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.

FIGURE 8 THE STANDARD CLIMBING TIE-IN

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.

FIGURE 8 AS AN END OF LINE KNOT

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.

HERE’S THE KICKER, THOUGH

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.

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