Knowing The Ropes – Knots & Climbing Rope Basics

Most climbers make use of ropes, although, for a great deal of the time, the rope is not used actively. It is simply there and you may even find it a nuisance. You drag it behind you when leading a climb, you climb with it above you for safety, it snags on every projection, and it always seems to get in the way. However, if something happens and you suddenly need the rope, you’ll be extremely relieved to have it!

The most important thing to remember about tying on to the rope is that if you get it wrong, someone could die. Whichever knot you choose, you should be able to tie it when blindfolded, in a howling gale, or perched on a wobbling treetop. Practise tying this knot again and again before you go anywhere near the rock face.

Knots For Tying On To The Rope

Any knot causes a loss of rope strength, as a result of the rope having to pass around itself on a small radius, and because of the internal friction in the knot if it is loaded (i.e. if it holds a fall or carries your body weight). Some knots lose a smaller percentage of rope strength than others. In a major fall situation, this loss can be important. However, experience shows that it is very rare for the rope itself to break far more often it is the points of attachment to the rock, slings or even the carabiners that give way. Any of the key knots discussed here can be considered safe if properly tied.

Figure 8 On A Bight

For tying rope to climbers or protection at any point in the rope.

The knot is quick to tie, and it is easy to see if it has gone wrong - the whole system is double looped.Can be difficult to untie after being loaded by body weight or a fall.Can work loose if tied at the end of a stiff, large-diameter rope. Always use an additional stopper knot.
Even if undertied or overtied, it gives a safe knot - either a simple overhand, or a Figure 10.It cannot be threaded through a harness loop.STOPPER KNOT: In Figure 8 and bowline knots, tie and overhand knot using the shorter end of the rope, around the other parts of the rope, to lie against the main knot.
It can take load on any strand.Difficult to adjust tightness or length.
It is a very strong knot, and loses little rope strength.

Figure 8 Re-threaded (Rewoven)

For tying on to a harness or around a fixed point.

These are the same as for the Figure 8 on a Bight.It can be difficult to untie after being loaded by body weight or a fall.It is not always easy to see if this knot has been wrongly threaded, so check very carefully!
In addition, it can be tied through a harness loop, or around a tree, for instance.It is difficult to adjust tightness or length.
It is fairly bulky.


For tying on to the rope or protection; or making a tie-in loop at the end of the rope for top-roping.

It is less bulky than the Figure 8.It is difficult to spot if this knot has been incorrectly tied.Single bowlines can, and do, work loose. It is also very easy to tie an incorrect version, which stays tied just long enough for a climber to get into trouble! Check very, very carefully each time you tie this knot, and always use a stopper knot.
It is easier to untie after being loaded.It does not take three-way loading well.
It is easy to adjust the length and tightness.It loses a greater percentage of rope strength than a Figure 8 knot.
It is prone to working loose, so you should always tie a good stopper knot, preferably a double knot.

Tape Sling

The only truly safe knot to join two ends of climbing tape to form circular slings.

It is easy to tie, and easy to spot if this knot has been incorrectly tied.It uses a fair amount of tape.The ends of tied tape slings work loose. Leave a long end, and load with body weight to check that it doesn't pull through before use. Re-tie the knot if necessary.
The only truly safe knot to join two ends of climbing tape to form circular slings.It makes a bulky knot.
It can easily work loose.

Clove Hitch

To tie in to belay points where easy length adjustment is needed.

It can be tied quickly and easily.It can work loose.Always tighten the Clove Hitch properly before use, otherwise it will 'run'.
It can be tied anywhere in the rope.It loses a fair amount of rope strength.Do not use a Clove Hitch as a main knot or as the only anchor knot.
It can take loads from both directions.
It is easy to adjust the tension and position of the knot.
It is easy to loosen after being loaded.

Double Fisherman’s Knot

For joining two rope ends, for example, for long rappels.

It does not easily work loose.It requires a lot of rope - a length of at least eight times the diameter of the rope is necessary.It is easy to get this knot the wrong way round. If it is not correctly tied, it is not as secure, and loses more rope strength.
It is easy to spot if this knot has been incorrectly tied.It is bulky.
This knot can be used to join two rope ends, for example, to make a long rope for extended rappels.It is quite difficult to untie after being loaded.

Tying On To The Harness

For each type of harness there is a specific, safe way to tie on (some examples are shown below). If you are unsure of the procedure, consult the instructions supplied with it, or your supplier. In general, it is best to:

  • Keep the knot compact, fairly tight, and close to your body.
  • Tie a stopper knot in the end.
  • Keep the tail (outside the stopper knot) short.
Three Elements Of Safety

There are three major considerations when using the rope to safeguard yourself and/or other climbers: tying on to it correctly, making sure that whatever it is attached to is absolutely secure, and using the correct belaying techniques. Always bear these three elements in mind.

Attaching The Rope To Solid Anchors

If you are climbing with friends, and using a rope, it is usual for the rope to be tied to two climbers the climber and the belayer as well as to one or more anchor or attachment points. Climbers often speak of the belay chain or the ‘system’ when referring to the climber, the rape, the belayer, and all the attachments to the rock or wall. In this instance, it is wise to remember the old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Anchors must be solid, and so should the method of linking the rope to them.

