With the country in the icy grip of winter, there hasn't been too much rock climbing going on down here in Cornwall, this past week. There has been the odd day when the sun has been shining, but freezing temperatures has kept most people indoors. Because of this, I thought this would be a good opportunity to do some maintenance on my climbing gear, especially as I have been out climbing ng down in Penwith, earlier this month. Sea water and the salt air environment around sea cliffs can have a dramatic affect on karabiners, cams and wires, if left untreated. Anyone who has come down to Cornwall on a climbing holiday, stuffed their climbing gear into their rucksack and gone home, will have noticed that the next time they go climbing that corrosion will already be attacking the metalwork, even after a short period of time.
Initially, shiny metal will take on a dull appearance, then a white powder (aluminium oxide) appears. The gates on karabiners become stiff to operate, as do the operation of cams. These are warning signs, and if left untreated, you will be unable to recover the items and will have to retire them from use and buy new ones (expense!!). If left untreated for longer periods, the metal starts to exfoliate and eventually crumble to dust.
The picture on the left shows two karabiners that were recovered from a Welsh sea cliff. Note the severe exfoliation corrosion on the grey karabiner. Also note that the barrel from the screwgate has completely disappeared. It is worth noting that the purple karabiner seems less affected by corrosion. This maybe due to the fact that the metal has been anodised during manufacture (more of this later), is a younger item, or a combination of both.
The cam unit on the right is seized solid. None of the individual cam lobes move at all. This is because the aluminium lobes have corroded around the steel axle. If you look closely, the 'trigger wires' are rusty (corroded!). It is interesting to note that both the karabiners and the cam were not in a position to be immersed in salt water (the cam was recovered from a climb at Bosigran, which is located some 300 feet above the sea) and it is just the salt in the air, coupled with our 'moist' UK climate, that has led to the corrosion. It is because of this effect that fixed gear (pegs) should be treated with caution and always backed up with other protection, where possible. The opinion of the majority of local climbers in Cornwall, is that because the coastal conditions (Atlantic storms) seem to accelerate this corrosion at a greater rate than other areas in the UK, there should be no fixed gear on any of the Cornish sea cliffs. This has led to the removal of nearly all of the known fixed gear. (The peg on Little Brown Jug at Bosigran, being a prominent example).
So what can we do to counter this nasty corrosion process? Well, drawing on my experience as an aircraft engineer in a previous life (where corrosion is a very serious matter) and 25 years of climbing, I would recommend the following:
1. After climbing on a sea cliff, even if you weren't wave-washed (scary thought!), take all your climbing gear out of your rucksack and hang it up, inside, at the end of every climbing day.
2. At the end of your seacliff climbing holiday, or after a week (whichever comes first), wash all metalwork and textiles (slings, harnesses and ropes) in fresh water and allow to air-dry naturally. It is important to wash textiles, as once they start to dry, salt crystals form and can start to cut through the small fibres, weakening the item concerned.
3. Once a month, or at the end of your sea cliff climbing holiday, spray all metalwork with WD-40, paying particular attention to the cables on nuts/wires and cams. (WD-40 was formulated specifically to counteract the effects of corrosion, unlike a lot of other treatments). I find this prolongs the life of my climbing hardware, when compared to other lubricants. Again, hang up to drip-dry (remember to put a tray underneath to catch the excess WD-40). Then, before storing, wipe off any excess with an old cloth/kitchen towel. Try and keep any WD-40 off any slings. Although the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) did test the affects of substances on slings (nylon and dyneema) and found it to be negligible, it's better to be safe than sorry!
Hopefully these tips will prolong the life of your kit. For further info on equipment maintenance, read the leaflets that should come with any new item of equipment you buy (yes, I know most of us just rip it off and throw it away, but there is some useful information contained in them). The BMC produce a Care and Maintenance booklet, which is a brilliant resource, and is available as a FREE download by clicking here.
DMM Climbing anodise much of their climbing hardware. This helps to protect aluminium from the effects of corrosion. They have produced an article about why they anodise their kit, including a video, on their website and can be reached by clicking here.
The WD-40 website can be reached by clicking here. (and no, I'm not sponsored by them!)
Finally, I am heading up North for a few weeks, to sample some of that white stuff in Scotland. I will post an update when I can.