Cragmont Climbing Club

Use of the Overhand Knot for Rappels

by Mark Magnuson

(Article from the CCC newsletter, The Crag)


Here are the facts we have on the knot failure. While there's no conclusive, enlightening information, it certainly causes one to ponder.

On September 19, 1997, a party of three climbers (Matt, Carrie, and Karen) were rappelling the Guide's Wall route on the southwest ridge of Storm Point, Grand Teton National Park. Matt, an experienced local climber and mountain guide, had joined their two ropes with an overhand knot. One rope was a new 10 mm, the other a used 10.5 mm. Both were dynamic ropes, brand names uncertain, and were dry (not wet.) The knot was tied with about six to eight inches of tail, as described by each member of the group. According to Matt, he "eyes the knot" then physically checks it, each time it is tied.

A total of five rappels were done on the knot. Just prior to the sixth rappel, Matt started to untie the knot and go to a single rope, but then decided to keep both ropes joined as the last rappel was another long one. Matt said he never completely untied the knot, he simply loosened it. He then re-tightened the knot, again with six to eight inches of tail. This was demonstrated by Matt at our rescue cache after the incident. There was nothing unusual about the manner in which he tied the knot, dressed it, or re-tightened it. Matt then completed the sixth rappel, which was described by himself and Carrie as fairly aggressive, as opposed to slow and smooth. The anchor consisted of three rappel rings on several pieces of webbing which were tied around a tree. Their ropes were threaded through the rappel rings.

While Matt rappelled, Carrie said to Karen "I really hate this knot, it looks unstable." When questioned, Carrie said this comment was general in nature and not made specific to anything different about the knot at that moment. When Matt completed his rappel, Karen placed the ropes through her ATC. Just prior to Karen's rappel, they adjusted the knot forward (down the fall line) about twelve inches, leaving about two feet between the knot and the anchor, and two feet between the knot and the edge. They both said they did nothing to the knot itself. Carrie, however, said that she intended to tighten the knot as it seemed to be loose but Karen stopped her, stating that "we don't know anything about his knot...don't dink with it." Karen then rappelled about fifty feet, at which time the knot failed, causing her to fall thirty feet to a ledge. Carrie, who was still at the rap station above, described the knot as "unravelling before her eyes." She added that the tails of the knot, as noted when Karen started her rappel, seemed to be "shorter than before, certainly shorther than when Matt rappelled." When rangers later assisted Karen down the remaining portions of the route, they too tied an overhand knot to join two ropes for rappel. Carrie said this knot looked identical to the one they had been using.

We were unable to determine how the rope ends may have appeared after the accident, as the ropes had been moved and stacked. However, one member of the party thought that the 10 mm rope still had a loose loop, possibly a loose overhand, near it's end. This fact is inconclusive.

Since the accident, we've tried to tie this knot incorrectly (different variations) to prompt failure. It's difficult to do unless you really screw up. Matt, again an experienced climber, has been using this knot successfully for several years. Even when tied incorrectly, the knot generally tends to tighten down on itself when pulled or loaded.

The overhand knot, used for joining two ropes for rappel, is reportedly in widespread use in Europe and has been for many years. It's certainly a commonly used knot in the states and has gained in popularity within the past decade. Rock and Ice magazine, George Bracksieck (7/11/97) states "The one-sided overhand knot (tails parallel and together) remains the best knot for rappelling, even with different diameter ropes. Be sure to leave plenty of tail and to set it snugly." Petzlcatalogs show the overhand knot as suitable for joining two ropes for abseil. The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Guides Manual , section 2.1 on Knots, diagrams the overhand as one used for tying two ends as a rappel knot. They also reference it as the "Euro-death knot". (Does anyone know the history behind that???)

I intend to do some additional research in an effort to gain more information on the overhand knot used for joining ropes, the origin of the "Euro-death" nickname, incidents of other failures (if any exist), etc.. Petzl/PMI has expressed interest in doing some pull tests. I also plan to share this information with both Climbing and Rock & Ice magazines. If you have additional info, thoughts, etc. I would be interested in hearing from you.

Again, while one can speculate on several possibilities, I don't think we can draw any absolute conclusions from this incident. For those who use this knot, it would seem prudent to verify your own personal confidence in it's reliability and pay particular attention to tying it correctly (as you should with any knot.) Certainly food for thought!

Mark Magnuson
Jenny Lake Subdistrict Ranger
Grand Teton National Park
(307) 739-3334 or [email protected]


Comment #1

by Bruce Grossan

I learned about the overhand knot from a friend who learned of it from the Yosemite guide service. I used to use a double fisherman, I don't anymore . Here's why: If you drag an overhand across typical rock, it will tend to right itself, skipping along the rock surface, keeping the bulge of the knot away from the rock itself. If you drag a double fisherman across the same rock, it will tend to catch on every little projection.

I know "many" stories of people getting rappel ropes stuck while pulling it down. Inevitably, they have to do some stupid soloing back up to get the rope. Talk about a safety hazard to be avoided!!!!

In discussing and demonstrating this knot to others, someone on the cliff in Yosemite recently tied a figure 8 with the twin ends of the rope (NOT fed back through). Its motion across the rock was very similar to the overhand, the bulge kept its orientation away from the rock. *When tightened*, it seemed very robust. This is the knot I have been using since then. I will continue to use it, but I willemphasize checking the tail length.


Comment #2

by Dan Zimmerlin

I have also been using the overhand knot for years for just the reasons you describe. However, I have never used one that I didn't back up. Usually I just tie another overhand right up next to the first one and snug it down tight. Sometimes I even tie two backups (they are easy to tie and don't take much rope.) When I used to use an overhand backup that was a little ways away, I noticed that it (the backup) occasionally loosened on multiple rappels. I assume that is from jostling during pulling the rappel. I haven't seen that when I tie the backup snug against the main knot. (BTW it is actually easier to tie the backup first, then the main knot "inside".) Still it is good to remind us all that double checking knots for each rappel is important.


Comment #3

by Chuck Carlson

Regarding the overhand not as a rappel knot. Since the overhand knot looks so skimpy, don't be tempted to make one more twist and turn it into a figure-8. If you do this, the bends are gentler and less biting action occurs, making it much easier to pull apart.


Further Comment

By Mark Magnuson

Feel free to publish the information. Again, it should be stressed that, in my opinion, nothing conclusive can be drawn from this incident. It does serve as a good reminder that, whatever knot one chooses to use, it's worthy of double-checking every time you trust your life (or someone else's) to it.

As for additional information, I've received some conflicting comments from folks. One guy said he would NEVER join two ropes of different diameter together using the overhand. Others say no problem. It's an interesting point to note that literally millions of rappels have been done involving this knot, without incident. Information on the name "Euro Death Knot" indicates that it was named so because one's first impression of its use is generally "no way."

PMI/Petzl may still be doing some pull tests on the knot. If that's done, I'm sure that information will become available.

There you have it.

For more information contact:

Tim Laidman

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