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I answered a question about rope safety with some advice about retiring the rope after a "major" fall. Another user asked me what would constitute a major fall - and I have to admit that I can only give a gut feeling about this, not any properly referenced answer.

Personally, I'd be wary of a rope that took a significant fall of more than several metres, and a number of shorter drops - but is there some more definitive answer? Perhaps manufacturers advise on how much strain their ropes could take before retirement?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Perhaps manufacturers advise on how much strain their ropes could take before retirement?

Yup, they do. The rating is given in terms of UIAA falls, which are pretty "major" falls. A UIAA fall is one with a fall factor of 1.77 and the weight is 80kg - or typically a pretty big fall with a pretty big guy.

This related question may also provide some information: Climbing rope is rated to X UIAA falls. What is a UIAA fall?

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+1. Most of the 10-15' falls you'd take sport climbing don't count as "major falls". – DavidR Sep 11 '12 at 14:35
The fall factor is a key element. A fall of a few meters is no big deal if the climber has already payed out 10-20 meters of rope. – whatsisname Sep 13 '12 at 3:25
I am down-voting this answer in its present state because it doesn't really answer the question, and more importantly it could easily be misconstrued in a dangerous way: a rope should be retired (or cut short) after a single high factor fall; referencing the UIAA fall rating without further explanation could lead one to believe that multiple high factor falls are prudent, when they are not. – Mr.Wizard Sep 16 '12 at 14:05
@Mr.Wizard: different ropes are have different ratings, its the responsibility of the purchaser and maintainer to see what their rope is rated for. Retiring a rope after a single fall, obviously without bothering to read the safety details, is going to be an enormous waste of money. The question asked for what height constitutes a major fall, and this answer correctly points out that the measure involves more than just the height. – whatsisname Sep 18 '12 at 3:38
@whatsisname I realize that advice is not going to be universal but my point is precisely that (many sources say) a rope should be retired after a single major fall no matter how many UIAA falls it is rated for. I don't have time at the moment to find more authoritative references but here are a few random ones. (1) (2) (3) I'll find some better ones later. – Mr.Wizard Sep 23 '12 at 4:46

There are several factors you should considering when judging the severity of a fall.

The most important is the fall factor. That's the distance of the fall (where the climbers started minus where they ended up) divided by the amount of rope between the climber and belayer. In most climbing situations, fall factors are relatively small. A fall factor of 1.0 or above would start to worry me, and the UIAA fall factor of 1.77 is the metric by which your rope is rated (some number of UIAA falls). Wikipedia has a very good description of fall factors if you're looking for more information.

The second factor you should consider is rope abrasion. As the climber falls, the rope stretches a lot, and the rope also rubs against whatever it was resting on (including carabiners, rock, trees, etc...). If the rope were rubbing against a sharp rock, a worn carabiner with nicks, or something else that is sharp, you might end up with a rope which has physical damage. This damage will occur primarily in the sheath, and can lead to a core shot in the rope. If the rope is damaged during a fall, then it is time to retire it.

The important thing to notice is that the fall distance has no impact on the severity of the fall. You can take huge whippers all you want, if enough rope is out (low fall factor) and the rope isn't rubbing on anything sharp (no abrasion) then the fall is safe for the rope (though you might decrease its life span, but that's another discussion).

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