For thirty years the BMC's Technical Group has been issuing safety advice and investigating incidents of failed equipment. Over that time a great body of knowledge has been built up and over 300 investigative reports have been written.
Over the same period several members of the Technical Group have been deeply involved with others in generating UIAA and EN Standards for mountaineering equipment. Over a year ago the Technical Group decided that it was time to bring this information together, within a snappily titled Care & Maintenance booklet. Since then members of the group have been working away, writing up the areas within which their specialist knowledge lies. The simple aim of the booklet is to bring together the lessons learnt in those investigations, the knowledge of standards, and key advice from manufacturers, to become an essential reference for anyone owning or using climbing or mountaineering equipment.
As well as investigating failures, and the work on standards, the Technical Groups other key role is advisory and it is in response to enquiries received that this project was conceived. The most commonly asked questions all relate to the retirement of equipment, generally that held in equipment pools. The advice that the Technical Group gives varies depending of the equipment and situation in question but there are some common principle that are worth restating here.
Since the CEN directive came into force in 1995 and where equipment is subject to degradation, manufactures have been required to include advice on lifetimes within their product information. This is almost always in the form of a figure for shelf life and a figure for in use life. The shelf life is the amount of time before it is possible, given average storage conditions, that significant degradation may have occurred. The average lifetime in use is general guidance at best, as patterns of use vary greatly, and so first hand knowledge of the equipment and physical checks will always be the key information when assessing an items status. In practice the shelf life figures are very conservative and real in use lifetime will rarely match the figure given.
So where does this leave the user? Whether the equipment is being used by an individual or a group the responsible person needs to take into account all they know about:- the equipment's history, the ways in which is has been used, the ways in which degradation can occur, the manufacturers advice and very importantly the results of a physical check- before a decision can be made on retiring the equipment. This may seem like a complex equation but in practise much of the calculation is done sub consciously. In short- if you think it may be time to replace your gear then it probably is.
For an individual climber the technical groups advice can be summarised as follows:
- Familarise yourself with the ways in which equipment can degrade and fail (i.e. read the new booklet). Use this to help make decisions.
- Make regular checks to inspect for damage or wear, know where to look. Discard if significant damage or wear is found.
- Read the manufacturers advice.
- Retire the gear before you start to get worried about it.
- This all applies to those responsible for equipment pools. In addition.
- Make sure the person responsible for making decisions, or putting a regime in place, is appropriately experienced (a 'Technical Expert' is deemed as being of MIA or MIC standard or with equivalent demonstrable experience) and do not allow financial considerations to contradict their judgement.
- Have a system that allows incidents, that may not cause visual or tactile damage, to be reliably recorded (e.g. impact on plastic helmet, big fall on a rope).
In practice it is easier to have a simple regime so that any item is retired after a given time regardless of the individual pattern of use, unless significant degradation has been detected prior to this time (and so regular checks are still essential). Again to decide how long the in use period should be the 'Technical Expert' needs to take into account the factors listed above.
Example: National Mountain Centre Plas y Brenin downgrade all lead ropes after one year. This is because, given the heavy pattern of use, after a year the ropes have usually become furry and handling is affected. In another centre where lead ropes are rarely used it may be that ropes are downgraded after say four years, unless damage is found prior to this. Both systems are equally reasonable as long as they are based on a sound understanding of how the equipment degrades.
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