Why You Should Tie In with the Figure Eight Knot

Do you remember the first time you ever went rock climbing? Everything is new: slipping into a harness, buckling down your helmet, shoving your feet into small climbing shoes, and tying into a rope. When you learned to tie into the rope, your teacher probably told you a story about choking aliens, punching cyclops, or following a race car track to help you tie the “figure eight” knot. Then you likely learned how to retrace the figure eight to create a figure eight “follow-through.” But were you ever taught WHY we typically use the figure eight knot when there is a myriad of other knots that we could use to tie ourselves into a climbing rope? Some are even simpler and easier to learn than the figure eight. So let’s dive into a few advantages of the figure eight knot:

  1. Easily recognizable – If tied and dressed properly, it should be really easy to count five sets of parallel lines. Because of the knot’s natural symmetry, almost every climber will be able to check it even from a distance.
  2. Takes two gestures to fail – If you undo the last “pass through” of the follow through, you would still have a complete knot that won’t come undone (thereby making that last pass through a built-in backup). If you undo another pass through, then the knot would come undone under weight.

Here is a video that very clearly shows how a figure eight functions under weight. In this video, the knot is being pulled until it breaks. During this particular pull test, the knot failed at 6,900lbs. But keep in mind that the overall strength of any knot depends on a lot of factors including the age and condition of the rope, how the knot is being weighted, etc. 

  1. Does not require a backup – You still often see climbers with double fisherman’s knots tied above their figure eight knot. A lot of climbers are first taught about the so-called “back up knot” in the climbing gyms and won’t be allowed to climb without one. This is usually a part of the company’s policy. If a gym requires it, it’s best to just go with it. However, in your personal time you should be aware that it is not necessary and actually makes the knot less safe. This is because it detracts from the number one reason why we use this knot – recognizability. The more we add to the knot, the harder it is to check those 5 sets of parallel lines. 

The figure eight is the knot of choice for most climbers out there because it is easy to recognize and check, it won’t come undone, it’s simple, and easy to learn. While there are many knots out there to choose from such as the bowline family and the brotherhood knot, this one should be your go-to unless you have a good reason to suggest another knot! These other options will work just fine, but they are harder to check and there is little to no margin for error – they must be tied perfectly. 

If you don’t know how to tie the figure eight or want to learn a cool trick to dress it properly every time, check out this blog on the “Start Hard, Finish Easy” method! 

Anna Marie Alewine, AMGA Single Pitch Instructor


Sport Draws vs. Alpine Draws

As a result of this video posted by Rock and Ice on their Weekend Whipper series, I have been getting lots of questions about what type of draws I use on sport climbs, sport draws or alpine draws.

Easy answer: sport draws. For the “why,” read below, but in the meantime, here is a list of the types of draws I carry for the different types of climbing I do:

Sport Climbing:

Petzl Spirit Draws (one extra from number of bolts on the pitch)

Trad Climbing:**

2-4 sport draws

2 over the shoulder slings (one carabiner)

2-4 alpine draws

**For a complete list of the gear I take trad climbing, see my post on trad racks.

Alpine Climbing:

1-2 sport draws

1-2 over the shoulder slings (one carabiner)

3-5 alpine draws 

Ice Climbing:

6-8 sport draws

2-3 alpine draws 

As with many aspects of climbing, the “why” choose one draw over another can be a bit confusing. Each has advantages and disadvantages, which I take into consideration when choosing what gear to carry. 

Let’s start with alpine draws. Most of us use dyneema slings and some sort of wire gate style carabiner with them. The alpine draw offers both a shorter 12” lenth and a longer length of up to 2’ when fully extended. This ability to extend the length of the draw offers several advantages:

  • An extended draw can minimize rope drag on longer pitches and allow the climber to place gear farther from the center climbing line with less angle put on the rope;
  • Longer slings can reduce rope movements being transferred to pieces of protection which could compromise or dislodge them;
  • The sling can be used for different purposes like for basket or girth hitching a tree and in a pinch as a friction hitch. 

As with most things, there are disadvantages to alpine draws as well. Among them are the following: 

  • Since the carabiner is not sewn to a small loop or otherwise held in place on the rope end, clipping can be difficult, particularly when wearing gloves (ie ice climbing);
  • The clipping carabiner could become cross loaded in a fall because of the looseness;
  • Similarly, because of the looseness the carabiner attached to the gear could become cross loaded, and depending on the type of biner, could seat at an off angle on the bolt or gear, although sometimes the looseness actually allows the carabiner to flip back and seat appropriately;
alpine draw unclipping
  • Alpine draws are inefficient both to deploy and rerack, a significant factor for me because, as you know, I like to move quickly!

