The flat overhand bend. The offset overhand bend. The thumb knot.
Whatever you might call it, it’s the same infamous knot known ubiquitously in climbing circles as the European Death Knot. It’s known far and wide as a useful - but deadly - knot for rappelling, but at the end of the day, is it really worth using?
In what is perhaps the biggest knot-related controversy in the climbing world, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there’s a whole lot of misinformation about there surrounding the European death knot, also known as the EDK.
To help keep you out on the rock climbing and away from incorrect internet forums, we’ve done the research and collected all the information about there about the EDK, from horror stories to IFMGA guide beta on what the knot is, when it is appropriate to use, and how to use it so you can get the best information all in one place.
The short answer, when used correctly the European Death Knot is perfectly good choice for rappelling, but it need to be tied correctly, with long enough tails in order to resist rolling off the end of the rope.
Let’s get started!
What is the European death knot?
The EDK, despite its terrifying name, is a very commonly used method for attaching two lengths of rope. In the scenario that was just described, proper use of the EDK can allow us to use two ropes to easily descend a climb.
But what is the EDK? As it so happens, there’s really nothing correct about the name ‘European death knot’. Legend has it that the knot, more properly called the flat overhand bend, was introduced to Americans climbers by their European counterparts.
Somewhere along the way, people began using the knot (it’s actually a bend - you can learn about the difference here) incorrectly, thus giving it it’s grim name.
It turns out that the only part about the name “EDK” that’s correct is “European”. Alas.
Unfortunately, this name has scared many a new and seasoned climber alike away from using the EDK, despite the fact that it can be a very useful knot when tied properly. The key phrase here being ‘tied properly’.
Basically, the EDK is an overhand knot tied into two lengths of rope or cord. To tie it, hold both pieces of cord together near both ends. Give yourself about 30 cm (12 in) of tail and tie an overhand using both ropes. Voila!
The need for the EDK
Once a climber begins climbing outside, it’s almost inevitable that they will soon be called upon to rappel. Whether you rappel for fun or because it’s the only way down, rappelling is one of the most important skills in climbing.
It might seem funny to think that one of the most important skills in climbing has nothing to do with getting you up a route, but rather back down. However, if you think about it, the vast majority of climbing accidents happen on the descent, not the ascent.
Weariness, complacency, late-night epics, and a lack of attention to detail are some of the main causes of hundreds of climbing accidents over the years that have happened on the descent. After a long 12 hour approach and climb, it’s understandable that you and your climbing partner might be tired, but do you have the wherewithal to get yourself back home without incident?
When it comes to rappelling, having dialled-in systems is key to battling the poor decision making that comes with fatigue. Rappelling can seem committing to people because it requires total reliance on the gear and the rock. This is why so many new climbers can crush up a route but find themselves immobilised by the thought of having to rappel.
Knowing when to use certain knots and other techniques is also critical to being situationally aware and responsive out at the crag so that you can make the right decision for the situation you’re in.
Many of the techniques you use in one situation would be considered inadequate for another, so it’s important to have a good foundational understanding of the different parts of any system you use.
When rappelling, we have many options for the systems we use, from backing up our rappels to extending them. Many of these systems-related choices are actually decided upon before we ever leave the ground - if you don’t bring a prusik cord with you on the climb, you certainly won’t have one when you want to rappel.
Sometimes, one of the most important decisions we can make is about the rope we bring.
While one 60m rope is sufficient for getting you to the top of that 50m pitch, it definitely won’t be enough to get you back down to the ground, unless there are intermediate rappel anchors along the route.
In these instances, we’ll likely choose to bring a second rope so we can get back down to the ground.
This might seem like a pretty simple decision to a new climber, but unless they’ve thought out exactly what they’ll do with those two ropes at the end of the climb, they might find themselves rather perplexed at the rappel rings. When we rappel with two ropes, we need some way to tie those two ropes together.
Enter: the EDK.
European death knot failure
At this point, you might be wondering why some people get all up in arms about the EDK. It’s quick and simple to tie and, although this has yet to be proven scientifically, is rumoured to be less likely to snag or get caught up when retrieving ropes at the end of a rappel.
These benefits aside, there are documented cases of the EDK failing, but, it’s incredibly important to note that these failures happen when the knot is not tied properly.
There are two main ways people can tie the EDK improperly:
- They don’t leave enough tail
- They tie something called the ‘flat figure eight’ instead.
Let’s start with the lack of tail. For the EDK, you must always leave at least 30 cm (12 in) of tail. More is better here, though, so if you leave more tail, it won’t hurt. The reason for the seemingly excessive amount of tail is something called ‘capsizing’, which is when the knot flips and rolls down the rope.
When the EDK is weighted with each strand going in the opposite direction, it is possible for the knot to capsize on itself.
However, it’s very important to note that having a large excess of tail can help prevent total failure in what is, in all actuality, a very unlikely occurrence in a bodyweight scenario.
Moral of the story: if you use the EDK, leave lots of tail. Skimping here could be a huge mistake.
The other very serious mistake that people make when tying the EDK is that the tie a completely different knot - the flat figure eight.
The other name for the EDK is the flat overhand bend, which should tell you that the knot is part of the overhand ‘family’. It is, for all intents and purposes, a simple overhand knot tied into two pieces of rope at once.
When people look at the EDK for the first time, they often think it looks too simple or unreliable for climbing. So, they decide to take it upon themselves to change the knot into a figure-eight instead of an overhand.
To be fair, this does seem like a somewhat logical move - if we tie in using figure eights, not overhands, then they must be reliable for this purpose, too?
It turns out that tying a flat figure eight is a horrible idea. It might seem better than the flat overhand, but in fact, it’s significantly more likely to capsize and untie itself.
DO NOT use the flat figure eight.
At least three fatalities in four accidents in the United States (Zion National Park in 2002, Grand Teton National Park in 1997, Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1995, and Seneca Rocks in 1994) have been attributed to EDK failure. Three of these accidents involved a flat figure eight (which is NOT an EDK) and the other was likely due to too little tail.
Every climbing knot must be tied perfectly every single time.
The EDK is a completely bonafide knot for tying two rappel ropes together, but it must be tied properly every time and used only in the appropriate situations. This is true of every knot we use in climbing. The EDK gets a bad reputation because of its unfortunate name.
But, at the end of the day, climbers should only use systems that they’re comfortable with. If the EDK still freaks you out, despite all the evidence to the contrary, then perhaps it’s best for you not to use it. Luckily, there are two main alternatives for those of us who can’t stomach the name ‘EDK’: the double fisherman’s and the flemish bend.
The double fisherman’s is a reliable knot with a relatively low profile, which is good for keeping it from snagging as you retrieve your rappel ropes.
But, it can be tricky to tie correctly and can be incredibly difficult to untie once heavily loaded. Plus, anyone using the double fisherman’s must leave plenty of tail on either end - at least 12-15 cm (5-6 in).
The flemish bend, also known as the figure eight bend is another great alternative. However, this is NOT the flat figure eight, rather it is the figure eight follow through.
Whenever you use this knot for rappel purposes, it must include a significant amount of tail on either end, at least 15-18 cm (6-7 in). It is relatively easy to untie after being loaded, but its large profile can make it more susceptible to getting caught when retrieving your ropes.
Ultimately, the EDK is not as scary as its name might suggest. It is a reliable climbing knot for tying two rappel ropes together whenever it is tied properly and with enough tail.
If you choose not to use the EDK, there are other alternatives that have their own pros and cons. As with any knot, it must be properly tied, properly dressed, and have enough tail, every time.