Equalizing Anchor Points

This can be achieved by using slings (also called extensions), or by tying the rope via a Figure 8 on the Bight to the top, or furthest, protection point, and via one or more Clove Hitches to the other anchor points.

Setting Up A Cordelette

Another popular technique for tying on to an anchor point is to use a cordelette this consists of 5 or 6m (18 to 20ft) of 7mm high-tensile cord tied into a large, open loop. You clip the loop into the protection points you want to use, pull the loops down to a common point, tie it all off with a Figure 8, and clip in. This is a safe and simple method, and ensures that all points are equally loaded. in addition, you don’t waste your main rope, and the cordelette is light and compact.


The term belaying refers to the process of holding and managing the rope in such a way that you safeguard your fellow climber. If your partner should fall while you are belaying, your role is to limit the distance of the fall, usually by using one of a number of friction-enhancing devices on the rope. As when tying knots, you may literally have your partner’s life in your hands, as you can prevent him or her from hitting the ground.

Belay Devices

Most climbers use some form of belay device so that they are able to increase or decrease the amount of friction applied to the rope. Most belay devices allow for rappelling or descending as well as belaying. There are four basic designs: the Figure 8, the Plate, the Tube and the Self-locking devices.

Each device has advantages and disadvantages; each has its proponents. All work well with single ropes, but only the Tubes and Plates allow for the use of double ropes.

All the belay devices work on the principle of dynamic (planned) rope slippage after a certain amount of braking force has been supplied. This helps to dissipate or absorb the high energy or force generated by the fall. The force can be as high as 4kN (400kgf), that is, the belay device will not allow any major rope slippage until the fall force exceeds 400kgf (assuming that the rope is firmly held by a reasonably strong person). After this point, the rope begins to move rapidly through the system, and also through the belayer’s hand.

Friction Hitch

Used with a carabiner for belaying.

The knot has a breaking force of up to 300kgf.It twists the rope.The Friction Hitch (also called a Munter or Italian Hitch) easily unlocks screwgate carabiners if the rope runs across the gate. Always load the carabiner in the correct way.
It is easy to tie.The friction of rope-on-rope can wear the rope rapidly.
It can be tested for correctness before being loaded.
It can be made in single or double ropes.

Good Belaying Techniques

Belaying is both a science and an art -a good, attentive, thoughtful belayer not only makes it safer for the climber, but can also make the climber’s task easier. By careful positioning of the rope, the belayer and the rest of the system, the rope can be allowed to flow freely to the climber. The belayer can give slack exactly when the leader or climber needs it, or tighten the rope for security or to assist a struggling climber.

Direct And Indirect Belays

The belay device can be attached directly to the anchor(s), or the belayer can tie on, then attach the belay to him or herself. if the belay is a direct belay, then the anchors must be ‘bomb-proof’, as any forces come directly onto these. Usually, belays are indirect. The belayer’s body absorbs some of the force, thus loading the anchors less than in the direct belay. The disadvantage is that the belayer might be subjected to quite a shock, and can be pulled around by a fall.


Anchors should be set to anticipate any likely direction of pull. Take special care if you are belaying below an overhang – many a belayer has received a crack on the skull by being pulled up into an overhanging rock!

The carabiner(s) used to clip in to the final belay or anchor point should be screwgate (locking) carabiners. If these are not available, use two clipgate (snapgate) carabiners with their gates reversed, to prevent accidental opening as far as possible.

Belaying From Below

If you are belaying from the ground, remember that the pull in case of a fall will be upward. If you are belaying on a ledge halfway up a route, the pull could be upward, or downward if the leader falls before placing his or her first runner. Always place anchors so that they can cater for both these directions.

Belaying From Above

If you are belaying from above the climber, the direction of pull in the case of a fall is downward. The belayer (often the leader) must ensure that the rope does not pass across his body in such a way that it traps legs or arms. By placing himself ‘in the system’, the belayer reduces the strain on the anchors, but increases the strain on himself.

A Few Essentials

  • Always ensure that the rope will be able to run freely the best method is for the belayer to tie on to an end, then loosely coil the rest of the rope on the ground until the leader’s end of the rope lies freely on the top. This procedure should be followed not only at ground level, but at each stance on a multi-pitch climb.
  • Ensure that the belay hand is free to move fully into the braking position avoid being too close up to the rock face, for instance.
  • Set up the belay so that the belayer faces the direction in which the leader or climber will be moving.
  • Always tie the free end of the rope to the belayer, or to a solid anchor. At the very least, tie a knot in it. This is extremely important in multi-pitch climbs, and can even be vital in ground belaying on single-pitch routes the climb may be 30m (100ft) and your rope only 45m (150ft). Should the leader or climber fall off at or near the top, he or she may fall 30m x 2 = 60m (2OOft) – further than the length of your rope! Many a climber has hit the ground – and sometimes with tragic results – as a result of the rope end passing through the belay device.
  • Communicate – the belayer and leader should each always know what the other person has in mind. When the leader reaches the top of a pitch, it is vital for the belayer to know what the climber’s intentions are – will he or she be lowering off, rappeling, or bringing the belayer up and continuing on another pitch?

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