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Sports Eng (2009) 11:85–91

DOI 10.1007/s12283-008-0010-3

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Effects of wear on static and dynamic failure loads


of aluminium-based alloy climbing karabiners
Thomas Schambron Æ Peter J. Uggowitzer

Published online: 13 November 2008


 International Sports Engineering Association 2008

Abstract In rock climbing, karabiners are used to arrest Keywords Karabiner  Dynamic testing 
falls and consequently must be able to withstand dynamic Failure mechanisms  Rock climbing  Safety
loads. The current international standard for rating kara-
biner strength prescribes a quasi-static tensile test, which
poorly simulates the dynamic nature of an actual climbing 1 Introduction
fall. In this study, a new method was developed to measure
the dynamic failure loads of climbing karabiners. Both new Recreational rock climbing is usually carried out in teams
and heavily worn karabiners were tested open and closed, of two. One person climbs (the climber), and the second
and results from static and dynamic tests were compared. person (the belayer) secures the climber by running the
We found that the dynamic failure loads of closed kara- other end of the rope through a so-called belay device. This
biners were up to 50% lower than the failure loads in static device works like a force multiplier, enabling the belayer to
tests, while for open karabiners, the static and dynamic hold large impact forces using hand strength only. There
values were similar. The reason for this behaviour is are two ascent styles, ‘‘top-rope’’ and ‘‘lead’’. On top-rope,
unclear; it is most likely due to the combined effects of the rope is already threaded through an anchor at the top of
different stress concentrations and loading regimes of the the climb. The climber ties into one end of the rope, and the
two tests. Irrespective of test type, karabiner strength belayer uses the other strand. Since the climber is always
decreased with wear level. Based on our results, we advise secured by a near taut rope from above, any fall is fairly
frequent inspection of permanently placed karabiners for short and will result in minimal loads on anchor and rope.
signs of excessive wear. In addition, testing of climbing However, top-roping causes fast wear on the top anchor.
karabiners in a dynamic test in addition to the standard The other style of ascent is leading, where the climber
static test might be considered when developing new ka- starts with all the rope on the ground. As he/she climbs up,
rabiner models. the belayer feeds out rope, which is clipped into anchor
points along the way, using karabiners (Fig. 1a, b). While
lead climbing generally causes less wear on the individual
karabiners, a fall can result in high impact loads on the rope
and the anchor points (Fig. 1a, b). Due to the pulley effect,
the highest anchor point experiences the highest load.
There, the forces of the climber, the belayer and of rope
drag are all combined. Since both the rope and the belay
T. Schambron (&)
Faculty of Engineering, University of Wollongong, devices are designed to keep these loads to a minimum [1,
Northfields Ave, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia 2] a moderate fall will only cause impact loads in the order
e-mail: thomas.schambron@alumni.ethz.ch of 5 kN (Fig. 1a) [2–6]. However, heavy friction, which
occurs if the rope runs through many anchor points at
P. J. Uggowitzer
Department of Materials, Laboratory of Metal Physics oblique angles, can increase this value up to 16 kN
and Technology, ETH Zurich, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland (Fig. 1a) [4].
86 T. Schambron, P. J. Uggowitzer

Fig. 1 Loads experienced by


the climber (Fc), the belayer
(Fb), the top anchor (Fa) and
rope friction (Fr) in a moderate
lead fall for a little friction and
b high friction caused by rope
drag through multiple anchor
points at oblique angles. Note
that friction alone can increase
the anchor load from a moderate
5–16 kN [4]. The inset on the
right-hand side shows how the
rope is usually clipped into
anchor points, using two
karabiners connected by a nylon
sling. Figure based on a sketch
by Randelzhofer [4]

