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BUSTED!

27-Feb-2012
By Nathan Van Volkenburg

Your climbing harness is a critical link in the protection chain. If it fails, your rope, pro and belay are instantly irrelevant. Nothing underscores this tenant like the tragic death of Todd Skinner, in 2006, when the tattered belay loop on his harness broke while he was rappelling. Though harness testing occurs during a companies' research and development phase, and usually during manufacturing, scant (if any) information is available regarding the reliability of used harnesses. We have a general sense, backed by a healthy fear, of when it's time to replace a harness, but do we really want to operate off a hunch?
20070910_Pacific_Ocean_Wall_0729
Conrad Anker high on El Cap's 1970s-era classic, the Pacific Ocean Wall, originally graded VI 5.10 A5.

To shed light on the reliability of used harnesses, in 2007, Arc'teryx, with assistance from Rock and Ice and the retailer Mountain Gear, launched a used-harness testing initiative. Climbers were asked to send their used harnesses of any brand, model or age, to Rock and Ice. Arc'teryx conducted the laboratory testing, and each person who sent in a harness received a discount coupon from Mountain Gear. Each participant was asked to provide background information about his harness including its age, type of use and estimated condition. The goal was to test the integrity of key structural components of used harnesses, and determine any correlation between wear and loss of strength. Over 400 harnesses were received, with 215 tested by Arc'teryx while 12 were sent to an independent lab and tested to CE Standard EN 12277-2007, which covers safety requirements and test methods for harnesses. The remaining harnesses could not be tested, either because they lacked any supporting data from their owners, or because the harness design wouldn't fit in the testing machine.

Testers visually inspected every harness and entered its condition and user comments into a database. They examined each harness for overall condition and age, checking the swami and leg buckles, webbing, upper and lower tie-in points, and belay loop.

AGE. Harness ages ranged from one year old to over 30 (see Figure 1), with the average age being eight years. The largest group (37 percent) was harnesses four to five years old. These numbers, however, were influenced by a large number of professional climbing facilities/training programs returning multiple harnesses of the same age. Many harnesses were also much older than the user claimed. There are several possible explanations: The harnesses were second-hand, the owners had lost track of the purchase date, or the harnesses weren't sold until they were already several years old, possibly because they were old stock in a manufacturers/distributors' warehouse or old stock in retail locations. In several instances the owner had had the harness for four to five years, but the manufacturers' date coding indicated a 10-year-old model.

HARNESS CONDITION. Participants were asked to rate the condition of their harnesses, but some owners took into account the age of the harness, while others ignored age and judged their harnesses solely on appearance. The majority of harnesses were described as being poor or fair. Only a few harnesses were listed as in excellent condition and these were consistently new in appearance, had seldom been used and had generally been retired due to incorrect sizing. However, several harnesses were more than 15 years old.

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The harnesses listed as in fair or poor condition showed large discrepancies, harnesses with no apparent structural damage might be listed as poor, while a harness showing a worn belay loop and heavy damage to the lower tie-in point might be described as being in satisfactory or fair condition. Obviously, there is varied opinion by the climbing public as to what constitutes wear and tear. The most common damage was at the lower tie-in point. This damage typically fell into three categories: no visible wear, abrasion cover worn through, and damage to structural components. (See Figure 2 for an example of lower tie-in damage.) Belay loops generally looked acceptable; however, some harnesses showed fraying webbing and damage. (See Figure 3 for an example of a damaged belay loop.) Upper tie-ins were generally fine, but once again testers saw a few cases of damage.


DAYS USED. The average numbers of days used was 425. This number takes into account the large amount of returned harnesses from climbing facilities where the total number of days was estimated for all of the harnesses. The highest usage per any harness was 1,960 days and the lowest only seven days.

INDOOR/OUTDOOR CLIMBING.
Seventy-three percent of the climbing was outdoors, but a selection of harnesses, were indoor gym harnesses and others were used for outdoor training programs. Aside from a collection of harnesses that came from one particular indoor climbing gym, no harness that was used primarily indoors was rated by the owner as poor; however, after visual inspection, several of these harnesses had heavy wear issues.

LEAD FALLS. Respondents reported taking an average of 13 lead falls per year. Sixty-six percent of respondents had taken lead falls in their harness, some as few as one fall per year to as many as several hundred.

USER HARNESS INSPECTION. Nearly nine percent of users said they never inspected their harnesses. For this group, the average age of the harnesses was eight years, with some as old as 17 years. Seventy percent of these never-inspected harnesses had still been in use at the time of submission. Almost 10 percent of users said they inspect their harnesses every time they put them on.
The most common inspection schedule was once a week, given by 23 percent of responses. Just over 21 percent of harnesses were inspected five times a year.

