Poor Visibility: Roping Together.

by Don Russell,

The Manharness Hitch (left) & The Alpine Butterfly

The Manharness Hitch (left) & The Alpine Butterfly

Mountain environments often produce local weather patterns that produce near zero visibility; this can also be the case on open exposed moorland and desert. Reduced visibility can be produced by cloud, fog, rain, snow and dust. You may also need to rope your group together for travelling across an area with holes or crevasses. As a guide, keeping your group together is extremely important; traditionally the Manharness Hitch and the Alpine Butterfly have been favoured by mountaineers for this purpose over many years, but is one better than the other?

I will avoid the argument on whether the term ‘hitch’ is correct or not in this instance as this is how they are popularly referred to; there are however, fairly decisive rules that determine a ‘knot’ from a ‘bend’ or a ‘hitch’ under certain circumstances. As you can see by the opening photo, they are both very similar in appearance and both do the same job; they are both referred to generally as a ‘middleman’s tie-on’ for obvious reasons, but why two knots? Both knots go back at least well into the 1800’s but as far as I know only the Alpine Butterfly was used specifically for the purpose, whereas according to my research the Manharness Hitch’s primary use was a military one; the knot providing a shoulder loop to assist in the pulling of heavy field guns. The fact that the rope appears to travel straight through the knot when tied, as it does in the Alpine Butterfly makes it ideal for the same use, as does the fact that like the Alpine Butterfly it can be tied in the bight (without an end). In addition to this, many military personnel were or became mountaineers and would almost certainly use the knot with which they were most familiar.

The rope materials that would have been used back then would have been natural fibre and as such hawser laid (twisted), these ropes can be extremely difficult to release when wet due to the expansion. Today, we always use man-made materials for mountaineering ropes, this taking the form of ‘kernmantle’ construction. These ropes are much more predictable, both in size, strength and flexibility, with this in mind we can take a look at the two knots again to see if there is a leaning to either one or the other.

The Manharness Hitch

Under good, dry, favourable conditions, tying either knot is easy and straightforward. There are two ways to use each knot, the first being a small loop clipping directly into a harness; the second being to adjust the loop to fit around the waist with no harness, this method being used only to physically connect a group together to prevent them wandering off in poor visibility. If either knot is to be used to arrest a fall they should always be used in conjunction with a harness. In dry conditions the Manharness Hitch is slightly less stable but in wet conditions it will un-tie a little easier. If being used around the waist it adjusts in all conditions easier that the Alpine Butterfly. In cold conditions the Manharness Hitch is marginally easier to tie, untie and adjust when wearing gloves or mitts. If tying, for example, a group of ten people together this becomes an important factor as you don’t want to spend any longer than you have to standing still in what may be cold, wet, windy, freezing conditions.

The Alpine Butterfly

For mountaineering the Alpine Butterfly is, in my opinion, better. The reasons being the knot is more stable and as everyone will be wearing a harness, a stable fixed loop to clip into and out of is important; in most cases the knot will only need to be tied once and no size adjustments will be required. There are at least two ways to tie the Alpine Butterfly in the bight, the first is with two twists of a loop, go under and back through the middle twist; this requires more dexterity and is better done with no gloves. The second is by looping the rope three times around the hand, putting the right hand loop to the centre and  taking the right hand loop (previously the middle loop) over both the middle and left hand loops, now tuck the loop underneath the left hand and middle loops and pull through. This can be done when wearing either gloves or mitts with plenty of practice.

The Answer to the Question

All things considered both knots can be used successfully in all conditions. The few differences perhaps pointing to the Manharness Hitch being better for connecting a hiking group together without harnesses in poor visibility and the Alpine Butterfly being better suited to mountaineering with harnesses, where there is always a greater risk of having to arrest a fall. On asking a few friends to tie, untie and adjust both knots in wet and dry rope, with no gloves, gloves, and then mitts they generally agree with what has been said. Although not definitive, as they were all very used to tying both knots in all conditions; however, the information may be of some use as an initial guide.

Knots in General

As an adventurer you will find that a good working knowledge of knots and ropework will get you out of many a tight spot; when in a survival situation, this knowledge is almost indispensable. It can add safety to your movement, hold your shelter together, make a hammock, make traps and snares, fishing, repair equipment, make rafts and you can easily fashion an emergency harness for a heli-extraction; the list is almost endless. Basic knots and rope work is always a part of any good survival course. It sounds boring but is really very interesting and quite addictive. The best way to keep up to speed is to have a length of 8mm kernmantle rope about 3m long in the draw and when you have 20 minutes spare just sit there and go through your list of about 20 knots, bends, hitches etc. Don’t forget to do the same in the dark occasionally; it’s not always daylight when you need them and if you need to tie them underwater to retrieve something your blurred vision without a mask will not be too much of a problem.

One Last Word

Don’t think that this skill is limited to your adventures, it will be of immense use in your everyday life. Tying stuff onto the car or trailer, adjustable washing lines, making decorative mats for your study. Another idea I had was to have a display of basic knots in 24mm white Nylonn 66 hawser laid rope with nicely ‘whipped’ ends and kernmantle rope; these are clipped neatly to the walls of a small upper terrace. Not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but it’s ideal for teaching the basics as the knots are so large. And before anyone starts. No! I haven’t got a hook on the terrace for my anorak! Joking apart, this is a really important skill, learning the basics will stand you in good stead.

Take care.

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