Climbing equipment is essential for your safety, so much so that there are various standards that each and every piece of personal protective equipment must achieve for it to be fit for purpose at the point of sale. To check this batches of it undergoes random destruction testing during the manufacturing process. However as we use and often abuse the kit during our climbing we need to be able to make informed decisions as to when to retire and replace our equipment.
General rule of thumb on equipment life
Metal Equipment – 10 year life span.
Webbing – 5 years Storage (On shop shelf) and then five years use.
Ropes – 5 years from the date of manufacture.
Despite these general rules of thumb, it is important to realise that excess use might reduce these lifespans. However there is antidotal evidence that suggests that metal work in particular can stand up to the tests of time. DMM tested a featherlite carabiner from the 1960′s which still broke at 20kN, similarly they have run ‘Break what you Brung’ workshops as various events and have found twenty year old carabiners regularly breaking at there cited strength. This is possible because Aluminium strengthens and hardens with age, which has a knock on effect in that a new wire is slightly plastic, in that it might mould itself to a crack when you fall on it, but and older wire will have harden, so won’t. Whilst this shouldn’t compromise the placement it is an interesting effect of metal ageing.
Wires need to be checked regularly, by examining the swaged wire for damage, if any of the strands are broken then it is time for it to be replaced, firstly because the strength will be effected and seconding because the sharp wire can add to the abrasion of webbing based products. It is recommended that you slide the wedge of metal down the wire to see what is going on underneath, as well.
A pervious myth was that if you dropped a carabiner on the floor from a small height it would somehow magically hit a sweet spot that caused micro-fractures and compromised the integrity of the carabiner. This is a myth as the carabiners are forged at over 400 degrees, and makes the metal form strong molecular bonds that are elastic. However if you drop a piece of gear down and entire pitch and it lands on a solid rock then you would be advised to retire it.
All metal work is also liable to corrosion especially if you climb at or near the coast. Salt in the air will stick to the metal, and stay there slowly corroding the metal whilst it sits in your rucsac until the salt is washed away. As such it is recommended that you rinse all hardware in fresh water after climbing at sea cliffs, to prevent corrosion.
Manufacturers have started to anodise equipment, as it creates a molecular barrier to corrosion, however, any scratch to the anodised surface exposed the metal underneath to the corrosive environment, so even anodised equipment needs a rinse.
Cams are perhaps the hardest piece of equipment to maintain as they have many moving parts, again they need to be rinsed after sea cliff climbing and regular oiled with specific oils like the Metolius cam oil, they can also be cleaned using Metolius Cam Cleaner. Maintaining the cams will prevent the cams from ceasing up, and stop you having to buy a new one to replace it. The important part to oil is the axle where the cams rotate around, when checking and oiling the cams it is important to make sure all the cams move independently of the axle and each other. Sometimes long falls or lack of care and cleaning can prevent this from happen, making the cam less stable when placed. Trigger wires can also break on cams, and can often be replaced by returning the unit to the manufacturer where a small charge is made for the work, if the unit is over ten years old they will not replace the trigger.
Both cams and hexes have a sling webbing, as such there is a discrepancy between the lifespan of the cam unit and the sling. Again these can be replace by the manufacturer at a price. One of the main reasons behind the need to replace webbing products more frequently is that the material is not only more susceptible to damage from UV light, it also abrades quickly. The abrasion causes more damage than you think.
If for instant we got a new dynema sling and cut completely through 1/3 of the width of the sling, and then abraded the sling across its whole width, the sling will break under destructive testing not at the cut but at the surface abrasion. This is why the five year rule might be worth seeing as a maximum lifespan, as heavy use will result in abrasion all over the sling. This same issue with abrasion also extends to harnesses, where as well as general wear and tear there are specific wear points, which are where the buckles are tightened and loosened every time we put a harness on and take it off, and also where the rope is threaded through the strong point of the harness. A worn harness was the cause of the death of Todd Skinner, a very famous and experienced climber, who had order a new harness that hadn’t arrived prior to his climbing trip.
The last piece of equipment we need to maintain is the rope, whilst this has a life of five years, again this might be worth see as a maximum life, excessive use or damaged from being weighted over an edge might damage the sheath of the rope or the core. If the damage is severe then the rope needs retiring, however it needs to be checked every time it is used, you probably do this without knowing, as every time you flake the rope out you feel it run through you hands, as you do so feel for fluffy sections or irregularities in the rope, and check these section more thorough, if it feels like the core is damaged then it is better to replace the rope than risk your life.
Similarly avoid treating your rope badly, so avoid walking on it at all, dry it after use if it gets wet, wash it from time to time in fresh water and don’t add your own half way marks with marker pens as this damages the sheath. Whilst UV will damage rope just like webbing and slings, it is less of an issue with rope as the sheath with represents about 10% of the overall strength of the carabiner, the remain 90% strength provided by the core is protected, recent tests of insitu abseil tat exposed to an alpine environment, has shown whilst reduced in strength compared to slings the reduction is not as dangerous as slings exposed to UV. In terms of storage you should still store the rope away from direct sunlight.
Thanks go to DMM for spending the time to talk me through these points, and to check my facts.