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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 in concern. A storm was moving in.
Should I climb or not? she thought.
“That question was enough” to derail her normal process, she says.
She climbed the 80-foot pitch, lowered, 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, distracted, she had not completed. Andrea has been climbing 25 years, is careful and by nature meticulous to a fault.
Consider Lynn Hill. John Long. And others, people as experienced as it gets. Each fell to the ground due to an incomplete knot.
In the trad days of yore, a person might do one or two multi-pitch climbs in a day, tying in for each and staying tied in. Today people tie in and out five or 10 times a day at sport crags and in the gym, and the chance of not completing a knot is vastly more likely—then even more so because climbing is popular and many cliffs, once quiet, are bustling.
The reasons 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, in 1989, as Lynn Hill prepared to do a warmup climb, she was wearing a jacket on a cold morning, so lost the normal visual element; was distracted looking to see where her shoes were; and spoke to another climber. She had threaded her harness, intending a Figure 8 knot, but did not return to complete it. She did the route, Buffet Froid (5.10), at Buoux, in Southern France, leaned back—and fell 70 feet to the ground, breaking her ankle and dislocating her elbow, with thankfully nothing worse.
It can happen to anyone. Says Keith Sharples, a longtime climber-writer from the U.K.: “The fact is that thousands of knots are tied daily by hundreds of climbers, and the system works in the main. Trouble is, we all get distracted occasionally. The probability of having such an accident is very low. The flip side is that the consequences are very likely to be very high.”
John Long has used the word complacency in describing how he neglected his knot on a December day in 2012. He defines complacency as lack, however temporary, of vigilance: “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 his neighborhood gym, three miles from home. He sustained an open tibial fracture in the fall.
Most or all of us vow and try to be as safe in every way as possible. The problem is not of intent, but sustaining the effort, which means every knot, every time.
I try to ask climbing partners before each pitch, “How’s your knot?” The problem would be that one time I don’t, which happens. That is why you need both partners doing the same thing, for redundancy. Some partners ask me, some don’t.
For a fair amount of climbers over the years, the question went a bit by the wayside as longtime partners communicated via shorthand. But in the last 10 or 15 years, it has come back.
Both climbers should check the knot and the belay set-up. It’s always possible to thread a device backwards and make other errors.
Verbal prompts are the ticket. Andrea, with whom I have climbed for years, says, “Locked and loaded” every time—meaning the locking carabiner is screwed shut, and she has double checked the device.
I used to say, “The man, the hand,” which was sexist but worked, because it (sort of) rhymed, a jingle. Her line is better and I use that now.
Another friend of mine has always said, “Check, check,” out loud.
Keith Sharples has two rules. “One, if I get distracted I untie and start over,” he says. “Two, before leading a pitch I always weight the rope.”
Steph Davis, a longtime student of risk, says she feels there are enough objective dangers that she has become fanatic about controlling the things she can control, “like tying my knot.” She will not allow it to be interrupted. A few days before I interviewed her, an old friend had approached her at a gym just as Steph was tying in. The friend hurried up offering 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 I am tying in when someone speaks to me.
You can also just say, “Hang on, let me finish this knot.” If someone else is interrupted, it’s not a bad idea to say, “Wait, he’s tying in.”
It is also important to keep talking and communicating about safety; it’s why many of us read Accidents in North American Mountaineeering (now called Accidents in North American Climbing) every year, to learn and remember.
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.
They originally appeared here, in a post about a near-accident I don’t need to go into again. Please follow them!
1. Always check your knots.
2. Visually inspect your partner’s knot before every pitch. If he or she 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.
3. If someone asks you a question or tries to hand you something when you are tying your knot, finish before answering or taking the item. Do nothing else until the knot is complete. Likewise, hold off on conversation if your 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. Reef on it. Weight it.
5. Tie a stopper knot above your knot. (And …this is not one of the tenets to prevent the problem, but carry a quickdraw. You could be glad.)
We cannot say these things enough. Because doing it every single time is the hardest part.