It’s time again. For what you ask? For me to download some more knowledge into your brain. Today, we’re talking Munter.
The munter hitch is, or at least should be, considered essential climbing knowledge. Without it, should you forget or drop your belay device, you’ll have a long and cold night waiting to be rescued. If you know how to tie this simple hitch, then you’re prepared to belay and rappel even if all you have is a locking carabiner. “But I’m not a climber!”, you say, “I’m a backcountry skier!”. Well, you silly hippie, I’ve got news for you: the munter is also a sweet tool for you! Be it cornice stomping, ski cutting, rappelling, or impressing girls, this baby will come in handy.
Below, I explain how to tie and use this hitch, as well as it’s applications in backcountry skiing. For those of you who are yawning and thinking, ‘I already know all of this’, well, I’ve got a treat for you down at the bottom.
Tying a Munter Hitch
Tying a munter hitch is something that you can do in the dark with your eyes closed if you have a little bit of practice. If you’ve ever tied a clove hitch, then you’re 90% there already, and you’ve probably accidentally tied a munter when you screwed up a clove hitch. Another name for the munter is the Halbmastwurfsicherung (obviously), which means ‘clove-hitch belay’ in German.
1. Form two loops (aka bights) of rope with tails on opposite sides of the shared strand.
2. If you bring these loops together like snipping with a pair of scissors overlapping one-another, then you will have made a clove hitch. (Arrow indicates carabiner attachment point.) This is not how to tie a munter.
3. If instead you fold these loops towards each other as if you were closing a book, you’ll make a munter. But as with any hitch, it doesn’t exist until it’s attached to something. Clip a pear-shaped carabiner through both strands at the point indicated by the arrow.
4. Lock your biner, and snug it down. The arrow points along the load strand. If your other strand is the load strand, no need to worry, just pull on that strand and you’ll see the characteristic munter flip as the knot reorients. Now you’re good to go.
Note: if you have it, use a pear-shaped locker. This provides for a lot more clearance, and the hitch will work better. It’s possible to use a smaller locker, but it’s not much fun. If you do have to use a smaller locker, try to orient the hitch so that your brake strand (the one that’s not the load strand) is on the side opposite the gate of the carabiner. That way it’s less likely that manipulating the brake strand will accidentally unscrew your locker.
Using a Munter Hitch
The first and most important thing to know about a munter hitch is that the brake position is opposite from that of an ATC, Gri-Gri, or Figure 8. For the Munter, the brake position, ie the position with the most friction, is when the brake strand is parallel to the load strand. If you try to ‘lock off’ a munter by bringing it down by your side, like you would with an ATC, then you lose 30% of the wrap in the hitch, and more than 30% of your holding power. BAD.
Traditional uses of the munter are to belay yourself or others, and to rappel. Applications are described below. A 25-30m piece of 7 mm cord has many uses and weighs very little. Consider adding this to your pack (or a longer bit, if you’re going to rappel).
Note: There’s one downside to the munter. For ever 3-5 meters that pass through the knot, it will put one full twist in the rope. Fine if you’re making one rappel but if you’re making back-to-back rappels, then this can be a bit of a pian when you want to stack your ropes in between raps. Use it and you’ll see what I mean. All the same, it’s too useful to ditch for its one shortcoming.
The question naturally arises…”What kind of harness should I use?”. There are several options, not all of them appropriate for all uses. For cornice stomping and ski cutting, it is possible to use a ‘bowline-around-the-waist’, which precludes the use of a harness. That’s beyond the scope of this article. If you know how to tie this, it’s use here will be clear to you.
The next most lightweight option is the ghetto-swiss-seat. A Swiss Seat is a Freedom of the Hills way to make yourself a harness out of webbing. For a ghetto-seat, you need only a double-length sling. Hold the double length sling along the back of your beltline, so the top runs along your waist and the remainder dangles like a lost suspender. Grab this loop from between your legs while also bringing the sling around your waist from both directions so that thee points meet in front of your fly– one from each side of your belt line, and one from between your legs. Clip your locker through each of these three loops and Voila!– ghetto harness. Comfortable? No. Ok for rappelling? Not really. Workable and better than nothing? Yes.
Finally, there are a number of lightweight harnesses available for ski mountaineering which weigh nothing, are certified-strong, and make you look cooler in photos. CAMP, Black Diamond, and others make nice versions which work well for skiing. Rock climbing harnesses with big gear loops are a pain to use with a backpack, but they’ll work if you have nothing else.
