Big Wall Episode #7 - Knots
Big Wall Bible
Big Wall Knots
The lightest but most useful thing you can take up a big wall is knowledge. Welcome to a resource that will help you be successful in getting up big rocks. Big walling is a big topic so we broke it into bite-size "pitches" with a video to START each one. The aim is to have lots of videos, photos, and written content in each section, not just of our stuff but your stuff as well. See HowNOT2 contribute your beta below.
Our courses are A-Z content in blog format, glued together with an overarching blog we call a textbook. A blog format is easy to read, easy to update, and easy to translate. Be sure to begin at the TEXTBOOK and at the end of each episode we'll point you to the next.
It's "knot" that hard to learn how to twist your rope in all the ways you need to go up a wall. This ties together a foundation for the next chapters so we can just show you what to do without getting stuck on knot basics. Knots are actually quite easy though. There are about 5 families of knots you will use and honestly only 3 would get you by. Hitches are nothing unless you have something in them and there are only 3 of those you need to know. Friction hitches let you bite a rope with a smaller rope and they are a handy and lightweight tool to have. Learn all 5 of those but you'll probably only use 1 or 2. We also cover anchor concepts so you know what to aim for when building anchors.
Knotology - bights, follow-throughs & bends
So many fancy words but it's so easy. Bight is when you pinch a rope into a loop, then tie your knot, you will need a carabiner to clip it. Follow-through is when you tie half the knot, put the tail of the rope through what you want to attach and then re-trace or finish the 2nd half of the knot. Just like tying a rope to your harness, you tie half a figure 8, put it through the two hard points of your harness and then trace it. BEND is just joining two ends of a rope to make a loop or connect different ropes together. The working end is the end of the rope or the side you are tying the knot with and the standing end is the rest of the rope.
Simplest of all knots. Overhands on a bight are not that secure so unless you are just tying a quick knot to clip some gear to it and have your partner pull it up, this isn't really used. Same idea with a follow-through, but if you tie the 2nd half like a mirror you get a butterfly, but that is for later. Flat webbing does best with an overhand so if you are making a sling, you join two ends (a bend) by using an overhand and then tracing it with the other end and this is called a water knot. Pre-tie an overhand, then stuff the ends of tubular webbing inside of itself, then shuffle the knot where the "splice" is and you have a BEER KNOT, which is a water knot without tails. An overhand bend in ropes is bomber and is one of the best knots to prevent getting stuck in cracks if joining two ropes for rappeling. It's called the EDK or European death knot because if you don't have a long enough tail, it collapses as it gets pulled tight and the tails can slip through. Just remember 18 inches of tail if you bail.
One extra wrap with an overhand gives you more options. Wrap the tail twice around a bight or after doing a follow-through and bam, you have barrel knot, which is the closest knot you can get to an object as it tightens around it. Just remember this is also the hardest to untie. Use it as a bend and you get a double fishermans, also one of the most difficult knots to untie. A stopper knot is when you just put it all by its lonely self at the end of the rope so you don't rappel off the end of it. You still want a hand width of tail on these knots but these suck the tails into the knot less than any other knot regardless of how hard you pull.
Here is the most common knot in climbing. Tie it with a bight and clip it to the anchor and the rope is fixed and ready to ascend. Do a follow-through to tie the rope to your harness. You can join two ends together in a bend, called a flemish, but it's rarely done in big walling because EDK or fisherman's knot is used. If you double up the strands as you tie it, you can get bunny ears or the super 8, building redundancy into the knot. The figure 8 can be difficult to untie if you keep taking whippers on it, but just hauling or ascending usually doesn't require a hammer and your teeth to undo it.
This is the easiest to untie but also the easiest to slip. These shouldn't be used without doing something with the tail that helps lock it solid like a smith lock or Yosemite finish. (Note: the video called it a "scott's lock" and it is actually a "smith lock" that we demo. You also can't ring load it, pulling on the loop itself, or it comes undone. You do not join two ropes this way. This can be such a great tool in your toolbox but if you don't learn it really well, you can 100% get up walls just using Figure of 8s instead of these.
