Published on: 02/22/2023
The climbing rope is one of the climber’s most essential tools. With proper management of a climbing rope, one can belay, rappel, rescue climbers, and build anchors. However, the rope is more than a multi-faceted piece of climbing gear that helps you accomplish tasks.
The climbing rope represents a vital lifeline. It is the link between two climbers responsible for keeping the rope team alive in the event of a fall. It is irreplaceable and of foremost importance. Therefore, the climbing rope deserves the utmost respect.
Part of respecting your climbing rope is storing it properly and maintaining it. Then when the time comes, knowing when to retire climbing rope becomes your last duty in your long and happy relationship with it.
Factors Influencing the Durability of a Climbing Rope
How long a rope lasts depends on various elements. There is no perfect answer for identifying when you should put one of your beloved ropes into rope retirement. For example, one of your ropes may last for years, while you replace another only a year after purchase due to sheath abrasion or a complete core shot.
Instead, knowing when to retire ropes is more about understanding the manufacturer’s guidelines, the type and frequency of use, storage and maintenance conditions, personal safety margins, and risk management decisions about your gear.
UIAA fall rating and manufacturer’s recommendations
Every climbing rope comes with fall rating standards from the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (1), along with manufacturer guidelines. These guidelines are devised after rigorous testing and are typically very conservative.
Duration of use and style of climbing
How frequently you use your equipment, the style of climbing you use it for, and the rock type will affect its lifespan. For example, the equipment you use every weekend for sport climbing will wear faster than that which you use once a month.
Storage and maintenance conditions
How you maintain and store your ropes also affects their durability and lifespan. To mitigate the wear and lengthen the lifespan of your equipment, it’s essential to perform regular maintenance when the rope is in use and to store it properly when you’re not climbing.
Personal risk management decision-making
We all come to the sport of climbing with different margins for risk and safety. Ultimately, deciding when to retire your ropes is a personal decision based on how much risk you are willing to accept.
Impact Forces and Fall Factors of Climbing Ropes
Normal wear and tear that occurs to a rope from using it under normal circumstances will eventually wear the rope enough for retirement. In the following section, we’ll discuss what some of those warning signs look like. But considering we are going to mention words like “fall factor” and “impact force,” (2) we wanted to take a second to explain.
Ropes are designed to withstand big falls. In most cases, after a fall, you can inspect your rope and notice everything is intact. However, a rope can also be put into early retirement if it experiences a significant enough impact force and fall factor, even if it looks perfectly fine.
- During a fall, the impact force is the energy transmitted and through the belay chain.
- The fall factor is the ratio of fall length to rope length (the length of the climber’s fall: the length of rope between the belayer and the climber).
When the severity of a fall is low, the impact force and fall factor are also low. Rope elongation, belayer displacement, the climber’s body, and rope sliding through the belay device dissipate the impact force. Fall factors with a value below 1 are perfectly normal.
On the other hand, when the severity is significant, the impact forces and the fall factor are high. Short rope lengths and minimal protection points increase the severity. Fall factors approaching 2 are not normal.
Approximate Guidelines for the Lifespan of a Rope
The polyamide (nylon) fibers manufacturers use to weave together climbing ropes break down over time, significantly reducing the rope’s strength. This is true even if the rope does not present any visible damage. Therefore, most manufacturers recommend retiring their ropes after ten years.
However, the wear on a rope can be accelerated by falls, abrasion, chemicals, rock type, frequency of use, contact with sharp edges, and extreme loads.
Ultimately, the replacement of your rope will be influenced by proper and frequent rope inspection. Nonetheless, here are some approximate guidelines.
|When to Retire
|After a fall factor 2 event
|Frequent, weekly usage
|One year or sooner
|Regular, monthly usage
|One to three years
|Four to five years
|Rare, annual usage
5 Signs It’s Time To Retire Your Climbing Rope
1. A large fall with extreme loads
Over time, moderate falls will reduce your ropes’ dynamic properties and strength. However, any rope that experiences extreme loads with a fall factor greater than one should be retired from leading.
After a proper inspection, ropes that experience a fall factor greater than one may still be used for top roping or rappelling.
2. Core shot
A cut sheath that exposes the core is called a core shot. Core shots most often occur from cyclical abrasion over rock with a load. Over time, abrasion will damage the nylon fibers of your rope and create a fuzzy-looking appearance. Most fuzziness is not a problem. However, if the sheath becomes so fuzzy that the core is exposed, it’s time to retire it.
A cut to the sheath can also occur from a singular severe fall over a sharp edge. You must immediately retire your climbing rope if you notice any major cuts, knicks, or deformities.
3. Flat spots and sheath slippage
Sheath slippage is when the sheath moves, slides, or slips out of place compared to the core within the rope. When a sheath slips, it creates noticeable bunching. Typically, sheath slippage occurs from overuse. Therefore, it is most commonly found at the ends of ropes.
When sheath slippage is particularly severe, flat spots in the rope can be noticed. Flat spots, as opposed to a round shape, are wrong and often indicate no core in that section of rope.
4. Sponginess or stiffness
Sponginess occurs when there is damage to the core. Typically, sponginess is most common at the ends of the rope, where you tie in and frequently take falls or hang.
On the other hand, stiffness occurs from chemical contamination or UV radiation. Lightening and discoloration of the sheath are also signs that chemicals that have damaged your rope are too much UV solar radiation.
5. Signs of chemical damage or burns
Corrosive chemicals can cause catastrophic damage to ropes (3). The damage to the nylon sheath is not always visible. If you suspect your ropes have been exposed to chemicals like battery acid or household cleaners, retire them immediately.