Commercial climbing karabiners are required to have a


minimum failure load of 20 kN closed, 7 kN open and
7 kN cross-wise loaded, as specified in the International
Standard EN 12275 [7]. This load is measured in a quasi-
static tensile test with a crosshead speed of 20–50 mm/min
[7], which poorly simulates an actual fall occurring at
several metres per second, although viscoelastic rope
deformation will reduce this value somewhat. Although
Altenpohl [8] has shown that an increase in strain rate from
10-6 to 104 s-1 led to an increase in tensile strength of
30% for aluminium alloys, it is not known if the same
holds true for the breaking strength of a karabiner, for
which the strain rate increase would be 103–104 times.
Climbers are reported to believe that equipment will per- Fig. 2 The two karabiner models used in this study, ‘‘Standard
form better under dynamic conditions [4]. However, no Straight’’ (SS, top row) and ‘‘Wire Straight’’ (WS, bottom row) with
study has investigated the dynamic failure loads of the respective wear levels indicated. Note how for higher wear a sharp
edge has formed on the karabiners (marked by the white circle). The
karabiners. transect A-A indicates where the thickness of the karabiners was
Permanently placed karabiners on indoor and outdoor measured to quantify the wear level. The scale bar applies to the
climbing walls undergo heavy wear by the rope [6], which overall figure, not the inset
can remain undetected until the next scheduled inspection.
Karabiners are also damaged due to contact with bolt
plates, usually made from austenitic stainless steel, that 2 Methods
have sharp edges [6, 9]. The minimum edge radius pre-
scribed by the relevant standard EN 959 [10] is only 2.1 Karabiner geometries
0.2 mm. This sharp edge in combination with the hardness
of the stainless steel causes grooves to form in the alu- Two commercial karabiners with different designs were
minium karabiner upon loading [6, 9]. To date, the residual investigated (Fig. 2, material: AA7075-T6; composition in
strength of karabiners subject to wear from either the rope weight percent: 5.5 Zn, 2.5 Mg, 1.7 Cu; yield strength
or bolt plates has not been systematically analysed. Studies &500 MPa, tensile strength &550 MPa). The ‘‘Standard
investigating karabiner wear either have relied on only 1–3 Straight’’ (SS) model had a spring-loaded aluminium gate,
samples [9, 11] or used karabiners with an unknown history while the ‘‘Wire Straight’’ (WS) had a gate made from
[6]. Here, the static and dynamic failure loads of climbing steel wire (material: martensitic, precipitation hardenable
karabiners (unused and with varying amounts of simulated 17Cr-4Ni stainless steel [12]). The latter was designed as
wear) have been measured and compared. an ultra-lightweight karabiner and only weighed 36.3 g as
Static and dynamic failure loads of aluminium-based alloy climbing karabiners 87

