Safety Talk: What's the Lifespan of My Climbing Gear?
After the long, cold winter of pulling on plastic, you may be hearing the outdoors inviting you outside again. You can hear it now…the chirping birds, the wind rustling the trees, and the clink clank of climber’s gear bouncing in cadence.
As you head up the approach to the cliffs, you can feel the stoke of the first climb of the year.
You’re feeling strong from all the winter workouts as you strap your shoes on and pull out that old rack that’s been sitting in your gear closet since last…who knows when?
The rock feels familiar, an old friend. The movement up the rock is as natural as the first two stoppers you just placed. Feeling confident on the easy terrain, you figure you might just run it out a little. After all, there’s a great placement just a little further up.
Suddenly, you’re 8 feet above that last stopper. As you reach to make your next placement, panic sets in--the cam is frozen. The lobes won’t expand when the trigger is released.
Heart racing and grip starting to sweat, it’s very clear: you forgot check your gear before heading outside for the first time of the season.
IS MY CLIMBING GEAR SAFE?
What a great question to sort out on the ground and not 8 feet above the last piece you placed!
As someone who is frequently climbing outside, I'm constantly inspecting all of our gear to ensure everything we send out to the field is in safe and working order.
Which got me thinking about how important it is to be checking our personal gear every time we use it. At the very least, inspecting your gear with fresh eyes at the beginning of the season is a great idea, especially if your gear has been sitting for a long time. Personally, I find it easier to make an objective decision to retire gear when I haven't been using it every day (RIP Trango B52!).
HOW CAN I TELL IF I NEED TO RETIRE MY CLIMBING GEAR?
Let's look at what to consider when examining your soft climbing goods, climbing hardware, and personal climbing gear.
- Soft Goods: Runners and Ropes. They are light, they are strong, but even with the best of care, they break down over time. Different gear companies all offer their own protocols for when to retire soft goods--typically between 5 and 8 years.
Once the age factor has been taken into consideration, things to look for while inspecting runners and dog bones are the general wear and tear, discoloration, fuzziness, cuts, and fading. Black Diamond offers more information on soft good lifespans.
Checking ropes, same thing – general wear and tear, cuts and discoloration as well as frays. Also check for soft spots, dead spots, and core shots. For example, is the core exposed through the mantle of the rope? Petzl has helpful information on rope retirement.
Hardware: Belay Devices, Carabiners, Traditional Lead Gear. There's a lot of metal and moving parts to a lot of our hardware. Anything that moves has the potential to stop moving, or to wear faster--think carabiners, belay devices, and trad racks.
Carabiners require some judgement in assessing their integrity. How deep are the grooves in the carabiner attached to your belay device? Carabiners are made of aluminum/zinc alloy and wear down as the rope passes through them (the dirtier the rope, the faster the wear). As that happens, gates and locks can get jammed up. I can tell you there isn't a much scarier feeling than being completely gripped on a climb while noticing that the gear you just clipped has a 'biner stuck open. Petzl has more information on carabiner care.
Climbing cams have both the soft goods (which may need to be reslung), and the hardware to check. First, check for functionality of cams. Look for broken or frayed trigger wires, sticky lobes, bent axels, and damaged stems. WD40 type products to clean and specialty items like Metolius cam lube to lubricate.
And how is the wear on your belay device? Mechanical assisted breaking devices, like a GRIGRI, can get gummed up. Remember to inspect all the hardware for visible cracks as well.
- Personal Gear: Helmets, Harnesses, and Shoes. When checking your harness, focus attention on the belay loops (does your belay loop have a wear indicator?), waist belt and leg loop buckles, and the hard tie in points. Is there discoloration, excessive abrasion, fraying, or other damage? I have found that when I'm climbing a lot of off-width crack, I tend to wear out leg loops at an unfortunate rate.
Like your harness and other soft good gear, helmets are susceptible to UV light deprecation as well. They will discolor as they break down. Check for any cracks, ensure that all the straps are in working order, and look to see if the casing is still attached properly to the shell.
Lastly, is it time to resole the shoes? All that training on plastic over the winter months wears the rubber down. Find a good resole and be proactive on your shoe maintenance in order to save yourself some dough for that trip to the Gunks this summer.
Personally, I just invested in a new belay device (a GRIGRI) and a new quiver of alpine draws for my trad rack. I'm pretty stoked to get out!
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