Incident: Climber's Bowline Came Untied While Climbing at Rifle


Original Post
20 kN · · Hawaii · Joined Feb 2009 · Points: 1,128

It's difficult to weed through the endless amounts of spray, but the short is that a girl was top roping at Rifle, her bowline came untied, and then she was free soloing for a bit. The article concluded with five tips on always ensuring you check your knots. However, Rock and Ice left out some of the most important aspects--what versions of the bowline can be safely used and when using the bowline does not make sense.

http://www.rockandice.com/climbing-news/tnb-when-your-rope-falls-off-and-5-ways-to-prevent-the-nightmare

I am not an opponent of the bowline as I use it all the time. However, unlike the figure eight there are many versions of the bowline, some of which are unsafe for climbing. The knot is much easier to untie than the figure eight after a big whip, but the very thing that makes it easier to untie also makes it less secure. The main purpose of using the bowline is to enable the climber to untie easily after a lead fall. Consequently, it does not make sense to tie the bowline on top rope or on a climb that the climber very likely wont fall on. The climber would be trading the security of the figure eight for for an advantage that wont be used.

Single Bowline
Above is the single bowline. It is used by sailors often, but it's absolutely unsafe for climbing by itself.

Double bowline
Above is the double bowline. This knot is more secure in that it adds a second loop to choke the tail, but without a backup this knot is not a good idea. If the tail pops through just one turn of the choke, the knot wont even hold bodyweight.

Double Bowline w/ Fishermans
This is the double bowline, but with a fisherman's backup. This knot can be used for climbing, and it's probably the most popular version of the bowline, BUT there are safer versions of the knot out there, and this version could come untied if the fisherman's were to loosen up. It's also bulky with the fisherman's.

Bowline on a Bight, Retraced Through Harness
This knot is essentially a bowline on a bight, but it is retraced through the harness. It starts by tying a single bowline, then the tail is traced back through the harness and a second single bowline is tied in parallel with the first.

Bowline on a Bight, Retraced Through Harness w/ Yosemite Finish
Last, this is the same knot as above, but with the tail retraced through the choke. This version of the knot is the safest option, and it is what I use. It takes longer to tie, and involves more steps, but it will not come untied. I've taken hundreds of whips on this knot and it's always been solid. The knot in essence is two bowlines tied in parallel with a backup. It takes some time to learn, but after a day I was able to tie it in under 20 seconds.

In short, the last option is the safest of those displayed and the bowline is advantageous when you fall on it. However, the knot is more complicated, harder to inspect, unforgiving to errors, and few climbers know how to tie it. As a result, it makes no sense to use it on top rope or on a route you wont fall on as it provides no benefit.

Simon W · · Nowhere Land · Joined May 2013 · Points: 20

Thanks for the thorough analysis of a knot which people frequently complain about....

I also tie in for single pitch sport with a bowline on a bight retraced, yosemite finish. Never had a single issue with that knot, and I believe it's better for your tie in loops because it has double the surface area in contact with your harness as a follow through figure 8.

That said I still use figure 8s for multipitch climbing.

Connor F-M · · Lafayette, CO · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 40

What is specifically dangerous about a single bowline? Asking because I have known people that have used it as their main tie-in method and I was skeptical, but couldn't find much about it online.

Tradgic Yogurt · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2016 · Points: 55

I use David Pegg's DBBB (now scrubbed from Climbing's archives, but archived at y.tt/50846900070en.html). Well dressed, the DBBB is good even for multi and for TR. As a heavy climber, totally worth it instead of having to deal with a welded 8 yet again.

I only use an 8 to maintain the muscle memory, or if my partner is icked out by not being able to check my DBBB.

Old lady H · · Boise, Idaho · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 120
Tradgic Yogurt wrote:I use David Pegg's DBBB (now scrubbed from Climbing's archives, but archived at y.tt/50846900070en.html). Well dressed, the DBBB is good even for multi and for TR. As a heavy climber, totally worth it instead of having to deal with a welded 8 yet again. I only use an 8 to maintain the muscle memory, or if my partner is icked out by not being able to check my DBBB.
Wow! Wonder how many times that went through a translation program?!!! Technology can be sooo .... almost not quite useful, at times. :-)
20 kN · · Hawaii · Joined Feb 2009 · Points: 1,128
Connor F-M wrote:What is specifically dangerous about a single bowline? Asking because I have known people that have used it as their main tie-in method and I was skeptical, but couldn't find much about it online.
It's extremely insecure and can come untied easily. The bowline doesent really "cinch tight" like the figure eight does. Once you tighten the figure eight, it's not going to loosen on its own. With the bowline, you can cinch it tight, but as you climb it can loosen back up, especially if you're using a thick or inflexible rope. Once it loosens, the tail can start to creep back through the knot eventually untying the knot completely. This has happened to climbers on this very forum. Further, the single bowline has absolutely no redundancy within the turns of the knot. With the figure eight, you can actually skip the last turn of the knot and it will still hold a fall. When the knot is pull tested to failure, the last turn doesn't even tighten.