opposed to 50.7 g for the more traditional SS. The rated percentage of missing material was calculated using Qwin
strength was similar for both models (SS: 26/8/7 kN, WS: imaging analysis software. Wear levels of 20, 40 and 60%
24/8/8 kN closed/open/cross-wise). were induced in both karabiner models. Table 1 lists the
number of specimens used for each condition. Grooves
were induced by repeatedly pulling karabiners into a
2.2 Inducing damage
stainless steel (material: A304, composition in weight
percent: 18–20 Cr, 8–10.5 Ni, 0.08 C, 2.0 Mn) bolt plate. A
Varying degrees of rope wear were induced in one subset
square load profile was used (Fmax = 12 kN, Fmin =
of karabiners, and grooves (simulating abrasion by bolt
0.8 kN, f = 0.1 Hz), and 3,000 load cycles were per-
plates) in another subset. Rope wear was induced by con-
formed. This is the highest number of falls that a karabiner
tinuously running a welded loop of 10.5 mm elastic nylon
on a very popular route might realistically experience over
rope through the karabiners at a speed of around 1 m/s. A
several years.
spring was used to keep the rope under a tensile load of
around 100 N (Fig. 3). An abrasive agent (commercial
2.3 Destructive testing
alumina powder, average grain size: 50 lm), used to
accelerate the wear process, was rubbed into the rope with
After the specimens were worn to the desired levels, they
Vaseline. The karabiners were rotated by 180 several
were destructively tested in a quasi-static tensile and a
times to ensure that wear was induced symmetrically along
dynamic fall test. Since open-gate situations occasionally
the length axis (horizontal axis in Fig. 3). Karabiner tem-
occur when climbing [12, 13], the karabiners were tested
perature was regularly checked and kept below 40C to
closed and open. For static tests, a Schenck Instron Trebel
prevent thermal ageing. The wear level was controlled by
was used, following the guidelines from EN 12275 [7],
measuring the thickness of the karabiners before and after
using two 12 mm steel rods to apply the load. The load was
wear along transect A-A in Fig. 2 using callipers. From the
increased at a crosshead speed of 50 mm/min until the
thickness and the known shape of the cross-section, the
karabiner failed, and the maximum force was reported. The
accuracy of the load cell was 0.5%. For karabiners worn by
the rope, two static tests were performed for each condi-
tion, whereas for karabiners with a groove, one test was
performed. Dynamic tests were conducted as closely as
possible to the standard test method for climbing ropes EN
892 [1], to realistically simulate a climbing fall. The ka-
rabiners were attached to a load cell (described in detail in
EN 892) using an 8 mm Dyneema sling. 2.6 m of regular
10 mm climbing rope were tied off 0.3 m below the load
cell, fed through the karabiner and attached to a mass of
Fig. 3 Schematic drawing illustrating how rope wear was induced. 80 kg, which was dropped from 2.3 m above the load cell.
An endless loop of climbing rope, saturated with abrasive alumina Thus, the total fall height was 4.6 m. This setup with a tight
particles, was continuously run through a karabiner, which was Dyneema sling ensured that the karabiners remained well
clipped into a spring to keep the rope under a slight tension of 100 N
aligned during testing. Prior to testing, the rope was pre-
stretched by running three load cycles with an undamaged
karabiner, to prevent subsequent plastic deformation of the
rope during the experiments. The load was recorded at a
Table 1 Number of specimens used for the individual tests sampling rate of 1,000 Hz, and the maximum value
0% 20% 40% 60% Grooves reported. The karabiner gates were fixed with adhesive tape
Wear Wear Wear Wear in the open or closed position, and all karabiners were
tested upside down to avoid rope damage by the sharp
SS closed static 1 2 2 2 1
edges that had formed during the rope wear process. In
SS closed dynamic – 3 3 3 –
Fig. 4, a typical load versus time diagram, as obtained in a
SS open static 2 2 2 – –
dynamic test is plotted, showing the loading rate of
SS open dynamic 3 3 3 – 1
145 kN/s. The measurement error of the load cell was less
WS closed static 1 2 2 2 1
than 0.2 kN in accordance with EN 892 [1]. For karabiners
WS closed dynamic – 3 3 3 –
worn by the rope, three dynamic tests were performed for
WS open static 2 2 2 – –
each condition, whereas for karabiners with a groove, one
WS open dynamic 3 3 3 – 1
test was performed (Table 1).
88 T. Schambron, P. J. Uggowitzer

b
Fig. 4 Typical load versus time curve in a dynamic test. The solid
line represents the force measured by the load cell, the dashed line the
position of the falling weight. Following specimen failure (around
1.2 s), the weight hit a rubber cushion on the ground and bounced
several times. The inset is an expanded section of the curve to show
how the load increased linearly until karabiner failure. The measured
loading rate was 145 kN/s (y = –145.4x ? 159.3, R = 0.988), the
maximum speed of the falling weight around 11 m/s. The arrows on
the x-axis indicate which section of the curve was expanded

