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It is imperative that climbing ropes are in excellent shape so they don't split while someone is climbing.

How do I properly inspect the rope when I'm about to start a climb?

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

I would inspect your rope long before you get to the crag, rather than just before you're about to use/need it.

Rope inspection is essentially going over the whole length of the rope, looking for grit or evidence of wear in the outer layer. One thing to note, the inside of the rope might have been strained and this isn't easily visible from the outside - sometimes you can feel the outer layer sliding over these areas.

Rope has a shelf-life - but this also depends on how often you use it. Another rule of thumb to follow is that if you have taking one major outdoor lead fall on the rope (from above protection), then you retire it. You can take several minor falls before retiring it. Top-rope falls should almost have negligible effect - unless there was a lot of slack in the system for some reason and the climber fell more than a couple of metres or so.

If, at any time, you are not confident in your rope - replace it. The price is worth a lot less than a climbing injury.

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+1 for inspecting the rope before you get there! – berry120 Jan 25 '12 at 23:09
    
yeah - nothing worse than driving for hours only to find that a critical bit of gear is not up to the job :p – HorusKol Jan 25 '12 at 23:15
    
What do you mean by 'top-rope' falls? – Justin Self Jan 26 '12 at 5:00
    
Top-rope climbing is where someone is climbing at the bottom end of a rope - either the belayer is at the top pulling the rope up, our it passes through a top-anchor back to a belayer at the foot of the crag. Lead climbing involves the climber dragging rope up behind them and placing add they go – HorusKol Jan 26 '12 at 10:39
    
What would you consider a major or minor lead fall? I often have about 4-5 meter dynamic falls and have had a few longer ones. Is that considered a major fall and should I retire the rope or is it enough just to cut the ends? – Miguel Madero Sep 10 '12 at 1:45

It is good while checking the rope to squeeze it between the fingers to try to feel any voids inside the sheath. The absence of a void does not mean the rope is safe but the presence of a void justifies retirement.

Ropes typically have a climbing life of 3 years.

Another point of inspection is to be certain the rope is long enough for the climb. Tie a knot at the end of your rope to prevent the belayer from paying out all the rope causing the climber to fall to the ground without a belayer to arrest the fall.

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The UIAA disagrees with your 3 year estimate. They say storage and UV ageing can "almost" be neglected. – StrongBad Apr 25 at 15:33

A few points that haven't been added here yet:

  • A common cause of rope failure that I've read about has come from accidental chemical contamination. For example one unlucky climber left their rope in their car trunk and small amounts of battery acid got on the rope and damaged it. Check the sheath for any evidence of chemical contamination (corrosion, oil, etc). Water is ok, but nothing else is.
  • Ropes are worn more heavily near the ends where the knots are tied. Check these areas particularly carefully. Some climbers have been known to shorten their rope as they use it to eliminate the more heavily worn ends. You can cut a rope and melt the end on a hot plate.
  • The last point about cutting a rope isn't a bad idea in general. As time progresses with a rope you may very well want to cut the end of it and inspect the inner strands. The inner strands are the load bearing part of the rope and most need inspection. The sheath can take moderate wear over the life of the rope, but the inner strands should be flawless.
  • The most basic check is to pinch and wiggle the rope along the length of it to verify you don't feel any variation in the inner strands. I would do this at the crag, and sure, before too. But since I have heard of cases of rope failure due to transportation in the trunk of a car, at the crag covers the time you haven't been paying attention to it more thoroughly.
  • The last point I've seen mentioned in books is to try and keep small particle dust out of your rope, as the rope stretches tiny lodged rocks/particles could cut away at it. I'd raise an eyebrow at a particularly dirty rope. Especially if there's any reason to worry that particles have worked their way under the sheath.
  • Lastly, and probably obvious enough, tears in the sheath are a red flag. The sheath is there to protect the core, mild, even fraying with use is ok, but never climb on a rope where the core is anywhere near exposed (and definitely not fully exposed).

As a side note, I'd also suggest reading "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" as a great way to keep on top of what actually goes wrong in climbing. It's illuminating to see what mistakes really are causing deaths in climbing. The book summarizes and analyzes climbing accidents each year.

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Ideally, Inspect it indoors, before you leave for Outdoors. :) Look out for tangible signs like wear n tear on outer layer of rope, cuts, brazes etc. For the inner layer, it should be intact as with outer layer. If its moving on its own, should ring bells to your head!

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