June 2 started for Coby Cooper like any other afternoon at the crag. With the blazing Texas sun on the horizon, he relaxed in the shade beneath the New Wall on the Barton Creek Greenbelt near downtown Austin. Seemingly out of nowhere, a woman slammed into a rocky outcrop only eight feet from where he stood. The end of her rope dangled 25 feet above the ground.
Minutes earlier, on toprope, Jennifer Knowles had started up Mr. Slate (5.11), a 50-foot limestone sport climb. This well-traveled route starts on School Boys Indirect—a popular 5.9—and goes straight up at the obvious roof.
Knowles had smoothly climbed to the crux roof, then botched a techy sequence and fell. Her knot, ostensibly a double bowline, held momentarily before “unraveling,” according to her belayer, Megan Frank.
Nearby climbers rushed to the rescue. Knowles had landed in a seated position, and was quickly laid on her back by another climber, Dr. Jim Robin. Despite the savage impact she retained consciousness and was able to speak.
Cooper quickly used his cell phone to call 911, only to find that authorities needed a street address to locate the scene. After several minutes of confusion, a nearby taco stand provided enough reference for emergency crews to triangulate the accident site. They arrived within half an hour.
Tommy Blackwell, another local climber, was walking away from the crag when a climber on his way out to meet the ambulance rushed by him with news of the incident. Blackwell, a former police officer, ran back to the New Wall to help coordinate the rescue effort. He managed to speak briefly with Knowles, confirming that she had used a double bowline. She was soon strapped to a stretcher and carried the half mile to the ambulance and then on to the hospital. Her injuries included a fractured pelvis, ankle, sacrum and two vertebrae. At press time she had already started climbing again.
Most people who use a bowline will say that they do so because the knot—in contrast to the Trace-8 knot—is easy to untie after it has been weighted. Yet this same attribute—the bowline’s propensity to remain pliable, especially if it has not been put under pressure by tightening or a fall—has resulted in the knot inadvertently coming untied. In some cases, the knot has worked itself loose over the course of a multi-pitch climb, but there are also examples of the knot coming undone during a single pitch. A stiff new rope can be a contributing factor.
In this accident, as in most of the others, it is difficult to say whether the knot came untied, was tied incorrectly, or partially tied. It is possible that most accidents involving the bowline were the result of user error. Perhaps that is because the bowline is a relatively complex knot in comparison to the Trace-8, which is easy to inspect since the rope runs parallel through the body of the knot. The bowline, on the other hand, is not intuitive to tie and difficult for an inexperienced climber to check. Knowles’ belayer thought that her partner’s knot was properly tied.
Over the years, Rock and Ice has reported on several accidents caused when a bowline knot has come undone. These accidents might have been prevented if the climbing team had followed the standard procedure of visually inspecting the climber’s knot to determine that it was properly rendered, as well as confirming that the belay was rigged correctly before the climber begins the climb. Every climber should diligently follow this procedure. Make it a ritual, perform it with attention and never skip it. Furthermore, no knot is complete unless you yard on it to tighten it, and finish it with a stopper knot.
Finally, use a Trace-8 as your tie-in knot. It can be a hassle to untie after you yam onto it a dozen times while working your project, but that’s what you want from a knot. Climbers are injured or killed in accidents involving the bowline, but rarely the Trace-8. Think about it.