sustained, you should have a broader idea of the type and condition of usage it has undergone. This is particularly important when considering what invisible damage might have occurred. You can check a rope for localised internal damage by running it slowly through your fingers and feeling for any irregularities or unevenness. The existence of either could indicate serious damage. However the absence of either does not indicate the rope is undamaged. In particular damage from internal grit abrasion is unlikely to show up in this way.

The general feel of the rope can also give indication as to its condition. For instance a rope that was once soft and supple that has become stiff and liable to kinking and resists attempts to rectify it (q.v.) should perhaps be downgraded as this indicates permanent damage. If such a rope continues to be used it will reach a point where the sheath integrity starts to be affected, and at this point it is definitely time to retire the rope.

As a very general figure, with regular (every weekend and midweek) usage, you would not expect to get much more than three years out of a rope before downgrading it. Heavy use (most days) will greatly reduce this lifetime and it is quite possible to wear out a rope in less than six months. If used less and well cared for a rope will have a longer lifetime.

Observation suggests that if a rope is broken in gently by careful use, alternating the lead end, avoiding hard loading etc. it will have a much longer life than if it is used hard from new. The reasons for this are not fully understood.

A rope need not be considered unusable at the end of its life as a lead rope. A rope that you are suspicious of can be downgraded. It will still be useful for some time as a top rope, abseil rope or glacier rope.

To summarise:

The decision on when to retire your rope is your own. The best you can do is base a decision on knowledge of how a rope has been used, and how it feels and looks. Keeping a log of use and regularly checking for damage is good practice and if in doubt ask the opinion of other experienced climbers.

Decision making: The individual:

When to retire your own rope is a personal decision. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a rope with no detectable damage will not break in normal use unless cut over a sharp rock edge. It is likely that well before a rope becomes unsafe you will wish to downgrade it, because its handling is bad or it has got too fat or perhaps you have just lost confidence in it. In short when you start thinking it may be time to get a new rope then it probably is.

Decision making: Commercial or Group use:

A more rigorous approach should be applied that demonstrates that good practice is being followed. With a central equipment pool each individual rope should be uniquely identifiable and its use monitored and recorded in some form of log.

In any environment where a legal duty of care exists (which could be voluntary as well as a commercial situation), a demonstrably competent individual should be responsible for monitoring rope use. This person could be a recognised ‘Technical Expert’ such as a suitably qualified Mountain Instructor or Guide, or an experienced climber with comparable expertise. This person need not be responsible for the routine checking of ropes, but should oversee and approve of the systems in place for equipment monitoring

In other situations where a rope pool is maintained (such as a climbing clubs), a duty of care also exists between the organisations and their its members. In these situations the organisation should ensure that the individuals responsible for the ropes familiarise themselves with good practice, as described below, and be aware of rope degradation mechanisms.

In either case detailed logs of use should be maintained, all ropes should be individually identifiable and checks should be made after every period of use (daily, weekly or monthly depending on the pattern of use) for external or internal damage and the log sheet annotated.

Sample rope logging sheet

Rope:

Date

Type of use

Notes

By whom (for pooled ropes)

Checked: OK?

date

initial.

9mm lead no.12

12/10/98

leading

used once on single pitch route

andrew g.

yes

13/10/98

A.G.D.

If there is any doubt as to a rope’s integrity it should be retired immediately. Ropes at centres tend to get heavy use and are likely to be retired well before the lifetime suggested by the manufacturer. As an example the ropes at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre, are only used as lead ropes for the first year of their life. If they suffer any detectable damage or a big fall during this year they are withdrawn from use or downgraded to a single pitch top rope. In any case after one year of use they are then downgraded to top rope use and may eventually end up as rigging ropes