Black Diamond just released a study led by Director of Quality, Kolin Powick, exploring how chemical contamination affects the integrity of softgoods climbing gear. This study was initiated when a customer's harness failed under extremely low loads; body weight.
The structure part of a climbing harness is made up of two different textiles; nylon and polyester. In this case, it was concluded that the harness had been in contact with some sort of muriatic acid. The acid quickly destroyed that nylon thread connecting the webbing to the harness belt, and popped off under body weight. Luckily the customer was still in the leg loops and lowered to the ground safely.
Other similar incidents have occurred with slings, climbing ropes, and other softgoods in the past. Every time I hear about gear failure from chemical contact I get a knot in my stomach as my mind runs back through time to explore possible scenarios where my gear could have been contaminated.
This stuff keeps you alive. Stories like this are important reminders to take care of your equipment and retire it when appropriate.
Second. Let's do a little refresher on proper softgoods care and when to retire items.
According to most rope manufacturers, if you purchase a brand new rope, put it in a bag on your closet shelf and leave it there without ever using it, you should retire it after 10 years.
So lets work down from that.
If you are using your rope a few times a year and take good care of washing, drying, and keeping dirt out, you should retire it after around 5 years.
If you are a regular outdoor climber, let's say going out once a month or so, then your rope will probably only last 2 - 3 years.
And if you are outside climbing all the time, it's not uncommon to retire a rope after only 1 - 2 years.
Factors in Retiring Softgoods
Sun, dirt, abrasion, chemicals and falls all influence when a rope should be retired.
UV rays speed up the process of breaking down the nylon in a rope, however this probably won't ever be the leading reason to retire a rope unless you leave it sitting outside for long periods of time (which is a bad idea anyway).
Dirt and sand work their way into the sheath and core of a rope and slowly chew up the fibers. Not only does sand destroy a rope, but it also puts extra wear on carabiners shortening their lifespan as well. Washing your rope occasionally and using a rope bag will help keep it clean. I use a clean rubber tub filled with cool water to wash my ropes after an excursion, no detergent needed.
Abrasion is often the leading reason to retire a rope. Poorly set up top-ropes, bad edge protection, or just general wear all slowly fray the sheath of a rope. A super fuzzy sheath is a good sign that your rope's days are numbered. If you can see a cut through the sheath to the core (white area) then you need to retire the rope or at least cut that section off.
Chemicals can degrade your rope within days or even hours depending on the length or exposure. Look for color changes, or corrosion, and never store softgoods near household chemicals. A rope bag will help a lot and give you peace of mind when the gear is in the trunk.
Falls can also instantly ruin a rope. Fall factor can be used to assess the potential severity of rope damage. Calculate the fall factor by taking the length of fall divided by length of rope out. Big falls create soft spots in the core of the rope.
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Check your climbing ropes frequently by running the length through your hands and creating a bend. If you find spots that feel soft or flat, if you can see any part of the core, if you see discoloration, or if there is excess sheath wear, then it's time to get yourself a new rope.
For harnesses, check for discoloration, corrosion, and make sure the stitching is all intact.
Harnesses and ropes are some of the only items in climbing with build in redundancy, meaning they are your last line of defense. Treat them well, and if you have any doubt about their condition, retire them and buy something new.