Climbing wall death due to knot failure

Posted by Ed Douglas on 05/04/2012
BMC 'Check your Knot!' climbing wall sign.

The death of a climber at the Warehouse in Gloucester is a tragic reminder of the importance of checking your harness knot.

A coroner’s inquest has ruled that Gloucestershire climber David Rothman died because he did not tie into his harness properly. Rothman, 73, a retired engineer and a regular at Gloucester climbing wall the Warehouse, suffered multiple fractures after falling about 30ft, and died in hospital two days later.

The inquest focused on how Rothman might have become detached from the rope. His belayer Tony Raphael gave evidence that he felt resistance as Rothman’s weight came onto the rope before the highly experienced climber fell.

This suggests that Rothman had attempted to tie his usual bowline but the knot had failed. It is possible Rothman either forgot to tie his bowline after pulling the rope through his harness, or did so only partly or incorrectly. A figure-of-eight knot has been discounted because there was no bight left in the rope. Deputy Gloucestershire coroner David Dooley said: “Had a stopper knot been used, the rope probably would not have failed.”

Contrary to a statement read in court from a local climbing instructor, a bowline will not ordinarily come undone if no ‘stopper’ knot is tied. A correctly tied bowline is an accepted way of tying into a harness, but it is imperative to tie a stopper knot in case the bowline is incorrectly tied or loosens and inverts.

The BMC extends its sympathy to the family and friends of David Rothman.

Tying in safely

This article was edited on 23/4/12 to remove any ambiguity about the importance of a stopper knot.
 


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31
1) Anonymous User
11/04/2012
Isn't advising the use of a stopper, 'in case the bowline is incorrectly tied' contradicting the advice to check your knot before climbing? Either the knot is safe to use or it isn't. Suggesting the use of a stopper as a safeguard against an improperly tied bowline seems to be encouraging complacency, rather than reinforcing the importance of a thorough check by climber and belayer.
2) Anonymous User
12/04/2012
Although this seems to be a tragic accident, I agree with the previous comment with regards to encouraging complacency. I have visited the Warehouse only once but only for a couple of hours. I left early, shocked at what I had witnessed. The place stinks of complacency. I had climbers and instructors stepping on my rope as they casually walked underneath the climber I was belaying, with no regard to what could happen if he fell. When the instructor did it, I asked him to be more careful and I was looked at as if I was something he had stepped in. An accident had happened while I was there, with an ambulance being called to help a girl who had fallen, though I do not know how it happened. I complained to the instructor in charge, only to be offered free drinks in reply. I hate to take part in this blame culture society we now live in, but the place made me feel genuinely uncomfortable. Perhaps the climber had grown complacent? I have never commented on an article before, but such was the feeling I had when I heard of this man's death I could not fight the urge to speak out. For me, a fairly experienced climber to feel uncomfortable at an indoor climbing wall (to the extent that I left after a couple of hours) must say something? The manager was not available on the day so I spoke with the instructor in charge. The manager called me the day after and left a message saying he would call me later, but never did.
3) Anonymous User
14/04/2012
"Contrary to a statement read in court from a local climbing instructor, a bowline will not come undone if no ‘stopper’ knot is tied. A correctly tied bowline is an accepted way of tying into a harness, and will work irrespective of this extra safety measure. However, it is imperative to tie a stopper knot in case the bowline has been incorrectly tied"

It's my understanding that the local climbing instructor is in fact correct - a bowline can potentially invert and turn into a form of slipknot. A stopper is therefore integral to the safety of this particular knot.
4) Anonymous User
17/04/2012
I never have or ever would use a bowline as a means of attachment, I know how to tie them, and understand its weaknesses, figure of 8 or even better a figure of 9 is far better.
5) Anonymous User
17/04/2012
Many years ago a friend of mine (experienced E5 climber) climbed a 7b route at the local wall. He fell, reclimbed the crux and then lowered off. It was only on reaching the ground that he discovered he had not tied on at all and that, in fact, the only keeping him in place was the piece of tape on the end of the rope that had caught in his harness, thus stopping the rope pulling through. It turns out he'd been distracted while tying on.