The version of the bowline I use and posted above is not that prone to loosing, and it has more redundant turns in it than the figure eight does. The rope takes so many passes through the knot that once I cinch it up, it actually stays fairly cinched but still comes untied easily. This is not the case with the single bowline, however.
aikibujin · · Castle Rock, CO · Joined Oct 2014 · Points: 200

The single bowline is prone to become loose and undone under cyclic loading, which tends to happen when toproping. I also use a re-threaded bowline, but I just finish with the common double overhand knot tied to the other strand, I don't use the yosemite finish.

20 kN · · Hawaii · Joined Feb 2009 · Points: 1,128
Tradgic Yogurt wrote:I use David Pegg's DBBB (now scrubbed from Climbing's archives, but archived at y.tt/50846900070en.html). Well dressed, the DBBB is good even for multi and for TR. As a heavy climber, totally worth it instead of having to deal with a welded 8 yet again. I only use an 8 to maintain the muscle memory, or if my partner is icked out by not being able to check my DBBB.
Yep, I've seen a few people use that version too. It's more common in Europe than the USA.
Brian L. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0
20 kN wrote:The main purpose of using the bowline is to enable the climber to untie easily after a lead fall. Consequently, it does not make sense to tie the bowline on top rope or on a climb that the climber very likely wont fall on. The climber would be trading the security of the figure eight for for an advantage that wont be used.
This statement bothers me. If you don't think a bowline is secure enough for a low load, or no load situation, why would it be secure enough for a high load, lead fall situation? Especially with all the extra jostling leading puts on the knot. Your reasoning here seems flawed. It's either good for anything, or not good at all.
20 kN · · Hawaii · Joined Feb 2009 · Points: 1,128
Brian L. wrote: This statement bothers me. If you don't think a bowline is secure enough for a low load, or no load situation, why would it be secure enough for a high load, lead fall situation? Especially with all the extra jostling leading puts on the knot. Your reasoning here seems flawed. It's either good for anything, or not good at all.
It is secure enough for top rope, just there is not any point in using it for that application. I was speaking more to the generic bowline in general being insecure. The version in the last photo is the most secure way to tie it that I know of, and it's much safer than the first two options.

I use the eight on TR simply because it's easier to tie and inspect, and there really is no reason for me to use the bowline. However, if my partner used the bowline for TR, and he used a secure version, I wouldn't have any problem with it.
climber pat · · Las Cruces, NM · Joined Feb 2006 · Points: 185

Multiple uses without a problem is not an indicator of safety. It could just as easily be an indicator of luck.

There is no doubt that the figure 8 is a safer knot than the bowline, whose only advantage is that it is easier to untie after a severe fall. I have never heard of anyone being unable to eventually untie a figure 8. I hear about a bowline coming untied about once a year, about 1/2 of time resulting in an injury or death. I suspect bowlines come untied/unsafe much more often but the climber does not fall so the event is not published. So for me the obvious answer is the figure 8.

It is bizarre to me that climbers who are so concerned with redundant, equalized anchors, note the multiple threads on that topic, are willing to use a less safe knot. It seems this is one area where convenience outweighs safety for some reason.

20 kN · · Hawaii · Joined Feb 2009 · Points: 1,128
climber pat wrote:Multiple uses without a problem is not an indicator of safety. It could just as easily be an indicator of luck. There is no doubt that the figure 8 is a safer knot than the bowline, whose only advantage is that it is easier to untie after a severe fall. I have never heard of anyone being unable to eventually untie a figure 8. I hear about a bowline coming untied about once a year, about 1/2 of time resulting in an injury or death. I suspect bowlines come untied/unsafe much more often but the climber does not fall so the event is not published. So for me the obvious answer is the figure 8. It is bizarre to me that climbers who are so concerned with redundant, equalized anchors, note the multiple threads on that topic, are willing to use a less safe knot. It seems this is one area where convenience outweighs safety for some reason.
Except how many of those cases involved a climber using the version of the knot I recommend? Every case I've ever heard of the bowline coming untied stemmed back to one of the two versions of the knots I said were not safe for climbing. The first three pictures are the most popular versions of the knot, which are incidentally the three least secure ways to tie it. The version in the last photo is substantially more secure than the other versions, and I've never read of a case of it coming untied.
patto · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 0
climber pat wrote:It is bizarre to me that climbers who are so concerned with redundant, equalized anchors, note the multiple threads on that topic, are willing to use a less safe knot. It seems this is one area where convenience outweighs safety for some reason.
I don't believe there is any evidence supporting your assertion that the bowline variants 20kN is recommending are less safe.

