"Best Practice" - a phrase often thrown around when trying to end an argument in the outdoors. Why do we tie a stopper knot on a figure of eight? "Because it's best practice." Why do we use three independent anchors in bottom rope setups? "Because it's best practice." While I agree that there is such a thing as bad practice and good practice I do strongly oppose the notion of best practice. If anything, what we often refer to as best practice is indeed merely common practice. Try convincing an alpine guide educated in France that a stopper knot on a figure of eight is best practice and they must therefore always use one regardless of the situation they are in - good luck.
Can best practice exist?
The danger I see with the phrase best practice is that we gradually lose the ability and drive to question our own practices and indeed adapt and combine them. For example I consider the Magic X knot used by some for equalising anchors a bad practice for a whole host of reasons, but I would not agree that equalising anchors using a static knot is best practice, despite what some people have tried to convince me of. On the other hand the perceived benefits of a constantly equalising knot are seen by some as the best invention since sliced bread.
Again when it comes to belaying, best practice dictates I should belay with a dedicated belay device, but realistically belaying with an Italian hitch is a great skill to have and, if I'm trashing my own ropes, perfectly acceptable and not usually the worst option available. So if we argued that an Italian hitch belay is acceptable practice would we need to distinguish between a Gri-Gri and a passive friction device such as an ATC? Surely both can't be best practice so one would have to be better than the other. I could find as many people backing the Gri-Gri as I could find people backing the Bug or the ATC or the ATC XP or the (insert reasonably well known belay device here) and the argument would never stop as to which is the "best practice". "Best practice" indicates no other practice at present is equally or more suitable. When does this ever truly apply in a real scenario?
So how about we start calling things "common practice". "Common practice" indicates that the community as a whole has accepted the practice as one suitable solution out of many which can be seen as a de-facto standard. For example it is common practice to tie into a harness with a figure or eight and in this country to add a double fisherman's bend as a stopper knot - even I can accept this as a "common practice", just not as a "best practice". It is further common practice to not belay with an Italian hitch when using center ropes due to the increased wear on ropes - one of the main reasons why centers tend to ban the use of Italian hitch belays altogether. It is also common practice to have at least two independent anchor points in any anchor setup, but experience will tell you that you may well require 20 or indeed can get away with one at times. (Note: "Get away with" indicates this should NOT be a common practice...)
Personally I use three levels of distinction when evaluating practices in others and myself:
- Common Practice: Commonly seen and accepted practice having stood the test of time and pub debates. Most mildly experienced participants will recognise the practice. (E.g. Tying in with a retied figure of eight finished with a stopper knot.)
- Safe Practice: A practice that after deliberation and careful consideration is not inherently dangerous, but is also not commonly used. (E.g. Tying in with a retied figure of eight but NO stopper knot.)
- Bad Practice: Downright dangerous. (E.g. Tying in with a bowline without a stopper knot.)
Note that using this definition I am not saying that practices I consider bad should never be used. There may well be situations where some bad practices are borderline "acceptable". However, these would be absolute exceptions to an otherwise established rule and are made on a basis of experience, instinct and knowledge of the risks involved.
By reducing the use of the phrase "Best practice" we automatically start to nurture a culture of questioning, thinking, evaluation and reconciliation among outdoor users and become less of an authoritative industry. After all, unless dictated by sound science, sound testing, sound investigation and sound reasoning from a recognised advisory body the so called "Best practice" is largely derived from common practices in the industry as a whole anyway - or at least the small part of it we know.
Not from here!
A slightly different issue I have experienced personally is the notion of "not invented here". This notion manifests itself in the rejection of perfectly sound and possibly superior practices on the basis of them emanating from elsewhere. A perfect example from my own climbing career is the use of dedicated belay devices as opposed to the italian hitch. It was only after a spell of climbing in the US that my climbing instructor at the time allowed the use of such devices in our youth climbing group nearly 20 years ago. His initial reservation was purely based on him not trusting a device that was "not invented here". Similar effects have been observed when Cams and Friends were first introduced into the UK trad scene from the US.
As climbers we should always strive to educate ourselves about the practices out there and the equipment used. Personally I find this easy as I'm a magpie when it comes to gear and fascinated by anything involving technical rope work and setups. While I don't blame anybody for not sharing that passion, at least next time you refer to something as best practice please do your homework first and find out why it is deemed to be best practice and crucially which precise facts back up this theory. Equally, if you come across somebody who is not inherently unsafe but does things differently, take the time to be educated and just maybe learn about the new common practice of tomorrow ahead of everybody else.