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Washing, and the obviously-related topic of drying ropes, comes up regularly on the UKC forums; perhaps surprising for something that is quite easy although drying does appear to be somewhat more contentious.
The advice from Mammut in the Rope Book, which can be downloaded here (select 'ropes') states:
Washing – Dirt reduces performance and worsens the rope's handling characteristics. If a rope becomes dirty, you can wash it in a bathtub or in normal household washing machine. Occasional washing maintains good handling and increases the life span of the rope. A mild synthetic detergent is most suitable for this. For machine wash, the same instructions for wool should be used to take best care of the rope. Never tumble dry! To dry it – lay out in a cool, dark place, rather than hang it up."
Even allowing for something being lost in translation it all seems straightforward enough.
Washing without a machine
I have never washed a rope in a machine; I have filled a bath with water and simply laid the rope in it for a few hours giving it a prod and stir every now and then. Alternatively I have simply coiled it on the floor of a shower and turned the unit on and left it for a while, perhaps turning it every now and then.
These methods will remove water soluble contaminants such as salt from seawater exposure and mud. Agitation or directing the shower head at the rope gets rid of grit from within the core of the rope all of which can cause abrasion.
Washing in a machine
This one seems to attract a wider variety of methodologies than the above method. What is clear is that the cycle should be a cool one (see the Mammut recommendations on the Wool Cycle). If using a domestic machine it is also important that it can handle the weight of the rope when wet without burning the thing out. Some suggest that one might be better off taking it to the local laundrette where machines with greater capacity might be available; seems a lot of effort to me.
Clearly if one lobs 50 or 60m of string in a machine that whirrs round at a rate of knots for the best part of an hour there is considerable risk it will come out resembling a plate of spaghetti. This mess can be avoided by:
A pillow case might be a bit on the small size resulting in a tight ball of rope and concentrating the weight in part of the machine, thus risking machine damage and perhaps reducing the effectiveness of the wash.
Prior to switching the machine on it would be prudent to remove, and wash out, the drawer or whatever that normally holds the detergent. This way you are less likely to end up with damaging detergent in the mix.
As a personal opinion I can't see there is much benefit in this, one washes the ropes to remove things that could potentially damage it by abrasion not grease and other things that detergents deal with. However, others may be of a different view and as stated by Mammut there is no harm in it but some care is needed to avoid damaging any rope treatment. There are specific products intended for use with ropes and other technical equipment such as Tech Wash from Nikwax
Alternatively simply use soap flakes.
Use a rope bag and tarp to protect your rope from dirt and abrasive fine grit.
Given the volume of water and therefore weight of a rope as it emerges from the bath or machine, drying is potentially a whole lot more problematic than the washing itself.
The options for drying are to either lay it out or hang it up. It is often said that hanging a rope up to dry it is not good and against the manufacturers recommendations. However, the wording of from Mammut is somewhat ambiguous: "lay out...., rather than hang it up". One interpretation of this is that they are not stating do not hang up a wet rope but that it is preferable to lay it down.
There does seem to be some sense in not hanging up a fully wet rope, water is heavy stuff and will tend to drain to the lower part thus stretching the upper part. However, once water has drained from the rope it is not obvious why there should be a problem hanging the rope to finish off the drying. Perhaps the best option to get rid of worst of the water is to give it a final spin in the washing machine before removing it. If you are of the bath/shower school of washing the best option may be to leave it where it is to drain overnight and then hang it up somewhere.
Of course laying it out in the garden on a nice sunny day is an option, but this goes against the recommendation to avoid direct sunlight. The UV light in sunshine will, over time, degrade the rope. However, reports by the UIAA indicate that, crucially, there is no evidence that UV light affects the energy absorbing capacity of the rope core (although according to the second link above it may affect other properties). UV light will cause discolouration and fading of the sheath but this will not affect the performance other than for the fashion conscious.
Another option, once most of the water has drained, is to simply hang the rope in an airing cupboard; if you take this option then it might be wise to place a bowl or bucket under lower end to collect any water the drips/run out of the rope. The third option if you have the room/permission is to hang the rope over some sort of clothes horse (or chair) and leave it till it dried through.
Occasional washing of a rope does not adversely affect it and may actually be beneficial, provided it is done correctly: which is not difficult whether you choose a machine or bath/shower. If detergent is used then one appropriate for ropes and more importantly rope treatment should be used.
Drying may appear to be more problematic but concerns about UV light exposure and hanging a rope seem to be overstated and provided a bit of common sense is used should not be a problem.
Graham Gedge is a 44 year old father of two boys who has been climbing for over twenty years. He lives in Warwickshire, works as a consultant metallurgist, rides a 2001 Triumph Daytona 955i, and loves a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord. He rope climbs, mainly trad, boulders, and ice climbs. You can read an interview with Graham here.
See also FAQ - Ropes for more questions and answers about ropes.