Uplines for Self-Suspension
This article covers some of the process involved in deciding how to tie off uplines for self-suspension. Remember to never self-suspend alone or without proper in-person instruction!
In common suspension vernacular, there are two designations of up lines. There are critical uplines, also called main support lines – this is the line that is keeping your head and torso from hitting the ground. If this line came undone or broke, you’d go down with it and have a good chance of suffering a severe injury, or even breaking your neck or dying. Then there are non-critical lines, sometimes called secondary lines – these lines are not your primary support. If they broke, certainly something would happen, like a leg suddenly dropping a few feet or even hitting the ground. This could cause injury, but not on the same level as the failure of a critical line.
For example, if you have your critical line attached to a chest harness, and add a thigh cuff and ankle cuff while the chest is still attached, the thigh and ankle are both non-critical lines. If they came untied or broke, your head/trunk wouldn’t hit the ground, although you might have a leg or foot make quick and painful contact with the floor.
This distinction is important because there are different tie-off methods that are appropriate for critical vs. noncritical lines. Generally speaking, you can sometimes use a less secure, faster tie-off with a noncritical line, but generally will want to approach securing your critical lines with much more caution.
When you’re getting started with self-suspension, always fully secure your critical line before leaving the ground. If you're making a transition, fully secure a second critical line before releasing the first one. Adjusting critical lines on the fly is a more advanced skill, and not something to start with!
There are many different techniques for tying off uplines, and no one way that works best for every person in every situation. You will want to consider two main factors: speed, which considers how fast the tie-off is to create and also to undo, and security, which concerns the chance that the tie-off will unexpectedly come loose, possibly causing a fall or drop. Security also describes control and pacing during the untying process – an upline that comes completely undone with the flick of a knot is less secure than one that requires several steps to untie. A less secure upline tie-off releases load all at once; a more secure tie-off releases load over a gradual, predictable process. There are also two ancillary factors to consider: tolerance for jams and aesthetics, or the “prettiness” of your finished product.
The two main factors, security and speed, exist somewhat in opposition to each other. I find it helpful to think of this as existing on a grid:
Going through the A B C D boxes for speed vs. security:
A. Less secure + slow – this basically describes a rope jam. No one wants this!
B. Less secure + fast – quick release techniques. These techniques can be great for non-critical lines and quick transitions, and are the tie-off techniques to choose if you're prioritizing speed and you’d rather risk an accidental drop than take a longer time to tie or (especially) untie an upline. I have talked with self-suspenders who very thoughtfully choose these techniques because they often self-suspend low to the ground and/or without a spotter (which I never recommend, for the record), and they would rather risk a fall than risk getting stuck in the air because they don’t have the energy to undo their tie-off, or getting into a situation where they need out now and can’t quickly adjust their upline.
C. More secure + slow – these are the techniques I use and teach for critical lines. I always self-suspend with a spotter, I do dynamic movement and I love to go as high as I can. I'd much rather plan my suspension to take a more time tying and untying my uplines, and risk having to call my spotter over for help if needed, than ever risk falling.
D. More secure + fast – magic?!?
In addition to these two main factors, you also want to consider two others: your tolerance for rope jams, and how much concern you have for the aesthetics of your secured upline. Both of these roughly track with time – generally, creating a tie-off that gives you +10 protection vs. rope jams takes a bit longer, as does creating a “prettier” final product.
Starting with jams – rope jams can be especially problematic in self-suspension. They can be difficult (or even impossible) to untie, especially under load, and if you do get a jam undone it will tend to release in a sudden and unpredictable manner, which can lead to unexpected drops. Personally, I really, really hate jams, and also tend to use unconventional upline material that can be rather prone to jamming. So I pay a lot of attention to using techniques that minimize risk of rope jams.
Generally, it takes a bit longer to “jam-proof” an upline tie-off, because what you want to do is create some extra, neat “wraps” before your initial knot. These extra “wraps” (I use munters) prevent any knots from tightening down and jamming. Personally, I’m willing to use techniques that take a little extra time to tie and untie so that I can be 99.99% sure they will not jam. Some people might decide they’d rather save some time and risk the occasional rope jam, and as long as you have a back-up plan clearly in place (such as being able to hook up a new critical line to take load off the jammed one, have your spotter pull over a chair, etc), that’s also fine.
The final factor to consider is aesthetics – how much do you care about the final “look” of your uplines? Making your uplines look immaculate tends to take significantly more time, both coming up and going down. There are safety hazards in having a bunch of untidy rope hanging around for you get caught on, but there are also safety hazards when you have an upline elaborately crocheted off such that it will take additional minutes to untie. There is a performative aspect to this, as well – if you’re self-suspending where there are others watching, making at least some efforts to tidy your uplines can go a long way toward appearing safe and controlled. I tend to be in the middle of the road on this one – I like to keep my uplines looking neat, but I’m also not going to spend 2 minutes tying a line of half hitches in a pretty spiral.
The most secure tie-off in the world won't help you if your rope breaks, which is why I always recommend using rated rope for critical uplines (I usually use POSH, but sometimes amsteel or other materials). Jute and hemp are lovely, but they are natural fibers and cannot be reliably rated; there are many case reports of upline breaks (especially with 5 or 6mm jute). These materials are wonderful to use for harnesses against your skin, but unless you have a specific fetish for "hanging yourself from the ceiling with woven grass clippings" I really don't see a good reason to not use rated rope for critical uplines. More on this in another article!
Carabiners are an essential tool for building uplines for self-suspension. Locking carabiners provide a handy (but secure) quick-release option, and are essential for building pulley systems. You can create rope-only pulley systems, but this has a number of disadvantages over using carabiners:
Carabiners reduce friction, which allows you to much more easily pull up your body weight.
By reducing rope-on-rope friction, carabiners will help prevent wear on your rope – repeated rope-on-rope friction, especially in the same place on the rope, can be a safety concern (this is sometimes known as “burning the bight”).
Carabiners can be used as a quick-release in some situations
Use of carabiners helps prevent jams
If you come from a partnered suspension background, you are likely used to tying lines off at the ring or point. For self-suspension, it is generally better to make the final tie-off at the harness instead of at the ring – you want to be sure you can always reach it to untie or adjust your height, so having it closer to your body is a definite safety advantage. This is another reason to use carabiners at your hanger – it gives you a place to tie-off neatly.