That brings us to sport draws (dog bone with two carabiners). These draws are a simple, mostly a single use item and, like everything else, have gotten lighter over the years. 

The sport draw has a top carabiner that is held loosely by a sewn loop which is made to clip to a piece of protection like a bolt or nut and bottom carabiner meant for the rope that is held by both a sewn loop and some sort of rubber keeper that holds it securely in place.

Petzl sport draw

Draws should have both carabiners facing the same way, and when climbing it is preferable to have the gates facing away from the line of climbing. If the gates of the carabiners face opposite directions (aka French-style draws), the upper carabiner can become compromised by the bolt and open as seen in the photo below. 

french style sport draw

The advantages of sport draws are obvious: they are much easier to clip (Imagine trying to send your project while fumbling with an alpine draw), the bottom carabiner will never get cross loaded because it is held in place, and they are easy to deploy and rerack.

The disadvantages are their single purpose and the ability of the top biner to become cross loaded if it flips over. That however, is no different than the alpine draw in that if any of the styles of draws see an outward and upward force it can put it in a more compromised position especially if the rope has been seeing a lot of movement, causing the top draw to flip.

This situation where the top carabiner can flip and become cross loaded appears to be what happened in the video above. When the rope then became tight during the fall, the cross loaded biner then unclipped itself from the dogbone. Significantly, it was NOT the top draw that came unclipped, so there was no consequence. The same issue could have occurred with an alpine draw as well. 

sport draw unclipping

Based on this analysis, you can probably now figure out why I choose the gear I do on a particular climb, and you won’t wonder why professional climbers (and most climbers at sport crags for that matter) are not trying to send their project on alpine draws. Imagine Sasha DiGiulian trying to send Pure Imagination in the Red River Gorge on floppy alpine draws!

Karsten Delap is an AMGA Certified Rock and Alpine Guide and Assistant Ski Guide


Climbing Anchors by the Numbers

“Are three pieces necessary in all climbing anchors ? I only have two. What about that bomber bolt? Shouldn’t it be redundant?” 

Chances are you have come across a situation in your experiences building climbing anchors where some of these questions have come up. I know I have had a lot of questions on my instagram feed about when is it okay to have two pieces in an anchor. The answer as usual is, “It depends!” So let’s analyze some of the variables involved and see if we can come up with some guidelines for creating anchors that are sufficiently strong. 

One consideration is how the anchor is going to take force. For instance, are we belaying someone up third class or super slabby terrain where most of the weight of a fall would be on the climber’s feet? Or is it higher angle with no friction created by rope running over terrain resulting in the entire amount of force being applied directly to the belay.

Force/Use of Anchor

Intended use can also determine the amount of force on a climbing anchor. If the anchor is for multi-pitch climbing and will be the attachment for the team before a lead piece of protection is placed, then it could potentially take a factor two fall, which generates the greatest amount of force you can apply to an anchor. (Do remember if you are standing on a ledge or if the leader can hit terrain during the fall, then the fall will not produce as much force.)

How many people will be using the climbing anchor at the same time? One person: you get to the belay and may be clipped in but are standing on the ledge with no force being applied to the anchor, and only in the event of a fall would the anchor see any weight. Two people: you are hanging on the anchor and your partner can take a fall that would factor two the anchor. Three people: you are hanging on the anchor and belaying two seconds who could potentially fall and weight the anchor. In all these instances we want the anchor to be sufficiently strong, however the forces are vastly different. 

Three people using a climbing anchor in steep terrain.
Three people, multi-pitch anchor in steep terrain

Size/Strength of Piece

The size of the piece of protection in climbing anchors matters not only because bigger pieces are usually stronger, but also because they have a larger acceptable expansion range, making it easier to place them correctly.  Also, as pieces get larger they typically have more material which translates to more strength. A good guideline is to look for at least 10kn pieces when thinking about strength and creating an anchor that is suficiently strong. And as I discussed in a prior blog here, over-camming is better than under-camming!

A climbing anchor made of two large cams
Size matters!

Quality of rock

Rock quality is a significant factor. The rock does not just have to be solid but also has to be able to hold the force the gear is putting on it. Sandstone, for instance, cannot take as much compression as granite, so a single piece in granite might be sufficient while you would want pieces to share an equivalent load in sandstone. 

