Most queries received from our customers are about ropes. Their importance to our safety is clear but the amount of technical information you need to consider when choosing a rope can be overwhelming. We have already written an article on this and we invite you to read it. We should also add that even the most durable ropes require specific care and maintenaince.
Durability of ropes
What are ropes made of?
The norms for both dynamic and semi-static ropes do not mention that they should be made of a specific material, but climbing, caving and canyoning ropes are usually made of polyamide. However, they can also be made of polyester, polypropylene, ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (Dyneema) or aramid (Kevlar) for floatable ropes, dogbones, slings or harnesses.
What is the durability of a rope?
It is not easy to categorise the durability of a rope with a number, since it varies according to features such as the age of the rope, the thickness of the sheath and how it has been used and stored. Research on this issue concludes that an unused rope, stored in optimum conditions, scarcely loses its properties over time, although information provided by different brands can vary. We can conclude that the life expectancy of a rope is 15 years from the date of manufacture or 10 years from the date of its first use. However, the durability of a rope that has suffered intense use will decrease drastically and may need to be retired after just a few months if used daily, or even after the first minute if it has suffered severe damage.
What care does a rope need and how can I increase its longevity?
Both during use and storage of a rope, it is important to ensure it is not in contact with sharp edges or dangerous substances. It is also important to store it away from sunlight and heat sources, in a cool dry environment. Durability will be increased by using a Ground cloth or brushes and soaps to keep a rope clean. To prevent wear on one end, swap the end on each climb and avoid constant use for top roping or use a rope protector to prevent deterioration from abrasion on rappels or sharp edges. Above all, it is essential to be particularly careful during the first few uses.
How do the first uses of a rope influence its longevity?
The fibres of a brand new rope that has not been put under tension are more relaxed, which can lead to visible damage (e.g. a rope hernia) if it is used over sharp edges or suffers abrasion and it can also lead to twisting. After several uses and over time, the rope becomes tensed and is less prone to this kind of damage. It is recommended that you pay special attention to your rope during the first four or five uses.
Why do new ropes twist?
This happens because of the way they are manufactured. When a rope leaves the factory, it has a neutral structure. The descender, belay device or friction caused when setting up a belay point or rappel can lead the this neutral structure becoming modified. For this reason, it is convenient to unwrap the rope carefully stretch the rope well during the first few uses and avoid strong, continued friction caused by top roping or by using a dynamic knot with a belay device or descender.
How can I know a ropeâ€™s date of manufacture if I donâ€™t have the technical data?
Some brands use a colour code to show the date of manufacture on their dynamic ropes, but it is not obligatory and not all brands use this method. This method consists of a coloured thread that runs through the core of the rope, which indicates the year of manufacture and this code is repeated every 10 years. Semi-static ropes have to comply with a norm stating that an interior tape with the printed date of manufacture must run through the core.
Inspection and when to retire a rope
How do I check that my rope is in good condition?
A rope should be checked from one end to the other, visually and by touch for cuts, abrasion, wear and sheath slippage. We should get into the habit of doing this each time we coil or uncoil the rope.
What indicates that I should stop using a rope?
Cuts, burns or abrasion are clear indicators, but there are also less obvious reasons which can put your safety at risk. If you see a white powder when you scratch the rope sheath with your nail or if you see any bulges or hernias in the rope, this will mean it needs to be retired. Any contact with harmful substances will also invalidate the rope for climbing.
Can I cut off the damaged end of a rope and continue to use the rest?
Yes, if the rest of the rope has not exceeded its life expectancy and has been carefully inspected for any other possible damage it can still be used with caution, bearing in mind the now reduced length. As the ends of a rope receive most impact from falls and use of knots, it is common practice to cut them off, when damaged, and continue to use the rest.
How can I avoid the new end from fraying, once it has been cut?
The quickest, cleanest and safest option is to use a rope cutter. If you do not have one, wrap the end with tape before cutting and then use a lighter to melt the polyamide sheath and core to prevent fraying.
The sheath of my rope has slipped and detached from the core. What can I do?
The problem of sheath slippage does is not as common as some years ago, thanks to newer construction methods that bond the sheath and core together. However, more economical or older ropes may not be made with this technique, in which case, you would need to cut off the excess sheath with a rope cutter or lighter and melt the polyamide of the sheath and core.
Do I need to retire my rope if I have stepped on it with crampons?
It is statistically improbable that you are able to punture a rope with a crampon point or ice-axe. If, however youâ€™ve had the bad luck to achieve this, it is highly unlikely it will have cut a large enough number of fibres to require the retirement of the rope.
What substances can deteriorate a rope?
