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Climbing Hardware: Care and Maintenance

Carabiners, belay devices, pulleys, ascenders, cams... we use them on every climbing adventure. We know their strength, they have withstood falls, blows and rough treatment. They seem to be unbreakable and in correct conditions of use, they virtually are. However, a minimum care and periodic maintenance will make our climbing hardware last much longer in perfect condition. In this article, we'll explain how.
Hardware also requires a bit of maintenance

We have already explained in the article on rope maintenance how to clean textile gear properly and ropes, in particular. We felt it was essential to explain how to care for these apparently delicate materials such as polyamide yarns and polymer residues used in climbing. In addition, there is a special sensitivity in the mountaineering community about the treatment of ropes and textile materials. However, the "hardware" used in climbing, aluminum and steel components, seems to be completely neglected.

Realising the vital importance of climbing equipment being in perfect condition of use, regardless of whether it is textile, plastic or metal, is something we often consider obvious until we share our equipment with another climber and see how the condition of our equipment compares.

It is clearly important that a camming device does not get stuck, that a carabiner gate does not stay open or that an ascender must be cleaned of any dirt inside, but not everyone is aware of the importance and even fewer check and clean them periodically. Let’s look at how to care for your hardware.

How Long Can a Metal Climbing Aid Last?

Metal products do not have a lifespan. This does not mean that we can continue to use a carabiner, pulley, cam or ascender indefinitely, especially if it includes plastic or textile elements (handles, straps, webbing...). An unlimited service life, means that in the absence of wear and tear or external conditions such as corrosion or scratches, the metal continues to maintain its initial strength and performance.

Precisely because it is designed for climbing, the material we use is permanently exposed to abrasion from rock, impact from falls and wear from rope friction. If we add the problem of dirt getting into the mechanism, preventing equipment from functioning correctly, it is clear how all of this reduces the useful life of climbing hardware.

Micro Fissures After a Carabiner Fall

Have you ever heard of micro-fissures or micro-cracks in metal after a fall? Are you one of those who don't bother looking for a quickdraw or carabiner if you've dropped it from the belay station? Well, maybe you're making a bad decision abandoning a piece of equipment that, barring obvious structural damage, can still be of use.

Pit Schubert in his Volume III of Safety and Risk in Rock and Ice gives the clarifying title of "The Tale of the Microcracks" to a section in which he explains that after a carabiner falls from a wall, it can continue to be used "as long as the locking mechanism works perfectly.

Failure in the operation of a carabiner. In this case, the trigger does not close due to dirt inside
In fact, in Volume II he makes the following statement:
One can calmly throw one's figure eight descender down a wall - if it is too uncomfortable to carry it on one's back - the only problem is that afterwards, depending on the height of the wall, one will have to search for it for more or less time. The kind of force used to throw a figure eight from the top, cannot produce micro-cracks.

In view of these surprising statements and for anyone who has not heard of Pit Schubert, he is a mechanical engineer by profession and we offer a brief outline of his contribution to the safety of mountain materials: apart from his work in the aviation and space industry, he was director of safety at DAV (Deutscher Alpenverein) and a member of the UIAA Safety Commission from 1973 to 2004, the last eight years as chairman of the Commission.

Materials

The most common metallic elements in a climber's equipment are two: aluminum (usually 7075 aluminum or zicral) and steel, often even combined in the same device. The demanding Euronorm (EN) and UIAA standards set very strict minimum strength norms for metal equipment, so we can be sure of its reliability over time. However, a carabiner with an open gate or a cam that is blocked at the time of use can give a fright.

Metallic equipment does not require extraordinary care. Keeping it clean and dry is usually a guarantee for durability. If it includes other materials, such as polymers or textiles, it should also be kept away from ultraviolet radiation and heat sources, as well as avoiding contact with acids and being careful which substances are used for cleaning.

Periodic Inspection and Maintenance

Checking metal climbing equipment is simple. Check if the moving parts put up any resistance or, in the worst case, become blocked, which is an unmistakable symptom of an urgent need for maintenance. Checking for dirt periodically is always recommended.

Climbing equipment should not be disassembled by the user, and this process should be left to authorized service centers whenever necessary. Personal maintenance is limited to removing dirt and checking the item is functioning perfectly.

Cleaning metal equipment with moving parts is a simple, five-part process:

1. Removal of Solid Elements

The accumulation of solid particles inside a carabiner, cam or belay device is highly likely to be caused by dirt. Due to their size, other elements such as leaves or twigs are less responsible, as they are less likely to access the inside of a mechanism and, if they do, they are relatively easy to locate and remove.

Grit deposits inside the equipment is dangerous because it greatly accelerates frictional wear (beware of dirty ropes) and hinders or even blocks the functioning of the moving parts of a carabiner or ascender. Magnesium is not usually a problem (its hardness is one of the lowest on the Mohs scale), but it is also dirt and should be removed.

Dirt (soil and chalk) accumulated inside a Grigri.

A fine cloth, microfiber cloth or cotton swab is usually sufficient to remove the dirt; sometimes a small, soft brush makes things easier. Compressed air, which is used for cleaning electrical components or photographic equipment, can be used in hard-to-reach places, but this is often not required and unnecessarily expensive. A hair dryer with a narrow nozzle can perform a similar function without having to spend money.

