Do you need to back-up your tie-in knot?

Back up tie-in knot?
Image by @coreyoutdoors

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.

Backing up your tie-in knot
A commonly used back-up knot is the barrel knot tied over the lead line

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.

Tying the Figure Eight Follow Through Knot
An easy way to measure if you have enough tail is to “hang ten”

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…

Strong Enough

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.

Tying into climbing rope

Secure Enough

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!

Tying into climbing rope
A bad example of tying in… loop formed is way to big and “back-up” knot is likely to jam on gear while following and easily work loose

Properly Tied

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).

Simplicity Rules

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.

Summary

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

UPDATES:

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:

 Pro: 

    • 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.
  • Con:
    • 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.

How To: “Belaying in the Gym” by PETZL

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!

Petzl Gear Review
The author on the summit of Forbidden Peak, North Cascades, wearing the Petzl Sirocco Helmet and Petzl Sitta Harness

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.

Petzl Access Books
Petzl Access Books- Download your own copy here.

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!

Download your own copy here

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start

P.S. Speaking of Petzl here are some recent reviews I’ve posted of some of my favorite Petzl gear!

Petzl Sirocco Helmet (2017 model)

Petzl GriGri+

Petzl Sitta Harness

Petzl Hirundos Harness

Petzl Ice Screws (comparison review)

Petzl Bug Backpack

All links are affiliate links and making a purchase through one of them supports Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you! Thank you!

Tech Tip- The Mini-Quad

Originally introduced in the 2006 version of John Long’s Climbing Anchors book the “Quad” took a few years to start being adapted by both guides and recreational climbers alike. Now, ten years later, it has really started to gain widespread popularity for the simplified way it can create ERNEST* anchors, especially when building anchors on two solid pieces of protection (modern bolts, ice screws in solid ice). This past year I’ve been using a super light and rack-able version that I’ve been referring to as a “Mini-Quad”.

*ERNEST- Equalized, Redundant, No (limited) Extension, Timely

Building a Mini-Quad

To build a Mini-Quad start with a 120 cm Black Diamond Dynex Sewn Runner. These are often called “double length” slings as they are twice as long as your standard “shoulder length” sling. Double the runner and get the stitching positioned towards the end before tying the first of two over-hand knots.

Mini-Quad for climbing

The second overhand can be positioned about two inches from the other end of the doubled runner. When optimized the resulting Mini-Quad is about 16 inches long. Once you add two carabiners to it (I use Petzl S Ange Wire Gate Carabiners) your Mini-Quad is ready to be racked or deployed for multiple uses.

Mini-Quad for climbing

Benefits of Dynex for building a Quad

A 120 cm 10mm ultralight Dynex runner weighs 30% less than an nylon runner but more importantly it does not absorb water like nylon making it great for ice climbing and getting caught in the rain on a long alpine route. A nylon double length is also too bulky to get the required over-hand knots to form a use-able size of Mini- Quad. This Dynex runner is also 1/4 of the weight of an 18 foot 6mm cordelette and racks like a quick-draw.

Mini-Quad for climbing
Weighs less than a nylon quickdraw with non-wire gates
Mini-Quad for climbing
Racks like an ultralight quickdraw

Limitation of using Dynex for building a Quad

It should be noted that due to the slippery nature of Dynex the overhand knots used in the construction of the Mini-Quad will tighten significantly over a few days of use. They can become difficult to impossible to untie. I’ve decided to leave these “built” for the entirely of the material life span. For those concerned over the potential reduction in material strength due to the overhand knot I offer the following justification. Conservative testing indicates an overhand can reduce the material strength up to 40%. These runners are tested to 22 Kn, or about 5000 pounds. The most conservative estimates leave 3000 pounds of strength in the material. Given the redundancy of the Quad construction I find this a non-issue. As with all knots and material used in climbing one should inspect them at every use for damage, excessive abrasion, etc.

Uses of the Mini-Quad

This is one versatile tool and I carry two on my harness. The obvious use is in anchor construction. When arriving at a belay station with two modern bolts it takes less than 10 seconds to construct an ERNEST anchor with the Mini-Quad. For sport climbing this speed and simplicity should encourage climbers to choose this method over the popular practice of just using two quickdraws, especially if your group will be top-roping the route for awhile.

In building traditional anchors I still regularly deploy the Mini-Quad. Most of us build gear anchors from 3-4 pieces of protection. The most common method we see people deploy is the classic cordelette-method. While this creates an solid ERNEST anchor it’s downside is when considering the “T” in ERNEST… Timely. The cordelette takes quite a bit of time to deploy and more time to break down and rack when the second is on belay from above. It also requires a lot of material when we can often achieve an ERNEST anchor with little more than a Mini-Quad and perhaps one 2 foot runner. The key here is trying to arrange 2 or more of the pieces of our anchor so they can “be treated” as one. Here are some examples to illustrate this concept.

