Whenever and wherever climbers gather, they will discuss their hitches, often to the point that non-climbers’ eyes will glaze over and many begin to display distinct symptoms of a lack of consciousness. These non-climbers’ incomprehension is understandable; after all, it is highly unlikely that they have ever been 85 feet up in a tulip poplar with a running chain saw and their very exposed and vulnerable position dependent on a work positioning lanyard and their personal choice of climbing hitch.

Even if, as a climber, you have never been in that particular position, your climbing hitch is a choice that affects your well-being almost every day and in every way. The number of hitches currently in use, or even being developed and refined as this article is read, far exceeds the available space to discuss their use and care, but a discussion of some basic open and closed climbing hitches will assist climbers to gain a better understanding of what climbing hitches can and cannot do, and where they might find the hitch they are looking for.

Left to right: The Schwaebisch, Distal and Michoacán, three basic closed climbing hitches with arrows to illustrate how they are tied. Photo: Michael Tain

Security

Climbing hitches, by their very nature, need to be secure and reliable. A hitch that requires constant fiddling and maintenance for the climber to maintain his position is one that, sooner or later, is going to lead to problematic situations. When trying out a new hitch, the best place to experiment is “low and slow,” or on the ground. After all, 50 feet up is not the time to discover the new “best hitch ever” seems to creep copiously.

Ease of use

In what can seem to be direct conflict with security is the need for the hitch to be fairly easy to use. This does not mean that it doesn’t require an instruction manual, although with some hitches this might be valuable. Instead, it means that when the climber wishes to ascend or descend, the hitch responds well without undue effort; and that when the climber wants to stop, the hitch does as well.

Open hitches

Open climbing hitches are hitches in which only a single end of the cordage is attached to the climber’s harness, and the other end is used to form the hitch around the climbing line. The end of the cordage extending beyond the hitch should then be tied into a stopper or safety knot. The end of the climbing line itself can be used for an open climbing hitch, though for ease of use, a separate length of cordage, either spliced or tied with an appropriate attachment knot, is often used as a split bridge or tail. Three commonly seen examples of open climbing hitches are the Tautline, Prusik and Blake’s.

Tautline hitch

The Tautline is probably one of the most commonly used climbing hitches in North America and has been around since the days of natural fiber ropes. Unfortunately, unlike natural fibers, modern synthetic ropes are slippery, and as a rolling hitch, the Tautline can untie under load, or even tighten into immovability. This hitch is formed by making two turns around the standing part of the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the tail up above the original two turns and making two more turns around the standing part of the line downward in the same direction as the first two turns.

Individual user preference and rope choices may dictate more or fewer turns around the standing part of the line for greater or reduced friction. The lines should exit the Tautline from opposite sides in the middle of the hitch. The tail should then be formed into a stopper knot to prevent the hitch from untying itself when under load.

Prusik hitch

The Prusik hitch does not roll under load like the Tautline, but does tend to tighten, although it can be loosened by pushing against the formed bar of the hitch. This hitch is formed by making two turns around the standing part of the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the tail up above the original two turns and making two more turns around the standing part of the line downward in the opposite direction from the first two turns.

Once again, individual user preference and rope choices may dictate more or fewer turns around the standing part of the line. The lines should exit the Prusik from the same side in the middle of the hitch. The tail should then be formed into a stopper knot for additional security.

Left to right: The Tautline, Prusik and Blake’s, three basic open climbing hitches with arrows to illustrate how they are tied. Photo: Michael Tain

Blake’s hitch

The Blake’s hitch does not roll, nor does it bind as tightly as the other open climbing hitches, making it much easier to move either up or down after loading. It does focus a great deal of friction on one specific point, which can result in glazing on long, fast descents.

The Blake’s hitch is formed by making four turns around the standing part of the climbing line in an upward direction. The tail is then brought down between the user and the bridge, crossing beneath and capturing the bridge, then brought up beneath the bottom two turns on the other side. The tail should then be formed into a stopper knot for additional security.

Closed climbing hitches

A closed climbing hitch is one in which, after the hitch is formed around the climbing line, both ends are attached to the climber’s harness, typically by a carabiner. This closed nature means that closed climbing hitches cannot be formed in the end of the climbing line and require a length of dedicated cordage intended for that use. This also means they are only used as part of a split bridge or tail system, unlike open climbing hitches, which may be used in either. Three commonly seen examples of closed climbing hitches are the Schwabisch, Distal and Michoacn.

Schwabisch

The Schwabisch looks very much like an asymmetrical Prusik around the climbing line. It is asymmetrical in that unlike a standard Prusik, which has an even number of coils or wraps each side of center, the Schwabisch, if tied correctly, will have one turn on the bottom and multiple turns on the top.

This hitch is formed by making one turn around the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage up above the original turn and making four more turns around the standing part of the line in a downward direction, going around the climbing rope in the opposite direction from the original turn. The ends should both exit from the same side of the knot beneath the bar and are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.

Distal

The Distal is tied in a similar fashion to the Schwabisch, with one key difference. The hitch is formed by making one turn around the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage up above the original turn and making four more turns around the standing part of the line in a downward direction, going around the climbing rope in the same as the original turn. The ends will exit from opposite sides of the knot beneath the bar and are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.

Michoacn

The Michoacn, brought to the tree world by Martin Morales of Southern California, may at first glance appear very similar to the Schwabisch and Distal, but is actually tied quite differently. The hitch is formed by making five turns around the climbing line in an upward direction. The upper end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage is then brought down and under the other end of the eye and eye tail, capturing it, before the hitch is completed by feeding the upper end between the standing part of the rope and the first turn. The lower end will exit from one side of the knot, captured by the upper end, which exits from beneath the first turn on the other side of the knot. Both ends are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.

As mentioned in the title, the choice of a climbing hitch is a very personal one, suited to each individual’s climbing style, rope choices and even body weight. In fact, some climbers will use different hitches in different situations or applications, feeling that a particular hitch gives them an advantage in removals, while another performs better when pruning. In addition, different climbers may add or subtract turns even to the basic hitches described here, as each will function differently with different ropes and climbers. The short answer is that there is no wrong climbing hitch choice, as long as it is safe, secure and easy to use for that particular climber. Just as the world would be a boring place if all of humanity dressed, looked and acted the same, the tree climbing world would be much more mundane if all climbers used the same hitch. Besides, then what would we all talk about when we got together?

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2011 and has been updated.