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The Figure 8 Knot… A Time and Place

Figure 8 at end of rope. Good screamer-preventer.

The Figure 8 Knot is one of the most useful, and widely used knots in climbing. By climbing, in this case, I mean rock climbing, ice climbing and alpine climbing- and some of the utility in these disciplines ( and some of the dangers ) we can apply to, or be aware of and avoid, in arboriculture.

Oh, and BTW, that rope (my new SRT Rope) is the Yale Kernmaster Safari 11mm rope.  It is a stunning looking rope, and ties like a 16 strand!

In fact, you could argue that the quality of the Figure 8 is a rather strange one in that it has, in varying (and similar uses) acted as both a life-saver and a life-taker.


If you’ve ever been to a rock gym, and checked out the knot on all those auto-belay and top rope setups, there is almost always a Figure-8, pre-tied, on the hanging ropes. It’s convenient, right? You’re half-way there, because a retraced Figure 8 through your belay loop is the standard climbing knot. Some people use the ‘Bow line with a Yosemite Finish’ or a variation of that, especially if taking long falls (where they Figure 8 tends to bind up very tightly), but, for the most part, the Figure 8 is the standard.

There are good reasons. It is easy to tie, easy to retrace an existing Figure 8, easy to inspect, and requires a little half-hitch to make safe and secure. Figure 8’s are used elsewhere in climbing.  You might also see a ‘Figure 8 on a bite’ at the top of a pitch, where it has been tied with cordelette for an anchor, but the two instances that I feel that are applicable to arboriculture is a Figure 8 knot at the terminating end of your climbing rope, and as a means of tying two ropes together.


This is where a figure 8 shines, and I’ll give an personal anecdote for this one. A few winters ago I was ‘doing ice climbing training laps‘ on a tree on our folkses’ woodlot.  This is actually good training, because with spurs, you’re actually slightly overhanging, and you get a really good pump.  It damages the tree, of course, but this tree had already been earmarked for some bush bridges we were building over the Creek.  It was quite windy, and I was practicing climbing a single red pine, with Ice Tools, but using our DdRT as a safety.  I had finished my last lap, quite exhausted, and decided, rather than lower, I would rappel. I like to rappel when I can, just to repeat a system that I wouldn’t otherwise use EVERYDAY, and so I tied myself off, untied my DdRT system, and then began paying rope out, to the ground. I had maybe let down five or six arm-lengths of rope when a gust caught the tree and blew me out of my spurs.

That was where I lost concentration. I’d been training pretty hard, and was tired, and wanted to get out of the cold for some grub.

All bad excuses.

I proceeded to tie into my rappel system (a Pirhana with autoblock) on the double rope, and began to rappel. So, there I was, some 50 feet up or so, rappelling on a double rope. I hadn’t ensured both ends of the rope touched the ground. I hadn’t tied a back up. The short end had only been lowered 10 feet or so.

A 40 foot screamer… almost.

I got lucky. I felt the rope go through the autoblock and cinched down. Luckily I had two hands below the Pirhana, and not one below (at the autblock) and one above (for balance) like I often do. Panic set in, but my death grip held while I managed to swing back to the trunk, set my spurs, and finally, once again, start breathing.

Now, when I switch over to rappel, I ALWAYS tie a Figure 8 terminating knot in the line I’m lowering. I visually, as a drill, ensure that both ends of the rope are touching the ground. In the rope bag, the line is terminated with a Figure 8.


Don’t join two ropes with a retraced Figure 8. This kills lots of guys. I was rappelling off an ice climb, back in the day, when the party that was ahead of us (on the rappel), two brothers, were rappelling off two ropes joined by a Figure 8. The first brother rappelled, without incident. When the second brother started to rappel- a 60 meter length, the knot rolled. My climbing partner, quick-thinking as he was, grasped the rope ends. The Figure 8 might NOT have rolled undone… but it might have.  Quick-thinking may have saved a friends life.

Who knows.

