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Use Stopper Knots When Belaying

Stopper Knots Keep the Leader Safe


Brian Shelton with Front Range Climbing Company on belay duty at Red Rock Canyon, Colorado.

Hey Brian? You got a stopper knot tied in that rope? I don't want to crater!

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Besides tying a stopper knot in the ends of your rappel ropes, you should always use a stopper knot when you’re belaying your climbing partner on a single-pitch sport route. Get in the habit of doing it, even if you know how long the route and your rope are.

Use Stopper Knots When Sport Climbing

When you’re sport climbing, that is climbing single-pitch bolted routes that end at bolt anchors, the lead climber is tied into the active end of the rope, while the other end lies limp on the ground. Tie a stopper knot in that limp end because there is the possibility that when you lower the leader after she’s clipped the anchors, that the rope is not long enough to reach the ground.

Lowering Accidents are Killers

If your rope is not long enough for the leader to climb and descend and you don’t have a stopper knot tied at the end, you risk having the rope slip through your belay device and the climber crashing to the ground—a scenario that happens every year at sport areas around the world. Usually most lowering falls that happen this way are short, less than 30 feet, but any sudden fall has the potential for severe injury or death.

Always Tie a Stopper Knot

Always use a stopper knot in your rope when sport climbing. Get in the habit of tying it before you put your lead partner on belay. And if you’re the leader, ask your belayer to tie a stopper knot in the end or better yet, do it yourself. After all, it is your life that the knot protects. Always tie a stopper knot if you’re unsure how long the pitch is or if you’re unsure about the length of the rope you’re using. Many sport routes, especially newer ones, are longer than 85 feet, which is half the length of a standard 165-foot (50-meter) rope, because many climbers now use a 200-foot (60-meter) rope to maximize climbing distance. Never assume your rope length. Tie a stopper knot for peace of mind.

Analysis of a Lowering Accident

If you look through any issue of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, an annual accident analysis published by The American Alpine Club, you’ll find lowering accidents and fatalities that could have been prevented if a stopper knot had been tied at the rope end. An example is from August 6, 1996 when a young woman was leading a long pitch at City of Rocks in southern Idaho. Her father, belaying on the ground, was lowering her down “when the last of the rope slipped through her father’s hands before he realized what was happening.” He didn’t realize how high she had climbed nor that he didn’t have enough rope to lower her to the ground. Park ranger Brad Schilling reported that there were six other serious accidents that year at City of Rocks “caused by a belayer letting the rope-end through the belay device.”

Make Stopper Knots Your Habit

The lesson to be learned from this accident is to always tie a stopper knot in the inactive rope end before the leader leaves the ground. Make it a habit and you’ll avoid ever having a lowering accident.

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