This Knot Can Save Your Life

Following a climbing fatality last month in Yosemite that involved a climber rappelling off the end of his rope and a more local albeit less tragic accident last month at Rumney, NH I want to focus this week’s Tech Tip on one simple but important subject.

Closing Your System!


The common “stopper knot”, technically a “double overhand”, is a fast and common way to close your system when belaying and rappelling

I’m going to get into more detail on what I mean by “closing your system” but first some context as to why this is important. I decided to conduct a little research this past weekend to try to determine how many accidents in the last few years would have likely been prevented by the simple act of “closing your system”. I looked at data1 from the last four years of Accidents in North American Mountaineering2

Accidents in North American Mountaineering (Climbing)

Accidents in North American Mountaineering (Climbing), published yearly by the American Alpine Club

The result…

On average we have 7 reported accidents a year in North America that would have easily been prevented by closing the system.

While 7 does not sound like a lot consider that this type of accident involves complete belay/rappel failure which is likely to lead to serious injury and death. In fact the majority of the accidents I looked at from 2013-2016 involved fatalities.

So what does it mean to “Close Your System”?

Simply put, this means if there is a belay or rappel device attached to a rope there is no physical way to remove the device from the rope without unlocking and opening the belay carabiner. If you have 50 feet of rope on the ground with no knot I could essentially stand next to you and pull the rope through your belay device until the end of the rope passed through the device. This leaves the belayer (or rappeller) not attached to the rope.

This, is an “open” system, and it can sometimes cost a life.

Let us put it in context in relation to the two climber actions that are most at risk to “open systems”, lowering and rappelling.


2016-06-22 09.47.45

Being lowered on the Thin Air Face of Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire

Lowering happens all the time when climbing. We get lowered at the climbing gym. We get lowered while top-roping outside. We get lowered after leading a hard sport climb. While we normally get lowered in a top-rope type format sometimes we get lowered from above. We’ve gotten better at backing up the brake hand in all these scenarios. Climbers are largely adapting to the Universal Belay Standard which wisely calls for two hands on the brake strand during lowers (and recommends closing the system).

Yet every year “attentive” belayers have the free end of the rope shoot through their belay device resulting in the climbers free fall to the ground.

The repeated theme in many of these accidents is that the anchor at the top of the climb is higher than half of the rope length and this is not discovered during the lowering until the end of the rope shoots through the belayer’s brake hand and device resulting in complete belay failure.


Common Misconceptions

  1. The route is half as tall as the rope
  2. The rope is twice as long as the route
  3. The belayer will notice if they are running out of rope

While the dominant length of climbing rope in use today is still 60 meters, some routes are developed with 70 meter ropes in mind. With routes close to half of your rope length care must be taken as any zig-zag in rope direction will mean less rope available for the lower. There have been multiple occasions when a partners rope was shorter than the victim believed, or even more rare when climbers simply choose to climb on less than standard length ropes which led to this accident last month at Rumney, NH. Finally, “attentive” belayers are typically looking up at the climber they are lowering, so when the unsecured end of the rope approaches their brake hand they often do not notice… until it is too late.

Luckily there is one surefire way to safeguard yourself from any of these potential errors…

Close Your System!


Rappelling off The Eaglet, Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Rappelling off The Eaglet, Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

The majority of accidents that could have easily been prevented with a closed system were actually rappelling incidents, not lowering incidents, so closed systems during rappels should be strongly considered for 100% of rappels.


Common Misperceptions

  1. The rope will reach the ground/next anchor
  2. The middle of the rope is at the anchor point
  3. Our ropes are equal length

Every single year we lose climbers who believed one of the above. Every. Year. Off-route, bad beta, wrong anchor, shorter than expected rope, in-accurate middle-mark, double rope setups that are not equal in length. The reasons one can rappel of the end(s) of their rope are many. The prevention is a simple single step.

Close Your System!


By now I hope I’ve made a solid case for closing your system every time you belay or rappel. There are many ways to do this and some make more sense for certain contexts than others. Since the most common lowering open system failure occurs after a climber has led a route and is being lowered back to the ground let’s look at the three possible “next steps” and what the best practice would be for each.


This knot could save your life


Leader will not clean route during lower and belayer will clean route on top-rope.

In this case the best practice would be for the team to simply knot the end of the rope with an appropriate stopper knot, half a Double Fisherman’s Knot being appropriate and oft used for this purpose. If the climbing rope is used to form a ground anchor in the case of a light weight belayer the system is already closed.

Leader will clean route during lower and belayer will climb route on top-rope.

In this case the best practice would be for the belayer to simply tie in to the other end of the rope. This closes the system and speeds the transition when the leader is back on the ground for the belayer to get their turn climbing. A knot check should still be conducted before the belayer ascends.

Leader will clean route during lower and belayer is not climbing.

In this case the best practice would be for the team to simply knot the end of the rope with an appropriate stopper knot, half a Double Fisherman’s Knot being appropriate and oft used for this purpose. If the climbing rope is used to form a ground anchor in the case of a light belayer the system is already closed.


