The short answer is no. I recall reading an article in a popular climbing magazine about a decade ago where an IMFGA guide was encouraging climbers to stop “backing up” their tie-in knot. While the logic in the article was quite sound tying “back-up” knots above your standard Figure Eight Follow Through is still somewhat popular even ten years later.
We crave redundancy. Change is hard. “Safety” is elusive. “Experts” are everywhere. While researching this topic and polling various climbing forums opinions were all over the place. There was a mix of old school “this is how I learned 25 years ago” and new age “our climbing gym requires us to or we fail our belay test”.
Why not tie a back-up knot? Why not tie 3 back-up knots just in case the original and first two back-ups fail? To answer these questions with some amount of detail we need to break it down piece by piece, and that’s what we will do, but first let’s set the baseline.
By “tie-in” knot I am referring to the popular Figure Eight Follow Through. This is what the majority of climbers learn is the best knot for attaching the rope to the harness. Some climbers praise how the Double Bowline is somewhat easier to untie than a Figure 8 Follow Through. This is true, but the Double Bowline comes with enough caveats that I think it should not be used as your primary tie-in.
So for the purposes of this article we will be referring to the Figure Eight Follow Through whenever using “tie-in knot”. So why not back-up? Let’s start with the most important and work towards the minutia…
Simply put a properly tied Figure Eight Follow Through is more than strong enough. How strong is it? In pull tests it breaks at about 75-80% of the ropes full strength. Do you know how much force it takes to break a climbing rope? Enough to not worry about a 15-20% reduction that is for sure! It is slightly stronger than the aforementioned Double Bowline.
By “secure” we refer to the ability for the knot to loosen and untie itself through normal use. By design, once tightened, the Figure 8 Follow Through does not loosen. In fact it can be so tough to loosen it that some climbers who work steep overhanging sport projects and take multiple whippers while projecting might choose the easier to loosen Double Bowline in its place. Unless you are taking multiple whippers on overhanging climbs I’d encourage you to stick with the more well known and recognized Figure 8 Follow Through. Note the Double Bowline does require a back-up for security!
That means six inches of tail after the knot is dressed and stressed. To dress the knot try to keep the strands on the same side while tightening the knot. Sometimes I’ll end up with a strand crossing over a strand leaving me with a knot that isn’t “pretty”. This twist does not significantly weaken or reduce its security in anyway. The sometimes heard phrase “a pretty knot is a safe knot” alludes to a pretty knot being easier for a partner to quickly inspect. You do not need to re-tie your knot if you only have a twist in it (but make sure the proper strands run parallel).
Climbing systems are complex enough. We do not need to add complexity for the illusion of being “safer”. Our focus when tying in should always be on tying the correct knot properly, not tying extra knots “in case we mess up the important knot”. That should never happen. Especially if you take your partner check seriously and have a second set of eyes look at your knot before you leave the ground.
Extraneous knots above the tie-in knot make it more difficult for a partner to visually inspect the important knot during the partner check. Not tying “back-up” knots saves time, even if just a little. While following a climb “back-up knots” can catch and jam on protection or quick-draws before you are in a good stance to un-clip them. While lead climbing having a cleaner profile at your tie-in can lead to smoother clips.
The Yosemite Finish
The ideal Figure 8 Follow Through Knot should have a “loop” about the size of your belay loop and 6 inches of tail. No more, no less. If you would like to “secure” your left over tail to keep it from “flapping around” consider the Yosemite Finish. While this is an excellent way to finish your knot it is often tied incorrectly, with climbers partially “un-finishing” their properly tied Figure 8 Follow Through when tucking the tail back into the knot. To maintain full strength and security the tail must wrap around the rope before being tucked back into the lower part of the knot. This maintains original knot strength and security and creates a really low profile knot to facilitate clipping, cleaning, and even rope management at crowded belays. Here’s a short video I created to show the process.