A couple of important lessons from this: 1) Always check your knot (which we all know); 2) NEVER distract someone when they're tying on - let them get on with it and only talk to them AFTERWARDS.
6) Anonymous User
18/04/2012
I would also disagree with your statement about bowlines. They do work without a stopper knot, but it is surprisingly easy for them to work loose during normal climbing. The stopper knot prevents the correctly tied knot from working loose, making it a very safe knot to use. I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle ground between the article and the climbing instructor - best practice is to use a stopper knot, and I think that the article is being disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
7) Ed Douglas (author comment)
18/04/2012
Interesting comments on this article, but with regard to No 6 I'm not suggesting for a moment that it's not best practice to tie a stopper knot. It certainly is. The point was that the coroner made the suggestion in court that a bowline won't work without it. That's not true. It may be he took the written evidence of a local instructor out of context.

Ed Douglas

Ed Douglas
8) Anonymous User
18/04/2012
In SCUBA diving there is always a Buddy / Cross check done on safety critical systems between diving partners before the dive (its embedded as part of the training) - its not fool proof but adds another layer of safety. Appreciate its not always practical when climbing but maybe the promotion of a similar buddy check system (belayer to climber) along with the check your knot scheme would help raise awareness.
9) Anonymous User
18/04/2012
The last paragraph is incorrect. The BMCs own literature, and the BMC technical committee will confrim that you should never use a bowline to tie in unless it is completed with a stopper knot. The stopper knot is completely essential.
10) Anonymous User
18/04/2012
I've started climbing in the last 3 years and have always been taught to check my own knot and have my partner visually check it before climbing, and vice versa I always check the belay device is correct each time. This takes a few seconds and in 999 times out of 1,000 it's unnecessary, but it's easy to get distracted and make a mistake.
11) Anonymous User
18/04/2012
I was dry tooling recently with a very experienced partner who tied in with a bowline. On reaching a difficult section he struggled for a bit and then rested on the rope. He then resumed climbing and after about a further 3m informed me that his bowline had undone. Fortunatly he was in a position where he could retie. Lesson is don't use a bowline, use a figure of 8 and always check your own and your partner's knot
18/04/2012
"A stopper knot is integral to a bowline" is partially true. I however was unlucky enough to have a stopper knot (double fishermans) come undone when using a new, springy rope. Passing an overhang then inverted my bowline which led to the rope becoming detached from my harness...
I contend that a correctly tied figure-8 will not come undone, but I have first-hand experience that a correctly tied bowline does not have the same integrity.
Rob K
13) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
A tragic end to an old and bold climber who had seen the sport grow during his long life. I'm sure that there will be many smart-arse analyses on here, and a retrospectoscope is always a useful tool.
14) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
As a new climber who will be leading groups of young people, it's really empowering to read these kind of posts. Thanks for the input!
15) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
In case of any doubt, try tying a bowline and then waggle it about for a bit. It very often loosens off considerably after a surprisingly short time - tying a stopper correctly i.e. snugged down onto the main knot prevents this. Tied correctly it's a great knot for climbing walls because it's so easy to untie, useful if you're doing lots of routes. For the crag though, an 8 or 9 is better, especially on long routes where you may be tied on for a while - fit and forget as long as it's correctly tied. As for checking, check your own kit and your partners'. Each climber is double-checked then - but accidents can still happen. Many condolences to David's family.
16) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
To quote the Tying in safely document which is linked in this article

"This does not mean the bowline is any less
safe. It is easier to undo after a heavy loading and
is great for tying ropes around trees etc. when
creating an anchor. However, it can slip if loaded
incorrectly, and if a stopper knot isn’t added it can
come undone completely. For this reason, it is
generally not recommended at climbing walls."

BMC need to sort out a consistent message on this
17) Anonymous User
20/04/2012
1. safety is number one and whilst a fellow climber recently commented how easier it is to untie a bowline, I'd rather struggle untying a figure 8 alive and on the ground. I have also made conscious effort climbing last night to tie a double (not just a single) stopper knot as taught in my beginner's instruction class last Oct.
2. I always double check the belay device and the knot correctly tied to harness as chatting with mates, you end up missing something. this happen once where I just tied through just one loop on my harness because of chatting. Thus I always recite "okay you are doubled through" for knots/harness check and then check belay and say "on belay". This article reminded me the high risk of this sport.
18) Anonymous User
20/04/2012
As a sailor often dealing with loads well in excess of a falling climber I truly value the bowline as it is a very small and when correctly done very stable. However it must be snugged down tight and can invert if tied carelessly. I usually use a figure of eight when climbing as it is less error prone and I always put a stopper in whatever knot I use.

I understand from people there that the deceased was impetuous but it still a tragedy and my condolences to freinds and relatives.
19) Anonymous User
22/04/2012
Firstly, it is with great regret to learn of this tragedy. May he rest in peace, and his friends and relatives endure their sorrow with some better memories from a long life.

