As Seen In: USA Today, Discovery Channel, US News & World Report

Roped Climbing

When the angle, length, and difficulty of the proposed climbing route surpasses the ability of the climbers' safety margin (possibly on class 4 and usually on class 5 terrain), ropes must be used to proceed. Roped climbing is only safe if accomplished correctly. Reading this manual does not constitute skill with ropes-much training and practice is necessary. Many aspects of roped climbing take time to understand and learn. Ropes are normally not used in training until the basic principles of climbing are covered.

Note: A rope is completely useless for climbing unless the climber knows how to use it safely.

Tying-In to the Climbing Rope

Over the years, climbers have developed many different knots and procedures for tying-in to the climbing rope. Some of the older methods of tying directly into the rope require minimal equipment and are relatively easy to inspect; however, they offer little support to the climber, may induce further injuries, and may even lead to strangulation in a severe fall. A severe fall, where the climber might fall 20 feet or more and be left dangling on the end of the rope, is highly unlikely in most instances, especially for most personnel involved in military climbing. Tying directly into the rope is perfectly safe for many roped party climbs used in training on lower-angled rock. All climbers should know how to properly tie the rope around the waist in case a climbing harness is unavailable.

Presewn Harnesses

Although improvised harnesses are made from readily available materials and take little space in the pack or pocket, presewn harnesses provide other aspects that should be considered. No assembly is required, which reduces preparation time for roped movement. All presewn harnesses provide a range of adjustability. These harnesses have a fixed buckle that, when used correctly, will not fail before the nylon materials connected to it. However, specialized equipment, such as a presewn harness, reduce the flexibility of gear. Presewn harness are bulky, also.

a. Seat Harness. Many presewn seat harnesses are available with many different qualities separating them, including cost.

(1) The most notable difference will be the amount and placement of padding. The more padding the higher the price and the more comfort. Gear loops sewn into the waist belt on the sides and in the back are a common feature and are usually strong enough to hold quite a few carabiners and or protection. The gear loops will vary in number from one model/manufacturer to another.

(2) Although most presewn seat harnesses have a permanently attached belay loop connecting the waist belt and the leg loops, the climbing rope should be run around the waist belt and leg loop connector. The presewn belay loop adds another link to the chain of possible failure points and only gives one point of security whereas running the rope through the waist belt and leg loop connector provides two points of contact.

(3) If more than two men will be on the rope, connect the middle position(s) to the rope with a carabiner routed the same as stated in the previous paragraph.

(4) Many manufactured seat harnesses will have a presewn loop of webbing on the rear. Although this loop is much stronger than the gear loops, it is not for a belay anchor. It is a quick attachment point to haul an additional rope.

b. Chest Harness. The chest harness will provide an additional connecting point for the rope, usually in the form of a carabiner loop to attach a carabiner and rope to. This type of additional connection will provide a comfortable hanging position on the rope, but otherwise provides no additional protection from injury during a fall (if the seat harness is fitted correctly).

(1) A chest harness will help the climber remain upright on the rope during rappelling or ascending a fixed rope, especially while wearing a heavy pack. (If rappelling or ascending long or multiple pitches, let the pack hang on a drop cord below the feet and attached to the harness tie-in point.)

(2) The presewn chest harnesses available commercially will invariably offer more comfort or performance features, such as padding, gear loops, or ease of adjustment, than an improvised chest harness.

c. Full-Body Harness. Full-body harnesses incorporate a chest and seat harness into one assembly. This is the safest harness to use as it relocates the tie-in point higher, at the chest, reducing the chance of an inverted position when hanging on the rope. This is especially helpful when moving on ropes with heavy packs. A full-body harness only affects the body position when hanging on the rope and will not prevent head injury in a fall.


This type of harness does not prevent the climber from falling head first. Body position during a fall is affected only by the forces that generated the fall, and this type of harness promotes an upright position only when hanging on the rope from the attachment point.

Improvised Harnesses

Without the use of a manufactured harness, many methods are still available for attaching oneself to a rope. Harnesses can be improvised using rope or webbing and knots.

a. Swami Belt. The swami belt is a simple, belt-only harness created by wrapping rope or webbing around the waistline and securing the ends. One-inch webbing will provide more comfort. Although an effective swami belt can be assembled with a minimum of one wrap, at least two wraps are recommended for comfort, usually with approximately ten feet of material. The ends are secured with an appropriate knot.

b. Bowline-on-a-Coil. Traditionally, the standard method for attaching oneself to the climbing rope was with a bowline-on-a-coil around the waist. The extra wraps distribute the force of a fall over a larger area of the torso than a single bowline would, and help prevent the rope from riding up over the rib cage and under the armpits. The knot must be tied snugly around the narrow part of the waist, just above the bony portions of the hips (pelvis). Avoid crossing the wraps by keeping them spread over the waist area. "Sucking in the gut" a bit when making the wraps will ensure a snug fit.

(1) The bowline-on-a-coil can be used to tie-in to the end of the rope (Figure 6-19). The end man should have a minimum of four wraps around the waist before completing the knot.

Figure 6-19. Tying-in with a bowline-on-a-coil.

Figure 6-19. Tying-in with a bowline-on-a-coil.

