A few weeks ago Boulders Climbing Wall in Cardiff announced a policy that they were banning the use of the bowline knot to tie on at their walls (UKC thread here and article on Boulders website here). This follows two recent tragic accidents in the last 10 months, one at Gloucester and one Stockport, where climbers died after falling the full height of the wall. Initial investigations in both cases seem to suggest that the accidents may well have been caused by a simple bowline knot coming undone when loaded on a fall or while lowering off. These are the first fatalities at climbing walls in Britain since the BMC started keeping its accident database in 2002.
Faced with these bare facts it is easy to understand Boulders decision – the simple bowline appears to be an unsafe knot and no doubt the insurance companies will be looking for action on the part of walls to show that they are taking steps to avoid such accidents happening again.
Before I go any further I should point out that a simple bowline is not a safe knot to climb on and should never be used without the Yosemite (or Edwards) variation, or a stopper knot. I would sympathise with any wall that banned people from using a simple unfinished bowline but in this case the wall has made a blanket ban on all bowline knots, even those that are properly tied. It is my belief that not only is this an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction but, more significantly, it is one which may actually make walls less safe.
The figure that is needed to accurately make this assessment is not how many fatalities there have been since 2002, but how many times has someone plummeted the full length of the wall since each plummet is a potential fatality. It may just be good luck that the other falls haven’t resulted in fatalities and coincidence that the two fatalities appear to have tied on using the same knot. I haven’t got the figures to hand but brief discussion with a few wall owners has revealed exactly what I suspected – most climbers are dropped by their belayers due to inattentive belaying or incorrect use of belay devices. This is a very important issue but a different one to what I wanted to discuss here where the knot used to tie on is the thing that is in question.
So what it the alternative to the bowline? Well it is the rethreaded figure-of-eight (Fo8) – an excellent and solid knot that is taught to most beginners due to it being easy to tie and safe to check. It has certain other advantages and disadvantages over the bowline but overall there isn’t much wrong with it.
The Fo8 does however have one flaw which has made it responsible for a number of very serious accidents over the years both indoors and outdoors. It is a two part knot; you tie a knot, thread it through your harness and tie the second part of the knot. Without this second part the knot is completely useless. The accidents have occurred when people are distracted mid-way through tying their knot – someone says something, they chat for a minute or two, then stop and start climbing having the impression in their mind that they have already tied a knot. This is easy to prevent with the buddy system and there are also many anecdotal stories of people discovering the unthreaded Fo8 halfway up a climb and having to rescue themselves in a panic. There are also a number of stories (more than 2 since 2002) of people taking long plummets to the ground and sustaining serious injuries due to unthreaded Fo8 knots and ten years ago the Fo8 was the unsafe knot due to some high profile accidents at crags.
The point here is that both knots have been implicated in serious accidents. It would be possible to do some in-depth research to find out which one has the worse record based on wall accident stats and considering every long drop as a potential fatality. The bottom line is though that all this research would probably show is that neither the bowline nor the Fo8 are totally reliable if not properly tied – not really a very startling conclusion!
So to instigate a policy at a wall which forces people to tie a knot they may not be familiar with would seem to me to be increasing the likelihood of people not tying their knot correctly. Far more valuable would be to try and drum into people the benefit of the buddy system, where belayer and climber check each other – how to use it and trying to make it a ritual habit like chalking up before we grab the first hold.