Hey Tribe. Do you think you can get through a tangle during your outdoor pursuits without knowing your way with the Working End of a rope? I’m a frayed knot, folks… Surely, without knots, all we have is the Bitter End! As Grog would say, “Better to know a knot and not need it, than need a knot and not know it.”
I’ve been meaning to feature useful knots, hitches, and bends here on the Journal for a while now. Well, our favorite Welshman’s bound up a perfect starting point with a truly classic knot (technically a “sliding or friction hitch”), and he has fastened down the loose ends of its creation. Check out the Prusik Knot! For you knot-nerds, it’s described by Ashley, in his Book of Knots, as #1763. Stay Tight. -JW [Knot Pun count: 7-ish]
There are some truly ground breaking first ascent stories: Everest ’53, Heckmair and party’s ’38 epic on the north face of the Eiger and closer to home, Johnny Dawes’ infamous Indian Face to name but a few. None however has been as impactful to the world of climbing (not to mention rope access, caving and tree surgery) as when Karl Prusik first ascended a rope with his revolutionary new knot some 85 years ago.
Austrian mountaineer Dr Karl Prusik was born 19th May 1896 in Vienna and died 65 years later in 1961. In the time between, Prusik (often incorrectly spelled Prussic) was twice president of the Austrian Alpine Club, won a War Merit Cross whilst fighting against the Allies and pioneered over 70 first ascents. Of all his achievements however, he will be forever best known for the knot that now carries his name.
First described in a 1931 Austrian Alpine publication called ‘A New Knot and its Application’ Prusik’s work of course built upon previous ideas such as the Bale Sling Hitch (aka larks foot) and the Cow Hitch used to repair broken ropes. Regardless, Prusik brought the knot, strictly a friction hitch, to the attention of the mountaineering community of the day. Indeed its use during Prusik’s era allowed the completion of several otherwise unobtainable objectives, by throwing a rope over an obstacle which could then be ‘Prusik-ed’ to the top.
The word ‘Prusik’ has since become synonymous with many similar friction hitches, such as the Klemheist, Bachman, and Autoblock, which colloquially will often be referred to as the same name. It is not uncommon therefore to hear Prusik’s original referred to as a Classic Prusik.
The hitch is tied by wrapping a loop of cord around the rope and then threading it back through itself.
This is repeated a number of times (normally 2 or 3) depending upon the relative different diameters of the cord and the rope, and the amount of friction required.
When the tail is weighted, the knot tightens and grips tightly; the hitch is subsequently unloaded and moves freely.
This facilitates a large number of self rescue scenarios, haulage systems and in a pair, ascending or descending a rope (one knot fixed to the harness at the waist and another to the foot, which are alternately unloaded, moved up/down the rope and then loaded again). It still has some advantages over modern, mechanical devices, in that it causes little wear to the rope, will work equally well in descent and will work on two ropes at once. In an emergency it can be improvised from a variety of sling or cord types as long as their diameter is less than that of the rope.
In reality climbers need to know very few knots in order to climb safely, but the Prusik is certainly worth adding to your arsenal; although throwing a rope over a problem and ascending it is now largely frowned upon, the Prusik remains an adaptable tool for when things go wrong and indeed, when used a back up to an abseil, helps to prevent them doing so in the first place.
About the Author
Graham ‘Sven’ Hassall is a freelance writer and mountaineering instructor (MIA & ML(W)) based in the beautiful Wye Valley. Responsible for a couple of notable first ascents (and plenty of very forgettable ones!), he has climbed all over the world but most notably in the Himalayas, Africa and Europe, and has had [unplanned] occasion to use a Prusik more than once!
Check out Sven’s pursuits here: www.summitmountaineering.com