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Tying knot in rope for sports climbing – Tip #52

By 27th August 2020January 13th, 2021Resources, Rock Climbing, Tips

Tying a knot in the end of the rope while sports climbing

It seems a bit lame offering a tip about tying a knot in the end of the rope while sports climbing. This is because, in my view, it isn’t merely an optional ‘top tip’ or ‘hack’ that you can take or leave. In reality, it’s an essential party of the overall safety system in sports climbing. You should view it as being just as ‘mandatory’ as tying the rope to your harness and putting the rope in a belay device.

Here’s what this is about.

The problem

After completing a sports climb, the belayer lowers the climber back to the ground. For a route that is 25 metres high, the climbers need at least 2 x 25 metres of rope. We can ignore for just a moment the additional amount of rope required for the climber’s tying-in knot. If 50 metres is required but the rope is only 40 metres long, the belayer will run out of rope. This will happen when the climber is still 10 metres from the ground. The end of the rope will pass through the belay device and the climber will plummet to the floor. That is a summary of the problem we must solve, somehow or other.

On the face of it, this type of accident seems impossible to happen, except to “idiots”. How difficult can it be to look in a guidebook. You can easily see if your rope is, or is not, long enough to climb and lower back down? However, there are all sorts of occurrences that can break this line of simple logic.  If you search for them online, you’ll find examples.

The causes

First, and most simply, people do forget to allow for the tie-in knot. So a 50 metre rope is suddenly only 49m in length. But there are other more complicated and unlikely causes, and sadly these situations occur all too frequently.

Probably the most common, is climbing on “the wrong rope”. By this I mean that the climbers are well aware of the length of the route, but the rope is not the one they believed they would be using. It is in fact much shorter. This is probably more likely to happen at a venue with which they are very familiar.  Over-familiarity and an element of complacency is the cause of the error.

How might they climb on the wrong rope? Examples include a change of plan at the last minute from what was agreed (or anticipated). This could be a group of partners (e.g. a club) swapping partners (and therefore ropes) during the course of a session. But the change of plan often happens even earlier, at the boot of the car. For any one of a number of reasons, the climbers take a different rope. Trying out a new rope; borrowing one from a friend; bringing pre-packed indoor climbing kit (perhaps with a short rope), and so on.

Next, there are all sorts of examples of climbers doing things out of the ordinary and in the excitement of a new “good idea” forgetting the question of rope length. Here’s another true story that I know of, though I’m going to make up some figures to help keep the story clearer as I don’t have the true details to hand. A pair of climbers are climbing a route of 23 metres. They have a 50 metre rope. This will require at least 46 metres of rope, plus one metre for the tie in which is 47 metres. So far so good.

At the top of the route, having clipped the top anchor, one climber has the idea of traversing left a couple of metres to the next route. He can do this easily, and by clipping the top anchor there the climbers can then climb top-roped on the second route. So he traverses over, and in doing so uses a further 2 metres of rope (total used is now 49 metres). The belayer then starts to lower him from the top anchor of this adjacent route.

Unfortunately, at ground level, there is a sloping base at the crag as well as a short rocky step 2 metres downwards. The effect of this is that the second climb starts at a lower height and is therefore a longer climb. An additional 2 metres of rope is required to lower the climber to this new ground level (a total of 51 metres). When the climber is lowered almost to the ground, the end of the 50 metre rope slips through the belay device and the climber is dropped suddenly 1 metre to the ground.

The solution

The simple tip to save yourself injury and potentially your life is this. Always, always, always tie a knot in the bottom end of the rope when sports climbing. Make it a drill that you do every time (not just when you think you might need it) and include it in your buddy checks. This is why I strongly advocate a 3-point ‘buddy check’ every time. (1) Check the climber’s harness and tie in. (2) Check the belayer’s set up. (3) Check that there is a knot in the end of the rope.

Recently, I went out climbing with a new partner. Just before we climbed I asked if there was a knot in the end of the rope. Their reply was “I only put a knot in if I think I might need it.” To me this is like saying “I only wear a seat-belt if I think I’m going to get involved in a crash.”