The majority of climbers these days learn the basics at climbing gyms and the majority of these gyms likely encourage or require this un-necessary redundancy. I offer that we should focus more on better partner checks and proper belaying techniques rather than wasting time backing up things that don’t need to be backed up. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and share within your climbing circles if any of this was helpful!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
I reached out to UIAA for this article and while they didn’t get back to me in time for press-time I would like to now add their response to my inquiry on this subject:
From my point of view the only “UIAA approval” that could conceivably be construed from our materials currently online and in publication would be from materials in the UIAA Alpine Handbook, which has at least been circulated among enough commission members to be regarded as “UIAA approved” – which is NOT the same as “UIAA recommended”, after all there are “many ways to skin a cat”, and it would be an endless task to try to list them all!
Pages 143 and 189 of the UIAA Alpine Handbook show the use of the rethreaded Figure of 8, which is indeed shown without a stopper knot. However this does not mean that adding a stopper knot is therefore “not UIAA approved”. Adding a stopper knot adds a level of redundancy – and redundancy is a key component of the anchor system (eg the US favoured “ERNEST” and “SERENE” acronyms). If a bowline is used for tying in, the stopper knot is an essential component of the attachment. For a figure of 8 it is an optional extra.
Pros and cons of adding a stopper knot:
- We need to bear in mind that guidance about tying in has to work for novices as well as for people who have enough experience to make subtle judgements.
- The stopper knot should be butted up tight against the main knot. This stops the tail creeping out of the knot during extended use.
- If the stopper knot comes undone, it provides a visual early warning that the knots may not be fully tensioned
- If the knot isn’t properly “dressed and stressed” the stopper knot will prevent catastrophic failure unless it also comes undone (BUT all knots should always be checked….)
- Different diameter ropes have different recommendations for the length of the tail. At least if you can tie a double stopper the tail is DEFINITELY long enough.
- Takes extra time to tie and untie
- Regularly works loose while climbing, even though the main knot remains perfectly secure
- A serious disadvantage is that inexperienced/tired people might clip in between the knot and the stopper if the stopper isn’t butted tight against the main knot (BUT it should be).
We can see from this list that the pros and cons are fairly equally balanced. I would be wary of telling people NOT to use a stopper. By all means recommend that they don’t need one, but you are making a rod for your own back if they make a catastrophic mistake that a stopper knot could have prevented from escalating into an accident.
Thanks to Jeremy Ray for helping capture the images and video used in this post.
6 thoughts on “Do you need to back-up your tie-in knot?”
I could be wrong, but I think The Front Climbing Club encourages people to NOT tie a back up barrel knot after their figure 8 follow. Their thinking is to avoid climbers accidentally clipping the section of rope between the figure 8 and the back up through a quickdraw on lead. This was the first time I have ever heard of this reasoning at a commercial facility.
A knot not neat is a knot not needed.
The cons list seems a bit contrived for the purpose of having one. in 28 years I have never had a back-up knot come untied, I have never heard of anyone clipping between the knots, and a backup knot takes about 3 seconds.
The figure-8 once snugged up in a proper climbing rope has very little tendency to loosen or come untied, unlike the bowline variants. In extreme load/fall scenarios, the only other concern might be whether the rope might creep, or slowly ooze itself untied; no tests indicate any such tendency, so a backup is not redundant, just extraneous, needlessly added bulk and detracts from the visual simplicity that makes checking one another’s tie-in easier. Pros are the contrived ones, now that the facts are understood about knot behavior.
I’ve been tying a yosemite finish ever since I looked down at my partner while climbing, and poked my eye with the tail of the rope sticking up out of my stopper knot. My eye had a serious scratch, requiring me to stay home for two or three days and making it unbearably sensitive to changes in light for a week or two. I learned during this time that your irises contract even while you’re sleeping, after I woke myself looking up at the sky in a dream.
Anyways, since then I’m on team no stopper knot. I find the yosemite finish to be cleaner for leading, and the way I dress it with a clippable loop requires me to have the recommended 6 inch tail each time. It’s all you need.
The only “pro” for the yosemite finish you failed to mention: After you take a few whippers and can’t untie the figure 8, you can clip the yosemite finish loop to your belay partner and both run opposite directions.
I see that a pull test might yeild the same strength results with or without a backup knot, but, in my tests at home, if I hold the loop in one hand, and the tail and live ends in the other, and then “smush” the knot together multiple times, the eight undoes, whereas, with a double overhand backup, SNUGGED TIGHT TO THE EIGHT, the eight, and the backup, stay snug.