Saturday, February 2, 2013

Two Hitches To Save Your Life: The Intrigue of Climbing Knots

Rather than react to the Krakauer or Stempf readings, I'm going to devote this blog post to the part of our climbing wall experience this past Thursday that I found the most interesting. I had fun bouldering and rappelling, but, largely because of my sailing experience, I had the most learning to secure my harness with the climber's figure eight knot. It might not be the most thrilling or adventuresome mountaineering (or boating) skill to practice, but knot tying has this mysterious appeal to me, especially when they serve such a vital purpose.
In sailing, I'm used to relying on knots to hold together the various mechanisms that propel and control a sailboat. If a knot fails while I'm sailing, the result could result in a temporary loss of control or a fallen sail, both of which leave the boat functionally paralyzed (if temporarily). It could also go totally unnoticed or, when using a harness to hike (like this), drop a crew member in the water. None of these are ideal, but they don't compare to what happens when a climbing knot fails. I understand the importance of correct knots, but I've never faced consequences that could be considered mortal. It’s definitely an intense feeling to be potentially wagering your life on whether a knot is tied correctly, but the raised stakes somehow make knots even more appealing to me.
Removed from their importance in a climbing context, knots have an inherent beauty and order that appeals strongly to me. The act of taking an ordinary, linear strand of fiber and manipulating it into a useful knot with bracing, twisting, pulling and pushing forces seems almost magical to me. Knots are governed by mathematical truths about the natural world that I guarantee I’ll never understand, making them almost mystical allure. Even their aesthetic qualities captivate me, with flowing lines, perfectly even curves and complicated but discernible patterns that I could stare at for hours. Check out this star knot and wave mat for examples—both are tied from single strands of cordage. Adding such an element of danger and mortal importance to such a naturally appealing object just makes it even interesting to me.  I’m excited to visit the climbing wall more this semester, and I admit that part of this desire comes from my excitement to interact more with the climbing knots.


  1. It's incredible how much we rely on our equipment. The point you raise about the importance of knots in climbing is so true, and it's easy to forget that that one part of climbing can have such a dramatic importance. It reminds me of a distinct memory I have during a backpacking trip a few years ago. I was hiking some pretty tricky terrain, and switched from my hiking boots to sneakers once my tent was set up. I tried to climb up a rock near my campsite - something that I had done earlier in the day - and was so surprised that I had to struggle substantially to make it up without the grip from my boots. Moments like that make one realize how much we depend on our gear. I guess it puts a bit of perspective on how we can't 'dominate' or 'control' nature alone.

  2. This is kind of going off into what I said in class the other day, but there we put a great amount of trust into the functionality of our equipment. Often, a great amount of time is spent examining gear before entering the backcountry, checking stoves, tents, boats, personal gear, bear fences, etc. We rely so heavily on the functionality of our gear that when something stops working properly it can really mess with plans. I'm thinking of a trip I was on couple weeks ago with a friend of mine. We had tested our stove before we left, but the first night out the stove didn't work. And it still didn't work after spending more than three hours trying to fix it. We ate gorp for dinner. Fortunately we weren't too far into the backcountry but the idea of hiking out early because of a piece of broken equipment was incredibly unappealing. We fell asleep frustrated that after three hours of taking the stove apart and putting it back together again the flame wouldn't last for more than a brief instance and annoyed that the entire plan might have to change because of this fluke. We worked on the stove again in the morning, moved some o-rings around, and managed to solve the problem, much to our relief. So we continued on our trip as planned. An interesting component of that experience was that neither one of us mentioned that we were glad that the stove worked until four days later when we were hiking out. Neither one of us wanted to jinx it.

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  4. I went to the open climb on Friday, and our instructor spent most of the time explaining how the equipment worked again. It just reinforced how important it is for a climber to be strapped in properly. It took me forever to tie the knot; I was easily the worst at it. When it came to tracing the figure eight, I had to retry it multiple times to get all the lines parallel. By the time we had gone over belaying, climbing formalities and technique and such, it was nearly time for me to leave. It made me appreciate the technicalities of climbing and what climbers have to face on a regular basis on a much larger scale. I imagined, if I spent all this effort getting strapped in for an indoor climbing wall with many supervisors around, it must be infinitely more nerve-wracking trying to make sure everything is secure when scaling a mountain. I learned Friday to appreciate the process that comes with climbing. Our guide working at the climbing wall was especially patient and helpful. I was initially exasperated to go through the details of the harness, but I realized how helpful it was to do it again. Even though I didn't get so far on the climbing wall, I noticed the strain on my muscles. Maybe I wasn't distributing my weight properly between my arms and legs, but it was more exhausting than I thought. It emphasized how laborious a process climbing is, and made me appreciate the effort it takes.