As with any type of skilled labor, high-quality tools and equipment are necessary for safe production tree climbing. As important as knowing how to use these tools and equipment can be, keeping them functioning properly, inspected for signs of wear, and knowing when to retire them is equally important. Tools can only perform as designed if they work and are used as intended. Just as a chain saw must be tuned, fueled and sharpened for effective cutting, climbing gear must be properly maintained. While a malfunctioning saw could be a safety concern, it is more likely to be a frustrating nuisance. However, when it comes to life support equipment, the results of poor maintenance are guaranteed to be much more severe.
Through knowledge, regular inspection and maintenance, climbing gear can be kept in tip-top shape, performing safely and as designed for many jobs today, tomorrow and many days to come.
Realistically, we can only discuss general guidelines. The vast amount of gear available to the modern tree climber coupled with the multifaceted way it can and is deployed would lead to a tome of epic proportions in trying to cover every detail. However, there are similarities and processes that can be applied universally across the range of climbing equipment.
Furthermore, there are instructions. Equipment manufacturers provide detailed instructions for the use and upkeep of all gear. These may come with the equipment or tool or can be obtained online in a digital format. Keeping a file of these for reference is a great first step in proper maintenance. Use these as the guidelines and training tools for which purpose they were developed.
Much like the high-tech industry, climbing hardware refers to the infrastructure items on which we build our systems. These are the ascenders, connecting links, adjusters and anchor points we use to get up, go to work and get down safely. Start by checking for ratings and markings. Most life support equipment is constructed of metal. As such, it will have ratings etched, stamped or molded into it. Find these and be sure they are still legible. Even properly rated equipment with unreadable marking can be a bone of contention for insurance and/or OSHA inspectors. More importantly for the working arborist, it is a good indicator of wear and use.
For instance, a carabiner with a laser-etched rating that is worn off may be a good field guide as to the amount of metal that has been worn away. This is not to say that the carabiner has an immediate chance of failure. However, if you have properly used a carabiner to the point that the ratings, whether etched or molded into it, have worn off, then you have used that tool for a while and you should consider replacing it.
Also note how distributed the wear is over the entire body of the tool. Back to our carabiner example: If the center of the spine is worn or nicked up but the rest of the carabiner looks relatively new, there may be a gear interface issue.
Clean equipment is happy equipment! Clean hardware/equipment also functions as designed. In general, soap and water will suffice for cleaning climbing hardware. You can use compressed air, but be careful not to force dirt or tiny debris further into moving parts and mechanisms. Dry lubricants, such as graphite or Teflon, will keep dust from clinging to moving parts. However, the solvent abilities of other oil-based lubricants may also be helpful.
In tree climbing, nothing takes abuse quite like ropes and other cordage items. If they get wet, dry thoroughly as soon as possible. Protect them from excessive wear by using friction-management devices. Inspect ropes regularly and retire if any doubt exists as to the strength or integrity. Missing or frayed lockstitching on splices can be repaired. Chafe guards, by design, will wear and should be rotated or replaced as necessary.
Slings affixed to metal objects without the ability to rotate freely (i.e. girth hitched) should be rotated regularly to check for wear to both items. This also allows for faster, more thorough drying. Slings, hitch cordage, climbing lines and other cordage-based equipment can be washed.
Specialized rope washers are available and may be a great alternative. However, in many cases no specialized equipment is necessary. Disassemble gear and/or systems as appropriate. Longer lengths should be chain knotted or placed in a mesh bag. Use a machine without a central spindle. The front-loading industrial machines at your local Laundromat work well. Use warm to cold water with a mild detergent absent of fabric softener and your ropes will have a new lease on life. Wash as often as necessary.
Keep leather climbing saddle components supple and oiled with an appropriate leather treatment. This helps keep leather from cracking and makes drying it out easier, not to mention providing a more comfortable fit.
Lubricate buckles for smooth, proper function. Check shackles for tightness and apply thread- locking liquids as the manufacturer recommends. A small dab of fingernail polish applied to the screw head and the body of the shackle will allow you to detect movement in the field. Reapply the thread locker and marking as necessary.
Check your bridge and replace on a regular basis. Use materials recommended or provided by the harness maker. Not all cordages and webbing are created equal, and some are downright poor choices for a harness bridge. Customizability and ease of replacement are key features of rope and webbing bridge harnesses. Use these features to your benefit, and maintain the bridge with inspection, cleaning and regular replacement.
We’ve looked at a few maintenance issues and procedures for climbing equipment. Like all tools, from your chain saw to your brush chipper to your truck, climbing equipment is subject to wear and tear even through proper use. Keep all your climbing tools in good working order through cleaning, inspecting, lubricating and replacing when necessary. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and inquire if you are unclear. Keep manuals and literature provided with all equipment in an organized file and refer to it as necessary. This is also an excellent place to document your inspection process in a timely manner as determined by your usage patterns.
Take care of your equipment with proper maintenance and it will take care of you through a lifetime of reliable function.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published February 2014 and has been updated.