Climbing ropes are a vitally important part of the PPE for safe climbing. When they’re treated with care and inspected regularly, they can be counted on to prevent serious injury or death from a fall. But even a brand-new rope that has been stored in ideal conditions has a limited shelf-life.
How long does a climbing rope last in storage? A brand new climbing rope that has never been used, when stored properly, should last for up to ten years in storage. There are a number of factors that can influence this lifespan—primarily the rope’s condition and the conditions in which it is stored.
When you consider that a single impact event with a fall factor greater than 1 can be enough to cause a rope to be retired, the difference between a brand-new rope and a retired rope can be a single climb. But you can’t put a price on the confidence you feel in a rope that you know will perform in that impact event versus one that “might” or “should” get you through.
How to Store A Climbing Rope So That It Lasts 10 Years in Storage
Most manufacturers provide guidelines or recommendations for when a climbing rope should be replaced. These guidelines almost always take account of the frequency of use for the rope. At the same time, the all seem to presume ideal storage conditions without explicitly saying so.
In reality, there are at least two factors to consider in relation to how long a climbing rope will last in storage. The first is its overall condition when it goes into storage. The second is the conditions in which the rope is stored.
To the best of our knowledge, there are no manufacturers that recommend using a rope that is older than 10 years old even if it has never been used and has been stored in ideal conditions. This is because the nylon fibers in a climbing rope break down over time. Frequent use or improper storage can accelerate this breakdown, but even perfect storage cannot eliminate it.
While there are studies that suggest that unused ropes that are 10 or even 15 years old perform to the standards of a UIAA test drop, the UIAA will only certify brand new rope. So, using 15-year-old rope means that you’re on your own so far as the manufacturer and the UIAA are concerned. Only you can decide if you’re willing to accept that risk.
How Does Use Affect A Rope’s Lifespan?
According to the British Mountaineering Council, a rope that has never been used has a shelf-life of ten years. Even use as infrequent as twice each year reduces that rope’s lifespan to seven years. Using the rope once each month brings the recommended retirement age down to five years. If you use a rope on a weekly basis, it should be replaced after a year.
Of course, all of this presumes that the rope does not suffer any damage during those uses. Abrasions or energy absorption can be enough to take a rope out of service immediately regardless of its age. That’s why it is so important to keep your ropes clean and inspect them prior to each use.
Sometimes the conditions that you are using the rope in can do a lot to accelerate the demise of a climbing rope. For example, climbing on sandstone tends to impregnate a rope with grains of sand that increase abrasion to the sheath and the core. A similar effect can be the result of getting the rope wet by salt water. When the water evaporates, the salt crystals are left behind.
Storing Your Climbing Rope for Maximum Shelf-Life
If a rope is brand new, then it is safe to assume that it is clean and dry when it goes into storage. But if this isn’t the case, then you’ll have to take the necessary steps to make it so before stashing it away.
The best way to store a nylon climbing rope is to keep it protected and in a cool, dry place. Some things that you’ll need to protect it from include:
- Strong Alkalis
- Halogens (chlorine, fluorine, and their compounds)
- Bleaches and Harsh Cleaners
- Light (especially UV light)
- High Temperatures
- Dirt (Sand is the worst)
- Sharp Objects
It’s less imperative that you protect your ropes from the following items, but still best to protect them as much as you can.
- Water (Salt Water is potentially harmful once the rope has dried)
- Sub-Zero Temperatures (Dry nylon will be fine, but frozen wet nylon is a problem)
- Mold, Mildew, and Fungus (These things will live with nylon rope, but they can’t live off of it)
If your nylon climbing rope does come in contact with salt water, it is important to keep it wet until you have a chance to thoroughly rinse all of the salt out of its weave. Allowing the rope to dry lets the salt crystals work on the sheath and the core of your rope like tiny knives.
If your climbing rope is brand new or recently cleaned and inspected, then the best thing to do is to store it inside a rope bag—that way it will be 100% ready to use whenever you come back for it. If you don’t have a climbing bag, you can use something similar to keep the rope from tangling, being impacted, direct sunlight, and harmful chemicals.
How to Clean A Climbing Rope Prior to Storing It?
You should never wash a climbing rope in a washing machine or expose it to harsh cleansers. Instead, use the bathtub or a large bucket. Fill the container with soapy water and pass the rope through your hands to clean it. This is also a good opportunity to visually and manually inspect the rope. When finished, rinse it repeatedly until it rinses clean.
Once a rope is clean and dry, it can be stored in accordance with the shelf-life guidelines provided by the BMC. So, if it has never been used in a climb and just got dirty in transport, you should be good to use it even after 8 or 9 years on the shelf.
At the same time, it should go without saying that a rope that’s had a daily use for six months won’t magically heal after a decade on the shelf. Even if it passes a visual inspection, you should think twice about putting it back into service after all that time has passed. Again, this is because even sitting on a shelf for that time allows time to work on the nylon.
Another thing to consider in relation to the lifespan of your climbing rope are the policies of any authority that sets the rules for you. For example, if you are a guide and your insurance carrier has stricter requirements than the rope’s manufacturer, you should always follow their rules to keep yourself covered.
Getting a full ten-year lifespan out of your stored climbing ropes isn’t hard to do.
If you have recently purchased brand new ropes and want to store them, it can be as easy as getting them inside an appropriate cover and into an area where they’ll remain cool and dry. If you’ve used the ropes, even if it was only once—inspection, cleaning, and proper storage before it goes on the shelf will make sure that it is up to the task when you bring the rope out and put it to work.