Check your gear! It seems amazing that this could happen, but it did. On September 9, 2018, a 12-year-old boy was injured after falling 20-feet on the climb, Microwave, a 5.11c at the Pit area near Flagstaff, Arizona. The cause: non-climbing (fake) carabiners. The boy fell at the 3rd bolt of the climb and sustained injuries to his head and a wrist (both unspecified). The carabiners he was using to attach to these bolts failed and resulted in the ground fall.
How could this happen? All technical climbing gear has to pass CE and/or UIAA certification tests. But as with many things today, from information to gear, knock-offs, fakes, and half-truths abound. What gear is real and what is fake? It can be hard to tell, but by purchasing gear from reputable gear companies you can avoid this issue.
How to buy quality gear and identify non-certified knock-offs?
I conducted a recent search for “carabiners” on a well-known online retailer and found only one UIAA approved brand (Black Diamond) within the first 50 search results. A second search, on the same well-known retailer, but within the subcategory of climbing, resulted in only seven products from UIAA approved brands (Black Diamond, Mad Rock, Omega Pacific) within the first 50 search results. A similar search on a well-known auction site failed to show an approved brand of carabiner until the 37th listing and only three in the first two pages. This total was almost matched by the number of “climbing grappling hooks” featured on the same search listings.
Recreational climbing gear is tested and approved by one of two organizations. The first is the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the second is the Union of International Alpine Associations (UIAA). Climbing rescue gear and clothing can be tested by either (or both) of these and by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). You will often see safety labels for both the CEN, usually designated with “CE” followed by a number and the UIAA, usually designated with the initials of the organization, on approved climbing equipment. That said, recent reports have shown labels on non-tested and approved gear made outside of the EU or the United States.
CE and UIAA labels on a variety of climbing gear
So how to tell if the label is real? You can try to find companies and gear listed at the CEN website, but let me tell you, it is not fun or easy. I usually bypass this site in favor of the UIAA’s website which is much easier to navigate. The UIAA has a database with a very usable search function that allows the user to identify tested equipment. This site also has a list of companies that have submitted gear for testing (see UIAA figure) and are “safety label holders.” In fact, the site is currently undergoing a remodel and has tons of information of interest to climbers with more on the way. For the scientists and engineers among us, this site includes the technical standards for each type of equipment, from dynamic ropes to pitons and everything in between.
A final note about purchasing gear. If you decide to purchase gear at a second-hand shop, be VERY careful and I would recommend never buying a rope or soft goods (slings etc.)!
What about recalled gear? How do I learn more?
Again, look no further than the UIAA website. In addition to a useful search function, the website includes recent press releases from equipment manufacturers and links to recalls. While this is the most inclusive list of recalls on the internet, it may not include all recalls from United States based companies. Also watch social media. Many companies, organizations, and search and rescue teams will share information via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in an attempt to reach appropriate user groups.
When should I retire gear?
The decision of when to retire gear can be difficult and boils down to use and care. I constantly inspect my gear, usually with a quick visual as I am packing my trad rack or visually and manually as I flake out my rope. The important thing here is to check your gear! While hard goods such as carabiners, cams, and nuts are much easier to check and much more durable over the long haul, soft goods such as ropes, cord, and slings are easier to damage. I usually do a really thorough check of my climbing inventory twice a year, once at the beginning of fall and once at the beginning of spring. I also inspect and clean my gear before any long overseas climbing trip or expedition (right before I pack it in my duffle). A simple rule that I live by is: If in doubt, swap it out!
Every manufacturer has a set of guidelines regarding gear life and usage. Don’t guess. Go to their website and check the company’s recommendations. Below is a list of things to consider when inspecting gear. All gear comes with instructions and warnings. Often these are immediately recycled. Take a moment to review as these packets often have recommendations for care of the gear and when to retire it.
- Elasticity – When a rope gets stiff it can produce much higher forces during falls. Elasticity can be lost through a variety of means – even just sitting around.
- Flat spots – These can be found by running your hand down the rope and are caused due to repeated or high fall factor falls.
- Core shot – This occurs when the sheath (the outer rope covering) is cut or suffers an abrasion resulting an exposed rope core.
- If your rope suffers from any of these, it should be retired!
- If your helmet has any cracks or major dents – replace it!
- If the helmet shows any sign of degradation – replace it!
- Often helmets have a manufacture date listed on a sticker on the inside. Most manufacturers recommend replacing helmets every three to five years.
- I also always take my helmet in carry-on luggage as even the most padded and protected checked luggage gets abused and I have had friends get to their destination with a cracked helmet!
- Always check the function of locking carabiners (regular and twist) to ensure the locking sleeve stays in place and that it does not stick.
- Carabiners can be damaged by rope wear over time, wearing grooves into the basket and significantly weakening them. There have been instances of ropes being severed by worn carabiners.
- Pay special attention to carabiners that are on the rope side of a quickdraw or ones used consistently at an anchor (draws or part of a quad) as they wear more quickly.
Rope wear to carabiners. With repeated use, carabiners can wear. This dramatically weakens the carabiner and sharp edges have caused ropes to fray and shear.
Stuck gate on carabiner. Never used carabiners when the gate is damaged.
Quickdraws and Slings
- Any small cuts, nicks, or frays deteriorate the strength of a sling no matter than material.
- UV rays can damage slings and ropes. Prevent exposure when not in use.
Sling Damaged by UV. This nylon sling was exposed to a long period of sunlight, fading the color and degrading its strength.
- Any type of chemical solvent or acid can damage these materials.
- I am careful about where I put my gear in a vehicle or when racking up before heading out to a climb. Always make sure that you never place gear in the bed of a truck, in the trunk of a car, or the back of an SUV that has held chemicals. I always place my gear in the second-row seats.
- When traveling overseas, watch your gear. I once had my entire bag sprayed with fuel when a leak occurred on a bus in Nepal. Luckily, all of my gear within the duffel was enclosed in a waterproof bag and nothing was exposed!
- Protect your harness as you would any other sling or quickdraw (soft goods).
- Limit exposure to the sun and chemicals.
- Pay special attention to the belay loop and hard points (top and bottom). These will get “fuzzy” with use, but you should not see underlying material. Any cuts to these three areas should be cause for retirement.
- Petzl GriGri – Check that the bolt holding the device together is tight (there should be a little play, but certainly not wide enough for a rope to fit). The channel for the rope can get very dirty depending on the environment and should be wiped regularly to prevent grinding dirt and debris into the rope. Check for grooves in the device created by rope wear.
- Tube style belay devices – With constant use, these devices can wear and produce a sharp edge. I once bought a device from a client to prevent them from using it any longer.
Rope wear to tube style belay device. One side of this device is worn to a sharp edge, while the other has little wear. When using this type to belay, alternate between sides to allow for even wear and longer life.
Cams and Nuts
- Check for bends in the axle. If found replace.
- Check for bends or gouges in the cam lobes. While small scratches and dents are okay, larger ones that effect the surface area contact should be a concern.
- Check for smooth pull on the trigger. If they are ‘sticky’ a good cleaning can fix it.
- Check attached slings for wear and replace as with other slings.
- Check and replace if there are frayed or broken wires.
- Replace any nuts that have frayed or cut wires.
- Check nuts for deformities and cracks. If found replace.