Secondly, it is dismaying to read of the coroner making an ill-founded conclusion about the cause of death. It has been argued elsewhere that it is unlikely that such an experienced climber MIS-tied anything; rather, it is probable --we submit-- that he in fact tied nothing, having been distracted (in a setting --indoor climbing facilities-- that has greater distractions and perhaps some feel of less *exposure* and more safety (than outdoor climbing would give)). Recall that world-class climber Lynn Hill once forgot to tie ANYthing, but only had threaded her rope through her harness, and she, too, fell when expecting to be lowered. Yes, she, too, preferred to tie in with a bowline.

If this fatal accident occurred with a sling-shot belay, I don't think that even an unsecured bowline would work loose : it should be oriented upwards, with gravity thus holding the tail in place, and an attentive (?) belayer preserving this orientation w/renewed tension on the rope.

There is a tug between hoping for a properly tied knot and using a back-up in case it isn't. Yes, one wants to demand competence; but, also, one wants to protect against even infrequent errors.

Sailors and other marine-rope users will often question how a bowline could need further precaution; note that these users are not using rockclimbing cordage! (But I can attest to finding many trawler mooring lines with capsized bowlines (which amounts to a sort of pile-hitch noose : the central nipping loop of the knot nearly straightens, casting all of the curvature into the bight finish, forming a pile hitch in it). Frankly, I'm unsure why/how this happens, but the result I've seen.)

The coroner's and some other's mention of a bowline "slipping" is beside the point, really; the vulnerability --as some have remarked-- is in LOOSENING WHEN UNLOADED; making some further tucks of the tail (or using a "water bowline" (well, with a clove hitch base)) can prevent this loosening; and, of course, a well tightened strangle knot tie-off (aka "half a dbl.fish.") also works.

Poster#5 : any idea of what knot that lucky climber WOULD have tied?

.:. Use a "re-threaded bowline" (aka "bowline on a bight"), as is recommended by DAV : IF the knot is to come untied, first the 2nd/final reeving of the tail must occur, AND THEN you must fail to notice that this long bit of unsecured rope is knocking about --and it will then have to work itself up out of your harness, for complete untying! Tie all this off with the strangle knot (please, NOT "dbl.fish" --that's and end-2-end joint), and you're "bomber"; and you can untie more easily, nothing "welded".

*knudeNoggin*

ps: A double bowline, tied in 12-strand Dyneema 5/32 rope, is shown just sliding out of the knot (!!) --as though the U-part is a descender being pulled down!
20) Anonymous User
10/05/2012

The death of this climber is an unfortunate tragedy that could happen to almost any one of us. What we can learn from it is not anything new but a useful reminder of the dangers we accept in our amazing sport.

Having a debate about the pros and cons of various knots and techniques is always useful to educate and get people thinking - thinking is most likely to save you from unfortunate accidents. And this article and its comments refer to tying-in systems - so here's my thoughts...


It seems a great idea to always teach beginners a figure of 8 - they can easily check it themselves (Does it have the 8 shape? Are there two ropes side-by-side everywhere? Is the tail as long as your forearm?) It is much easier and more foolproof than a bowline - so if in any doubt use an 8...

But I find a bowline much easier to use for myself and would encourage experienced climbers to learn it and use it. Here is my thinking:

it can easily be tied in one fluid movement - so less chance of distraction halfway through

no tying a knot then threading through the harness then completing it so you have either tied a knot or not at all! (You are less likely to instictively think that you have tied in when you have not)

it is faster to tie

if tied neatly with a proper stopper knot (double fishermans') it is just as safe and as strong as an 8

it comes undone easily after loading - so a sport climber's dream, but equally safe for trad in my experience

against this is the fact that it does need to be tied well/neatly and accurately, but all knots should be if they are to be as effective as possible.


In climbing your tie-in knot is essential to preserving your life so if using a bowline the stopper knot is definitely essential.

In contrast in sailing your life does not depend on the knot directly, and is more likely to depend on being able to release the knot extremely quickly (to reduce sail and prevent a knock down/capsize).

