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Lime Creek, Colorado. Andrea Cutter was tying in to toprope a pitch she had done before, when she looked up at the sky. A storm was moving in. Should I climb or not? That one thought was enough to derail her normal process. She climbed the 80-foot 5.11a, lowered to the ground, looked down to untie—and thought, Holy crap, am I lucky.
“l had missed the final lap of the trace,” she says, “and the end was dangling from the middle of the knot”—which she had not completed. Andrea has been climbing 25 years, is normally careful and meticulous to a fault.
Consider Lynn Hill and John Long, leading lights in the development of modern free climbing; each fell to the ground due to an incomplete knot. Consider many others, people as experienced as it gets, whose ropes have come off them in America and other countries. At sport crags and the gym, most of us tie in and out many times a day, and the chance of not completing a knot is vastly more likely than in trad days of the past—even more so because many once-quiet cliffs are bustling, with more distractions around. You can over the years tie thousands of knots right, but that one you don’t complete could be the end of you.
The reasons for error can be what a British psychologist called the Swiss Cheese Effect, or cumulative-act effect—a number of elements, any one of which could change events, lining up. In the leadup to her accident, on a cold morning at Buoux, Southern France, in 1989, as Lynn Hill prepared to do a warm-up climb, she was wearing a jacket, so lost the normal visual checkpoint; was distracted looking to see where her shoes were; and greeted a nearby climber. She had threaded her harness, intending a bowline, but did not complete the knot. She did Buffet Froid (5.10), leaned back—and fell 70 feet, breaking her ankle and dislocating her elbow, with thankfully nothing worse. She landed on a patch of ground between rocks and trees.
John Long, who was seriously injured hitting a gym floor in 2012, has written, “Vigilance often goes missing at the end of a session, when we’re tired, hungry and thirsty, or when our focus shifts from climbing, say, to socializing.”
In the first issue of Gym Climber, Long used the word complacency in describing how he neglected his knot that December day, sustaining an open tibial fracture. “When our attention goes lax, often through distractions, knowledge and experience count for nothing.” He was tired at the end of a long day and just relaxing in a gym three miles from home.
Most or all of us vow to be as safe as possible. The problem is not of intent; the problem is in sustaining the effort, every knot, every time.
Steph Davis, a longtime climber and student of risk, says that given the objective dangers of climbing, she has become fanatic about controlling the things she can control, “like tying my knot.” She will not allow the task to be interrupted. A few days before I interviewed her, an old friend of Steph’s had approached at a gym just as she was tying in. The friend hurried up with a hug, and Steph not only pulled her rope out of her harness, she laid it on the floor.
My own trick is neither to answer nor even look up if someone speaks to me as I am tying in.
Or: “Hang on, let me finish this knot.”
Or, as an onlooker, intervening with: “Wait, she/he’s tying in.”
When belaying, aim with everything in you to ask, “How’s your knot?” every single pitch.
It is important to keep talking and communicating about safety; it’s why many of us read Accidents in North American Mountaineering (now called Accidents in North American Climbing) every year, to learn and remember.
Knot and tie-in errors, as noted in a Rock and Ice No. 265 analysis by Eliot Caroom of the climbing accidents published in ANAM (now ANAC), account for 15 percent of toprope accidents.
Here are five tenets I have written before, but, honestly, we could run them every year—every week—because the stakes for you, your climbing partners, and all who care about you are so high.
The originally versions, amended slightly here, first appeared on rockandice.com.
1. Both climbers should verbally and visually check the leader’s knot before every pitch. If the leader leaves the ground before you can check, stop the show and ask, “How’s your knot?” Ask that she/he check it and show you.
2. Both climbers should check the belay setup, to see that the device is threaded in the right direction and that the locking carabiner is locked, on straight, and in the right loop.
3. If someone asks a question or tries to hand you something when you are tying in, finish before anything else. Likewise, hold off on conversation if a friend is tying his/her knot.
4. Remember, a knot’s not finished until you tighten it. A stiff new rope is more likely to loosen, and it could even untie. Reef on it. Weight it.
5. Tie a stopper knot above your knot.
We cannot say all these things enough. Because the hard part is not the intent or even the regular practice. The hard part is doing it—and asking your partner—every single time.
Feature image: Leo Zhukov