double fig 8’s

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  • #2264 Reply


    A long post – but interesting….

    Richard Connors posted this on

    On May 21st I was descending with my friend Ross from Spaceshot on the Leaning

    Wall. During the last abseil Ross fell to his death.

    Ross and I are from the UK and were on a trip visiting various crags in the


    There is a lot of stuff spinning around in my head as I write this, but my

    main thought is to let people know what (it seems) was the cause of this

    accident. The main factor in this has surprised a good number of the climbers

    I have talked to.

    I know there has been some discussion of this on the web already. Hopefully

    by telling the whole story – however irrelevant some of it might be – all

    of the various questions might be answered. I will try to reply to any questions

    where I can tell you something vaguely useful.

    ==== The long story [skip ahead for the facts] ====

    On Monday we climbed the first four pitches and returned to the ground, leaving

    ropes in place to jug the next day. All the anchors we used were fixed, except

    maybe for the one at the top of the first pitch.

    Pitch 1 is slightly grotty 5.6 climbing. Pitch 2 is a pretty nice 5.7 flake

    and ends at the left end of a large sandy ledge. We fixed a 60m rope (“the

    blue” 60mx10.5mm) to this anchor, having got beta saying this would just

    reach the ground. Pitch 3 is a mixed bag of sandy 5.5 and ends at the base

    of a huge smooth clean red wall, the stuff we came to do. We fixed “the green”

    (55mx10.5mm) to this anchor and chucked it back down to the sandy ledge (top

    of pitch 2). Pitch 4 is where it gets fun. I lead the pitch (C2 aid) and

    Ross followed, cleaning the gear. We fixed our 60m lead rope (“the yellow”

    60mx10.5mm) to this anchor and abseiled down. Then down the green to the

    sandy ledge. Then down the blue (carefully checking it reached) back to the

    ground. It didn’t quite reach the dirt, but left us with maybe 20ft of trivial

    down-shuffling to get back to our bags. We left the 3 ropes in place and

    headed off for a beer.

    Tuesday morning we jugged the ropes. Amongst all the other crap you take

    aid climbing, we had a 9mm rope. We planned to lead on the yellow (the top

    fixed rope) and take the 9mm to deal with the double-rope abseils on the

    descent. We would chuck the green down to the big sandy ledge as we went

    past it, and then could retrieve the green and the blue by jugging just the

    blue on Wednesday and abseiling down.

    I set off first, Ross followed. I got to the top of pitch 4 as Ross arrived

    at the top of pitch 3. Ross had got some two-way radios earlier on the trip

    and we chatted on the radio: the weather forecast had been slowly deteriorating

    for the last 3 days, today was 50% chance of afternoon rain, there were a

    lot of gloomy clouds brewing above us, the sandstone is all bad in the wet,

    we were not super fast aid climbers…there were a lot of reasons for continuing,

    mostly that I didn’t want to have to lead that C2 pitch again!! A brief spot

    of rain actually hit us and we decided to bail.

    I pulled up the 9mm rope, tied it to the yellow, stripped the anchor and

    descended to the top of pitch 3. Meantime Ross had been untying the green

    from this anchor and getting ready to set up a double-rope abseil. I got

    down to him, chucked him the end of the yellow to tie to the green and started

    pulling the ropes down from above.

    Ross headed off down to the big sandy ledge as I coiled the 9mm and put it

    on my back. He radioed me to say “rope free” and I headed down. I arrived

    on the big sandy ledge about 10-15ft away from the anchor – Ross was off

    to my left, already clipped into the anchor and sorting out the blue rope,

    ready to set up the last abseil. I chucked the loose end of the yellow to

    Ross and started pulling the ropes from above. I was unclipped at this point

    – being a very bad boy, even though it was a huge ledge. This was actually

    the only thing that struck me as unsafe about our whole day. As the knot

    came down, I stopped and untied it to free the yellow, which was now all

    tangled up in plants and rocks on the ledge. Ross fed it over the edge as

    I untangled it from everything on the ledge. I started pulling the green

    down as Ross sorted himself out over at the anchor. I was coiling the green

    rope as Ross called over to say “see you at the bottom in a few minutes”,

    he saw me coiling the green and offered to carry it, since I had the 9mm

    already on my back, but he already had our daysack on so I said I was fine

    taking it down. I turned to just finish up coiling the green and at that

    moment he fell.

    I rushed over and there was nothing there – our ropes had gone, Ross had

    gone, the anchor was fine, untouched. Everything floated for a moment, slipped

    sideways and turned unreal – then I started shouting…I knew I had to get

    down in case by some impossible chance there was something I could do to

    help him. I was yelling down to the road and got someone’s attention,

    they flagged down one of the shuttle buses and shouted that help was coming.

    I had the 55m green and the 50mx9mm ropes with me. I couldn’t get to the

    ground in one go but I knew there was another anchor (top of the Alpine Start

    for those that know it) that I would be able to reach. I set up the double

    rope abseil and set off down. The ropes tangled around everything – it was

    a complete shambles. I saw the rangers and the ambulance arrive; the rangers

    were racing up the hill to Ross. I set up the second abseil, it was all taking

    so long…as I reached the ground one of the rangers came over to tell me

    what I already knew.

    %%==== Some stuff that I do know ====%%

    Ross was found with the two ropes correctly through his belay device. The

    ropes extended about 10feet “above” him (the other 190feet being “below”

    his belay device) and the ends were not tied together.