It also goes without saying that we want to make sure on a macro scale that the weakness we are placing the protection in is a “crack in the earth” and not just a loose flake. On a micro scale we want to see if there are any incipient cracks or fissures that could mean the rock could become dislodged or break. 

A three-piece climbing anchor in a block of rock.

Need/Experience/Exposure to Risk

Need, experience, and risk tolerance all relate to each other so much that it is impossible to separate them. Let’s look at need first. Do I need to move fast? Do I have more gear? Do I need to save gear for the next pitch? These factors all might influence why I am choosing more or less gear in the anchor. 

Next is experience. With more experience placing gear, falling on gear, and understanding the true forces climbing anchors can take, we might choose to build an anchor that can only hold slightly more than the anticipated loads. With less experience we might rely on more pieces and redundancy to catch any of our mistakes. I even use more gear when I start to climb in new areas and I am still figuring out the terrain just incase I would overlook something. 

Risk acceptance changes with each person and for me even on different days. For instance I am sure some people are okay with free soloing, while others are not. There are risks in getting off the couch, but we all choose to do it because the benefit is greater. So you just have to choose based on your knowledge and the exposure to risk you are willing to accept. If that means carrying a few extra pieces and throwing one in a particular belay, do it. If you are going for the speed ascent on a climb, you might want to consider carrying less, but that choice comes at a price.

Karsten Delap, AMGA Certified Rock and Alpine Guide


MOFT Knot Pass

If you find yourself needing to lower a climber more than one rope length, the MOFT knot pass is a fast, easy way to pass the knot created by joining two ropes together.  MOFT stands for munter overhand feed-through and is one of the easiest ways to get someone down quickly when time is of the essence.

AMGA Rock and Alpine Guide, Karsten Delap, demonstrates the technique in this video:




Keeping the PSYCHE High!

Whether it’s rainy days on your weekend or too many overtime hours at the office, it can be a challenge to keep your psyche high for climbing and training for your next adventure.  At times I find myself lacking true motivation to head to the climbing gym or knock out a workout on the rock rings when I do not have a specific climbing objective in mind.

Having spent the past few days seeking refuge from the rain in my apartment, I found myself thinking of past trips to the Red River Gorge.  The endless corners and splitter cracks of all sizes never cease to provide plenty of adventure and excitement.  Flipping through my collection of photos from the Red, I could not help but get excited for the upcoming fall season.  My palms began to sweat as I thought of the grueling offwidths and splitter finger cracks that hide in the lush woods of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

If you find yourself lacking the psyche to get out and train, maybe these photos will give you that extra bit of motivation.   And as the heat of the summer slowly gives way to the cooler temps of the fall, I sure hope to see y’all back out at the Red River Gorge!! Be sure to stop by and say “hi” if you see me.

Clay Kennedy, AMGA Certified Rock Instructor


LSD: It’s Not Just a Drug

The LSD (Load Strand Direct) lower is a safe and efficient way to lower an ambulant climber when using a plaquette or guide-plate style belay device.

When you clip the climber’s strand of rope you are defeating the plaquette device’s braking properties. So now with no assisted braking feature, you have a normal style plate belay device. This type of lowering is similar to the redirected plate without having to change the system.

Remember when performing this technique a backup is recommended on the brake strand. You might also find the orientation of the loop on the plaquette to change the efficiency of this lowering method.

Video: Austin Schmitz

The Well-Dressed Figure Eight Knot: Start Hard, Finish Easy

Why is a well-dressed figure eight knot even important? A messy eight will hold just as well as a neat one, so what’s the big deal?  In climbing, the main reason most people tie in with a figure eight (and why the vast majority of climbing gyms require it) is because it is easy to recognize and therefore verify that it is tied correctly and will perform as expected. So dressing the figure eight is an important step in tying it as it will make it even easier to identify.

To properly dress the knot we can use a technique called start hard, finish easy. We start by pushing the standing part of the rope over while poking the working end through the hole this forms.

well-dressed figure eight knot starting hard

well-dressed figure eight knot pushing standing end aside

well-dressed figure eight knot pushing working end through




Once this step is complete, the working end only passes through the knot two more times. Both of these passes should be “easy.” The video below illustrates this simple process: 

Karsten Delap, AMGA Certified Rock and Alpine Guide



So You Want to Hire a Rock Climbing Guide?…..(this is your guide to hiring a Guide)

Trying to hire a rock climbing guide? The process can be tricky and confusing. Why? The term “guide” itself is very loaded. Depending on the industry, it can have a variety of meanings the typical consumer might know nothing about but should. Fundamentally, a guide is a person who shares their knowledge/skills about a particular topic with another, presumably less-informed person; at their essence, they are teachers.  We seek them out for expertise we don’t have or for experiences we can’t have without them. Regardless of type, be it a city tour guide, rafting guide, hiking guide, climbing guide, fishing guide, mountain biking guide, dance or jujitsu instructor, they have some skill we are willing to pay for.

