This advice is not meant to replace common sense, decision-making skills, and responsibility for your own actions and choices. I am not in any way liable if you kill yourself after reading something I've written. That being said, there's a lot of paranoia among rock climbers that needs to be dispelled, and a lot of unsafe practices that need to be stopped, so let's get started by busting some long-standing climbing myths!

Myth #1: Dropped gear should be retired because of the possibility of invisible microfractures in the metal.
Safety myths about microfractures in rock climbing gear

Dropped gear is an inevitable part of climbing, and everyone knows that you should retire your gear if it gets dropped...right? The truth is, aluminum just isn't a material prone to the kind of microfractures that would be invisible to the naked eye. It's too ductile of a metal, which is exactly why it's perfect for climbing gear (along with its light weight). If you've ever seen a pull test, you know that carabiners actually stretch quite a bit before they ever break. Aluminum's inherent ductile nature prevents the danger of microfractures.

Even the climbing gear manufacturers say (and, more importantly, their lawyers let them say), if it appears okay upon visual inspection, it's probably just fine to use. Similarly, REI employees have done controlled pull tests of carabiners dropped from 30+ feet onto a concrete floor and found no strength difference when comparing the "microfractured" carabiners to a control group.

Of course, this is all still subject to common sense. If you drop a #6 cam off the top of El Cap (and somehow manage to find it after a 2,900 foot tumble), it's probably worth spending another $120 for the peace of mind in knowing that your gear/life is safe. If, on the other hand, you just dropped a locker from the top of your local 50 foot sport crag, you're probably safe keeping the 'biner and saving a few bucks—as long as it looks okay after a close inspection.


Myth #2: Never use a bowline knot.
Safety myths about the bowline knot for rock climbing

When I climb with a new partner, I immediately know that they have at least a decent grasp of climbing systems if they don't look aghast or confused when I tie in with a double bowline instead of the standard figure eight follow through. Too many people have heard a story of someone getting injured "because of" a bowline knot, when the knot actually has nothing to do with the accidents in question. Figure eights are not immune to being tied wrong, either. In fact, I have a coworker who fell at a Denver gym after her half-tied figure eight failed when she went to lower from the top of a climb, and she's still dealing with the aftermath of shattered limbs and confidence years later. Yet no one advocates for using a "safer" knot when an incomplete figure eight fails.

The bowline is a favorite of many climbers due to a few advantages it offers over the more commonly-used (at least in the U.S.) figure eight. I use it primarily for sport climbing, because it's much easier to untie with pumped arms after falling and hangdogging up a hard route. I also like bowlines because the backup knot (on the non-Yosemite bowline, at least) doesn't end up on the part of the rope you grab for clipping, which makes desperate clips smoother and faster. I frequently use a double bowline on a bight if I'll be jugging on a rope a lot, hauling, or anything else prone to welding knots tight. Bowlines are also great for anchoring the rope directly onto fixed objects like large boulders or trees. Because the bowline will easily untie even after being heavily weighted, it should always be tied with a backup knot. And if you're worried you can use the Yosemite variation instead, with an additional backup knot. 
(NOTE: Jayson O. in the comments shared a video that shows a Yosemite bowline may be susceptible to failure. WATCH THIS VIDEO BEFORE USING A YOSEMITE BOWLINE!)

Finally, I think much of the concern around bowline use comes from the idea that they're somehow harder to inspect than figure eights, but in the end that just comes down to what you're most familiar with. I've seen plenty of beginners struggling to understand the figure eight follow through, often getting it wrong, and I've also seen climbers who have only used a figure eight before learn the double bowline after just a couple of tries. It all comes back to the user in the end, and a knot's failure due to misuse or incorrect tying can't be blamed on the knot itself.

With any knot, bowline or otherwise, ALWAYS DO YOUR SAFETY CHECKS!


Myth #3: Always use a backup knot, and pre-tighten your figure eight.

