After hearing loads of contradictory opinions regarding the lifespan of climbing ropes, we wanted to find an answer for how long ropes last. This is what we found:

Rope inspection is the most important aspect in determining if your rope is safe to climb on. Despite inspection, 10 years is the max lifespan recommended by any manufacturer. And that lifespan is 10 years from manufacturer date, no matter if the rope is used a lot, or none at all.

In this article, after talking about the official retirement recommendations from the manufacturers, we’ll muddy the waters by diving into nebulous terms like abrasion, energy absorption and cut resistance.

If you’d like to read about how to Inspect Your Rope, head over to this post.

Retirement Age of a Rope

Since the polyamide (Nylon) fibers that ropes are made from break down slowly over time, most brands recommend rope retirement after a decade even if the rope has never been used. Not one manufacturer suggests their ropes should last more than 10 years of use. This is more from a legal standpoint versus a scientific one, as there are no official tests for textile aging. The 10 year rule is similar to the “Best By” date on food.

Some studies report that many old, unused ropes (10-15 years old) are still capable of handling UIAA test drops. However, the UIAA only tests and certifies brand new ropes. There are no standards for how ropes age. This is frustrating because it means there is no definitive evidence to say an old rope is safe or not. The only clear note is that you’re taking an unknown risk climbing on a rope that is 10+ years old. “Is it worth it?” is answered only by your acceptable level of incalculable risk.

To play by the rules, here’s the official recommendations of the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) and Mammut (that are very similar to Edelrid, Sterling, Singing Rock, Petzl, and all other manufacturer recommendations):

When to retire a rope / Lifespan of a climbing rope

If you’re curious about a personal scale: we use ropes for 5+ years, several times per month, and have never felt scared to use them. Our ropes 9+ years of age, that have been well-used, rarely go out on trips with us despite them presenting no obvious danger during inspection. This is not a recommendation, just a shared note. We are fortunate to get many ropes to review, so we are not in a common financial situation when it comes to debating a new rope to buy.

How is the Rope Lifespan reduced?

Warning: Because of the ambiguity of these terms, reading below may make it harder for to you to judge the appropriate time to retire your rope.

1. Abrasion

Some interesting findings regarding the effect of abrasion on rope safety have come from the British Mountaineering Council’s Technical Committee (our link broke – we’re looking for a replacement) who found 85% of rope failures they studied (both dynamic and static) over the last 15 years were caused by “serious abrasion over rough or sharp rock edges.” The other failures were the result of contamination via corrosive substances.

The most visible effect of use is the abrasion and friction wear on the sheath, seen as rope “fuzziness.” This is most often caused when a weighted rope runs over an edge, like a sharp rock or even running through carabiners when lowering or rappelling.

The greater the load and the sharper the rock – the greater the wear on the rope. The load from the weight of a body when rappelling, or lowering, damages the rope more than leading and seconding without loading the rope. For reference: rappelling reduces the life span of a rope by a factor of two to three compared with normal climbing. Lowering and top roping accelerates aging by a factor of five to ten.

– Mammut

This reduction of lifespan is a result of the sheath fibers being abraded and torn, and could eventually wear entirely through to the core. Unsurprisingly, a fuzzy rope is much more likely to be cut over an edge than a new rope because there are fewer fibers left to cut through.

This doesn’t mean a little fuzz is bad. In fact, fuzz it’s quite normal.

How Many Years Does a Climbing Rope Last? 1
Image thanks to a Beal Rope Guide PDF that we can’t find since Beal updated their website.

Retire the rope if:

  • The fuzzy area is so worn that you can see the core
  • The fuzzy area is so worn that you can see a significant amount / chunk of material is missing
  • Stop using if the amount of fuzz seems to alter the ability for your belay device to handle it correctly
  • Stop using if the rope is so fuzzy that it also has other poor characteristics like feeling doughy or mushy.
  • Stop using if the rope doesn’t pass other inspection tests

2. Energy Absorption

Every time a rope is loaded it loses a portion of its ability to absorb energy. Although a rope that is allowed to relax after being loaded will regain much of its previous performance, it will never fully recover. The larger the fall and the higher the impact force (greater fall factor), the less a rope will be able to recover.