3 Results

3.1 Wear

Rope wear was induced very quickly in both karabiner


models. Roughly 0.1 mm of material was worn off for
every 60 m of rope that ran through the karabiners. The Fig. 5 Static (solid symbols) and dynamic (open symbols) failure
rope loop was also damaged and generally needed replac- load versus rope wear for SS (squares) and WS (triangles) karabiners,
ing every few hundred revolutions. During the wear tested with a a closed and b an open gate. Error bars indicate the sum
process, the temperature in the karabiners increased by of least squares of the standard deviation of replicates and the
measurement error. Where it was not possible to bring the karabiners
between 10 and 20C. By regularly turning the karabiners, to failure, the highest measured load is plotted (indicated by the
it was possible to induce symmetric wear. However, since arrow)
the ropes ran through the karabiners at an angle of around
20, a sharp edge was formed, which can be seen in the
heavily worn karabiners in Fig. 2.
Repeated pulling of the karabiner into a steel bolt plate wear levels (Fig. 5a). For up to 40% wear, no decrease in
resulted in a relatively small, but sharp groove around 0.5 mm static strength was observed, and failure occurred on the
deep where the karabiner was in contact with the bolt plate hook of the gate. For 60% wear, the karabiners did fail at
(the same location where rope wear was induced as marked by the pre-damaged site, but 64% (WS) and 73% (SS) of the
the circle in Fig. 2). The karabiners showed no fatigue failure initial strength were retained. In tests with an open gate
after 3,000 load cycles. However, galvanized steel bolt plates however, the static failure load decreased proportionally
failed and needed replacing after around 2,000 load cycles at with wear (Fig. 5b) for both karabiner models. The effect
12 kN. In addition, plates made from austenitic stainless steel of grooves induced by the steel bolt plates was negligible;
did not last more than 5,000 load cycles. the measured failure loads were barely affected. For the
closed SS karabiners, the static strength dropped from
3.2 Static tests 29.5 ± 0.15 to 29.3 ± 0.15 kN, and for closed WS kara-
biners from 23.8 ± 0.12 to 23.0 ± 0.12 kN. In all tests, the
In static tests with a closed gate, both karabiner models strength of the heavier SS karabiner was around 25%
showed remarkable failure loads for low to moderate rope higher than that of the WS model.
Static and dynamic failure loads of aluminium-based alloy climbing karabiners 89

3.3 Dynamic tests anchor points also undergo wear. Particularly permanently
placed karabiners, used for lowering off if the climber
The dynamic failure loads of closed karabiners were 30– does not reach the top of the climb, often show heavy
50% lower than the static values (Fig. 5a). This behaviour wear [6], sometimes associated with a sharp edge [15]
was observed for both karabiner models throughout all identical to that observed in this study. In addition, a
tests, and it was more pronounced for higher wear levels. reduced cross-section will reduce the karabiner’s ability to
SS karabiners with 20% wear did not fail in a dynamic test; dissipate heat generated while lowering off, which could
the plotted value is the failure load of the rope; the actual cause rope damage due to melting. Based on the ease of
karabiner value would be higher (indicated by the arrow in wear noted, we suggest that all permanent karabiners in
Fig. 5a). It was also not possible to bring undamaged ka- commercial facilities be checked frequently for signs of
rabiners to failure. In tests with an open gate, the effect of wear. For karabiners that have been permanently placed
wear was greater; the reduction in strength was roughly on cliff faces, it is every climber’s responsibility to check
proportional to the amount of missing cross-section. the condition of each karabiner before clipping the rope
Additionally, failure occurred at the site of wear. The into them.
dynamic failure loads of open karabiners were 10–15%
lower than the static ones, though this difference seemed to 4.2 Inducing grooves and bolt plate failure
decrease with increasing wear. For karabiners with grooves
caused by the bolt plate, the dynamic failure load of open Repeated pulling of the karabiners into bolt plates resul-
SS karabiner dropped from 7.50 ± 0.32 to 7.31 ± ted in a small groove, though the residual strength of the
0.20 kN, whereas for WS karabiners the values actually karabiner was not diminished. Schubert [9] reported
increased slightly, from 6.88 ± 0.84 to 7.22 ± 0.20 kN. It similar results after artificially inducing grooves into ka-
was not possible to bring closed karabiners with a groove rabiners with a chisel. We believe there are two main
to failure. As for the static tests, the failure load of the SS reasons why the strength remained unaffected. Firstly, the
karabiners was around 25% higher than that of the WS damaged area is in a state of compression, which is not
model throughout. Generally, undamaged karabiners failed expected to lower the tensile strength. Secondly, the
along the long axis, while worn karabiners failed at the location of these grooves is not a critical section of the
wear site. karabiner, so a weakening there would not affect the
overall karabiner strength. The area around the gate,
particularly the hook and the hinge, has been identified as
4 Discussion the weakest region, since the material thickness is much
lower there than on the main part of the karabiner. This
4.1 Inducing rope wear areas, though, is very well protected from damage. Thus,
the sharp edge on the bolt plates may be considered rel-
Approximately 0.1 mm of material was removed from the atively unproblematic.
karabiner for every 60 m of rope that ran through it. This After 3,000 load cycles, no fatigue crack growth was
meant that after 60 such cycles, equivalent to only 120 observed. This is not surprising, since the applied load of
top-rope ascents/lower-offs on a 30 m high climbing wall, 12 kN is only 50 and 40% of the maximum static strength
the karabiner cross-section was reduced by up to 60%. It of the WS and SS karabiners, respectively. At such low
is unlikely that a climber would use a rope saturated with loads, aluminium 7075 can be expected to sustain 105–106
abrasive material, however ropes do readily pick up sig- load cycles [16]. This result also agrees with a previous
nificant amounts of sand and grit, which is similar in study by Stopper [11], who observed no fatigue effects on
grain size and hardness to the alumina powder used in three karabiners after 500 load cycles at 15 kN. The
this study. Since a popular climb might see as many as fatigue failure of the bolt plates most likely occurred
10–20 top-rope ascents per day, it is apparent that dan- because they were not designed for the direction of the
gerously high levels of wear could occur very quickly on applied load. For a bolt plate screwed to a wall, the load
top anchor points made from aluminium. For that reason, direction is more or less perpendicular to the bolt along
we suggest that only top-rope anchors made from plated the plate. However, in our experimental setup the bolt
martensitic or austenitic stainless steel (A304 or even plate was oriented at *45 to the optimal direction of
A316) be used. Unfortunately, the EN standard for arti- use. Given this, and since the applied load of 12 kN was
ficial climbing structures EN 12572 [14] only specifies a significantly higher than the 5 kN of an average climbing
minimum strength of the karabiners and does not com- fall [2–6], these failures are highly unlikely to occur in
ment on wear resistance. In lead climbing, the individual real life.
90 T. Schambron, P. J. Uggowitzer