Given the premise that every consumer wants the biggest “bang for the buck,” how does one go about choosing the right guide? Among the factors to consider are riskiness of the endeavor, the guide’s education and training, reviews from both peers and clients, certifications if applicable, and cost. It’s the relative importance of each of these factors that determines which guide is best for a particular client.

Forsyth Park fountain in Savannah

Low-risk tour of Savannah

A good starting point in the process of hiring a guide is risk. How risky is the activity you are hiring a guide for? The greater the risk, the more attention you want to pay to the other factors, particularly training and certification; if there is little risk, as is the case with a city tour guide for example, you can be less concerned and instead focus on whatever factor is most important to you, be it cost, experience, etc. Maybe you would rather pay $100 for a private walking tour of Savannah than $50 for a group tour, for example.  Both choices have low risk, so you can focus more on the type of experience you want.

Rock climbing and mountaineering, in contrast, can be extremely risky. Every waiver, be it in a climbing gym or that of a guide service, carries a disclaimer that “climbing is inherently dangerous.” You’ll see the same warning on every piece of climbing gear you purchase.  So how do you mitigate this “inherent risk?” Can you look at the price of a guide? Sometimes that can be helpful, as it is in other areas of life where a higher price tends to mean higher quality. But that isn’t always true.  So what about reviews? Those can be helpful too, but without personally knowing the people writing the reviews, how can you evaluate them? Of course, as a general matter, lots of good reviews are a positive sign and negative ones a bad sign, but that can be skewed. A company could have friends and family write positive reviews. A competitor or disgruntled customer could have his cronies write bad reviews. In the social media era, it’s important to read all reviews skeptically, particularly when engaging in a risky activity.

Flats fishing in the Florida Keys

The guide on this boat has both a USCG Captain’s License and a FL Charter Captain License.

That leaves one factor as the most reliable to help you decide which guide to hire: training and certification, aka credentials. Virtually every professional field requires some sort of training-based certification. Most also require licensure. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, hair stylists, dental hygienists—all have to be certified and licensed based on their education. Even salt-water fishing guides, who operate in a relatively low-risk/high fun activity, typically have to have both a Captain’s License from the US Coast Guard and a state license to be able to take clients on their boat.

Surprisingly, the same is generally NOT the case with rock climbing and mountaineering despite their risk. With the exception of a few areas like the Gunks in New York, guides not only need no license, there IS NO LICENSE for guiding. There IS training-based certification, but even that is confusing because there are several organizations that certify guides (AMGA, PCGI, PCIA), and land managers generally do not require “guides” to be certified anyway.  It can be difficult for even the most savvy consumer to navigate.

So how does someone looking to hire a climbing guide sort through the morass? First, you look for certification. That is a good start regardless of whom the certifying body is. From there, you research the organizations who are doing the certifying. There are plenty of great guides from the various organizations, but there are also some with lower standards, and there is only one organization recognized internationally, the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA).

Let’s say you decide on an AMGA guide because you like the fact they that they are internationally recognized.  The guide also gets great reviews and offers a program within your budget. Is that enough?  You would think, but no. The final question is what type of “guide” they are.  All climbing certification organizations offer different levels of certification. An analogy is education. You don’t want a teacher certified to teach first grade teaching your child’s AP Calculus class.


AMGA Rock Instructor logo

Know the difference between this……..


…….and this? You should if you are looking for a multi-pitch guide!

The same holds true with rock climbing and mountaineering. In AMGA nomenclature, you don’t want someone certified to guide clients up single pitch climbs, a Single Pitch Instructor, guiding you on a multi-pitch climb. You also don’t want a Certified Rock Guide guiding you in AMGA Alpine Guide terrain. Unfortunately, folks advertising themselves as “guides” sometimes get a minimum level of certification so they can call themselves an “AMGA (or PCGI or PCIA) Guide” when they aren’t even certified to set up climbs via lead climbing, as is the case with several categories of PCGI and PCIA guides.  While all AMGA outdoor climbing instructors and guides are required Climbing in Joshua Tree National Parkto lead at a certain level, that does not mean they are qualified to guide you up Mt. Rainier….but it happens.