When rappelling there are two common excuses I hear against tying stopper knots in the rappel ropes:

“I know the ropes reach”

That’s great! Why not add a quick safe guard in case you are wrong? Rappelling often occurs late in the day when fatigue from climbing can encourage short cuts. Weather or encroaching darkness can cause haste. Closing your system adds only seconds to your descent and allows for manageable mistakes and misjudgments.

“Tying stopper knots will slow us down and if we forget to untie them could lead to stuck ropes.”

In a multi-pitch rappel the first climber down can remove the stopper knots and pre-thread the anchor for the next rappel, all while maintaining a secure “fireman’s belay”. This best practice closes the system and speeds the next transition to the next rappel. It also reduces the chance of forgetting to untie the stopper knots before pulling the ropes.

Better yet, if you always close the system you will get used to always removing the stopper knots before the 2nd climber rappels (while maintaining a fireman’s belay).

If I haven’t said it enough above I’ll say it one more time. Close Your Systems!

The practice of closing your system takes seconds and while it won’t eliminate all risk from your climbing (nothing can) it will eliminate some potential for complete belay/rappel system failure.

 Final Thought

If you’ve found this post and read its entirety consider joining the American Alpine Club to help support their mission. I’ve been a proud member since 2004 and it’s definitely an organization every climber should consider supporting!

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1 Data was looked at from the following accidents published in the American Alpine Club’s publication; 2013 ANAM pgs 35, 38, 50, 75, 80, 81 2014 ANAM pgs 69, 70, 78, 84, 85, 90, 105, 114 2015 ANAM pgs 74, 84, 87, 96, 102, 105, 115 2016 ANAC pgs 38, 47, 124
From 2016 edition on the American Alpine Club has re-named this publication Accidents in North American Climbing

About David Lottmann

David grew up skiing in the Whites and started climbing at a summer camp just north of Mt. Washington when he was 16. Those first couple of years solidified climbing as a lifetime passion. From 1996-2000 he served in the USMC, and spent the better part of those years traveling the globe (18 countries). After returning to civilian life he moved to North Conway to focus on climbing and was hired in 2004 as a Rock and Ice Instructor. Since then Dave has taken numerous AMGA courses, most recently attaining a Single Pitch Instructor. He has completed a Level 3 AIARE avalanche course, is a Level 2 Course Leader, holds a valid Wilderness First Responder and is a member of Mountain Rescue Service. When David isn't out guiding he enjoys mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, backcountry skiing, trying to cook something new once a week and sampling new micro-brews. He lives in Conway, NH with his wife Michelle, son Alex, and daughter Madalena.
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3 Responses to This Knot Can Save Your Life

  1. So many experienced climbers I’ve climbed with refuse to close their systems all the time. There are a number of times where it really seems unnecessary – where you know the length of the 1p route is short enough that you can safely lower, on rappels you’ve done before and know you have plenty of extra rope, etc. But it’s such an easy, and quick thing to do, I can’t come up with a reason not to do it always, if only to form the good habit for when it DOES matter.

    I would like to add to the safety of your multi-rappel setup by saying that each climber probably ought always to put a prusik on the rappel as a backup. The fireman’s belay is great until the second rappeller knocks a block loose and hits the climber giving the fireman’s belay. It takes only seconds extra for each climber to put on a prusik, once practiced (and you can make it easier to rig your rappel by putting the prusik on first, then pulling slack up to feed your rappel device). Once practiced, it’s really fast, and adds extra safety to one of the moments when you trust your life to your gear only.

    Thanks for posting! I’ll keep fighting the good fight!


    • David Lottmann says:

      Thanks for the comment Joffrey! I echo your sentiments about backing up your rappel with a friction hitch as well. It’s something I do 100% of the time while guiding but I’ll admit I skip the step occasionally when out with friends. There really is no good reason not to, because as you say, with practice it takes seconds!


  2. William Wedgwood says:

    I started training with the Alpine Rescue Team, Evergreen, CO, an MRA certified team, in 1963, when I was 14 years old and have ANAM books going back to 1959. Failure to knot rope ends is such a common cause of accidents, I’m amazed that so many climbers continue to ignore this simple safety measure that causes so many accidents every year. If rappelling, it is essential to knot the ends unless you can see the rope ends lying on flat ground. Still, a good habit in any case. If stopped by a knot, you will need to have prussik slings to get back up to the rap anchor and reorganize. Belaying without a knot can be a disaster, but the knot has to be tied far enough from the end to allow a second rope to be tied to it, and have a prussik system or alternative, to bypass the knot through the brake. BTW, “prussik” is correct per Freedom of the Hills, despite what e-mail spell-check says.

    My climbing career ended in Oct-2007 when I suddenly went deaf in one ear, and 1/2 in the other. Nerve damage destroyed my balance as well as hearing. I was working on a job on Martha’s Vineyard at the time, figured I would just go to the doc when I went home for the weekend. Big mistake, Hearing loss is an emergency room requirement – didn’t have the slightest idea, but everybody should be aware of it. There is a very short window when steroids could reverse the nerve damage.


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