(2) The bowline-on-a-coil is a safe and effective method for attaching to the rope when the terrain is low-angled, WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF A SEVERE FALL. When the terrain becomes steeper, a fall will generate more force on the climber and this will be felt through the coils of this type of attachment. A hard fall will cause the coils to ride up against the ribs. In a severe fall, any tie-in around the waist only could place a "shock load" on the climber's lower back. Even in a relatively short fall, if the climber ends up suspended in mid-air and unable to regain footing on the rock, the rope around the waist can easily cut off circulation and breathing in a relatively short time.

(3) The climbing harness distributes the force of a fall over the entire pelvic region, like a parachute harness. Every climber should know how to tie some sort of improvised climbing harness from sling material. A safe, and comfortable, seat/chest combination harness can be tied from one-inch tubular nylon.

c. Improvised Seat Harness. A seat harness can be tied from a length of webbing approximately 25 feet long (Figure 6-20).

(1) Locate the center of the rope. Off to one side, tie two fixed loops approximately 6 inches apart (overhand loops). Adjust the size of the loops so they fit snugly around the thigh. The loops are tied into the sling "off center" so the remaining ends are different lengths. The short end should be approximately 4 feet long (4 to 5 feet for larger individuals).

(2) Slip the leg loops over the feet and up to the crotch, with the knots to the front. Make one complete wrap around the waist with the short end, wrapping to the outside, and hold it in place on the hip. Keep the webbing flat and free of twists when wrapping.

(3) Make two to three wraps around the waist with the long end in the opposite direction (wrapping to the outside), binding down on the short end to hold it in place. Grasping both ends, adjust the waist wraps to a snug fit. Connect the ends with the appropriate knot between the front and one side so you will be able to see what you are doing.

Figure 6-20. Improvised seat and chest harness.

Figure 6-20. Improvised seat and chest harness.

d. Improvised Chest Harness. The chest harness can be tied from rope or webbing, but remember that with webbing, wider is better and will be more comfortable when you load this harness. Remember as you tie this harness that the remaining ends will need to be secured so choose the best length. Approximately 6 to 10 feet usually works.

(1) Tie the ends of the webbing together with the appropriate knot, making a sling 3 to 4 feet long.

(2) Put a single twist into the sling, forming two loops.

(3) Place an arm through each loop formed by the twist, just as you would put on a jacket, and drape the sling over the shoulders. The twist, or cross, in the sling should be in the middle of the back.

(4) Join the two loops at the chest with a carabiner. The water knot should be set off to either side for easy inspection (if a pack is to be worn, the knot will be uncomfortable if it gets between the body and the pack). The chest harness should fit just loose enough to allow necessary clothing and not to restrict breathing or circulation. Adjust the size of the sling if necessary.

e. Improvised Full-Body Harness. Full-body harnesses incorporate a chest and seat harness into one assembly.

(1) The full-body harness is the safest harness because it relocates the tie-in point higher, at the chest, reducing the chance of an inverted hanging position on the rope. This is especially helpful when moving on ropes with heavy packs. A full-body harness affects the body position only when hanging on the rope.


A full-body harness does not prevent falling head first; body position in a fall is caused by the forces that caused the fall.

(2) Although running the rope through the carabiner of the chest harness does, in effect, create a type of full-body harness, it is not a true full-body harness until the chest harness and the seat harness are connected as one piece. A true full-body harness can be improvised by connecting the chest harness to the seat harness, but not by just tying the rope into both—the two harnesses must be "fixed" as one harness. Fix them together with a short loop of webbing or rope so that the climbing rope can be connected directly to the chest harness and your weight is supported by the seat harness through the connecting material.

f. Attaching the Rope to the Improvised Harness. The attachment of the climbing rope to the harness is a CRITICAL LINK. The strength of the rope means nothing if it is attached poorly, or incorrectly, and comes off the harness in a fall. The climber ties the end of the climbing rope to the seat harness with an appropriate knot. If using a chest harness, the standing part of the rope is then clipped into the chest harness carabiner. The seat harness absorbs the main force of the fall, and the chest harness helps keep the body upright.


The knot must be tied around all the waist wraps and the 6-inch length of webbing between the leg loops.

(1) A middleman must create a fixed loop to tie in to. A rethreaded figure-eight loop tied on a doubled rope or the three loop bowline can be used. If using the three loop bowline, ensure the end, or third loop formed in the knot, is secured around the tie-in loops with an overhand knot. The standing part of the rope going to the lead climber is clipped into the chest harness carabiner.


The climbing rope is not clipped into the chest harness when belaying.

(2) The choice of whether to tie-in with a bowline-on-a-coil or into a climbing harness depends entirely on the climber's judgment, and possibly the equipment available. A good rule of thumb is: "Wear a climbing harness when the potential for severe falls exists and for all travel over snow-covered glaciers because of the crevasse fall hazard."

(3) Under certain conditions many climbers prefer to attach the rope to the seat harness with a locking carabiner, rather than tying the rope to it. This is a common practice for moderate snow and ice climbing, and especially for glacier travel where wet and frozen knots become difficult to untie.


Because the carabiner gate may be broken or opened by protruding rocks during a fall, tie the rope directly to the harness for maximum safety.

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