Mini-Quad for climbing
In this three piece trad anchor we have a solid nut that I extended with a quick draw so that “leg” would be close to what I did next… the Black Diamond C4 Ultralight Camalots were able to be adjusted in the crack so that I could clip them as “one”. This creates an ERNEST anchor with a minimum amount of material and is very fast to construct and break-down and rack.  A critical eye might point out the .5 cam is not sharing the load but there is less than a cm of slack should the bomber .75 cam fail.
IMG_1586.jpg
This anchor has two solid pitons and I added a Black Diamond .3 X4 Camalot. This placement could be moved higher in the crack until I could clip it to the right “leg” of the Mini-Quad with its own carabiner. This creates a solid 3-piece ERNEST anchor with very little material and is super fast to build and de-construct.
IMG_1587.jpg
In this example I’ve placed a bomber 1.5 (brown) CAMP USA Tricam in a passive placement. Just below it is a Black Diamond .4 C4 Camalot Ultralight. The proximity of these two pieces allowed me to connect the Tricam into the Dynex sewn runner on the .4 cam therefore reducing these two pieces of gear “to one” and the other leg of the Mini-Quad goes to the .5 Black Diamond C4 Camalot.
Mini-Quad for climbing
In this example we have two solid pitons at the end of a multi-pitch climb. After deploying the Mini-Quad it takes seconds to add the Black Diamond 1 C4 Camalot Ultralight and clip it to a leg of the Mini-Quad making this a 3 point ERNEST anchor.

Before I move on to other uses of the Mini-Quad I feel the need for a disclaimer here. It’s well known that when someone posts pictures of what they feel are solid anchors they open themselves up to scrutiny. I’ll be happy to discuss these more in the comments below as long as the discussion is civil.

Other uses of the Mini-Quad

The Mini-Quad is an excellent extension for your rappel device should you choose to extend (common practice these days). Because I have two dedicated carabiners for my Mini-Quads the easiest way to use it in this configuration is to attach it to your belay loop with these two carabiners, gates reversed and opposed, then install your rappel device on the far end. This is a very strong redundant connection that does not require you to fish webbing through the tie in point of your harness (not always easy while ice climbing with cold hands). Not looping or girth-hitching a sling through your harness will also reduce wear over time. For the rappel device connection I highly prefer the Black Diamond Magnetron Gridlock, which uses one of the best designs for an “auto-locking” carabiner.

I also occasionally use a Mini-Quad as a regular runner while leading a wandering pitch. It doesn’t weigh much more than an alpine draw and functions as a very redundant 15 inch runner.

Video

 

Summary

With proper application the Mini-Quad has the potential to streamline your anchor building in all facets of climbing. Sport climbers should embrace the added redundancy and better equalization than the dual quickdraw method so embraced today. Traditional climbers will notice an increase in speed for both construction and de-construction of traditional anchors especially on longer routes. Ice climbers will continue to embrace the benefits of the Quad but perhaps now with a lighter more rack-able solution. Guides and trip leaders who often have 3 people in a team will continue to utilize this option and perhaps carry less heavy/bulky cordelette material. If you’ve been using the Quad already check out this “Mini-Quad” version… I think you’ll like it!

Comment and Share!

If you liked this content please let me know by leaving a comment below and/or sharing this post within your climbing circles! Thanks for reading!

References

Various climbing books all listed here.

Disclaimer: Climbing is dangerous. You can be seriously injured or die. There is no substitute for personal instruction. Seek qualified instruction before attempting anything expressed above. There are no warranties expressed or implied that this post contains accurate information. You are solely responsible for your safety in the mountains.

 

 

Tech Tip- Flipping A Plaquette (And Giveaway!)

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:

Petzl Reverso 4 Belay Device

Black Diamond ATC Guide Belay Device

DMM Pivot Belay Device

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Clip a locking carabiner to the “ear” or “anchor point” of your plaquette and attach that to your belay loop.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

  1. Clip a locking carabiner to the “ear” or “anchor point” of your plaquette and attach that to your belay loop.
  2. 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!

 

Contest: Win a Free DMM Pivot Belay Device!

pivot-red

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References/More Info

The Mountain Guide Manual– pages 11-12

This post contains affiliate links that help support this blog

Cliff Rappelling

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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Tech Tip: Tying a Clove-Hitch on to the Carabiner

I’d like to start sharing some tech tips on a weekly basis so I’m going to start with this Tuesdays Tech Tip with a super quick video showing how to tie a clove-hitch on the carabiner. With any new skill there needs to be a “why bother” clause… so here is why you should learn to tie a clove-hitch on the carabiner:

  1. Leader security. You’ve arrived at a small belay and established your anchor (or even part of an anchor)… if you can tie a clove-hitch on to a carabiner you can give yourself some added security while still holding a part of the anchor or your ice axe with your other hand.
  2. Efficiency. Many climbers will tie an “air-clove-hitch” then adjust it until they are at the right distance from the anchor carabiner for belay duties. Often times tying the clove-hitch on the carabiner can let you get it “right” the first try and save you time adjusting at transitions.

 

If this quick and short video was helpful please let me know in the comments below or on the YouTube video! I’d like to share a lot more info like this but I’d like to gauge interest so please speak up if you found this helpful!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start