Walter Siebert is an Austrian climber who researches and evaluates climbing accidents. Driven by a desire to prevent avoidable mishaps, he has posted videos of his research including the potential for the often used water knot to fail under certain circumstances. His work piqued our interest and he has been generous enough to elaborate on his background as well as his research regarding the water knot.
First his video:
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
I was born in Austria and grew up in the 1960's and early 1970's. I started rock climbing and mountaineering very early with my parents. It was the end of the heroic age and belay methods were just not working (shoulder belay).
Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) was very simple, the rope was wrapped around the body. The hemp ropes which were known to break under body weight were gone before my time so we did not worry about discarding our newer ropes just because of the amount of time they were in use for. Ropes were expensive and we had little money!
In this style I did some first ascents in Peru (like Chopicalqui NW buttress, 1980). I climbed in Pakistan, Alaska (Denali, 1983), Yosemite (Nose), did some frozen waterfalls in the pioneer days – no waterfalls were climbed in those days! In the wintertime I skied a lot. With my partner, Walter Graf, I did the first descent of the Große Priel NW face, which was filmed.
I worked as a mountain guide and ski instructor for 12 years. Dissatisfied with the teaching and leadership methods, my friends Amesberger, Fasching, Graf and I developed a new concept for climbing instructors’ courses. The name of the book we wrote was Selbsterfahrung statt Fremdorientierung, which I would translate as Experiential Learning.
In the mid-eighties I decided to change to the training and consulting business. Fortunately I met Bill Daniels who worked for Pecos River Learning Centers, the market leader for experience-based training & development in those days.
Ten years later I had a well-established training company in Austria and a branch in Germany. Another 10 years and I dissolved and sold my business because I did not want to work so much anymore. Now I am self-employed and happy – and have time for my hobbies like testing equipment!
Parallel to my training business I started to build and operate ropes courses, some of the first in Austria. In 2008 the European Standard for ropes courses was issued, which required inspection, and I decided to change from construction to inspection (you cannot do both when you perform inaugural inspections). I traveled to ropes courses everywhere from Finland to Ghana, Portugal to Korea.
What got you interested in testing climbing equipment?
In 1969, at the age of eleven, I read an article from Pit Schubert about his tests on carabiners and ropes. I was deeply impressed and this topic always fascinated me.
In 1995 I decided to become a court expert, which is very well developed in Austria and organized by the government. My job was to investigate climbing accidents which gave me the opportunity to go very deep into the contributing factors. I published my insights to prevent further accidents.
My motivation to prevent accidents was boosted when a boy died on a zip line simply because the instructors used one single carabiner instead of two opposing carabiners; a rule I learned in 1988 from Bill Daniels (as well as the partner check). When I discussed this with the mountain guides they just laughed at me and even got angry that I brought up such silly things. Well, the parents did not laugh when I told them that with these simple things their kid would still be alive.
This is my motivation: accidents that are easy to prevent should not happen.
For 30 years I wanted to have a test machine where I could test ropes, carabiners, etc. I was still inspired by Pit Schubert’s research. Four years ago I brought this idea to life. In the course of my inspection work a typical question to me would be, for example from a non-profit organization dealing with at-risk youth: “Do we have to throw away our harnesses? The manual says that after 8 years, even with little use, they must be destroyed.” I looked at the harnesses (which were used about 5 times each) – they looked brand new. Knowing from my climbing experience that no harness, no rope has ever failed only because of the number of years passed since manufacturing, I was in a dilemma. Is it time to question the rules when they seem to be wrong? Sustainability had become a very important issue for me since we do not have a “planet B” where we can escape after we destroy our earth. Wasting ropes and harnesses that are still fit for use, almost new, seemed to be wrong.
So I decided to do some scientific research on the question, is age a discard criterion? Or, do we have to throw away a harness if we took a fall? Reality seemed to prove the opposite but I needed to examine these questions in depth. I built a test machine and a laboratory and tested and investigated for three years and my result is no, time is not a discard criterion, and yes, you can use PPE after a fall.
Could you give us a little background on how you came to understand the water knot was not always reliable and how you went about testing the knot for failure?
In 2006 I had to investigate a case. One of the best climbers in Austria fell 45 meters to the ground. She was very, very lucky to survive (and she can climb again). The prosecutor accused her partner of having tied a knot in the anchor webbing wrong. I examined the original sling where the knot was tied on one side, the other end was open. The dirt and the color indicated that the knot had been closed before the accident. The tail end of the knot was short, but long enough to be safe.
I scanned the literature and found Pit Schubert’s article, “The Water Knot – The Never Ending Story.” He had investigated similar cases and had proven before that the knot can be pulled open easily if caught on an edge or pin. He documented almost 20 accidents.
In my case, with very high probability, the knot was pulled open by a rock edge. Further investigation showed that the knot was still taught in many instructor courses. So I posted in a rock climbing forum a post entitled “Water knot = death knot.” The reaction to this post was split. One side criticized me heavily for this post (“If tied properly it works perfectly”), the other side was grateful.
Ten years later (the never ending story), I saw another post about a water knot accident where a climber was not so lucky and died. Again I posted “water knot = death knot.” Again, the same reaction. This time I used my laboratory to test the knot for failure with cyclic loading such as weighting and un-weighting the knot many times and found that it could fail in this manner too. A near miss of my own popped up when I almost fell 50 meters to the ground because the water knot of my descender opened during an ascent. I was very lucky not to have let go of the hand hold but the water knot was open!