How Many Falls Can a Rope Take?

I learned to climb in Oklahoma on trad crags where the rule was don’t fall on lead. I’ve moved out of state and now see leaders falling all over sport routes. Ropes are rated for a certain number of falls, but how many falls can a rope take before you should retire it?

—Joe Simmons via rockandice.com

The question “How many falls can a rope take?” is second in popularity only to “Ss there a God?” I suggest that if you don’t know the answer to the first, you better know the answer to the last. If only there was an easy answer. The issues of God and fall ratings are faith based—you just have to believe what someone tells you. So, I say: Ropes are rated for falls by their manufacturers, and not by the CE or UIAA. The CE and UIAA simply certify that a rope has held a minimum number of test falls. For a single rope, that number is five.

Once a rope holds five falls, the CE and UIAA step out of the picture. If a rope’s spec lists seven for the number of falls held, those extra two falls are simply a cushion. I don’t pay much attention to them. For Gear Guy, the important numbers are “maximum impact force” and “weight per meter.” I prefer ropes with a soft catch and light weight.

Durability is also part of my equation, but difficult to quantify since there is no standardized test—I just use a rope and if it seems to hold up, I stick with that model.

Climbers get too wrapped up in fall ratings. The types of whippers you’ll take at the crag are only distantly related to those CE test falls. The CE lab, a NASA/voodoo sort of complex, puts climbing ropes through a test course that makes the ones used by SEALS look like a McDonald’s Playland. For the drop test alone they hammer the rope with a 176-pound weight and a fall factor of 1.77 (remember that a
fall factor two is the maximum possible). The test is unrealistically harsh. In real life, most fall factors are well below one. For example,
in a typical sport fall you might fall 10 feet on 50 feet of rope, for a fall factor of 0.2. Consider that climbers routinely fall hundreds of times on ropes without breaking them, while the test fall can break a rope in as few as five drops, and you get the picture.

Forget about “falls held” and instead evaluate how your rope feels and how you have treated it. If you are married or have a girlfriend, this will be all-too-familiar territory. Treated well, your companion will be there long term. Treated poorly … check your rope for mushy spots, core shots, discolorations and any other telltale signs of hard living, such as rope fuzz gathering in your belay device. A couple of dozen hard (high-fall-factor) falls on the same section of rope can trash it, as can falling with the rope running over an edge, which is probably the most common ruiner of ropes. In either instance you
will see or feel a change in the rope. Retire that cord. So far, with the exception of Edward Whymper, it seems like everyone has erred on the side of caution. Maybe there is a God. Amen. Gear Guy has spoken!

 

This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 221 (October 2014).