While a bowline should always be used with a backup knot, a figure eight really doesn't need one. A figure eight won't come untied unless it's been put together very sloppily, and even then it'll probably hold as long as the whole thing hasn't come undone. Granted, I often use a backup knot just to get any excess tail out of the way if I'm climbing with a figure eight, but more often I'll just do the "Yosemite finish" and run the excess tail back down through my tie-in points. (EDIT: According to redditor NDclimber, the finish I'm showing in the picture below is not a traditional Yosemite finish, but rather a simple "tuck." I'm trying to find out if there's any benefit to the traditional Yosemite finish over the method I've been using.) The additional advantage of the Yosemite finish is that the tail tucked through the center of the knot can be used to loosen things up when you're ready to untie, which is especially important if you've fallen or otherwise weighted the knot. 

I couldn't find a good guide to tying the Yosemite finish on a standard figure eight follow through, so here's how I do it:
How to tie a figure eight follow through with a yosemite finish for rock climbing

Another thing that's commonly seen, especially among newer climbers, is a tendency to pre-tighten the figure eight knot before climbing. While this seems like a reasonable enough idea, it actually does have a disadvantage. When a figure eight knot tightens during a fall, the tightening action itself can dispel a small amount of force. It may not be much, but that 0.5 kn could make all the difference if you're run out above questionable gear; I use a figure eight when I'm leading trad or ice specifically because of this force-dissipating benefit.

If you want to, you can still snug up the figure eight a little bit just to keep things together on a longer climb, but don't be that guy cranking on his knot like it's about to run off somewhere. As long as the knot is properly tied it will catch you, whether it starts tight or loose. It'll just catch you softer if you give it a little bit of breathing room.


Shattered, broken climbing helmet due to rockfall(Photo from Mammut's website)
Myth #4: Helmets are dorky.

Nobody's going to make fun of you for being smart about your safety, and anybody that would is not worth listening to. Even if you think helmets are lame or just look dumb, that's a stupid reason not to wear one when it could save your life.

If you're an offwidth aficionado and the helmet will get in the way in the squeeze section of your latest gnar proj, I'll give you that. If you're Adam Ondra, and a third of a pound might actually make a difference in your ability to send the world's new hardest climb, I'll give you that. If you're at the Red River Gorge, it's 100 degrees out and 100% humidity, and you're only going to be falling off Twinkie into thin air, I'll even give you that.

But if your reason for not wearing a helmet is, "it looks dumb," or, "nobody else is," or any variation thereof, that's a really stupid reason to risk brain damage or death from circumstances that can be completely out of your control.



Myth #5: It doesn't matter how you clip your quickdraws.

Many beginning climbers seem to have the impression that sport climbing is basically foolproof, and as long as you connect one side of the quickdraw to the bolt, and one side to the rope, you're good to go. This is not at all true. There are several things you really should know about protecting sport climbs before you even think about starting to lead.

- Don't back clip. The rope should run from your belayer, into the biner from the wall side, and out towards the climber, like so:
How to clip the rope into a quickdraw while sport climbing

Back clipped quickdraws can increase the likelihood of the rope unclipping in a fall, leading to a lot longer ride than you wanted or intended to take.

- Your quickdraws should have both biner gates facing the same direction, never opposing directions:

Picture

When the biners are facing different directions, it creates a situation where the quickdraw can unclip itself from the hanger if it gets bumped the wrong way, or break after getting caught at a weird angle. While this scenario may seem unlikely, I've actually seen it happen twice myself, as well as heard stories of it happening to several of my climbing friends. In the end there's really no benefit to facing the biners in different directions on a quickdraw, so you might as well do it the safer way. (EDIT: As "magic ed" pointed out in the comments, there is a certain type of bolt that can cause a quickdraw to unclip because the gates are facing the same way. Climbers should know and be aware of this particular case, where it could actually be beneficial to have a quickdraw with opposing biners instead.)

- You DO need to pay attention to the way you clip your draws into the bolts—the gate direction should be opposite of your intended path up the rock, e.g., if you'll be climbing to the left of the bolt, the gates on your quickdraw should be facing to the right. If the gate is facing the same direction as where you're climbing, a fall can actually unclip the rope from the biner:
A rock climbing rope unclipping itself from a quickdrawn--why you should always face your gates away from the climb

The chances of this happening are very slim, but with such a catastrophic result, why not do everything you can to prevent it?