In Edelrid’s Rope Book, they note that, “Wet ropes are not only heavier and more difficult to handle, they also have less ability to absorb energy dynamically. Should temperatures plummet, and a wet rope start to freeze, it will have significantly lower safety reserves. This applies to ice climbing, fixed ropes, high-alpine use or glacier crossings and also to sudden extreme changes in weather. Impregnated ropes are more capable of dealing with such conditions. They are water resistant and can withstand the wet and the cold longer.”

If the rope experiences a fall factor greater than 1, the BMC, as well as many manufacturers, suggest retiring the rope or downgrading it and only using it for top rope or rappelling. Although such a rope will likely hold smaller falls, it is significantly more prone to cutting when edge loaded versus a new rope.

We are not aware of any cases where a rope snapped due to a lack of capacity to absorb energy. Granted, it would likely be impossible to tell if this was the case, as it could be assumed to be a sharp edge that cut the rope, and that could have been exacerbated from a well-worn rope.

 Energy-Absorption-Infographic

4. Cut Resistance

The ability for the rope to withstand being cut during a fall is of utmost importance. For the rope to resist cutting is partly about how much abrasion is present; if there’s less sheath to cut through then you have less cut resistance. Another part of cut resistance is about energy absorption; when the rope has the ability to absorb more force it applies less of the fall force onto the edge. Additionally, there are infinite scenarios when you look at how the rope is loaded, over what radius it is loaded, the abrasiveness/hardness of the edge.

Cut resistance also relates to the construction such as the weave of the fibers, the thickness of the core/shealth, and many other variables that are also not currently tested/measured.

As the old adage goes: Ropes don’t break, they cut. Every year on average, there are 2 accidents from severed ropes. You can find examples from worn hardware and from sharp rock edges.

The problem is, there is currently no way to answer the question, “How cut resistance my rope?” whether it is new or old. There are no standards or certifications for cut resistance.

Edelrid has been working to solve this ambiguity for years.

They have created a test with reliable, objective results to show a comparative cut resistance. This test is directly related to the real world to say how many years of life left in a rope, but it can compare the cut resistance between new ropes to suggest how they are more or less cut resistant compared to eachother.

Edelrid told us, “In the past year [2019/2020] we also conducted extensive research regarding the effects of long term testing with the machine as well as the significance for the real world with very positively convincing results.”

It’s worth noting that Edelrid is providing their machine notes as open source, so anybody could use it to test their own ropes for a larger market comparison. So far, the manufacturers have not come together to agree on this cut resistance machine and possible standardization.

You can learn more about cut resistance in these two videos by Edelrid:

 

It’s Important to Understand

The industry standards of years of life are a good rule of thumb. Yet the lack of standards for anything-but-new-rope-scenarios make it impossible to pinpoint the exact time of retirement for your rope. Unfortunately for us, the UIAA fall ratings do not take into consideration abrasion, energy absorption, or cut resistance.

Ultimately, knowing when to retire your rope comes down to inspection and the level of risk you’re willing to accept. Using the age of your rope and level of use as a guideline, regular inspection of your rope will most accurately determine when it’s time to retire your rope.

Find out how to inspect your rope in Part 2 of this post – When To Retire Your Rope: Inspection.

Or, if you already know it’s time for a new rope, check out every climbing rope at www.WeighMyRack.com/rope. There are 900+ rope options once you mix in all the lengths and bicolor and dry options.

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Andreas Unterschuetz

Andreas Unterschuetz

Andreas is the other half of WeighMyRack. The half that films and edits all the WeighMyRack videos. And the half that usually does the dishes. And he's really good at making pizza.

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