4.3 Static tests different propagation of elastic waves through the kara-
biner upon dynamic loading compared to a static test. With
Wear of up to 40% did not affect the static strength of the gate closed, two separate elastic waves propagate
closed climbing karabiners. Semmel reported similar through each half of the karabiner, which can cause
results for karabiners with around 30% wear [6]. However, interference effects where they meet, thus lowering the
we increased the wear further, and found that at 60%, the dynamic failure load. If the gate is open, no such behaviour
karabiners do fail at the site where wear has been induced is possible, and the static and dynamic failure loads would
in a static test. Our conclusions were similar to those for be the same. Further testing is required to evaluate this
grooves induced by bolt plates: the area of the karabiner hypothesis.
affected by wear is not critical. The overall static strength The scatter of the measured values was similar for both
of the karabiner only starts decreasing once the cross-sec- test methods, with a standard error of around 10%. One of
tion at the worn site approaches that of the area around the the data points (WS dynamic 40%) in Fig. 5a showed a
hook of the gate. In the case of open karabiners, however, somewhat higher error, probably because one of the three
the strength was reduced proportionally to the amount of specimens had a slightly higher wear level (measured at
missing cross-sectional area (Fig. 5b). This can be around 45%). Since the dynamic strength of closed
explained by the fact that for an open karabiner, the entire undamaged karabiners was higher than that of the rope
load is carried through this section, which means any used in testing, it was not possible to obtain values in this
reduction in thickness leads to an increase in stress. These study, where emphasis was placed on performing tests as
observed failure loads (as little as 5 kN in some cases) realistically as possible. However, based on our findings,
would most certainly occur in a moderate lead fall [2–6], we suggest performing dynamic tests on undamaged ka-
thus causing karabiner failure and potentially a ground fall rabiners using stronger ropes, since it is not known whether
[12, 15]. This highlights the necessity of ensuring that the the EN limit of 20 kN will be reached. Furthermore, only
gate remains closed at all times, which can be achieved by two karabiner models were tested in this study, and it is
keeping the hinge well lubricated; preventing the gate from possible that other karabiner designs will show a lower
touching the rock; and replacing karabiners where the dynamic strength. This is of particular importance as
spring has weakened. Furthermore, in all circumstances manufacturers are striving to produce ever lighter climbing
where karabiner failure might cause a dangerous fall, it is equipment.
good practice to use a second karabiner as a backup [12, The SS karabiner exhibited significantly higher strength
17]. The known danger of open gates is something all both in static and dynamic open and closed gate tests. This
novice lead climbers should be made aware of. may be due to the higher wall thickness of the karabiner,
rather than the different gate. The investigated WS kara-
4.4 Dynamic tests biner was specifically designed as a lightweight model,
weighing only 36.3 g as opposed to 50.7 g for the SS
For closed karabiners, the dynamic failure loads were model. Thus, all the critical areas were slightly thinner,
significantly lower than the static loads; the difference which would explain the lower failure loads. All the cri-
ranged from 27 to 52%. This is believed to be a conse- teria listed in EN 12275 are easily surpassed for both
quence of the combined effects of different load models though.
introduction and loading regimes, rather than static/
dynamic material properties. The same difference was not
observed when performing tests with an open gate, and
5 Conclusions
Altenpohl [8] has shown that the tensile strength of alu-
minium alloys is actually slightly increased for higher
• For open karabiners, the measured static and dynamic
strain rates. It is unlikely that the lower dynamic failure
failure loads are similar, whereas for closed karabiners,
loads are due to a misalignment of the karabiner during
dynamic tests lead to much lower failure loads than
testing, because this would have affected tests with an open
static tests. The reason for this behaviour is believed to
gate as well, and the setup with the tight Dyneema sling did
be a combination of the effects of different stress
not allow for much movement of the karabiner. It is likely,
concentrations and loading regimes.
however, that the use of the 8 mm Dyneema sling in the
dynamic tests lead to an increase in stress concentration • Moderate wear levels of up to 40% barely affect the
around the worn area compared to the static tests, where failure load of closed karabiners. Grooves caused by
12 mm steel rods were used to introduce the load. Thus the contact with the bolt plate do not lower that load either,
standard static test would consistently lead to higher failure indicating a high tolerance of climbing karabiners to
loads. Another factor that could come into play is a wear that can be expected to occur in day to day use.
Static and dynamic failure loads of aluminium-based alloy climbing karabiners 91