Now, on to the uses…
Fig 1: Cornices can be the bombs of the backcountry. Little inspires more confidence than dropping a bus-sized piece of snow onto the slope that you want to ski (along with your reasoning, snow science, etc). However, if you’re dropping a cornice, then you think that there’s the possibility of an avalanche, so it would be poor form to fall with that cornice onto the then-avalanching slope. A self-belay is best.
For the self belay, attach one end of your cord to a solid anchor. A bowline around a tree tends to be easiest. You can then use a munter, rappel style, to approach the edge of the cornice and give it a good kick. As depicted, it’s a good idea to back yourself up by attaching the very end of your cord to your biner with an overhand or figure eight on a bight. That way, if you take the big fall and lose hold of the brake strand, you have a last-resort should you end up in a slide.
Fig 2: Another technique for hazard mitigation is the ski cut. A belayed ski cut is an even safer option and a good tool to have in the bag. This time, tie one end of the cord to your avalanche poodle, er, partner, and tie a munter on your harness. Construct a belay, which most commonly in this is just a seated stance with your ski tips driven into the snow.
For a belayed ski cut, consider not tying the far end of the cord to your harness. That way, if the ski cut goes well, you can simply allow all of the cord to pass through your belay, and your friend can finish the run trailing the rope like an old-school avalanche cord. By doing this, there’s no need to stop and untie mid-run. Obviously, not backing up the belay reduces your security. Use your reason.
Fig 3: The munter is a lightweight tool for rappelling that requires only a locking carabiner. For a retrievable rappel, loop the middle of your rope around a tree or through an anchor (it can be nigh impossible to pull ropes that are wrapped around a tree). Then tie a munter hitch on both strands of the rope. To do this, just treat the two strands as one and tie a munter as above. Don’t tie two separate munters.
Recall that the brake position of the munter is parallel to the load strand, not locked off down by your hip. I recommend trying this technique in a consequence-free environment before applying it in the field, as it feels pretty different from an ATC. Also, consider that you can’t really back up the munter with a prussik or other such friction hitch, given the brake position. And remember, the munter puts mad twists in your rope, which means that if you tie the ends together to try to back yourself up, you may find yourself backed up by a messy tangle the size of an eagle’s nest.
I recommend that you only use the munter to rappel with 9 mm ropes or larger because of the friction needed to hold you on a free-hanging rappel. The first time that I ever rappelled on a munter was a free-hanging rappel on 7 mm cord. The lack of friction was startling, and it’s a good thing I was wearing gloves, because I just zipped along down the rappel. Had the ropes been snowy, I might not be here.
For lightweight geeks who want to use skinnier ropes, see below.
Monster Munter, or How to Get Yourself into Real Trouble.
Rapping with skinny ropes on a munter can be scary. There’s just not enough friction. Thankfully for those of us stupid enough to want to use easily-cut 7 mm ropes for ski mountaineering, the munter can be modified to provide more friction. This beefier version is called the Double-Munter, Uber-Munter, Super-Munter, Enhanced Munter, or the Monster-Munter.
To tie the monster munter, start with a normal munter as above. Then, take the brake strand and bring it across the load strand opposite the other loop of the munter, as show in the middle of the image above. Finally, clip it through the gate of the locker as shown so that the tail comes out on the same side as the new loop that you’ve made, and opposite the load strand. If you do the last step wrong, you should be able to tell, because the knot won’t hold together. Practice both ways and you’ll see what I mean
Definitely practice the use of this knot for rappelling in a safe environment before taking it to the hills. It adds a LOT of friction. It is used in Search and Rescue with larger diameter ropes to lower multiple people, or a rescuer with a litter. On smaller strands, it will allow you to rappel with additional safety, but as with all things complex, there are more opportunities for error. Experience and practice are key.
Oh, I almost forgot! There’s another reason that this knot is awesome: Because you’re basically tying a second, opposing munter on top of the munter that you’ve already ties, this know doesn’t make any twists in your rope! If you’ve ever had the pleasure of trying to flake out a 50m 7mm cord that’s been through a munter, then you’ll know how awesome this is.
There you go! Welcome to the world of responsible climbers and skiers. This is one tool that can save you a lot of grief. Or, like I said, one that you can use to impress the ladies, if they’re into that kind of thing. The Munter also opens up a whole world of rope work that is required knowledge for glacier travel, self-rescue, etc. Once you can use a munter in all of its versatile uses, then you can learn the Munter-mule, which allows the knot to be tied off securely while under load. But that’s a whole different story…
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