Personally I am a fan of the 8. Having it welding closed hasn't been an issue for me. But that is just because I find it easy to tie and easy to check.

There are a whole variety of knots our there that work.
climber pat · · Las Cruces, NM · Joined Feb 2006 · Points: 185
20 kN wrote: Except how many of those cases involved a climber using the version of the knot I recommend? Every case I've ever heard of the bowline coming untied stemmed back to one of the two versions of the knots I said were not safe for climbing. The first three pictures are the most popular versions of the knot, which are incidentally the three least secure ways to tie it. The version in the last photo is substantially more secure than the other versions, and I've never read of a case of it coming untied.
I agree with and appreciate your analysis of the bowline knot. The only bowline I can see using is the last knot; the main problem being the complexity of the knot, as you point out.

I am just pointing out the small anecdotal sample sets does not prove safety; a pet peeve of mine.
Allen Sanderson · · Oootah · Joined Jul 2007 · Points: 1,115

FWIW there are a couple of variations on finishing the bowline with a Fisherman's knot. As shown in the third image the Fisherman's knot is tied on the loop going through the harness. As noted it is bulky. One can also tie the Fisherman's knot to cord leading to the belayer by threading it back through the bite that goes around the cord leading to the belayer.

Image from Rock&Ice link above. Note: the knot is Fisherman's not half a Fisherman's. There is not such knot as a half Fishermans's.

Drederek · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2004 · Points: 305

Untying a "welded 8" is good training and incentive to pull through!

Aleks Zebastian · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 0

climbing friend,

I am climber of the climbing rocks!

Look at me I am so strong with the hulking guns and hard grades!

My fingers have the absolute max crushing strength, and I for easy flash 5.13 bro, but I am afraid my figure 8 will be too hard to untie and may require slight effort after fall!

Kyle Edmondson · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 20

I suppose I'll add this. I've been using a single bowline for over 30 years. Yes, the knot itself is weaker than an 8, but that is never the failure point. The failure comes when it unties, and as long as there is sufficient tail with a solid back up knot, that can't happen. I use a fisherman's finish above the knot, so it is not bulky on the harness. On multi-pitch, I periodically check it (it is almost never loose). I will add that along with the benefit of ease of untying, there is an additional benefit - namely, if I ever tie the bowline incorrectly, the knot falls apart. There is virtually no chance a mis-tied knot will go unnoticed, as there is with a figure 8.
I will say, I generally teach the 8, as it is most commonly used (Many gyms require it) and requires less overall attention to detail.

Ted Pinson · · Chicago, IL · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 45

Erm a figure 8 is a pretty obvious knot...can't say I've ever had a improperly tied 8 look anything close to acceptable. You can make mistakes in dressing it while following through, but these mostly just result in twists that make it even more difficult to untie in the event of a fall.

John Byrnes · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Dec 2007 · Points: 251

Oh My God, yet another thread about a bowline coming untied, UFO's and Area 51, alligators in the sewers, the Grassy Knoll and Iraqi WMDs. Please light the campfire. Time for the ghost stories.

Would someone PLEASE write an article about Figure-8's coming untied because the climber didn't finish the knot properly? We have Equal Time for those damned TV ads that tell us how safe Fracking is, just not in Oklahoma.

It doesn't matter how heavy/light you are, if you're working a crux and take repeated falls, the rope will absorb less and less energy, and your F8 will weld. I can't count the number of people I've seen at the base of the cliff begging for someone to untie their knot because their forearms are too blasted to do it themselves. I've seen guys take off their still-tied-in harness and walk away. And then there's that guy who has a screwdriver in his rope bag to pry his knot apart.

Just face it: there are things in climbing that must be done right EVERY TIME. Not knowing how to tie a good knot, not finishing it and cinching it down, and most importantly, not double-checking it and having your partner check it before leaving the ground (while you inspect her belay), is the real issue.

Blaming the knot for lack diligence is just plain stupid.

FourT6and2 Haftel · · San Francisco, CA · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 5

Jesus. Why all the fuss? Is it really that hard to tie a figure 8 and be done with it? I know someone who insists on using a bowline on their harness. I don't understand it. His reasoning is it's easier to untie. Fine. It's easier to untie. But it has more risk associated with it as well. Is saving 30 seconds at the end of your climb worth any potential risk to your safety? Sure sure sure sure sure... you tie your bowline perfect every time. Right. Until that one time you don't.

I'll stick to a figure 8, thanks.

Yeah, I know you can tie a figure 8 wrong as well. But it's easier to see and inspect compared to a bowline.

Safety is all about risk mitigation. There are no perfect setups that can never fail. But the act of climbing is risky in and of itself. So I might as well make everything else as simple and idiot-proof as possible (like knots and anchors and shit).

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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