Monday, February 28, 2011

Why Would a Climber Need a Knife?

It's not always super easy to find things to write about in this blog. So I often lurk on different websites looking for topics to write about.  This particular post on caught my attention:

I am a new climber-and I've seen many climbers carry knives. Many of them are really attached to them-and consider them their favorite tool. I've met climbers that have stories about their knives and talk about them like a companion. I was thinking I should invest in one-but would love to hear about your experiences or knife stories.

I'm hoping that it will help me with this decision.

This individual must have a strange local ethic.  I've never heard a climber talk about his knife like it was a companion.  No, instead I've heard climbers complain that their "harness knives" aren't sharp enough or to debate whether or not carrying such an item is even appropriate.

So there are two parts to this question.  First, what might a climber need a knife for.  And second, why is there even an argument about whether such a tool is appropriate.

Many of you have read the book or seen the movie, Touching the Void.  In that particular incident, two climbers found themselves caught in a tremendously dangerous situation.  One hung over a cornice, while the other held him on a rope in a precarious stance.  As the stance deteriorated and it appeared that both would die, the climber holding the rope decided to cut it...

Lucky he had a knife!

But this was an incredibly unusual situation.  In over two hundred years of climbing history, this has happened exactly one time.  So this isn't exactly why you need a knife with you.

No, instead you need a knife with you to deal with this:

In the picture above, there are seven or eight slings wrapped around the rappel horn. Most of them are quite bad.  Some are crusty.  Some have been eaten by mice.  And so the best thing to do is to add one more cord, right?


The best thing to do is to add a cord (which you may need a knife to fashion) and then to cut the other tat away (which will also require a knife), so that there is one nice and clean redundant anchor on the horn.  Clearing away the garbage at rappel stations provides great stewardship and it shows that you care about the crags where you climb.

Cutting cords and sling material is a common occurrence on long multi-pitch routes that don't see a lot of traffic.  It is not at all uncommon to have to do some work to beef up anchors or to clean up old materials left years before.  Additionally, a knife could be used to cut away damaged sections of rope, be used in a first aid situation, or even be used to trim materials for a makeshift shelter.  There are a million uses for a knife, especially on long routes...

I alluded to the possibility that there was some controversy about carrying a knife.  That is not at all the case.  Every guide carries a knife.  No, instead the controversy lies in what kind of knife you should carry and  how you should carry it.

It is not uncommon for people to carry cheap "gas station" knives on cords hanging off their harnesses.  Indeed, some people even carry more expensive knives the same way.  The concern is that a knife might open and become dangerous, both from the possibility of getting cut as well as the possibility of it damaging gear.  As such, there are some guide trainers that don't allow guides to carry knives on their harnesses.  They prefer if they were in a pack.
There are a couple of popular harness knives available on the market that theoretically will not open on your harness.  The Trango Piranah Climbing Knife (pictured above) is a very small knife that takes up very little space on your harness.

The Trango Sharktool (pictured above) is a nice hybrid between a nut-tool and a knife.  It is a nice way to eliminate some of the extra baggage of the other knives described here.  In other words, you will only need to have one carabiner for both the knife and your nut-tool.

The Petzl Spatha (pictured above) is a tried and true classic.  I would say that I've seen this particular knife on more peoples harnesses than any of the others listed.

Certainly many climbers carry a multi-tool.  This is especially useful if you are on an expedition or on a big alpine climb.  Some will elect to carry their multi-tool on a harness, but most will stow it in a pack.

So to answer the original question, there are many uses for a knife.  But if you start to see your knife as a companion or a close friend, then you should seriously consider therapy...

Jason D. Martin


Brendan said...

Great post, Jason! I keep a small, cheap folding knife in my pocket instead of hanging on my harness. I bought a Petzl Spatha, but ditched it once I figured out that most non-oval carabiners can open the knife on their own if twisted the right way.

Anonymous said...

It's not even a question for me - I never leave home without some kind of blade. Especially if I am heading outdoors. You can improvise a lot of stuff if you have a knife. But the knife itself is more difficult to improvise. The knife doesn't have to be anything special either. A tiny little Swiss Army Classic SD for $15 will do the trick in most cases.

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents - carry a knife that you can open and close with 1 hand, and that has a pocket clip. I prefer Spyderco but own other brands, and often tie a length of thin shockcord thru the hole in the handle and onto a belt loop. And to cut cord or webbing, I like a partially serrated blade.

Anonymous said...

The main reason to have a knife is to cut yourself free from your partner.

James said...

You must always carry along utility knives just in case you need it. Some short knives come with automation to open and close the knives with one finger or a thumb. Other than that, also carry along some life-saving stuff. Visit my blog