In general, you should discard any rope or textile safety item that has been in contact with acid. Commonly used substances such as bleach or sulphuric acid (more common than you think, as it is released from car batteries and traces may lie in the parking lot of the climbing area) will destroy the strength of the rope. The following list will help clarify which substances can affect the strength and durability of a rope:
- Salt water: Seawater does not affect the strength of polyamide, but it is advisable to rinse the rope with fresh water to remove crystallized salt and other substances that may split fibres.
- Sweetened beverages: Juice or sugary soft drinks do not affect the strength of polyamide, but they make the rope much stiffer and sugar crystallization inside the rope can affect rope fibres.
- Bleach: Bleach has a negative affect on polyamide and therefore on the strength of the rope. Discard any rope that has been in contact with bleach.
- Acids: Nitric acid, acetic acid, hydrochloric acid, phosphoric acid, sulphuric acid, chlorine and its derivatives... are known enemies of polyamide. If the rope has had minimal contact with these products it should be discarded. Again, be aware of how easy it is for sulphuric acid from a battery to come into contact with your ropes simply by leaving them on the ground in the car park with the added danger that this damage is not visible to the naked eye.
- Hydrocarbons (gasoline, diesel oil, petroleum): Hydrocarbons do not affect the strength of polyamide, but they can destroy the external treatments of ropes, thus affecting their working life. Although it is not immediately dangerous, it is advisable not to have the ropes in contact with hydrocarbons.
- Alcohol: Alcohol can be used sporadically for rope cleaning to remove resin residues, for example, as it does not affect the strength of the polyamide fibres, but it should not be used frequently as, like hydrocarbons, it can lead to premature ageing of the rope.
- Blood: If blood comes into contact with a climbing rope, it does not cause the rope to show a decrease in safety values.
- Urine: Uric acid in urine seriously affects the strength of a rope, so be careful when urinating near any ropes or once you have tied off.
- Insect repellent: Although not all repellents use the same compounds and we can therefore not generalise on this, research on rope resistance shows that mosquito repellent actually increases the resistance of a rope. This is because the repellent acts as the coating given to many ropes. The result, however, is a stiff and unmanageable rope, so it is advisable to wash the rope if it has come into contact with insect repellents.
- Mold: Does not affect the strength of the ropes. Wash.
What is the best way of marking a rope?
The classic way of marking the halfway point on your rope with tape or duct tape are quick and inexpensive, but unfortunately it is not always efficient as the mark can disappear or shift when the duct-taped section passes through the descender or belay device, with the consequent safety problem that this entails. We recommend using a special marker for polyamide as, unlike other markers, it does not contain substances that weaken polyamide.
Maintenance of a rope
Can ropes be washed?
Ropes can and should be washed. If they are not too dirty, dust and dirt accumulation can be addressed by brushing. The accumulation of dirt on the out and inside of the rope can cause the fibres to break, affecting its resistance, so a periodic clean will improve performance and increase longevity. The quickest way to clean is by hand washing the rope in a bathtub or basin. As a basic recommendation avoid water temperatures over 30ÂºC, never use salt water, use neutral soap and avoid direct sunlight and heat sources while drying.
Can a rope be put in the washing machine?
Yes, by following the recommendations above and never use the spinning cycle. It is also important to rinse out any bleach that may have been used previously in the washing machine.
Can you use fabric softener?
It is possible and, in fact, it is advisable to use softener in case the rope has increased in stiffness. It is important that, like the detergent, the softener has a neutral Ph.
Can the rope be tumble-dried?
No, it is not recommended. Heat sources should be avoided at all costs.
What is the best way to dry a rope?
As we said before, it is very important to avoid direct sunlight and heat sources. It is better not to rush rope drying. For best results, fold it like a chain and hang it in the shade in a ventilated area.
Does the way the rope is folded affect its durability?
No, it does not affect the durability if there are no associated problems such as strong snags or cuts, which can be caused by branches or sharp rock edges during the approach or return. However, certain folding methods can be useful depending on the situation: folding it across your shoulder or on the backpack are very practical when doing activity or for the approach and return. Take care when unfolding the rope not to curl it excessively or produce loops that wonâ€™t pass through the belay device or descender.
Is it necessary to use a rope bag for sport climbing?
Rope bags help keep a rope active for longer. In addition to the logical convenience for transportation, packing and finding the rope quickly, rope bags prevent dust and mineral particles from getting into the rope, which in turn, prevent damage to the rope fibres. The accumulation of dust and dirt in the sheath also aggravates the wear of belay devices, descenders, carabiners, express sets and belay and rappel installations.