• Undamaged karabiners with an open gate showed 3. Pavier M (1998) Experimental and theoretical simulations of
failure loads as low as 7 kN, emphasising once more climbing falls. Sports Eng 1:79–91
4. Randelzhofer P (1996) Zur Funktion und Wirkung von
the well-established fact that it is crucial to ensure that Sicherungsgeräten beim Klettern. Fachbereich 06 Physikalische
the karabiner gate remains closed. Technik. Diploma Thesis Fachhochschule, München, pp 27–33
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climbing karabiners. Thus, we strongly advise the Sicherungsmethoden beim Klettern. Panorama Mitteilungsblatt
des Deutschen Alpenvereins 52(05):59–61
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12275
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Acknowledgments The authors wish to acknowledge the support of 11. Stopper D (2001) Vielfachbelastung von Karabinern. Panorama
Mammut Switzerland for providing specimens, testing facilities and Mitteilungsblatt des Deutschen Alpenvereins 53(04):64–65
invaluable expertise in the field of dynamic testing of climbing 12. Blackford J (2003) Materials in mountaineering. In: Jenkins M
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Helen McGregor for many fruitful discussions and proof reading the 279–325
manuscript. This manuscript benefited from constructive comments 13. Nilsson M, Leyon J, Johansson M, Nilsson M (2004) Analysis of
from the editor Dr. Martin Strangwood and two anonymous reviewers. the accident on air guitar. The safety committee of the Swedish
climbing association
14. DIN (1999) EN 12572: artificial climbing structures––protection
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