Knots of Confidence

Morag Stewart nearing the top of Epinephrine in Red Rock Canyon. A solid base of vertical rescue techniques gives her confidence in adventurous terrain.

Growing up on a farm, I was always fascinated by the way my dad would tie knots. I couldn’t believe that everything stayed on the trailer or in the back of the ute as we hurtled through paddocks to feed the cattle, check on the lambs, fix a fence. I have no memory of being shown how to tie those knots, so it was with some amusement that I was asked about them many years later.

“How do you know how to tie those?’ a co-worker asked as we secured pallets of seedlings to our Greening Australia ute. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing and was probably praying to some God that the gear would stay put. I must have subconsciously picked up some skills from watching Dad, but I’m pretty sure it mostly came down to good luck that nothing flew off into the bush as we travelled between job sites.

That same feeling returned when I entered into the world of climbing in 2014… I felt overwhelmed yet fascinated by the complex web of pulleys, anchors, knots, self-belay techniques and other rope systems. I had started to get interested in climbing with the aim to increase my outdoors agility and skills, but I was challenged by internal doubts. This is all above my head, I thought, it’s too much.

Friends would show me bits and pieces, but being an independent person who likes to pay attention to detail, I wanted a better understanding of the underlying basics of rope and rescue skills. For me, the skills I needed could not be taught through informal lessons or the odd comment here or there – I needed some solid days of professional training, both on ground and at height, asking many questions as I worked through many different scenarios.

I’ve since attended four different training courses aimed at rope skills, self-rescue and vertical partner rescue, totalling around 20 full days of training and assessment. These courses were taught by three different instructors and were attended by people with a wide variety of ages and experience levels. They took place in a number of different locations with a number of different weather conditions, and utilised both natural and artificial anchors.

Sure, you can ask more experienced climbers for help. Or you can try to work it out for yourself and hope that nothing too drastic happens as a result. Personally, I found that I really needed to dedicate a few weekends to learning these skills and that the time I spent focusing on these techniques paid dividends. It allowed me to truly cement these skills by dedicating my headspace to them, so this time it wasn’t by accident that they didn’t fly off into the bush!

Learning rope systems and vertical rescue techniques also had a huge impact in other facets of my climbing life, particularly in the confidence that this knowledge has given me for climbing more adventurous routes and harder grades. I can only attribute this to the fact that I no longer need to rely solely on my climbing partner to get me out of trouble. I’m more aware of my surroundings, and I have the tools to deal with emergencies. That means I can push my boundaries a little further.

Just like the various climbing styles and techniques you learn as time goes on, the rope skills that you learn are transferable between routes and crags. And just as with climbing, they don’t necessarily come quickly or easily! You have to make an effort to gain mileage in these skills and become familiar with the basic principles. A firm base of fundamental knowledge will help you to confidently deal with pretty much any scenario you can imagine.

Do yourself a favour and book yourself in for vertical rescue course. You won’t regret it. In the meantime, here are a few tips that I have found useful along my learning journey!

Rigging For Rescue scenario training, Red Rock Canyon
Know your knots

You don’t need to start endlessly watching youtube videos on every type of knot, but I think there are about eight different knots listed below that will make your life a lot easier.  Practice on planes, trains and automobiles as you head to your climbing destination.

Figure 8; Bowline; Munter Hitch; Bunny ears; Overhand/European death knot; Clove hitch; Half hitch; Alpine butterfly

Rocking your angles

Pretty much most things to do with climbing are all about angles. Well, that’s what I’ve decided anyways. Body angles, feet angles, toe angles, rock angle, rope angle, protection piece angles… there are seriously a lot of angles! Among these, the angle of the rope as you belay your partner and the angle of which you build the focal point of your anchor are two of the most important to remember.

It’s all about weight transfer

And it’s also really important to apply this when learning how to ascend a rope using prussics. Watch a professional ascend a rope using prussics and you will see that their speed is related to how efficiently they move their body and shuffle the prussic up at the same time. Takes practice and core strength, but we all like a good challenge, hey?!

Dem friction feels

Friction during the right moments can be a very good thing, yes? Make sure that you have prussics of varying lengths and widths that allow you to change the friction with rope diameter and task. Having said that, once you do have lengths that suit your rope/task, I recommend sticking them all on a carabiner (also with a bail biner), which then becomes your very own rescue kit.

Make mine a 3:1

When first starting vertical rescue training, the thought of having to learn pulley systems and mechanical advantage was one of the most daunting aspects of the course. But it’s actually not too complex if you just learn the 3:1 and then think about how to apply it to a variety of other scenarios. Start with understanding the simple 3:1 pulley system, where there is only a single moving pulley (and that your climber/patient can be part of if they are conscious and close enough).  Knowing how to rescue others will make you a more endearing climbing partner for more adventurous routes, so bite the bullet and make an effort to understand this one.

A quick and dirty 3:1 haul system (Source:

Be safe, rock warriors, and see you out there!

Morag Stewart
October 2017

If you’re in the States and keen on getting some more rope skills or vertical rescue knowledge, I highly recommend Rigging For Rescue, who run out of Ouray, Colorado. They have some excellent courses aimed at industrial and recreational climbing, as well as SAR, and are a treasure trove of good information and scientific data on all things ropes. Here in South East Queensland, I certainly recommend Pinnacle Sports or Dan Rush from PACI. Tell em I sent you!

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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