- Never use a bent gate biner on the bolt side, and always use the same side of the draw to clip into the hanger. Using a bent gate biner on the bolt side greatly increases the chances of a draw unclipping itself, since the bent gate of the biner helps funnel the hanger into prime gate-opening position if the draw gets oriented the wrong way.

If you have quickdraws with one bent gate biner and one straight gate, the bent gate should always be used for the rope, and the straight gate should always go on the bolt. Even if you have draws with two straight gate biners, you should still designate one side of the draw for each purpose; if one is a solid gate and one is a wire gate, the wire gate biner is usually the rope side, since it's easier to clip one-handed due to its flat gate surface.

The reason you want to keep biners used for bolt-side and rope-side separate is because, when you take a fall onto a bolt, the force will create small nicks in the aluminum carabiner which can increase wear on your rope if you then use the same notched biner for the side of the quickdraw that the rope runs through. It's a small difference, but over the course of a climbing career it could greatly extend the life of your equipment, saving you money in the long run. And if the rope is under an extreme load, those tiny nicks could actually be enough to saw through the sheath in one shot.



Well, that about covers it—I hope I presented some new information that will help make more safe and efficient climbers.

Do you agree with my top 5 myths? What other topics should I cover in future posts?

If you liked this post, please do me a favor by sharing it with another climber, and subscribe to the blog below. I'll see you at the crag!


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Comments

07/06/2013 4:39pm

The last pass on a figure-8 knot is redundant--the knot will hold just fine without it.

I keep a few of my quickdraws with gates facing opposite sides because I've seen how the 'biner can unclip itself against the nut on a stud type bolt.

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07/06/2013 5:12pm

Agreed, a figure eight is such a burly knot that it could hold even if it's only partially tied.

That's a good point on the quickdraws, I'll make a note!

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Jeremy J.
07/07/2013 4:21pm

I really liked your Myth 5. It's like these people I see at the crag have never read about climbing accidents where the leader gets flipped.

Not sure I agree with point 1 in its entirety. Dropped gear, if inspected visually for inclusions is probably fine, but.. Al is not necessarily any more ductile than steel, especially low carbon annealed steel. Crucible steels can posses a high strength and ductility that is hard to beat. Aluminum is used for a few reasons. It is light for one. Secondly, the 7075 Al alloy used in most beaners is extremely strong for the density. Thirdly, it is easy to cold forge Al, and therefore simplifies the manufacturing (you don't have to melt it).

If a surface defect exists in the aluminum, microcracks will form. This is why polished metals perform much better in tensile tests. However, for the crack to propagate to the point where premature failure is likely to occur would probably require thousands of fatigue cycles (falls). So.. Retire your gear if it's old and beat up!

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07/07/2013 6:01pm

Thanks for the extra insight, Jeremy! Sounds like we can at least agree that aluminum gear is probably fine, as long as it looks okay upon visual inspection. The extra information was interesting, though.

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ben bromberg
12/07/2013 10:41am

i can say personally that helmets save lives! i took a fall this past year and my feet hit a small ledge on lead and the end result was me taking a 25 foot fall with a full back flip during the flight. however i didn't hit my head but i wouldn't want to have been in that position without my helmet. so all i can say to everybody i see not wearing a helmet tr or lead climbing is WEAR A HELMET IT WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE!!!!!!!!

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12/08/2013 5:30pm

Wow, scary stuff! You never know when something could happen, thanks for the reminder.

sprouty
07/09/2013 8:57am

Dear God! A rational comment on the Bowline - what planet is this?

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07/09/2013 9:00am

Ha! Seriously, it's been so vilified in recent years that it's almost comical.

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Stu Atkins
07/09/2013 9:34am

This is your "Top 5" list. I am wondering if you can expand it to "Top 15" or "20"? I'm interested in knowing what other misconceptions I might have about the world of climbing. IE: the "European Death Knot"

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07/09/2013 9:37am

Great idea, maybe I'll do a pt. 2 sometime in the future! If you are actually asking about the EDK, I can tell you it's perfectly safe and usually the best way to join ropes for rappel, as long as you leave nice long tails.

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Jon Leighton
09/18/2013 12:39pm

Nice blog, this guy has some more to say re climbing myths: http://www.geir.com/mythbuster.html.