HARNESS STATUS. Fifty-five percent of the harnesses had already been retired, 27 percent would have been used in a pinch, and less than 10 percent were primary harnesses. The remainder were loaners used by the owners' friends. While most of the primary harnesses seemed in decent shape, several displayed leg-loop tie-in damage. (See Figure4 for an example of a worn belay loop, reinforced with duct tape, that was still in use.) Used in a pinch was often interpreted as having to choose between using no harness, say one that was left at home, and that particular harness. The retired harnesses ranged from new-looking ones that were retired due to age or sizing issues, to completely worn-out examples. The harnesses whose owners said they still lent them to friends included many that were more than 15 years old. These tended to be in visually decent condition, but more than five years old. Likely, the primary user decided to purchase a new harness, but did not want to pitch a harness that still appeared serviceable.
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USER-INFORMATION ANALYSIS

After examining participants' responses and inspecting and strength testing their harnesses, testers found that many users were unaware of the true age or history of the harnesses they were currently using. A number of individuals said they had obtained their harnesses second-hand from other climbers, climbing facilities, or even guides. Many climbers were using harnesses well past the manufacturers' recommended guidelines. A large percentage of users never inspected their harnesses or apparently did a poor job of it. Many harnesses were still considered as primary harnesses yet were visibly damaged. While the majority of the returned harnesses were already retired, many others were severely damaged and should have been retired long before they reached that stage. 

We received a number of harnesses modified by the owners; in most cases someone had added a back-up to the belay loop. In many cases the added rope loop was quite weak, holding as little as 1,100 pounds, and would give a false sense of security to the user. If you feel that your belay loop requires back-up protection, get a new harness. Also, the addition of a back-up loop raises several concerns.

First, a climber could miss clipping into the belay loop and only clip into the weaker back up. Second, users pointed out that the back-up was added due to abrasion, but the visible abrasion was on the tie-in points, not the belay loop.   We also saw examples of tape wrapped around tie-in points to reduce abrasion wear. The danger of this is that damage could exist underneath the tape, hidden from visual inspection.


TEST RESULTS

LEG-LOOP STRAPS. Using a mandrel that holds the leg loops and loads the tie-in point, we tested leg loops to failure. Leg loops that held approximately 3,300 pounds passed the test. In the CE test, a harness is loaded to 3,300 pounds for one minute, then cycled off, then loaded again for three minutes. The harness is loaded on a dummy and pull-tested through both tie ins. A failure is any load-bearing part failing completely. There is no standard for just leg loops, and the belay loop is covered as part of the CE harness standard, so both were tested according to the same procedure, although they were loaded beyond 3,300 pounds to failure to determine their ultimate strengths. The CE test results paralleled those from the Arc'teryx tests.

The most common occurrence was damage to the leg-loop tie-in point. Damage ranged from abrasion-cover wear to severed structural components. Testers also received leg loops with damaged structural bar tacks.  

The average break strength of the tested leg loops was 4,100 pounds with the lowest failure occurring at only 1, 058 pounds and the highest at more than 7,936 pounds. (See Figure 5 for damage to the 1,058-pound harness, which was noted by its owner as still being his primary harness.)

Following leg-loop tie-in points, the second most common failure was the leg-loop webbing. A group of 23 harnesses was returned from one source: All had been used for the same type of climbing, and were from the same manufacturer, model and age, yet strength values ranged from a low of 2,557 pounds to a high of 3,880 pounds. These harnesses appeared very similar in visible wear.

BELAY LOOPS. Every harness that had a belay loop was tested. Belay-loop strength ranged from 2,160 pounds to well over 8,818 pounds. Eight belay loops failed below 3,306 pounds. Six of these had been listed as usable in a pinch or by friends. Only one harness showed any visible signs of damage to the belay loop.

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Curiously, 23 belay loops of the same make and age from one source showed a range of strength values, with the highest breaking strength being 41 percent greater than the weakest. Another belay loop used on a variety of harness models returned from a variety of sources had a range from 3,527 pounds to 7,054 pounds. Clearly, quality control for some harnesses is lacking, but whether this is rampant throughout the industry is unknown. The average strength of all of the tested belay loops was 6,040 pounds.


CONCLUSIONS
Harness-component strengths were varied. Overall, the results were quite good; however, we saw examples of severely degraded harnesses that were inappropriate for use.

Harnesses that were designated by this study as potential failures due to visible damage all broke below the CE test values. In the CE test, components failed on several harnesses that did not show previous visible damage. Even though a harness component may look acceptable, it may be the weakest link in the rig.  

