When climbing outdoors you have to reckon with mother nature. That means you will have some days when it’s sunny and beautiful, and other days when it’s rainy and wet.
But if the wet rocks and the possibility of lightning don’t put you off of a good climb, there are ways to pursue your climbing adventure through the rain.
So can you abseil or climb in the rain? Abseiling or rappelling, and climbing can be done in the rain, but almost everything you do while you’re on the rock face is much more dangerous when wet. Dynamic climbing ropes lose a fair amount of stretch when wet, which means that falling on a lead climb becomes much more dangerous and painful, the rocks are obviously going to be much more slippery, and newer ropes will not hold as much friction as they would when dry. The ropes, if not dry treated, can also deteriorate and grow mold if they get soaked through.
Climbing in the rain can be done, and it can be an enjoyable experience, but there are many factors to take into account, not the least of which is that if you’re not careful you can get seriously hurt while climbing and rappelling; doubly so in the rain.
Are ropes stronger when wet?
The answer to this questions depends on the material the rope is made of, whether it is a static rope or not, and the age of the rope.
Typically, if your rope is made of nylon, which most climbing ropes are, the rope will be weaker when wet than it would dry.
Inside a dynamic climbing rope, there are many individual strands of nylon fiber.
If your rope has been dry treated, that means that these strands have been prepared in such a way as to repel the water.
This works well when there is just a little water involved, but during a heavy rainfall, or if soaked in water, the water gets in between the strands, filling up the gaps in between the nylon fibers.
This means that when the rope wants to stretch, it has to force the water out from between the fibers. The more tension on the line, the harder this is to do. This is why nylon rope weakens while wet.
A dynamic climbing rope will lose a fair amount of stretch and strength when wet. It’s not uncommon for a wet rope to lose close to 70% of dynamic performance.
This loss of stretch will make it much more dangerous to fall on when lead climbing and even top rope climbing. So it is very often not suggested to do these types of climbing in the rain.
Static nylon climbing ropes, that is a climbing rope that is not intended to stretch, can still hold plenty of weight when wet.
They lose about 30% of their strength when soaked with water, but that is coming from a strength rating of upwards of 12-14 kN. So after the degradation of strength by the water, it is still strong enough to help you rappel.
Other ropes, made of different materials, do strengthen while wet, but they’re not typically used as climbing ropes. If your rope is made of polypropylene for instance, you might expect a bit of extra strength when wet.
How to stay dry?
If you’re planning on pushing through the wet conditions and rappelling or climbing in the rain, you’re going to get wet.
This is the plain truth of it. But there are things you can do to perhaps keep parts of you dry.
The first suggestion would have to be waterproof clothing. Waterproof jackets and pants are available at your local outdoors store, and you’ll be thankful that you purchased them.
When you’re out in the cold rain, having at least some parts of you that are dry makes a huge difference.
Consider purchasing and wearing a fisherman’s hat which comes down over every side of the head. This will give the rain that’s landing on your head a separate channel to flow off of that isn’t your face.
If a fisherman’s hat isn’t quite your style, you can use any hat that will keep the rain out of your face. It can be very dangerous while you’re rappelling to need to wipe your face every five seconds.
When you’re on the mountain in the rain, you get cold. The sun is blocked by thick layers of cloud, and the wind is nice and strong when you’re up that high. Your hands can get cold and start to seize up.
One novel solution to this that I found in my search for answers to these questions is to bring with you some boiling water.
One clever climber brings with him when he’s expecting rain, a 32 oz thermos of boiling water. This vessel sits down with the bulk of the climber’s gear, and a smaller 8 oz thermos is strapped to the back of his harness, almost replacing his chalk bag.
He pours a little bit of the hot water into the container on his harness and uses its heat to warm up his hands while he’s climbing or rappelling. This will warm your hands and using the heat, may even dry them as you climb.
It’s a good idea to keep your stuff dry while you’re climbing or rappelling. If you’re not carrying your things with you, and you set them down to do you business, they’ll be exposed to a steady flow of rain.
You should have a dry change of clothes as well as any electronics in a waterproof bag. If your backpack or main bag isn’t itself waterproof, you should at least have a ziplock back for the items you absolutely do not want to get wet.
What are the dangers of rain climbing?
The dangers of climbing in the rain are many.
The slippery rocks, the weakened ropes, the cold fingers and poor visibility.
Not to mention the dangers that the rest of the environment pose, things like mudslides and flash floods. We mustn’t forget the dangers that storms pose as well, things like gusting winds and lightning.
When you’re on the mountain, you’re on your own with the forces of nature.
If you get stranded, hopefully, rescue workers will come and save you, but no one wants to need to be saved by rescue workers, it’s embarrassing and it puts the rescue workers in danger.
But if a colossal cloud rolls in and dumps a huge amount of rain on you when you’re at the top of the mountain, you have to find your way down, or wait out the storm.
Waiting out the storm is not always an option.
Being that high up means that lightning is more likely to strike. I can’t think of anything that would ruin a rappelling trip more than a lightning strike.
If you are on the mountain top, or worse, in the middle of rappelling, and you feel the hairs on your arms and neck start to prickle, hit the deck as fast as possible.
Make sure to keep your ropes in hand, and stay steady, but get as low to the ground or as close to the wall as you possibly can.
The prickling feeling is the electricity building up in the air, and it’s the first sign that lightning is about to strike. By getting as low to the ground as you can, you make other objects around you a little bit taller than you, then suddenly they’re more likely to get hit by lightning than you.
This isn’t a perfect plan, and won’t always keep you safe, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re rappelling or climbing when a lightning storm hits.
Apart from lightning, you have the dangers of slippage. Water lubricates almost everything it touches. Your hands will slip off the rocks because both the rocks and your hands are slippery.
Lichen will feel like an oil slick. The ropes have the highest chance of having some grip. When they’re passed through a belay device, the wet ropes tend to swell ever so slightly. This makes them bite into the belay device a little more, giving you more friction.
But if your ropes are pretty thin to begin with, you may find that they don’t hold as readily as you’re used to them holding.
Maybe they slide through the system too fast, or maybe you’re trying to stop your descent and they just keep slowly slipping through the system. There are a couple things you can do to stop your descent.
First, while you’re rappelling, reach down and grab a section of rope, twist it around itself to create a large figure 8 knot.
If you do keep slipping, your belay device will run into this monster of a knot and stop. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of slipping down the rope, it can be difficult to remember such a technique.
This is why it is always a good idea to feel out how much tension you have in a system before putting your life on it.
If, while you’re testing you find that it is slipping too much, you can run the rope through a second belay device, or wrap it around a carabiner in a munter hitch or even a double munter hitch.
This will add enough friction to the system so you don’t slip uncontrollably.
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