How to Take Care of Your Climbing Rope

Mia Axon relies on her rope on the Cobble Roof at Maple Canyon in Utah. Remember that your rope is your lifeline. Treat it well and it will last long. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Whether you're scaling a small cliff or tackling one of the world's most challenging cave routes, the most important piece of climbing equipment you have is your rope. That rope won't last forever, but there are a few tips you can follow to increase its longevity. Proper care will keep your rope from going soft and spongy so you don't have to worry about staying safe when you climb.

1. Don't Step on Your Rope

Besides climbing and lowering, nothing wears out your rope faster than stepping on it, especially if it is lying in sand or on the ground.

If there are rocks underfoot, stepping on your rope can even cut the sheath. At the very least, stepping on your rope will grind dirt and dust into the sheath and core, causing unseen internal damage to the rope. When you're standing at the cliff base, especially if you have new climbers with you, remind yourself and others to be careful where you step.

2. Use a Rope Bag

Use a good rope bag that unfolds into a spacious tarp for your precious climbing rope to lie on at the base of the cliff. A good rope bag keeps dust and dirt from finding its way into your climbing rope. Dirt and flecks of rock impair the strength, safety, and performance of your rope. They wear the rope out more quickly, too. If you don't already have a rope bag, buy one and use it.

Most rope bags fold up neatly and be carried over your shoulder with a strap or secured to the top of your pack when you are hiking to the crag.

It is especially important to use a rope bag at popular cliffs, like Shelf Road, Joshua Tree National Park, or New River Gorge, where lots of other climbers stand around, leaving fine pulverized dust on the ground, and at sandstone climbing areas like Wall Street near Moab, where sand blankets the ground below the routes.

3. Run Your Rope Freely

Make sure your climbing rope runs freely whenever possible. There’s nothing that will trash a rope like sharp edges or rough corners. If you’re leading a pitch, use slings to keep the rope well away from the cliff face. If you’re top rope climbing, make sure that the master point for the rope is extended well over the edge of the cliff so that the rope does not become abraded from horizontal edges. Also remember that a fall onto a sharp edge can seriously damage or slice through a climbing rope.

4. Switch Ends After Falling

If you climb many sport routes, alternate which end of the rope you use to lead and fall on. Avoid taking frequent falls at the same end of the rope if you’re working a project route. Falls stretch the rope out and slowly damage it. If you've taken a big whipper or fall, allow your rope to take a rest. Alternating ends when sport climbing will help prolong the rope's life.

5. Wash Your Rope

When your climbing rope gets dirty, you need to wash it. Washing increases the rope's life by removing abrasive dust from the sheath. Washing also helps with the handling of the rope. If you climb a lot, aluminum oxide is deposited onto the rope’s sheath as it runs through aluminum carabiners.

Your hands will get dirty from the oxide even if you are just holding the rope while belaying. Regular washing of your climbing rope helps alleviate that dirty-hand syndrome and keeps your cord looking new.

To wash your rope, place it in a large mesh bag and seal the top with a drawstring. Place the bag in the washing machine and run it through a long cycle of cold water without detergent. Once the cycle is complete, take the rope out and drape it loosely in a wash basket. Allow it to air dry in a cool dark place for a few days.