    Throughout this trip we had always been tying ropes together using a fig-eight

    knot (more below).

    The only other abseil Ross set up that same day (from top of pitch 3 down

    to the big ledge) he had used the fig-eight knot with no back up knot on

    the tails. The knot was neat, I don’t remember exactly how long the

    tails were but they didn’t cause me a second glance.

    I could not see exactly what Ross was setting up on that last abseil – he

    was 10ft or so to my left and was sitting (while clipped in) so that he obscured

    my view of the anchor.

    The fig-eight I refer to is tied as follows: The two ends you want to join

    are held parallel with the ends “pointing” in the same direction. You grab

    both ropes together and then tie a regular single fig-eight knot in both

    ropes at once.

    What we did NOT use: The only other way that might be confused is when you

    have the ends pointing in opposite directions. Tie a single fig-eight in

    one rope then follow this through with the other rope – we did NOT do this.

    %%==== The important bit ====%%

    Some guys that were helping me out played around in their yard with this

    fig-eight method, tying it and trying to pull the knot apart. They found

    some worrying things.

    -The way the ropes pull on this knot on a double-rope abseil deforms the

    knot badly.

    -If the knot is not perfectly “dressed”, in particular if there is a single

    slack loop anywhere on the fig-eight, they could pull the knot through even

    with 6 INCHES of tails, just pulling the ropes apart as happens naturally

    on an abseil. 6 inches of tails is NOT ENOUGH. If you use this knot, tie

    a back up knot and leave LONG tails. It scares me to think that I could have

    innocently/ignorantly made this same catastrophic mistake.

    %%==== My thoughts (not facts) ====%%

    The only plausible explanation of this accident I have come up with is that

    the knot slipped off the ends. I won’t go through all the alternate scenarios

    and my objections to them here. I hope it doesn’t sound contradictory to

    say that Ross was a safe climber. I never saw him rig a belay that I thought

    was unsafe, never saw him do anything that made me think “does he realise

    that’s pretty dodgy”.

    We were not in a big rush getting down. We were moving quickly and efficiently

    but with no sense of panic or anything like that.

    Ross knew that the last abseil was a long one and we would be a bit tight

    on rope. I can imagine that would make him want to keep the knot pretty near

    the ends, but I do not believe he would only leave something ridiculous like

    one inch of tails. I think he must have tied the knot with something like

    6inches of tails, thinking this was plenty (go tie the knot – it looks good

    with this much rope sticking out of it) and maybe he didn’t make it all neat

    and snug. I think when he set off he was happy with his set-up, not thinking

    at all that the tails were dangerously short.

    The first 30feet of this abseil are a little slabby – and with two 60m ropes

    you do have to feed armfuls through your belay device at the top – the first

    few feet of such an abseil are always a bit jerky. I guess he fed through

    a couple of armfuls of rope and hence bounced the knot just a couple of times,

    which caused it to fail.

    While I will never know for sure what happened, I do know what any of you

    can prove to yourselves – that you can get this knot to fail even with 6

    inches of tails. I did not know that the necessary margin for safety was

    so wide for this knot, I am sure Ross did not realise this either.

    The ropes involved (the blue and yellow) have been sent to one of the testing

    guys at Black Diamond who is going to run some relevant tests involving this

    fig-eight knot. I will post anything they find that might be of interest.

    %%==== Last words ====%%

    Thoughts of Ross are vividly etched in the minds of almost everyone he met.

    We miss him terribly.

    The only other thing I want to say here is that the Rangers at Zion were

    incredible; the way they dealt with the incident, the diligence of their

    investigation and the compassion that they showed me…I have only praise

    for everything they did. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of so many other

    people in Springdale – it’s a small town of wonderful people. Despite everything,

    I have some very fond memories of Zion and the people I met.

    It is a beautiful place – you should go there and climb those amazing walls.


    #2265 Reply


    Fascinating post Neil. I’d never seen Fig 8 used that way for abseils. I was brought up using Double Fisherman’s (bad snags) then, when I did the NZ course, was introduced to simply using an Overhand Knot which offers a lower profile to snags, especilly edges. Must say though that the Kiwi guides left long tails of about a metre (but I don’t remember them heavily emphasising the tails’ importance). One of the guides tied another Overhand as backup in the tail.

    #2266 Reply


    Sorry to here of your loss..I ussally tie 1 or even two half hitches back on the tail of double figure eights, I also Find, as you said that the knot needs to be dressed properly after you have compeleted it. I have never used Figure eights for abseiling.I have only used them lowering off climbers who were on belay.

    #2267 Reply


    it is never good to hear of such a tragety sorry for yor loss.i also use the double fishermans knot even though it is bulky,as far as using the figure 8 for abseiling and joining two ropes together i once was about to use this method luckily the climber i was with had heard of a similar accident and warned me about the dangers of the knot splitting this was in 1989 and the numerous books i had read had never showed this danger and now days i realise that there are nothing much in books that show you what will happen if you do it wrong ,the books seem to show only the correct methods mostly and it is though climbing around the world and with people from all walks of life that you hear of these hidden dangers.

    i hope your friend did not pass in vain and lets all hope that climbers from all walks of life can learn from this tragety so that it never happens again.

    do you still climb?

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