There is a myth, mainly in North America, that belaying from the rope tie in loop instead of the harness loop is dangerous. In other countries that engage in trad climbing, this is called 'semi-direct belaying' and is established practice with zero known accidents from alleged ring loading.

09/18/2013 4:02pm

Cool, thanks for the link.

Yeah, I do use my tie-in point sometimes, if it's more convenient. Definitely perfectly safe.

Jon Leighton
09/18/2013 12:33pm

There is no misconception about the European Death Knot, its perfectly safe, it just has a daft name.

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09/18/2013 4:01pm

Agreed!

Salt Dog
07/09/2013 9:43am

In the Marine Corps we used the bowline on a regular basis to set up rappel anchors (and the clove hitch too). When I became a civilian climber I couldn't believe the myths I heard about the bowline coming untied. If tied properly and with a backup knot, which in the USMC ingrained in your head, it will not come undone. One thing to watch out for when tying the bowline is whether your tail end is on the outside or inside of the loop. Outside = not tied properly; inside = tied properly. Any knot not tied properly is dangerous. Practice at home and always double and triple check everything, your life depends on it.

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07/09/2013 9:49am

Agreed!

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frank
07/09/2013 10:05am

The comment about the 'biner gates facing the same direction confused me a little because some of my quickdraws, that came assembled by the manufacturer, have opposing gates while some do not. I went to the website of the manufacturer of the quickdraws with opposing-direction gates (Omega Pacific), and found this explanation: "We orient our carabiners on all our standard quickdraws with the gates facing opposite each other. We feel that this is the safestmethod to minimize the possibility of simultaneously loading both carabiners in a gate-open position while leading routes which may wander above and to the left or right of your last placement. Under certain circumstances, it is possible for both gates to open during a fall as the ‘draw is scraped along the rock while it orients iteself below the point of protection. By opposing the carabiners on a draw, we reduce the possibility of simultaneous gate-opening in this manner."

Any thoughts about this? Is this the same issue raised my magic ed or something else?

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07/09/2013 11:17am

A friend mentioned that about OP draws to me the other day, and I have to say, I'm pretty surprised at the stance they're taking!

Yes, it's conceivable that having both gates facing the same way could make them both open if the draw scraped against the rock just right. But I don't think that even begins to outweigh the detrimental effects of having the biners facing opposite directions.

The risks of broken biners from a snagged nose (cause by opposing biners on a draw) is very real, and has resulted in several accidents both recently in the past. Biners don't break unless they're loaded incorrectly, and opposing biners on a draw can potentially load the biners in of the worst ways possible—even worse than an open gate biner, I'd argue. Additionally, there's also the risk of draws unclipping themselves as a result of opposing biners.

So while I think OP is technically right, I think they are majorly failing in terms of weighing this one risk they're pointing out against all the other, bigger risks created by the "solution" they offer.

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Rachel
11/23/2013 1:08am

I'm so glad I found your post! Have been practicing my leading in the gym but am going sport climbing this week (only my second time outdoors). The Myth #5 section is super helpful & will totally give me more confidence when I get on the rock. Thank you for taking the time to spell it all out. :)

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11/23/2013 10:45am

Awesome, glad I could help a new climber :-) Climb on!

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01/07/2014 2:14am

GIVE US MORE !!!
I REALY LIKE READING ABOUT SAFTY!!!!

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01/07/2014 9:37am

Glad it helped! :-)

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ben hartman
01/08/2014 7:51am

Hi Abram.
I've been teaching climbing for almost two years now and one of the worst problems is the contradictions between all the guides in the gym. it's almost impossible to find a topic for which everybody agrees... it brings in many doubts both for guides and for new climbers. your post has helped me a lot in answering some heavyweight questions I've heard raised against the methods I teach. so thanks again. even though there will always be different schools, you should know how to explain the one you chose...

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01/08/2014 7:58am

Absolutely! I'm glad my post helped you think through some of that stuff.

You also touched on another important point—there are always going to be disagreements about the right way to do things, but almost as important as what you believe is your justification for believing it.

