Tech Tip -Trad – Making the Call
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Deciding when to retire gear is tough. Losing half your rack to an unplanned escape is one thing, but decommissioning gear is quite another. According to several mechanical engineers, climbing hardware (biners, cams, nuts) is almost always safe unless it displays obvious faults such as cracks, deep gouges, or doesn’t function smoothly. The following tips can serve as parameters for when to retire your gear, but as with all things climbing, use good judgment — if you doubt a piece, replace it. Thoroughly inspect your entire rack once or twice a year; it’s better to shell out than to be run out above gear you wished you’d replaced. Ropes. Ropes represent a critical single point of failure (a non-redundant aspect of the system, e.g. a belay biner or a belay device), so special attention is warranted. One common sign of wear is for a rope to lose its elasticity — and thus its ability to absorb fall forces — and become stiff. Falling onto a stiff rope means higher forces are generated on the system, a situation that contributes to gear shearing, pulling, or breaking, especially small or marginal trad gear, or ice screws. Stiff ropes also make for a harsher catch for the belayer, who could possibly lose braking control. To inspect your cord, run it through your fingers feeling for “flat spots” (places where the inner fibers have deformed from repeated or high-fall-factor falls), “core shots” (nicks in the sheath that expose the core), and overall stiffness. If you discover any of these, replace your cord. A reasonable estimate of when to retire your rope is after three years of weekend use, or one year of extended use. Be advised that ropes lose their elasticity even just sitting around, so ropes older than five or six years aren’t suitable for lead climbing. Software.Quickdraws and slings (both nylon and Spectra) are uber strong, but any nicks, runs, or frays greatly reduces their tensile strength. If you think your software (including ropes and harnesses) has been exposed to solvents, bleach, acids, too many UV rays, or harmful vapors, replace it. Manufacturers recommend replacing nylon products every five years, and Spectra every three.Harnesses. Harnesses are made from super-durable nylon, but some areas wear faster than others. The most obvious wear spots are the tie-in points. Inspect these regularly to ensure that rope friction hasn’t sawed through the protective nylon sheath, or worse, into the structural webbing itself. Also inspect the waist-belt webbing where it passes through the buckle, and the belay donut. Fuzz is OK, but if the fibers are cut, the strength of the webbing is greatly diminished. If there is visible wear in any of these places, buy a new rig. Biners. Biners are only strong if the lock mechanism (either a pin-in-notch or a keylock) engages the gate with the rest of the body. A carabiner’s open-gate strength is only a fraction of its normal capacity. If a biner doesn’t shut soundly after a clip, clean it; if that doesn’t work, chuck it. If there are any visible cracks, chips, or if rope friction has worn down the basket, discard the unit. It’s normal for the bolt-end biner to display impact marks — make sure you use dedicated bolt-end biners so that your rope doesn’t get pulled taut over sharp spots that can potentially harm your cord. When the nicks become gouges, replace the biner.Nuts. Take a few good falls onto a nut placed in a horizontal and the cable will likely fray. After a good whipper, inspect the nut to make sure there aren’t any sharp burrs or frays in the non-weight-bearing ends of the wires that could tangle or damage your runners or draws — remove these burrs with a standard file or nail clippers. If there are frays or burrs in the weight-bearing wires, replace the nut. In the case of micro-nuts, especially the silver-soldered variety, bent or damaged wires at the head (from falls or aggressive cleaning) are common, and are grounds for immediate retirement.Cams. Any bend in a cam’s axle compromises the unit’s strength, even if the spring and trigger actions are still smooth. Regularly inspect your cams to make sure the axles are in good condition. As with biner gates, it’s essential that a cam’s springs work well enough to hold the unit in place until the cam is weighted. If the springs are sticky, give the device a good cleaning. Cam lobes slightly deform where the metal touches the rock during a fall. Small dents and deformations are fine, but any significant deformation can prevent a cam from rolling smoothly when loading. In this case, replace the unit. Most cam manufacturers will replace the slings for a reasonable fee, as will several third-party stitching services — follow the same guidelines for these slings as you would other “software.” Belay devices. Belay devices are another important single point of failure, and should be inspected regularly. Tube-style devices commonly wear where the rope enters the unit from lowering and rappelling, creating a sharp edge. Grigris also require periodic cleaning and inspection to ensure that the rope hasn’t worn out the curved lowering edge or the stopping plate. If you notice a deeply worn groove or sharp edge on your belay device, replace it immediately.Helmets. Helmets can crack just from rough handling or from being dropped inside a pack, let alone from severe direct impacts. Manufacturers recommend replacing helmets every three to five years of normal use, but if your helmet takes a solid hit, or shows signs of cracking or age, pony up and replace your lid. The contents inside are worth far more than a new model. This Tech Tip was written with expert consultation from Tom Jones, M.E.