Surprisingly, the older harnesses had higher than average breaking strengths for both belay loops and leg loops. Harnesses older than 10 years had an average leg-loop strength of 4,850 pounds, while harnesses five years old or newer held 3,747 pounds on average. Similarly, harnesses up to five years old had belay loops that broke at an average of 5,291 pounds, while harnesses older than 10 years had an average belay-loop strength of 5,952 pounds, well above the 3,306-pound CE minimum for overall harness strength.

The higher strength of older harnesses could be because they were generally made with heavy-duty 2-inch webbing, steel buckles and massive amounts of stitching. It could also be that the only old harnesses around to be returned for this study were quality examples that had been well cared for. However, the older a harness, the greater the potential for degradation of structural components such as buckles, threading and webbing.

In terms of the condition of the harnesses, the group labelled poor had the lowest average strength and averages increased for the group classified as good. Harnesses as described by the user as poor to fair, failed at between 2,560 pounds and 2,702 pounds, while those rated good to excellent failed at between 4,409 pounds and 4,850 pounds. The belay loops on harnesses rated as in good or excellent condition tested to 6,173 pounds, while those on harnesses rated as in poor or fair condition held 4,629 pounds average. The harnesses from the excellent-condition group, however, tested lower than the 6,600 pounds expected, and had the second-lowest breaking strength for belay loops and the third-lowest leg-loop-strength average. The low numbers could be due to the small number of samples (six) in this category.

As expected, the more days a harness had been used, the lower the average breaking strength of both belay loop and leg loop tie-in point. Harnesses used more than 451 days broke at the leg-loop strap at an average of 3,747 pounds, compared to those used 250 days or less, which broke at 4,409 pounds. Likewise, harnesses that had held 20 or more falls annually broke at the leg-loop strap at 3,306 pounds, while those with fewer than 10 falls per year broke at 4,409 pounds.  

The number of days and falls a harness had suffered also lowered belay-loop strength. Harnesses with 250 or fewer days of use had an average belay-loop strength of 5,732 pounds, compared to 4,629 pounds for those used 451 days or more.

Harnesses that are used more outdoors tend to have lower belay- and leg-loop strength than indoor harnesses, likely due to the abrasive nature of the outdoor climbing environment, exposure to UV and dirt.

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Harnesses used for lead climbing did not show a definite strength trend. What appears more significant than use in leading is the number of lead falls as both belay-loop and leg-loop strength averages decrease with increasing lead falls. For example, belay loops on harnesses that had held an estimated 10 or fewer lead falls averaged 5,180 pounds, while those that had held 20 or more falls annually held an average of 4,629 pounds. It stands to reason that a harness that is used in lead falls is also more likely to be used for belaying a leader taking lead falls.

Primary harnesses had the second-lowest average for leg loops and the low st average belay-loop breaking strength. Harnesses that would be used as loaners to climbing partners had the lowest leg-loop strength and tied for the highest average belay-loop strength.

WORDS OF WISDOM

Far too many variables went beyond our scope to draw any concrete conclusions from this test. First, we testers, for the purposes of the study, accepted the information received on the questionnaires as accurate, when it may have been based on guesses. Second, we can't account for the weight of the climbers who used the harnesses, the fall factors each harness was subjected to, other climbing gear used, the climbing environment, or care of any harness. This was a preliminary study to see what we would uncover in harness use, trends, and possible precautions. Thus we haven't named manufacturers or particular models.

This study also was not comprehensive enough for us to comment on the useful life and strength of climbing harnesses. Harness component design, materials and method of manufacturing have an eff on strength values. Thus, a harness from company X that has held 500 falls can show less wear and higher breaking strengths than a harness from a competitor that is both newer and has held fewer falls. For a more accurate study, testing would need to be performed on one particular model of harness to eliminate manufacturer variables.

As testers we saw some particularly scary incidences of harness degradation, basically, accidents waiting to happen. By and large, most harnesses proved safe, but based on what we received and tested, harnesses are in use that are suspect, and their faults are not always visible. Users need to educate themselves as to acceptable lifespans, condition, care and use of the climbing harnesses. Inspect your harness on a regular basis. Considering the cost of a new harness maxes out at $150 and pricing goes as low as $40, it is amazing that climbers are willing to roll the dice by using worn-out harnesses. Last, don't think that because you used your harness for 1,000 days without a problem that a new one of the same make and model will fare as well. Every harness should be treated as an individual case, as evidenced by the 23 identical harnesses of one particular model that had a wide range of breaking strengths.

Nathan Van Volkenburg is a mechanical engineer. For seven years he has overseen the testing of materials and harnesses as well as CE certification for Arc'teryx.

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