New climbers can sometimes fall victim to unsafe "mentors" and the best piece of advice I could give to keep that from happening is to ask your mentors about why they do things the way they do. If they're defensive when you question them about the justification for their methods, find a new mentor! :-)

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Mik P.
03/04/2014 4:53pm

I have to say my heart rate went up when I read your Myth #2. I've always used a fig.8 for my tie-in and would never use a bowline for anything while climbing. I use a bowline a lot when sailing because it is easy to untie. Again, easy to untie. Anyone using a bowline as their tie-in should take a long hard look at, and play with it a lot while tied to a fence post in your back yard. I do see you say a stopper knot is required, which should say everything that needs saying, but if not, I'll say it here: that means the knot itself is not adequate. Take a closer look, and follow it through. That last bit of rope, that makes the loop through your harness, runs up through the bowline, around the main part of your rope, and back through. With all the movement of climbing, it could easily work loose. Again, this is the reason I use the bowline for sailing. As long as it's loaded, it holds fine. But when I need to untie, I just wiggle it around a bit and it opens right up. Sure the fig.8 is bulky if it's not tight and "pretty", but you hit the nail on the head in myth#3. (I do like to make my knots "pretty" though. It's easier to tell it's done right. Also, I always have my climbing partner(s) put their eyes on it as well.

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03/04/2014 4:59pm

"Anyone using a bowline as their tie-in should take a long hard look at, and play with it a lot."

That would include Adam Ondra, Lynn Hill, etc. Realistically, a TON of climbers—my impression has been that the figure eight obsession is pretty much exclusive to America. Many Europeans use bowlines regularly. The bowline has its place, and the figure eight has its place. But any ultimatum, like "you should NEVER use a bowline," is a bit hyperbolic in my opinion. It is a perfectly safe knot.

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Jayson O
03/30/2014 5:28pm

I think this is a pretty solid list. With a dramatic title like that you're probably getting lots of hits, so I wanted to pass along this video with the recommendation to delete the option for a Yosemite backup for the bowline. You gave people a good tie-in bowline, just leave them with that one option. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dj5Y3h1AEI

Still discussing the bowline, in your comments you essentially say "if the bowline is good enough for pro climbers, it's good enough for me." I'd like to re-frame that argument with the same examples: The sad reality is that we all think we are the smartest, most awesome humans ever and that we would never make the mistake of not double checking our knot or tying in improperly. I submit that if a pro could make this mistake then I am (read: we are) MORE LIKELY to make this mistake. See Lynn Hill 1989 accident, John Long 2012 accident, etc, etc.

I use the double bowline with backup when leading ONLY with partners who can identify it. But here's the thing - there are a surprising amount of actual documented deaths and injuries from people improperly tying in with a bowline, and a surprising lack of failure documentation on improperly or partially tied figure-8s. I'll admit this could be a conspiracy created by "the man" to keep us using the dreaded figure-8. Nonetheless, we should be communicating this fact when recommending the double bowline with backup.

It's fine to tell people to tie in with a double bowline with a backup, but it's irresponsible not to follow it up by scaring them into double checking their knots EVERY TIME with a partner. (Of course, this holds true with any tie-in knot!)

Nice list!

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04/15/2014 12:48pm

Thanks for the comment, Jayson! Good video, I'll add it to the post as a note re: the Yosemite variation.

Regarding my comments on "good enough for pro climbers", I can see how you took it that way, but in the context of who I was replying to I meant something different. The commenter I was responding to said "Anyone using a bowline as their tie-in should take a long hard look at it," as if those who use the bowline simply haven't put enough thought into it. My point was that it would be a bit comical to say that to Lynn Hill, John Long, etc. as if they don't know what they're doing by using a bowline. And, I don't know about Lynn Hill, but I remember reading a John Long piece discussing the accident in which he specifically says it's not the bowline's fault—no knot works if you don't tie it right. You are absolutely right that no one, whether a pro or a total gumby, should become complacent about their safety checks.

I also personally know two people who have had major accidents from partially-tied figure eight knots, so I never buy the line that bowlines are somehow more susceptible. I think the bowline accidents just get highlighted because the knot has gotten such a bad rap over the years.

I'll add a big, bold, "ALWAYS CHECK YOUR KNOTS" message, for good measure. :-)

Thanks, Jayson!

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