The first 15 feet on either end of your rope gets by far the most use, wear, and friction. You’re constantly tying into that section, and, more important, the rope absorbs the impact of most falls there, so that part gets a lot of abrasion from carabiners. These parts will get fat, frayed, fuzzy, and after time will generally look different from the rest of the cord. Even after one season with a rope, you can end up with bad ends and a near-new-looking middle portion. Instead of retiring the whole thing, cut off about five meters (about 16 feet) on one end (or both) so you can keep climbing on it.
Although the correct process to cut a rope is very simple, there are two things to keep in mind when you’re done. First, you now have a shorter rope, so if your cord barely touched the ground on certain routes, it definitely won’t now. Make a note of how much you cut off so you know exactly how long your rope is in its current state. Second, the middle mark (or pattern change on a bi-pattern rope) may not be correct any more, especially if you only cut off only one side. Re-mark the new middle point of your rope, so you won’t be racking your brain 600 feet off the deck to remember where the new middle is.
First, sit down and inspect the rope. Look for fat or frayed sections, anywhere you can see the core through the sheath, and any spot that feels malleable and squishy to the touch. Measure about a foot from the damaged section, and position that mark so it’s centered in front of you. Pull the rope so it is held tightly under your left foot on the ground, running up your left leg, over your lap just above your knees, and back down your right leg, secured beneath your right foot. This will serve to stretch the rope and keep your hands free, making it easier to cut.
Wrap climber’s tape around the part you’re going to cut (a foot from the damage, reaching into the good section of the rope) about three to four times, slightly overlapping the tape— don’t just wrap in the same place. Wrap the tape as tight as possible.
While keeping the rope tight under your feet and over your knees, use a sharp knife (not scissors, as they will cause the rope to fray) to cut through the middle of the tape, which keeps the strands from unraveling. After you’ve cut all the way through, use a lighter to melt the rope strands inside the taped end—both the sheath and the core. This keeps the rope from fraying in the future.
When to Retire
The recommended lifespan of a rope is difficult to define; it depends on many factors, including length and type of use, as well as shock loading. Some old ropes can hold short sport falls, while a new rope could easily sever over a sharp edge on the first use. Inspect your rope every time it’s coiled or uncoiled, keeping an eye out for bumps, flat or soft spots, and other abnormalities; examine them carefully and retire the rope if there is doubt. Remember, it’s your rope, and it doesn’t have a backup, so err on the side of caution. Below is a general guideline to follow if your rope hasn’t caught any big falls or run over sharp edges
- Never: 10 years max
- Rarely (twice/year): 7 years
- Occasionally (once/month): 5 years
- Regularly (5-7x/month): 3 years
- Frequently (3-4x/week): 1 year
- Constantly (almost daily): 1 year