Normally, this is enough to complete the cleaning process. However, in some cases it will be necessary to give it a wash. Carabiners do not usually get very dirty since their normal contact would be with rock and not with the ground. Belay devices should not be a problem either, although the inner cord is a great agent for importing sand and dust. Mechanical camming devices are usually the most affected by dirt, due to their large number of parts and their use in cracks and crevices.

Special attention should be paid to the gear used for canyoning and caving. When suspended on a rope, our equipment is often affected by water and mud and it is advisable to clean it as soon as possible. In any humid environment your gear should be checked, as humidity accelerates the corrosion of metallic elements.

Progress-capture device used for canyoning, with onset of rusting. Photo Juan Corcuera.

2. Washing

Dust off fine sand or salt, after contact with sea water, as these elements must be removed immediately from your equipment. Unfortunately, intricate climbing mechanisms are often a perfect refuge for the most stubborn dirt and, as we explained in the article on rope maintenance, it can only be removed by washing.

Using a container with warm water, not exceeding 30ºC, add a small amount of pH-neutral soap. Once the item is immersed in the soapy water, activate the mechanisms of the device repeatedly to allow the dirt to wash out.

Washing climbing hardware.

3. Rinsing

Once you have made sure there is no dirt left, use clean running water without pressure for rinsing. It is important to ensure there is no soap residue.

4. Drying

During the cleaning process, drying should be a particularly methodical task. A dry microfiber cloth or a hair dryer that blows air at room temperature (avoid heat if there are textile elements) performs the drying function perfectly. Pay particular attention to the internal parts of the device. It is important to ensure it is dry before storage to avoid problems of corrosion.

5. Lubrication

A very important process for the longevity of equipment with a metal mechanism is lubrication. Friction between moving parts causes wear so taking care to prevent this will help your metallic devices last longer and remain in better condition. However, there are often doubts on how to lubricate hardware, which lubricant to use and how much to apply.

Blocked cams due to lack of maintenance.

The number of lubricants for metal parts on the market is overwhelming. Obviously, in the industrial world the specificity of products can overwhelm the undecided, but even in the sports world, we can find an incredible variety of products for items, such as bicycles, which require exquisite and constant maintenance.

There are so many different lubricants, each with their recommended use; oils, waxes, greases, pastes... the variety is endless for an article of this kind. Fortunately, it hasn’t changed much in its use for mountain gear, so we can focus on just those lubricants that are useful for mountain hardware.

For rock climbing equipment we recommend using oils (liquid lubricants) so that they are easier to apply inside the device mechanism and, if possible, Teflon-based (PTFE, polytetrafluoroethylene) so that their non-stick properties reduce friction as much as possible. These oils are known in the cycling world as dry lube or dry lubricants; in addition to their ability to penetrate the mechanism to be lubricated, they have the advantage of repelling dirt by their own composition. On the negative side, Teflon-based liquid lubricants tend not to be very durable and are not particularly good against moisture, although this should not affect rock climbing too much.

Applying lubricant to a camming device. Photo Metolius.

On the contrary, due to their resistance to humidity and even mud, lubricants with a denser texture - wet lube or wet lubricants – are perfect for mobile canyoning or caving equipment, even for snow runners or ice climbing. The disadvantage of this type of dense lubricant is that, due to its consistency, it attracts airborne dirt more easily.

To apply the lubricant, just make sure that the material is completely dry, open the part to be lubricated (it helps if the bottle has a long and narrow nozzle) and apply a small amount of liquid. Remove the excess with a clean cloth and operate the mechanisms several times to make sure that the lubricant reaches all the components.

We have copied a section from an article by David Palmada, a reference in the world of artificial climbing and well-known for his wide knowledge of camming devices, where he givesadvice about hybrid camming devices: 

Wash them with soap and water, use a small brush to try to remove all the grit that is usually located in the spring systems and other parts, then use pressurized air to blow out any moisture and, if possible, end with a good greasing. Be careful with the choice of lubricant, because oil-based lubricants can damage dyneema webbing. Personally, I recommend a liquid ceramic-based lubricant, as, once dry, dirt does not adhere and it does not stain.

David Palmada, “Pelut”, suspended from the blue Alien.

Engraving Metal Equipment

Some climbers, especially old-school or industrial climbers, are fond of engraving their metal equipment with a name, initials or a symbol to identify it easily during the usual shuffling of quickdraws, carabiners and belay devices on a climb.

Engraving safety material is not recommended: there is a risk of altering the strength by modifying the product, even if only superficially. Other procedures such as stamping or the use of a punch are, of course, strongly discouraged on any climbing equipment. Only some manufacturers allow the use of engraving pencils as long as it is done on the main body of the element or device and the marking is no deeper than 0.1mm. We recommend marking metal only with permanent markers, which are faster, easier and safer, or using adhesive tape.

Bad Habits with Hardware

To conclude this article, in addition to the care and maintenance of the equipment explained above, we are going to list a series of actions that should be avoided:

  • Do not hit your gear against hard objects such as rocks to shake out the equipment.
  • Do not use a high pressure hose. It could displace or damage the internal mechanism of the equipment.
  • Do not use a dishwasher to clean climbing products with internal mechanisms or plastic parts
  • Do not wash with salt water.
  • Do not use industrial or domestic degreasers for cleaning. They are too powerful and seriously affect the resistance of polymers such as polyamide, polyester, polycarbonate or polystyrene found in belay devices, quickdraws, camming devices or in some carabiner gates.

We hope to have cleared up some doubts and helped you learn how to take care of your equipment so that it lasts much longer in perfect safety condition.

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