Rope strength can also be drastically reduced when exposed to high temperatures. Dangerously high temperatures can be achieved from friction heating, such as rappelling or lowering too fast. Generally, you should never expose your rope to temperatures above 122 degrees F (or 50 degrees C).
Storage Tips for Climbing Rope
You can extend the lifespan of your equipment by storing it properly.
- Store your rope in a cool and dry location. Ideally, you want to avoid extreme temperature fluctuations and high humidity.
- Refrain from storing your rope nearby chemicals. Multi-use locations like garages and hallway closets that contain chemicals, like cleaning products, can put your rope at risk of chemical contamination (4).
- Store your rope in a dark place. Unnecessary exposure to the sun’s UV rays can shorten the lifespan of your rope. Inside a rope bag or plastic storage container is perfect.
- Keep your ropes coiled. Before storage, it’s convenient to coil your ropes so you can grab and go the next time you climb. On the other hand, you can avoid coiling your rope if you prefer to use a rope bag.
Maintenance Tips for Climbing Rope
To extend the life of your rope, it’s essential to perform routine maintenance tasks.
- Let your rope dry after wet days. If you get caught in the rain or go ice climbing, you must let your ropes fully dry. To do so, hang them up somewhere without intense UV radiation. Using a fan is okay, but never use a heat source.
- Periodically clean your rope. If you climb outside, your rope will eventually get filthy. Periodically cleaning your rope can revive its original color and extend its lifespan.
- Use a rope bag when climbing outside. Protecting your rope from necessary exposure to dirt, sand, and other debris at the crag will help it last longer.
- Use a rope protector for top rope anchors. If you cannot construct an anchor with a floating masterpoint, and your rope is running over a sharp edge, use a rope protector to protect the sheath.
- Inspect your ropes for noticeable damage. Inspecting for flat spots, core shots, and other damage is a good habit every time you flake out your rope to climb.
What To Do With Your Retired Old Climbing Ropes
When it’s time to retire a climbing rope you have a few options for what to do.
- The first option is retiring the rope completely and disposing of it.
- The second option is retiring the rope but then upcycling the rope into an art project.
- The third option is using old ropes for non-climbing-related training purposes.
Disposing of a Rope at the End of its Lifespan
To properly retire a rope at the end of its life span and dispose of it, you should not throw it in the dumpster or leave it at the crag. This may create the opportunity for another climber to think the old rope is up for grabs and can be used for climbing.
Instead, we recommend chopping the rope into smaller, unusable sections for safety reasons. Your goal is to send the message that the rope is old, no longer safe, and should not be used for climbing.
Upcycling Damaged Climbing Ropes
When you retire a climbing rope, you don’t have to throw it away. You can also use your old climbing ropes for other non-climbing-related activities. The most common thing to do with old ropes is upcycling them for arts and crafts.
- After you retire your rope, you can make a dog leash with the old material.
- An old rope or sections from multiple old, unused ropes can be woven together to make a rope rug.
- Bracelets can be made after you retire a climbing rope by removing the core of the rope and only using the sheath.
Using Old Ropes for Training Purposes
When you retire your rope and don’t want to dispose of or upcycle it, you can reuse your old rope for non-climbing-related purposes only. If you use an old rope as a training tool, it should be just that and never your only lifeline with live loads.
- You can use a section of old rope as a training tool for practicing new knots.
- A climber can use a 10-15 foot segment of old rope as a mock lead line to practice clipping quickdraws on a sport route when top roping.
- Lastly, you can use a 15-20 foot section of retired rope as a ground school training tool to practice rope systems, like belaying from above, rappelling, hauling, and other self-rescue skills.
You can easily throw away, recycle and replace climbing gear like ropes. On the other hand, you are irreplaceable.
Therefore, when it comes to retiring a rope, or any piece of climbing gear for that matter, always err on the side of caution. Don’t let the relatively young age of your rope, harness, helmet, or carabiners lull you into a false sense of safety.
If you see cracks in your carabiners or helmet, if the sheath of your rope looks damaged, if you can feel a break in the core, or if your gear looks damaged, retire it. Your life is worth it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
A climbing rope can last anywhere from one to 10 years. The usage frequency and how it’s stored and maintained will largely determine how long the rope lasts. For example, an unused rope in its original packaging can last at least ten years, if not more. However, a rope used every weekend to catch heavy falls may only last one climbing season.
After you retire a rope, you can simply chop it into unusable pieces and throw it away. Or, you can use portions of the rope as materials for arts and crafts projects or as training tools for practicing rope skills.
There is no exact time when you will need a new climbing rope. Knowing when you need a new rope will depend on the age of the rope, an inspection of the sheath and core, and your personal safety margins.
Assuming you are storing your climbing rope in an optimal location and conditions, you can store your rope for upwards of 10 years. However, after ten years, most climbing rope manufacturers will recommend you retire the rope.
How many falls a rope can take depends on the individual rope and the type of fall. To get an exact answer, consider the rope manufacturers’ guidelines.
Safety Standards (retrieved on 02/22/2023)
International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA)
Fall Factor and Impact Force – Theory (retrieved on 02/22/2023)
Beal rope, snapped – Incident Ref. 09/01/B.HEU (retrieved on 02/22/2023)
The British Mountaineering Council
Broken rope: University of Leicester Mountaineering Club – Incident Ref. 01/13/B.HUL (retrieved on 02/22/2023)
The British Mountaineering Council
How to Inspect Your Rope (retrieved on 02/22/2023)
Petzl, Mar 2020
Ropes: a new guide for climbers and mountaineers (retrieved on 02/22/2023)
The British Mountaineering Council