Tech Tips 7 – Harness – When do you retire it?

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Kelly Khiew on Genesis 5.12d (Photo by Stephen Parr) 

Harness – is part of the lifeline in a climbing system, along with the rope and anchors. If a harness fails, doesn’t matter how strong your bolts, rope or arms are, you are likely to meet a catastrophic end.

It is a piece of gear that we seldom check and most climbers in Singapore often ask me when they should retire their harness. I also have climbers coming to Taiwan for a few days of climbing with old crusty harness they had received when they started climbing 10-15 years ago. Needless to say we gave them a free loaner and told them they should go shopping when they head back home.

The common question is should we retire harnesses by age? Are the tie-in points too worn? Do the buckles look rusty? The belay loop looks a little frayed, should I still be using it?

The answer to all these questions is simple. When in doubt, change it! A harness in Singapore can cost as little as SGD88 and you get to test and try them in a store. I highly recommend everyone to wear a harness, hang on a rope, drink a cup of coffee before committing to buying one. After all when you are 5m above the last bolt, you do not want to think if your harness is going to hold that fall right?

We are going to talk about some common wear and tear to look out for:

Buckles

In our region, with high humidity and proximity to the ocean, it is a perfect formula for buckles (which are made from various types of metal) to corrode easily. Many harness makers just do not take this into account for some reason. The common climbing areas that a regular Singaporean climber visits includes some of the most corrosive sea cliffs in Asia, Tonsai/Railay – Thailand and Long Dong, Taiwan. Here are some examples of badly corroded buckles:

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Anodized buckles are one of the most commonly found these days. They work well when they are new, however once the exterior of these buckles get scratched or worn (which happens when you are climbing) corrosion can happen quickly (Photo extracted from TaiwanRocks.net)
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Sometimes on the underside of the buckles which you seldom inspect (Photo extracted from TaiwanRocks.net)
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A stainless steel buckle which is one of the most corrosion resistant material for harness seeing some form of corrosion forming after 4 years of daily usage in a seaside cliff
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This is a Petzl Corax harness. One of the few harnesses known to have ‘rusty buckle problems’ in short periods of time in non-corrosive environments
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Healthy looking buckle with slight wear on my retired harness

In my opinion, the buckle of the harness is the key mechanism to tighten and hold the user in place. It is one of the critical points of failure and should be paid extra attention to. If you see cracks, rust or worn out buckles, it might be a good idea to start shopping and retire that harness.

Tie-in points

As the name implies, it is the point where the rope goes into when the climber ties into the sharp end. A typical wear point would be the bottom loop which is the spot connecting to the leg loops. Somehow over the years and retiring many harnesses from my closet, I realise this is the most common wear and tear point. Repeated falls and hanging on the rope may have caused this. But how does a worn-out tie-in point looks like?

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This is a 4-year-old harness which has seen repeated falls, multi-pitches and days of big walling. It shows some threads peeling off and some material worn off. It should be a yellow flag and the user should look into changing a harness soon.
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One of my clients turned up with this 10-year-old Ocun harness. She asked me if it was safe to use and upon inspection it reveals the bottom tie-in points has worn through and the inner webbing is cracked. It is actually quite a clean crack and not from repeated falling, which could mean that the webbing is old and very stiff for this to happen.
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My 6-year-old Arcteryx harness after many big trips, and repeated projecting on sports routes in Europe and many big walls in USA. The bottom tie-in loop has worn through the indicator. It is definitely a red flag for me to change this harness immediately.

Belay Loops

Usually belay loops are plenty strong. So strong that Black Diamond did a QC Lab test, and it stated that a 50% cut belay loop can still hold in excess of 1700kg?! So why would people be worried about their belay loop? For me I’m most worried when people turn up with home made ‘backup’ belay loops as shown below.

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Many climbers like to modify their belay loop with a cord or a webbing similar to this. Harmless as it seems when used together with the belay loop. However I’m worried when a belay device is mis-clipped into just the cord and not the belay loop. Definitely a yellow flag for me.
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Used but not worn. With such a belay loop, it should be plentifully strong still. I’m thinking what my climbing partner would think about me though.

Well that being said in 2006 Oct, the climbing world lost one of its most established climber during his time, Todd Skinner. It was a well-talked about accident that many still mention these days. The story being his belay loop broke when he clipped into his Grigri to rap off the Leaning Tower in Yosemite. The first time the red flag was raised at the base of the climb, when his partner mentioned to him about how worn his belay loop looked. During the 5 days on the wall, his daisy chains were also permanently girth-hitched to his belay loop which could have further abused the already worn-out belay loop.

With all these mentioned, it could be prevented if we check out gears regular and retire old gears that we have doubt in. Also permanently girth-hitching slings to your belay loop will cause accelerated wear and tear to hot spots of the belay loop.

Environment and storage

Avoid corrosive enviroment like storing your favourite harness in the garage cupboard that holds your engine oil, car solvents and what not. Dry, cool and clean environment are the best for webbings which makes your car trunk one of the not so ideal place for storage too.

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Recently during our AMGA SPI exams one of our instructors lay out the climbing gears on the carpark lot. Needless to say I gave my piece of mind during the feedback session. This should be a red flag for all climbers. NEVER lay out your gear in the carpark lot without a tarp. The grease, oil or even battery acid that might have leaked onto the lot is your gear’s worse enemy! Read this!

So here you have it, the basic guide to retiring your harness. There are plenty of articles about which harness works the best so I’m not going into that. My personal all-round go-to harness is the Arcteryx AR-395 which really suits my diverse usage and features packability for my travel lifestyle. I also have a blue collar harness for day-to-day abuse which stands up to the corrosive environment from climbing in the sea cliffs of Taiwan, Singing Rock Onyx. This harness is well-priced and features a stainless steel buckle which is slowly becoming a staple for some harness manufacturers.

Which harness do you like? Do you have some worn out harness pictures to share too? Post under my comment page and share it with other readers!

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