As in all areas of climbing there is more than one way to do anything and ALL choices have their pros and cons - learn what the pros and cons are and think about the situations where you apply techniques as to how appropriate they are right there and then. Good luck.
21) Anonymous User
13/05/2012
as a new climbing myself i have found this advice from everyone usefull, ive always been taught to get someone to check my knots and myself to check my belayer. i never climb without someone checking, infact there are times when i have to remind the very expereinced climbers to check. i have been shown how to use a bowline knott but from reading this i wont ever be using it, i feel so much safer with my figure of 8.
22) Anonymous User
20/05/2012
As very keen climber and someone who is suffering from early onset Alzeheimers, I worry that my competence is being compromised as things that always came naturally to me now require more thought or get forgotten. Tying knots correctly (or at all) falls into this category. At least I recognise my symptoms and insist my climbing partner checks everything before leaving the ground. I would worry a lot that as we can now climb till we are much older thanks to warm safe climbing walls, inevitably we will see more accidents due to mental health problems in later life.
23) Anonymous User
20/05/2012
I much prefer 8 knots myself as they are just more immediately visibly assessable. If it's wrong it 'looks' wrong right away as there is a clear pattern to the way it is constructed. The bowlines appearance is such that it is less visually intuitive - you'd have to give it a closer inspection to see anything wrong.

As such I doubt I would ever use them myself, however friends of mine have recently adopted them so it seems sensible that I too should learn them simply for the sake of cross-checking. I myself have mis-tied an 8 once or twice while distracted, but then I'm the kind of person who sometimes goes to climb then realises they haven't put the harness on yet! Point is, we all make mistakes but group expertise and vigilance is essential for spotting them when they do occur.
24) Anonymous User
30/05/2012
It is strongly recommended to use a figure of eight knot. Several studies have been carried (see books and reports by Pit Schubert, Safety Commission, UIAA) out and it has been shown that the bow-line can become untied after repeated falls. Not the best knot for sports climbing.
Extended sympathy to David Rothman's family.
Sergio Menendez, Edinburgh
25) Anonymous User
16/06/2012
I thought bowline know was banned for climbing gyms?
Spending 20 more seconds tying a figure eight reduces dramatically any risk.
Just put things in a balance.
26) Anonymous User
17/06/2012
I used a bowline for a long time when I was primarily sport climbing b/c it's easy to untie after whipping a bunch. However, I usually followed it through and always tied off a double-fisherman's on it. A back-up knot is crucial as it can loosen up or flip around very easily, but the actual reason I switched back to an 8 was simply b/c of break strength. I think it was some testing I saw from Kolin Powick (Black Diamond lead engineer) that sent that aspect home.

This accident was a real tragedy as it was totally preventable...but that's what makes it an accident. Even Lynn Hill was susceptible to tying her knot wrong. Remember to ALWAYS check knots and buckles, no matter how experienced you or your partner are. I promise, eventually it will save a life.
27) Anonymous
09/07/2012
This comment broke the house rules and has been removed
28) Anonymous User
06/02/2013
Ok so let me get this strait, a bowline requires a stopper knot because it is unsafe as is.
While a figure 8 does not require a stopper knot, because it is safe as is.

well now. I think this pretty much speaks for itself.
I have not supported nor used a bowline, in over 10 years, I have seen several "elite" groups insist that it is better. most of them groups have also discontinued use after various degrees of "incedends".

29) Anonymous User
06/02/2013
self check partner check, use knot that works. seems pretty basic to me.
30) Anonymous User
20/02/2013
While tragic, it seems to have been totally avoidable.
The more experienced one becomes, the more likely you are to make a mistake. All harness and attachments should be checked by two people, each and every time.
As for the bowline:
One assumes the safety line was a dynamic kernmantle rope.
This being the case, a bowline would be the worst possible knot to tie. The bowline is meant for laid rope only as it easily slips in kernmantle rope, especially if it is unloaded. Better knots would be the figure 8 or figure 9 tied "on the bight" or, best of all, an alpine butterfly. The same would apply to a static kernmantle rope but this introduces problems relating to the lack of stretch.
As an Aussie I am unfamiliar with the particular environment, but as an abseil instructor for many years the most important lesson we can teach is check, check again then have someone else check for you.
We have never had to deal with an "accident" of any kind.
John Sharples
31) Anonymous User
16/06/2014
A fig.8 is ok if the rope is new. If however the rope has lost the new silkyness, and has become loaded from fall/s then it can be a nightmare to untie (especially if you're pumped). For this and other reasons I stopped tying in with an double-8 fifteen years ago and always use a single bowline with double fisherman's. I would never consider climbing with just a bowline - that's just asking for trouble, even when the knot is well dressed. For me the bowline AND double fisherman's is one knot. It is compact, strong, has the end out of the way and does not impede clipping, and is instantly untie-able when and ONLY WHEN you want it to become untied.

The simple matter is people that are comfortable with an 8 should keep using the 8. People comfortable with using a bowline, single or double, should keep using the bowline.

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