This is a great midline knot. It's also easy to untie and therefore unties itself easy enough that you don't want it right on the end of a rope. But if you plan on tying something in the middle of a rope, whether a bag or a person, this is bomber and it doesn't deform regardless of which direction you pull it. This is most commonly found to isolate a core shot, or damaged section, of rope, like on a fixed line that you have to rappel or ascend. In theory, you could use it as a bend and join two ropes but it isn't super secure requiring long tails and has no advantage over the EDK.
These literally don't exist without something in them. Easy to do and (mostly) easy to undo but they aren't knots as you can't tie them and set them down, as they would just fall apart.
Opposing twists in the rope can secure it pretty good. You can secure yourself with it because the ends of the rope are so far away they can't slip through but don't get carried away and attach everything with this in every spot on the rope. It in theory can slip because it's not a knot and if you respect that it's a quick and dirty way to attach the rope to things.
If the twists are the same you get a girth hitch which is fine if you attach a sling around something that doesn't open but it's not great with rope so don't attach yourself with it. The rope doesn't like to sit well and it's trying to do a spready the whole time. There are some anchors that incorporate it but we'll cover when it's ok and not ok to do that in the anchor section.
This is where pear-shaped or HMS carabiners shine. You need the space for this awesome hitch for adding friction but you have to hang on to the tail. You could rappel with this or belay someone with this but in big walling, it is most useful to attach the haul bag leash with a munter because you can take that tail and tie it off securely in a way that can be released when it's under load. You can't untie other knots while force is being applied to them but with the munter, you can! When you have a haul bag(S) so heavy you can't lift them, it's nice to be able to keep them secure, and when the leader is ready to haul, release them without lifting anything. Before locking the munter off, make sure it is in the direction of pull the load will be taking it, otherwise, it wants to rotate the knot and can suck in the mule overhand or barber pole into the HMS carabiner.
SINGLE STRAND ⮕ MMO or Munter Mule Overhand is a half twist slip knot with an overhand to finish it. All these twists can be undone while under load.
DOUBLE STRAND ⮕ Barber Pole is like a VT prusik or a Beal Escaper in that you can just weave the two working ends around the two standing ends. Weave it about 5x then terminate it with a square knot (two opposing overhands).
Building anchors is building a temporary bomber pit stop on the way to the top. If you fall, and every piece blows, you will always have the anchor. You need to fix the rope so your partner can ascend and you need to haul the bag and you can't afford to have the anchor come out since everyone and everything is attached to that and only that. You need it strong and redundant, ideally equalized between the gear and not to take forever to set up. There is no perfect anchor but you are trying to achieve a balance between all these important concepts in the acronym SERENA.
Strong - Bolts are strong, well-placed cams and nuts can be strong. Two bolts or 3-5 cams can collectively be 40kN strong which is 20x stronger than you need to jug and haul on or 5x stronger than the worse force you'll ever get on it.
Equalized - Ideally, you want each piece to be sharing the load. If you are using good bolts, in big walling this is less of an issue if you haul off one bolt or hang a portaledge off one bolt IF everything is interconnected and redundant. This does matter if you are building an anchor out of cams and nuts.
Redundant - This is the number one goal in a big wall anchor. Can one point fail and you still be connected solidly? If you have a 10:1 safety ratio, stop worrying about how to make it stronger but see if you can get another SEPARATE 10:1 safety ratio built into the system.
Efficient - I was climbing a 5.5 and once had a partner take an hour to build an anchor on a tree. He was trying to equalize multiple branches instead of just girth hitching two slings around the base of the tree in 30 seconds. If you don't understand these concepts holistically and hyper-focus on the wrong ones, it can too long to build anchor and have something that sucks at the end. Hint: trees are stronger at the base. You have a ticking clock when you are on a rock, don't run it out building an anchor. A bolted station shouldn't take more than 60 seconds to build an anchor.
No Extension - If one part of your anchor breaks, will your anchor extend? If it does, in theory, could shock load your system putting a lot of force on the other pieces. If you have a rope in the system, that will absorb most of that problem. Tying a knot at the master point isolates the legs and prevents this but it isn't always that important on a big wall.
