You are four pitches up a moderate multi-pitch climb. Your partner just crushed the crux moves and is about 140 feet above you when you hear the yell. The rope comes tight on your belay device. He is out of view and there is no response to your calls. What now?
In today’s Tech Tip we’re going to cover what is often the first step in a rescue scenario, tying off your belay device. This skill, at the very least, will allow you to go “hand’s free” so you can perhaps get your cell phone out of your pack and call for help. Even better if you have the right skills you might end up transferring the climber’s weight to the anchor and ascending the rope to them to provide potentially life-saving first aid, then build a system that will help you bring them back down to the ground.
But it all starts with being able to tie-off your belay device.
“Self-Rescue” skills are something every climber should acquire and practice even if you don’t intend to lead climb. The systems can seem complex, and sometimes they are, but they are not that complex. You can learn them. Accidents will happen. The longer you climb the more likely you will need them. I recommend you try to get them before you wish you had them.
Self Rescue Skills Course
If you would like to brush up on your self-rescue skills with me send me an email at nealpinestart at gmail and we can find a date that works for you. This course is best done with one of your regular partners so you can be prepared to rescue each other should an accident occur.
1 person: $250 per person 2 people: $150 per person 3 people: $130 per person 4 people: $120 per person
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 Bowlinedoes 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.
This is my second year on the Ortovox Athlete Team and it has been so awesome representing such a top tier outdoor clothing and gear company. As an avalanche educator I’ve relied on Ortovox beacons and shovels for almost a decade and over the last two years I’ve discovered the difference between run-of-the-mill outdoor clothing and Ortovox clothing. I won’t go into great detail here but suffice to say blending Merino wool in hard and soft shell outerwear was ingenious!
What I want to share today is another example of Ortovox’s continued commitment to safety and education. Some of your probably already know that Ortovox supports avalanche education with partnerships with AIARE and beyond. This past Spring Ortovox launched a free online training platform focused on alpine climbing. With over 30 video tutorials (in stunning climbing locations), educational modules that save your progress, quizzes, and four chapters this is an amazing resource to up your climbing game. Support was also provided by Petzl, another industry leader in climbing education!
It took me about 2 hours to go through the whole program. I definitely picked up some new tricks to add to my bag!
Here’s a breakdown from Ortovox of the four chapters:
From climbing park to large alpine rock faces: ORTOVOX provides an insight into the world of alpine climbing – starting from the subjective and objective dangers, to rock knowledge, through to the necessary materials.
Carefully considered and realistic tour planning is an essential part of alpine climbing. As part of this, various factors have to be taken into consideration: selecting the appropriate climbing tour, the area and weather conditions, correctly reading a topographical map and carefully packing a backpack.
ON THE ROCK FACE
From the ascent to the summit and back again safely. In the third chapter, ORTOVOX will familiarize you with fundamental knowledge about alpine climbing. Topics such as knot techniques, belaying and the use of anchors play a central role
If there is an accident in alpine terrain, climbers need to act quickly, correctly and in a considered manner. The final chapter explains how climbers handle emergency situations.
I’ve never seen such a broad amount of modern accurate information on climbing presented in such a cool online manner before and know a lot of my climbing friends will be going through this the next time rain cancels a climbing day! You can check it out here. I’m sure you’ll learn something new and be stoked to share it within your climbing circles!
Petzl is a well known industry leader in climbing gear and safety. When I first started climbing over 20 years ago I looked forward to each annual Petzl catalog for the wealth of technical information they would include, along with some of the most stunning and inspirational photos! I probably learned as much about climbing from these catalogs back in the day as I learned from that timeless classic Freedom of the Hills!
Now Petzl has just launched a new series of downloadable “ACCESS BOOKS”, basically a collection of technical tips centered around one particular aspect of climbing. In their first PDF “booklet” Petzl focuses on indoor climbing.
As always the illustrations are clear and to the point. The techniques described are considered “best practices” throughout the industry. Whether you are a new climber or a salty veteran a little review of the basics never hurts!
Yesterday I had the pleasure of introducing David and his daughter Nicole to rock climbing in Echo Lake State Park. We started our morning over at the sweeping granite slabs of Whitehorse Ledge. After some ground school we climbed 4 pitches to Lunch Ledge then rappelled back to the deck. After a scenic lunch a top Cathedral we rappelled the Barber Wall and climbed Upper Refuse to round out our day.
It was great meeting you both and I hope to see you back this winter for that Washington climb!
Climb long enough and eventually you will rappel past the next anchor and need to climb back up to it. Or you will rappel past a tangle in your ropes assuming it will untangle itself from those bushes when you are below (it didn’t). You might also end up needing to ascend the belay side of a top-rope to assist a nervous (or stuck) climber or rescue an injured lead climber. For these occasions you’ll be glad you know how to “flip a plaquette” from belay/rappel mode into “guide” mode. In this configuration your belay device functions as a reliable improvised ascender.
The first thing you’ll obviously need is a plaquette style belay device. There are many out there to chose from but these are my current favorites:
These and quite a few other suitable models can be found on Backcountry.com HERE.
The above short demonstration video shows the steps of flipping a plaquette while rappelling on an extension which happens to be the simplest situation. Let’s go over the more complex method first.
Flipping a plaquette when it is directly off your belay loop
There are a few scenarios where this might be a good solution. First, you are rappelling directly off your belay loop and realize you’ve passed your anchor. Second, you are belaying a climber on a top-rope system and they need assistance. Third, you’ve caught a leader fall but the leader is injured and needs assistance. So let’s break down the steps.
While maintaining a brake-hand tie an over-hand bight a couple of feet below the device and clip this to your belay loop. This step is important because step 3 carries with it some risk if one is not careful.
Clip a locking carabiner to the “ear” or “anchor point” of your plaquette and attach that to your belay loop.
Carefully open the belay carabiner in a manner that traps the rope in the narrow side of the belay carabiner while removing the belay carabiner from the belay loop. This is best accomplished by rotating the belay carabiner so the narrower side is pointing away from you.
On moderate low angle terrain you may be able to start walking/climbing back up while pulling the slack through your device which is essentially in “guide” mode now directly off your belay loop. If the terrain is steep you can add a friction hitch above your device and extend it to a foot loop.
Flipping a plaquette when it is extended off your belay loop
Since extending your rappel device away from you has lots of advantages more and more climbers are defaulting to this option. Yet one more advantage to extended rappel systems is the fact there is literally just one step to flipping the plaquette and you do not need to open the rappel carabiner at all!
Clip a locking carabiner to the “ear” or “anchor point” of your plaquette and attach that to your belay loop.
Ascend as in step 3 above.
So that’s it! You now know how to flip a plaquette and get yourself out of quite a few possible situations that undoubtedly will pop up over your long adventurous climbing career! Thanks for reading!
Yesterday I took Dianna and Annie on their first outdoor rappelling adventure in scenic Pinkham Notch for Northeast Mountaineering. The weather was stellar and both of these thrill seekers took multiple rides down the 140 foot west face and the shorter overhanging south side, each time becoming more comfortable with the process and exposure. Here’s a quick clip of their adventure!
The Waterfall and Cliff Rappelling adventures Northeast Mountaineering offers can be an excellent way to have a little adrenaline rush while learning a little bit about a fundamental skill of the broader sport of climbing. I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t see Dianna and Annie back here for a rock climbing adventure in the near future!
Book any lesson on http://www.nemountaineering.com and use promo code “DavidNEM” to be entered in a monthly raffle to win a free guided day of your choice!
See you in the mountains!
Northeast Alpine Start
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