Recently, some climbing friends had gathered together for a non-climbing scenario. I know, shocking, right? Anyway, one of the newer guys who had just gone out on his first crag after spending time on the climbing wall at the gym asked us about wet ropes and electricity.
To me, it seemed obvious. Water + electricity = not good. But with the other guys in the group, I found that while the obvious answer is that water does conduct electricity and having a wet rope kind of puts you in more danger for that, but there are certain ropes that maintain a drier profile, namely dry ropes.
So, really, it does depend on which rope you choose and the materials used for manufacturing it. Ropes that don’t conduct electricity are clean, dry, polypropylene ropes. If you’re looking for some, I list some of the ones I’ve used and liked below.
During our gathering, we got into a big discussion about ropes which probably sounded totally lame to anyone that doesn’t climb, but for us, it was intense. After all, we’re passionate about climbing. The discussion continued on and I thought that I’d address some of the things that came up that evening to clear the air.
Is it safe to rappel on a wet climbing rope?
As for rappelling, the rope being wet doesn’t weaken it. There’s no difference between it and a dry rope for rappelling. It’s the static strength that is most important during this time. When the rope is dry, it loses strength on the rappel. When it’s wet, the strength loss is tripled.
What that means is that dynamic performance is lost, and that’s very important when you’re taking the lead fall. We rely on our ropes for support, and with a wet rope, that support is compromised.
Additionally, there’s the problem with it freezing too. If you’re mountain climbing or the weather is just plain frigid, moisture from the air can penetrate your rope and get the insides wet, leaving you more vulnerable. And when there’s a wet rope, you know what that means, right? You’re more prone to conducting electricity.
For climbers that live in areas that tend to get wet, it’s not a bad idea to make an investment in the more expensive ropes that have dry treatment. You’ll get plenty of use out of it and you won’t have to fear being the next Einstein experiment.
Can you rappel in the rain?
Well, it’s not an ideal situation, I’ll say that. Likely though, you’re not looking out the window and going, “Whoa! It’s raining! Quick! Let’s go rappelling!” Much more likely, you’ll have planned a climb and found yourself caught out in bad weather. It happens, even when we check the reports. There’s always a degree of error that comes with those.
I’ve been there. We were up on a multi-pitch when we saw the clouds rolling in. Nothing in the weather report had even mentioned an inkling of rain, but there it was on the horizon. Fortunately, we were lucky. We decided to call it a day and rappel back down and no sooner than we did, it started raining.
The rain wasn’t too hard at that point, but there were several of us up there and by the time we all got down, the ropes were soaked. Heavy too! And as soon as we finished loading my SUV, a crash of thunder made us nearly jump out of our skins. Some other people had been up there too and we sat in the car until we saw them running with their gear to theirs. They were lucky too.
If we’d hesitated any longer, I might not be here writing this post. Being up on the crag with a conduit of electricity is one of the worst things you can do.
In short, yes, you can rappel in the rain, but only do it as a last resort when you’re trying to get out of there like we were. You shouldn’t be seeking thrills of rappelling in the rain deliberately.
Can you fall on a wet rope?
Short answer: yes, with a big BUT. The but is this: all rope manufacturers do not recommend you do it. But if you’re in a pinch like we were, you can get down and to safety. Making a habit of it is truly discouraged.
Today’s dry-treated ropes are better, but they still take a beating. Falling on a wet rope causes more damage to the rope that will impact its future performance, even long after it has dried. So let’s say you hit the crag this weekend and bam! Out of nowhere, rain blows in and spoils your day. You and your climbing partners rappel back down and drag those heavy ropes back to your car, and as you do, remember that you’ll be looking into buying new ropes soon.
Ideally, you’ll be buying the dry-treated ones the next time around, but they’re not completely impervious.
And for those of you that climb in places near lakes, rivers, streams, or where it rains frequently, soaking the ground and leaving puddles, I urge you to consider dry-treated ropes to keep them lasting longer and to give you more durability and protection for climbing and rappelling.
What do I do next?
So let’s say you have a wet climbing rope on your hands. What do you do with it? Toss it? Not so fast. It’s not ruined forever; it’s simply lost a little longevity. How you treat it next is what matters.
There are ways to dry it and properly care for it. After all, manufacturers recommend you wash your ropes on occasion. More on that below.
How can you dry a wet climbing rope once it happened on a climb?
Got your wet rope with you? Good. Here’s what you do to get it dry again.
