08 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
How many times have you had arguments with your mate when it comes to abseiling knots? I know of two climbers – one British and one French – who actually came to blows at the top of an ice climb once, neither trusting the others tried and trusted techniques of joining two ropes. The problem is we all know what happens if you get this wrong, and abseiling is terrifying enough (and if you aren’t scared then you should be) without the added worry that your two ropes are going to separate. In some cases, mistakes do happen, even by very experienced climbers. For example, I know of a team who were retreating off a route in the Lakes in the rain, when the knot joining the ropes inverted and rolled off the ends, sending the abseiler crashing to the deck below. Luckily the climber lived to tell the tale, but not without a great many broken bones. Others have not been so lucky.
The problem is that there are so many conflicting techniques when it comes to rope joining, from the double fishermen, the double figure of eight, reef knot back up with double fisherman’s, and let’s not forget the ‘Euro death knot’. This leads to a great deal of confusion when it comes to what to tie? This article aims to give a definitive answer to “what’s the best knot”.
Actually, if you’re worth your salt and move with the times then you should know the answer; the double overhand. Yes this variation on the good old “Euro death knot” turns out to be by far the best joining knot on the planet. Don’t believe me – well here’s why.
• The double overhand knot is the simplest knot you can tie in two ropes. This means that it can be tied in the dark, wearing mitts, even one-handed. This makes it far safer than more complex knots, which require more time, dexterity and more importantly, are more open to pilot error. • The double overhand knot is also easy to untie, again important when you’re keen to get a move on. Simply manipulate and flex the knot and it will loosen up. No more welded double fishermen’s. • The overhand is very strong, wet, dry or covered in ice, and will not come undone if tied correctly. • A double overhand will not get jammed as easily as any other knot, as it slips more easily over edges (the knot always flips upwards so it won’t catch on edges).
Simple, just take both rope ends, making they are of equal length. Measure out a length from your chest to your fingertip (at least 3 feet), and tie a neat overhand knot. Next, tie a second knot as snug to the first as you possibly can. Some climbers when tying plain overhand knots then tie both ends together with a double fisherman’s, believing this is increasing security. In fact, this only increases the chance that the rope will jam – which of course if not what any climber wants. Once tied you should have a forearms length of the tail (6 to 10 inches).
For many climbers, the more simple single overhand knot is more than enough, and the double is aimed that climbers who just don’t trust the single version. However the double do have an increased chance of becoming lodged in cracks as it does have a bigger profile, so for descents where this is a possibility I’d switch back to a single overhand (remember those long tails!).
Without a doubt, the most dangerous abseil knot is the figure of eight – tied like an overhand knot with both ropes. This knot is seriously low strength and has been the cause of at least one death. Its holding strength is as low as 30 kg, and the worst aspect is that climbers believe that they are tying a superior knot than a plain overhand. This isn’t the case, as a figure of eight rolls more easily, especially if loosely or badly tied. So one more time; DON’T EVER JOIN YOUR ABSEIL ROPES WITH A FIGURE OF EIGHT KNOT – YOU MAY DIE.
Note: This article is based on testing carried out by Lyon Equipment and Needle Sports.
Further reading: Xmission.
First of all, sorry about my poor English.
My name is Miguel and I’m a Portuguese climber. I would like to congratulation your website and you. I really admire your climbing skills and it’s a pleasure to read some articles in some English magazines. You are a reference for all of us…
I’m writing to you because of your recent article about THE ULTIMATE ABSEIL KNOT.
During the year I used the Simple Overhand Knot to rappel. But one day I almost saw my climbing partner falling because of this simple knot. We were trying to open a new winter route in the East face of Cântaro Magro, one of the huge and challenging winter walls of Serra da Estrela, our highest mountain (in Portugal). We climbed all night in bad snow and weather conditions and in the morning we were tired. We 80 meters below the summit we decide to come down and trying this climb another day. We began rappelling. One after one, we were closer to the base. In the last rappel, my partner was the first to down. When he was in the middle of the 60 meters rappel I casually look at the knot. What I saw was the ropes sliding into the knot. Scared I put my hands, and try to stop the ropes sliding. Firmly, I put a Prussik Knot holding the two ropes and my partner arrive safely to the ground.
I don’t know what happen, what was the reason. The Knott was well madding but the 8.5mm ropes were very wet.
For me, this was very scared and after this, I and my friends never made this rappel knot again.
Last winter to Spanish Climbers died using this knot.
Maybe a will go try the Double Overhand Knot after reading your article.
Thanks to sharing your experience with all us.