Angles - Wide angles increase the force on each piece. If you keep the angle small between pieces, they can actually share the load. Bolted anchors on big walls are normally placed about 12" apart so you don't have to think much about this, but if you are using a crack 3 feet off to the side to supplement those bolts, you might want to put the gear pretty high up to keep that angle small. At 120 degrees, each piece is seeing 100% of the load instead of sharing it evenly. This isn't the end of the world if you are on a good bolts and only ascending or hauling, but just understand this concept when you come to an anchor piece you are not confident in.
This "X" is ironically a V shape between 2 or 3 pieces. If you have multiple pieces, it's best to make a sliding X with two and another sliding X with the other two and equalize those two sliding Xs with a sliding X. This is called cascading Xs. It's absolutely critical to put a twist in one of the strands before clipping or you are half as safe because if one piece blows then it will slide off the end and you die. This type of anchor is great for equalization but not good at "No Extension" because your anchor will drop a foot if one piece blows shock loading the other pieces. Not a huge concern with two good bolts on a big wall anchor, but it's not redundant because if it gets cut by a rock, your anchor is fully broken. To solve the redundancy problem, you can take two or even three shoulder length 60cm slings and make a sliding X and that is bomber.
BFK - Big Fat Knot
You can isolate all the legs of your anchor by tying an overhand or figure 8 knot. One entire leg can get cut and you are still in the game. One bolt or cam can blow and you would barely notice since it won't extend. You have to tie it in the direction it will be used or it won't be equalized since it can't self adjust beyond the knot getting tighter. It's efficient enough if you have the material to work with because it does take more material to tie a fat knot than just a sliding X. Trying to do this with a should length sling might make your angle too big and be awkward to tie. If you clove or girth hitch the bottom of the V around the carabiner then it takes up less material and still isolates some risk. However, if that webbing locked around the carabiner rubs the rock enough and breaks, then you are at risk of it all coming apart.
This is the solution between a sliding X and a BFK. An overhand halfway down each leg isolates the strands from the risk of "too much shock load" but still allows it to adjust and perfectly equalize within a range. This requires a much longer double-double length 240cm sling. A 240cm Dyneema sling is bomber and not bulky. A 6mm accessory cord is also bomber and more abrasion resistant in exchange for more bulk.
Rope vs Webbing
Sliding X vs BFK is mostly sewn-sling-centric but you can grab about 8-12 meters of a 6mm or 7mm accessory cord and now you have the flexibility to create any type of anchor. Clove hitch the crap out of it and super 8 the masterpoints for an all points, inter connected, super equalized enough, strong and fast anchor. The only downside is this is a more bulky option.
Wrap a smaller rope around a bigger rope just right and it will grab like an ascender. The general rule is you want the smaller rope at least 2mm smaller. Some grab only in one direction, some are a PITA to undo if a lot of force was put on it and some can be undone if it's currently loaded. These slide up or down a rope so the rope itself is fine because it's always touching a new spot but the loop you make your hitch out of can get hot, so the kind you can buy a HOLLOW BLOCK made with non-melting sheath called Technora, but you can get away with just using 6mm accessory cord and tying it in a loop with a double fisherman. See our video about it by clicking the thumbnail.
Wrap the loop inside itself 3 times so the loop you clip is in the middle. This can be pulled in both directions but is difficult to release after a full load has been put on it.
Wrap the loop several times around and put the bottom loop inside the top loop and pull down. This is good in one direction and bites super good enough.
Wrap the loop around your rope 3x or 4x and clip both loops. This doesn't hold as well as the others but if you just need a little friction below a belay device, then this could work for you.
This is NOT made with a loop but an eye to eye sling that gets wrapped 3 times and then braided until you can't braid it anymore. You can get a sewn VT PRUSIK made of Technora from Blue Water. This can be released while fully weighting it and slides up easily. This only bites the rope in one direction. See our VT video by clicking the thumbnail for it.
Test yourself!!! Try tying all these knots in one breath! Don't pass out and get hurt for gawd's sake, but see if you can knock this list out sitting there holding your breath. You're going to be tired, bonking, have low sugar, and stressed on a wall and need to tie these so your life can depend on them so it's good to pra