How to clean a climbing rope
There are many different reasons to keep your rope clean. First and foremost is that a clean rope is a well cared for rope and your life depends on this little piece of string. The first strategy for rope cleanliness should be not to get it dirty in the first place. Always use a belay tarp and try to keep your rope out of the dirt and grime. If you climb outside on any sort of a regular basis you will quickly see that it is impossible to keep the rope clean after a certain amount of time. We have had our Edelweiss Axis for a couple years and it has gotten dirty from use. We have tested several cleaning methods with varying degrees of success.
There is an ongoing debate about the best cleaning methods for climbing ropes. A lot of people have strong opinions on what is and is not safe to do to your rope. We don’t intend to enter into that debate with this article. This article is intended only to illustrate the results we have received by various methods of rope cleaning. We aren’t advocating any method. As always look for manufacture recommendations on proper care and maintenance of your rope. The UIAA also has information on the Aging of Climbing Ropes and the Marking of Ropes by Climbers that is worth a read if you have yet to see it. Your safety depends on your rope so it is important to do what you are comfortable with.
Our first attempt at cleaning was the gentlest way possible, using our hands. Unfortunately, it is also the most labor intensive. We got a large bucket with 2 tablespoons of Dr. Bronner’s baby mild and let the rope soak for 2-3 hours. Then we ran the rope through our hands meter by meter in the soapy water. At this point we let the rope soak in the bath tub full of clean water for about an hour before running the rope through our hands again. We did this until the water in the tub was clean. We then draped the rope over our clothes drying rack and left it inside to dry. It took about 2 days to fully dry. Given the time and labor requirements for this method we only did this once. The result was pretty good. The rope was fairly clean (i.e. on first use our hands stayed clean while belaying) but not as clean as the other methods described below.
Top loading washing machine
Several things we read on the internet suggested that top loading washing machines are safe for rope washing. We coiled the rope in a slip knot chain and put it in a pillow case to ensure that it wouldn’t get tangled. We then added two tablespoons of Dr. Bronners baby mild and set the washer to the gentle wash. We ran it through a second time with no soap just to make sure it was well rinsed. The result was excellent. There was no visible dirt on the rope and the color looked as good as new. Our hands stayed clean longer while belaying. There was no visible wear from the wash and we have used this method to clean the rope several times with the same results.
We flaked the rope out in long sections and held the rope in place with our toes as we walked the length of the rope slowly spraying every meter. We could visibly see the dirt coming off the rope as we sprayed. After one spray we did our best to roll the rope180 degrees and spray the other side. We were pleased to see the dirt coming off of the rope. The rope definitely looks good after this method and keeps your hands clean while belaying. I would use this method again but I would prefer to use the top loading washing machine if available.
Still better might be making your own rope washer like the one seen here. It combines the gentleness of hand washing with decent water pressure. I haven’t sampled this method but it would probably work pretty well. You can alternately purchase a rope washer here.
Regardless of your opinions on proper rope maintenance and treatment it is extremely important to monitor the health of your rope as you use it. Check every inch of your rope often for core integrity and sheath wear. You are trusting your life to it and if there is any doubt as to the safety of the rope it is time to retire it. Sure, ropes are expensive but not as expensive as hospital bills or worse a funeral. It might be grim, but it is the reality of climbing and it needs to be respected at every step of the process. Climbing injuries largely occur from improper use of equipment and carelessness. Be vigilant and have fun. Climb on!
Have any other rope cleaning strategies you’d like to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.