1. Think cool, breezy, and shaded
You want to create the perfect drying environment for your wet climbing rope. There are 3 factors to that – a place that is cool, has air circulating rapidly, and is shady. You never want to place it to dry under the direct sunlight. The UV rays can damage the fibers. Any artificial heat source, like a hair dryer for example, is another bad idea. Try indoors, perhaps in your garage, with fans pointed at it to circulate the air and keep it cool.
2. Show the surface
Don’t leave your wet rope coiled up. That won’t do any good. You’ll want to uncoil it and lay it out so that the surface area is exposed. You should rotate it throughout the day to allow the other side maximum ventilation too.
3. Let that air flow
Speaking of ventilation, it’s so important for drying your climbing rope that I felt it deserved its own point. Anything you can do to create a nice air flow, do it. That could mean opening the windows, turning on fans, or getting multiple plug-in fans to do the job. By letting your rope dry in these normal conditions, it reduces the damage done.
That being said though, one thing you really should do often is check your ropes for wear and tear. Saving your life is more important than saving money. Always inspect your ropes and if something looks like it’s seen better days, replace it.
What can you do to keep your climbing rope dry?
Another big part of our discussion that night was how to keep our climbing ropes dry. You can only do so much when it comes to planning for the weather and the terrain.
So how do you keep your climbing rope dry?
One of the guys brought up a good point too – sometimes those overnight multi-pitch climbs leave you vulnerable to morning dew or a sprinkling while everyone is asleep. It’s important to protect your ropes even when they’re not in use. Plus, you know, electricity and the added weight of wet rope (which feels like a lot, believe me).
– Use a tarp or rope bag
One of the best ways to keep your rope dry is to keep it contained. A rope bag or tarp will keep it safe from dirt, debris, rain or any type of water, even snow. You’ll want to fold it up and try to keep it covered when it’s not in use. Of course, when it is in use, you’ll want to watch the weather conditions and try to avoid getting it wet. Not always possible, particularly with mountain climbing, but do what you can.
– Invest in a dry-treated rope
Dry-treated ropes are more expensive, but they’re worth the investment if you live in a wet environment or frequently go ice or alpine climbing. The coating used for dry-treated ropes stops it from absorbing water. Look for the new certification for water-repellent ropes by the UIAA. In order to receive this ranking, ropes can’t absorb more than 5% of water to qualify. Fortunately, there are quite a few choices for ropes that meet these standards. If you plan on spending a lot of time climbing, it’s worth it to have your ropes keep you safe and to prevent conducting electricity. Here is one of my favorite dry-treated climbing ropes.
Can you safely wash your climbing rope?
Did you know you’re supposed to wash your ropes? Beginner climbers usually don’t realize this. But if you read the packaging on your ropes, the manufacturers recommend it to keep it in good condition. The more gunk that builds up inside the fibers of the rope, the faster it’s going to lose its strength.
How do you wash your climbing ropes?
Easy! Well, in theory, it is. You’ll want to wash them by hand for the best results, though you can use a washing machine. Washing by hand ensures you don’t tear or damage it. You should never use strong cleaning agents on your climbing ropes either. Lukewarm water is perfect.
Yes, you can put them in the washing machine, but let me say this: you run the risk of ruining the dry treatment and exposing the rope, which means it will be less effective for keeping water and moisture out. If you insist on washing it in the washing machine though, you should put it in a pillow case and wash without soap and without using hot temperatures.
It’s a bit time-consuming as you’ll need to lay out your climbing ropes to dry them properly, as I mentioned earlier on in this post. You’ll need to remember to check on the ropes and move them around here and there, so all areas of the rope dry and no mold builds up.
When it’s time to wash my ropes, I generally do it on a Sunday morning, after I’ve spent a Saturday climbing. This way, I’m home and able to attend to moving them around and ensuring they’re drying properly. I’ve taken care of many climbing ropes this way, though initially, I didn’t and I felt it in the form of stronger friction. It was really uncomfortable and after talking with those more experienced than I was, I discovered why.
Another tidbit of advice for you on washing your climbing ropes is to use a wet-protection agent. The manufacturer of your rope will most definitely have them. You can find them here.
Ideally, you want to avoid getting your climbing ropes wet unless you’re washing them. If you’re in an icy environment, it’s next to impossible, which is why you need dry-treated ropes to stand up for you in those elements. If you live in a place that’s mostly dry or you stick to the climbing wall, you’ll be less concerned about dry-treatment on your ropes.
The most important thing though is to watch out for water when you climb. Even if the weather promises to be stellar, be prepared for the ‘what if’ that could come along. If the worst happens, get down as quickly as you can to avoid being a conduit for electricity. Sometimes even those peaceful rain showers bring a sudden bolt of lightning and it’s not worth sticking around to wait and see. Climb safely and stay dry, my friends!