“Guns don’t kill people, rappers do, I seen it in a documentary on BBC2!”
What I am referring to is the explosion on the interweb about bowlines and its not the knot but the person who tied it. The news broke a few days ago and having a few climbing friends stateside I tried to ignore threads amounting on Facebook until the real detail came out. So yes a well known highly experience climber had a bowline fail, although by all accounts John admits to having had a small break in concentration that maybe means he didn’t finish the knot. John Long was on the first team to climb the Nose in a day in 1975 the year I was born. His book How to Big Wall Climb was responsible for me getting into big wall adventures. He is a hero, who after many years climbing made one mistake, a big one.
However there has been loads of stuff in forums about how bad the Bowline is and although it not linked to the incident as it predates this event one blogger for Rock and Ice named the bowline as “the instrument of death”, after the latest annual volume of Accident in North American Moutnaineering was published. As well as this sound bite that is currently doing the rounds he also points out quite rightly that in essence you could probably take the covers off the last edition and put it on the new one as climber and mountaineers seem to make the same mistakes over and over.
This is reflected in the death of a 73 year old climber in the UK in November 2011, the cause of which was a bowline that was either not finished properly or mysteriously undid itself?
My point is one that Mick Ryan has tried to drum into the thread over on UKC about climbers are not infalible. Human error is involved with many climbing accidents, none more so than those involving a bowline or any other knot you choose to tie in with.
I have seen arguments that the bowline is too complicated, but it can be tied in one motion unlike the rethreaded figure of 8. I contest the second part, yes you can tie the first bit of a bowline in one, but you then need to add the stopper knot. Incidentally I teach a figure of 8 with a stopper knot, as a kind of belts and braces approach, although if someone already climbs I don’t tell my students to not use a bowline, I just check they tie it right.
What we need with all knots is to check them and then turn to what has helped keep many divers alive and have our buddy check it. You face one of two consequences dying of embarassment because your a big bad ass climber who is too cool for skool has to show their knot to their belayer for checking or potentially actually die or have horrendous injuries as you go the length of an indoor wall or outdoor crag.
I know what I’d prefer, and it is something that as an instructor and coach I shall continue to drive home to my clients. Perferably from the very first moment someone climbs so it becomes second nature.
However I think it is also important to bring up that annual report into Accident in North American Mountaineering. I have read a few copies and yes they are all very similar and as the blogger noted no one ever seems to learn, or they forget momentarily. There are no such statistic for the UK, neither in my professional life, although I do work at centres where it is common and encouraged to report near misses or in the wider world of recreational climbing. The wider sporting side is partially due to the seperation between the BMC and the individual Mountain Rescue Team and a seemingly unwillingness to admit that at times we all make mistakes and of course avoid a blame culture. The only time the BMC seems to get involved is with suspected equipment failure, which again is usually down to misuse and abuse by the user.
I feel it is a shame and that an anonymous report system doesn’t operate in the UK, or there is no way to highlight common rock climbing accidents in the UK. Maybe that’s another book for me to write as my time on a rescue team I have came across many silly mistakes that lead to dire consequences?!
Anyway in the US there is no free medical cover as such it is common for climbers to set up places to donate to climbers who have had injuries whilst climbing. If you’d like to give some support to John either buy one of his many books or by donating money to help him pay for his treatment.