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