For combining two lines, whether on a long rappel, rock, ice, alpine or tree climbing, the European Death Knot (a misnomer, if ever there was one) is the knot of choice. It’s simply an overhand with two ropes, but it is small, easy to untied, and it’s tendency to pull ‘flat-end-down’ means it’s less likely to catch.

So, what I’d say is…. Figure 8’s are great for backing up ropes- and we should always tie off our line ends. ALWAYS. But, don’t use them for combining two lines, and especially for any life-critical tasks. They can unroll. Use the EDK.

Ascents Tree Service… bike team?

This is one of those aside posts.

We decided on Wednesday to sign up for the Chico Racing Epic 8 Mountain Bike race.  Now, it wouldn’t be such a crazy thing- Scott is an accomplished ex-racer and, hey, I spent twelve years riding everyday in the mountains except that…


That was a long, long time ago.  For my part, I’ve been off-bike since last year, and have only lazily come into about my second week of a daily 20 minute bike commute- which works out to about a combined total training of 400 minutes of riding. I got a new Devinci bike last year and man, did it ever sit in the kitchen, unridden and unloved, for WAY too long.

Or, the simple math is… two weeks commuting 40 minutes per day (5 day work week) = 400 minutes.

So, in the past six months, I’ve ridden my bike 400 minutes.

Good enough- I signed us up.  Ascents Tree Service bike team.  Scotty and I were going to do an 8 hour race at Mansfield– doing alternating laps on a course that I’d never ridden, tested, tried or even driven past, on the equivalent of just over 3 hours training for the year, and I thought it was going to be a good idea.

I figured spending Friday, the day before the race wading through Speed River removing fallen trees would limber us up – and besides, it’s not like we needed our rest days to attain peak performance or anything.  We’d RESTED for months.

Our Friday clearing downed trees along the Speed River.

Well, we got up early.  REALLY early- that was all Scott, of course.  He has experience in these things, talks about tough parking and big line ups at registration.  I just wanted sleep – Friday was a lot of swimming for me – but I had to go with the pro’s advice so we left town at 5:15.

First one’s in Mansfield- parked under a broken hanger behind a massive Apple Tree.  Got our bikes ready.  Tinkered with some gears- made the problem worse – paid the Race Mechanic 20 buck to untinker.

Well, I wanted Scott to ride first.  The Math was simple here, too.  If he rode first, then he’d maybe also ride last, and work ONE lap harder than me.  I’d be able to guilt him, when other teams were packing up and going home.

“You know, pal.  You don’t really have to ride that last lap.  I mean, we’re middle of the pack.  What’s a few places in the standings?”

As it turned out, given that Scott rides his laps about 15 minutes faster than me, and we both had done 6 laps, I was on the course a full 90 minutes longer.  So, even though he did put in that last lap, I was still suffering for an hour longer than him.

BTW he did ride that last lap- and it bumped us two places in the standings.

One thing about these alternating laps- man, you really don’t want  to get back on that bike.  You are hoping that a chain snaps, or a tire tacos- anything to not start that 1.2km climb (the race starts out that way, you know, to separate that champagne (fast guys) from the cork (slow guys…. like me) on the Single Track). Anything to not participate in the Kijiji Kilometer ( long climb, equally sucky).

So, yeah, after 4 or 5 hours of riding, Team Ascents Tree Service finished the Epic 8.  We came in the ‘top ten’ (meaning, you know, TENTH) which was pretty cool, although if it were two me’s… well… I might have been taken aside by some official and asked if I really should be doing this?

This sure beats hauling gear into the woods…

Yesterday we were hauling our saws and climbing gear on our back.  GRCA lent us their mule, today, to haul it in style.
Yesterday we were hauling our saws and climbing gear on our back. GRCA lent us their mule, today, to haul it in style.

We finished up the last day of GRCA storm damage in style.  There wasn’t much to say- SRTing beautiful Maples and Oaks in Shade Mills, Cambridge.  Scott even got to work over top of a bubbling creak, in a funky Yellow Birch.

What a way to break into Spring, and the good weather.