Is Your Climbing Gear Safe? How To Inspect It And When To Know to Retire It

Inspecting climbing gear is the best way to ensure that it still works properly and is safe to use. Making gear inspection a regular, ongoing part of your routine is important for your safety and that of your climbing partners, as the consequences of gear failing due to inattention to issues can be fatal. You need the utmost trust in your climbing equipment, and it needs to perform every time it’s used. 

Below are some tips on how to inspect common climbing gear, and what to look for when retiring a piece. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out to your local EMS Climbing School.

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

Wires and Cables

Found in protection like nuts, cams, and some hexes. Check the entire length of cable, carefully feeling for frays or damage. Kinks are not necessarily bad, but can interfere with function, making protection harder to place effectively. Check that a kink is not hiding a tear in the cable. Frayed cables indicate a piece ready for retirement, except in very minor cases, but make sure that any tiny frays won’t be hooking on slings or rope. 

Carabiners

Inspect the body of the carabiner, looking and feeling for cracks, burrs, and wear grooves. Check the action of the gate, as well as locking features if your carabiner has any. Any moving parts that become sticky or slow can be cleaned in hot water and lubricated with dry lubricant like what Metolius sells. Once a groove gets deeper than 10 percent of the carabiner’s thickness or develops an edge, it’s time to retire. As for the fabled “microfractures,” extensive break testing has disproved the concept in modern metal pieces, but if you have any doubts, retire the piece. 

Belay Devices

There are so many vastly different belay devices that we will keep it general here. As with carabiners, look over and feel the entire device, and pay special attention to the area(s) of the device that handles the rope. Pay attention to different materials, and actuate any parts that are meant to move. Check with manufacturers’ specifications. If any sharp edges or deep grooves form, then the device should be retired. 

Cams

Check the lobes for cracks or deformation. Inspect the axle(s) and the rest of the cam head, then go down the stem and look for deformation in the plastic casing or in the exposed cables, depending on the device. Check that the trigger still works, and that the trigger wires are intact (slight fraying can be acceptable here) and if not, you can buy replacements for some models. If your cam has a thumb-loop, check the integrity of the casing and shape of the loop. Finally examine the sling for any signs of damage (more on slings below). Actuate the cam plenty of times and observe how each part is working, and look, listen, and feel for anything out of the ordinary. If the action of the cam sticks or feels slow, or if the head is dirty, try cleaning the cam in hot water and lubricating the axles (Metolius lube is best). If cam slings are worn or questionable, you can get them reslung by one of several companies, including Black Diamond, Metolius (both will mend their own cams only), Mountain Tools, and the local Ragged Mountain Equipment (both work on a variety of gear). 

Credit: Sean Coit
Credit: Sean Coit

Rope

Start at one end, and using one hand, pull the rope slowly through a thumb and finger of the other hand (pinched on the rope) to feel for anything out of the ordinary while you are looking for discolored spots, fraying, or the dreaded “core shot.” Feel for lumps, flat spots, and irregular stiffness as you go. If you come across a questionable area, pinch the rope at this point, making a tight bend or bight. A healthy rope when bent will make a tight circular shape, and if you find a sharp bend or pinch, you’ve found a core shot. Core shots generally mean retiring the rope, although if close enough (within a meter or two) to the ends of the rope a core shot can be cut off. If you are cutting your rope remember that any marked midpoint is now inaccurate, and your rope is shorter than you’re used to. Fuzzy ropes are not necessarily done for, but it can be a tricky judgment call to gauge how much fuzz is too much, so pay attention to manufacturers’ lifespan recommendations as well as the performance of the rope. If you are ever unsure about a damage spot or excessive wear, seek qualified opinions as every case is different. 

Slings and Cord

Like the rope inspection, use your fingers to feel as you visually inspect. Check for fraying, tears, melted spots, and discoloration, and feel for stiffness or softness. Be especially wary of certain areas like stitching or bar-tacks where a loop is joined, or sewn ends on a piece of cord, as well as areas that are normally covered or bent in the same place (both are applicable in cams). It is a good idea to untie any knots that you have tied when inspecting softgoods, as melting and wear can occur inside of a knot without being visible. 

Rock Climbing

Helmets

The most important thing to check is the structural integrity of the helmet, by looking and feeling for cracks, dents, or other deformations all over the outside and inside of the protective parts of the helmet. Take any liners out while doing this, and it is worth noting that stickers or decorations on the outside of the helmet can make finding potential issues more difficult. Small dings in the helmet may not be a big deal, but even minor impacts can affect the strength of the helmet over time. Any large deformities or cracks warrant retiring. When checking the harness of the helmet, inspect the webbing as you would any other cord, and test the closure. Check any plastic parts for fatigue or cracks. 

Harness

Inspections for metal and textile parts are the same as above. Check for fraying or blown stitching throughout the harness as well as wear in the tie in points and belay loop. Make sure buckles are free of sharp spots and not deformed. If there is any doubt about the integrity of the harness it should be retired. 

Shoes

Climbing shoes primarily get retired or serviced due to performance concerns, and while not always the case, this  could even affect the safety of the climber. Luckily, you don’t need a new pair of shoes every time one pair is worn out, and can get your shoes resoled for quite a bit less. Once the sole starts to wear through to the rand, it’s time for a resole. If you can see your toe through the rand then you need a new rand as well, but resole shops can mend both the rand and sole. The best local shops are New England reSoul in Newfields, NH and Plattsburgh Shoe Hospital in Peru, NY.