The takeaway is this: you are hiring a climbing guide to have the maximum amount of fun and/or learning with the minimum amount of risk possible.  Until government leaders recognize the significant role outdoor recreation and climbing in particular play in society and therefore require some sort of licensure, it is up to you as the participant in an “inherently dangerous activity” to be your own advocate. Stack the deck in your favor by doing your research. A qualified guide will be willing to happily answer any question you have  about their training, certification, and experience.

For more information on the various organizations that certify climbing guides, check out these links: American Mountain Guides Association, Professional Climbing Guides Institute, Professional Climbing Instructors Association.

Happy Climbing,

Cristin Knowlton, owner                                                                                                                                     Fox Mountain Guides


Linville Falls: The Story of a First Ascent

Photo: Halley Burleson

When Anthony Dercole was a teenager surfing in sunny California, he could never have imagined one day scaling a frozen waterfall. How he got from the beach to bagging the first ascent of Linville Falls, renowned for having the highest volume of flow in the area, was really less improbable than it seems.

After moving to Western North Carolina in 2007, Anthony got a job at a now-closed gym that happened to have a climbing wall. Intrigued with climbing, he began hiking to different outdoor climbing areas in a quest to learn everything he could about the sport. As with many beginning climbers, Anthony made lots of decisions that he now is just happy didn’t have bigger consequences.

It was a chance encounter with AMGA Certified Rock Guide Ron Funderburke, who was working as a Guide at Fox Mountain Guides at the time, that not only changed HOW Anthony climbed but also shaped his career. What first began as a mentor relationship with Ron resulted in Anthony  pursuing professional climbing training through the AMGA and ultimately getting a job as an Instructor at FMG.

Given the rapid progression of Anthony’s climbing, it should really come as no surprise that once he ticked off many of North Carolina’s most difficult rock routes, including a rare free ascent of Warrior’s Way (regarded as one of the hardest multi-pitch routes in the State), he would move on to new challenges. Though he only climbed a couple seasons of ice, Anthony picked up the discipline as quickly as his other endeavors and set his set his sights on a potential ice route with the cache of some of his hard rock sends. That climb was Linville Falls.

Record low temperatures over a number of days made the never-climbed falls shape up enough that Anthony decided to give it a go. With his wife Tina and brother-in-law/photographer Peter in tow, he and partner Kyle Harris crossed the partially frozen Linville River to arrive at the base of the falls. Though the center of the falls was still flowing powerfully, the left side looked solid enough that Anthony felt confident he could lead it. The pair first built an anchor to secure themselves at the bottom. Anthony then delicately made his way to the top of the formation and built another anchor and brought Kyle up. From there, Kyle led them out via a crack in the rock to the left of the falls. The rest is first ascent history.

Photo: Halley Burleson

So what’s next for Anthony? In the {very} immediate term, he decided to take on Looking Glass Falls THE NEXT DAY in the second ever ascent. (Fox Mountain Guide’s owner, Karsten Delap, got the first ascent last year). Conditions were not quite as favorable this year, and Anthony ended up making the ascent without a belay. He plans to spend the rest of the season climbing ice throughout the Southeast and in New Hampshire as he builds a resume to take the AMGA Ice Instructor Course sometime in the next couple years. After he completes that course, Anthony will be out guiding ice in the area but will, knowing him, also be searching for the next big adventure .**

**Fox Mountain Guides only allows guides, regardless of their experience, to guide ice if they have completed the American Mountain Guides Association Ice Instructor Course, which is the standard for professional ice climbing training.



Over-camming: Really a Problem?


I overheard some friends teaching each other to lead climb the other day. They were doing a good job of managing safety by using a top-rope and having the climber mock lead. Then they said “ok the number one thing is don’t over-cam.” I hear this mode of thinking about over-camming a lot, even from seasoned instructors. If you look at this from a pure risk management standpoint, there is actually no good reason to encourage this behavior.

Camming angle stays the same throughout the range of the cam. On Black Diamond Camolots this angle is 15˚. The theoretical best angle would be 14 based on many folks geeking out in the labs.

So the only real reason to encourage someone to under-cam would be to prevent pieces from becoming stuck in the rock. This of course could result in the leader being scared to overcam, taking a fall, ripping gear and becoming injured.

I teach students to have a 90˚ angle or less with the bottom of the cam lobes. You can see this tip and a few more in the video below.

Karsten Delap, AMGA Certified Rock and Alpine Guide