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Why You Should Use Stopper Knots

Tuolumne Rappel Accident Analysis


Rob Masters rappelling off Remnants Tower in Colorado National Monument.

Always tie stopper knots to keep from rappelling off the ends of your ropes.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

It’s always instructive to read accident reports in the annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering book, published by The American Alpine Club, which analyzes many climbing accidents from the previous year. Every year there are many accidents and fatalities attributed to rappelling off the ends of ropes, anchor failure, and incorrectly loading the rope in the rappel device. One of the accidents detailed in the 1997 book offers reasons why it’s a good idea to always tie stopper knots in your rappel ropes.

Woman Rappels in Torrential Storm

On May 23, 1997 a man and woman, climbing on Pywiak Dome at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, were caught in a lightning storm at the top of their second pitch. The woman, who had been climbing for 13 years, went first, rappelling on two ropes tied together and whose ends were uneven in length and did not have stopper knots tied in them. She ended up a little short of the next rappel station, a ledge at the end of Dike Route’s first pitch that is 200 feet off the ground. So she reached down to grab the next rap slings but the rope tails slipped through her brake hand and then her rappel device. She tumbled eight feet onto the ledge and rolled off toward certain death.

Miracle Saves Falling Climber

“Miraculously,” the report reads, “the woman managed to throw an arm onto the ledge to check an inevitable grounder, a move she later attributed to thoughts of her children.” Then her partner evened the ropes, rappelled to her, fixed the ropes to the ground, and both rappelled in pouring rain to the cliff base.

Bad Weather Leads to Bad Judgment

Besides being unprepared for storms and keeping an eye on the weather so they could retreat before the thunderstorm moved in, the climbers “neglected to locate the rope’s center, to knot the ends, and/or to use a ‘hands free’ backup, with almost tragic results.” The couple, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, were ill-prepared for the violent weather. The accident analysis concludes: “Even on a short route, sodden ropes, violent wind, cold rain, and haste induced by mild hypothermia can be dangerous factors working against the retreating climber.”

Lessons Learned from the Accident

The lessons learned from this incident are:

  • Tie stopper knots in the ends of both rope strands.
  • Make sure the rappel ropes are even by finding the middle of the rope.
  • Use an autoblock knot as a safety back-up.
  • Come prepared for bad weather.
  • Begin your retreat and rappel before a storm moves in.

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