Note - This post discusses techniques and methods used in vertical rope work. If you do them wrong, you could die. Always practice vertical rope techniques under the supervision of an experienced climber, and ideally in a progression: from flat ground, to staircase, to vertical close to the ground before you ever try them in a real climbing situation.
At Smith Rock in Central Oregon many years ago, I came across a group of Eastern European climbers working on a hard sport route. They looked a little scruffy from weeks of sleeping out of their car, and their off-brand gear gear was well worn, but the thing that really caught my eye was no belay devices. They were working a 5.13, with the leader taking more than a few falls and takes, with the belayer only using a Munter hitch.
Now, belaying a leader with a Munter hitch is something that hasn’t quite caught on in the United States. But belaying a second with a Munter is a simple and useful skill that should be in everybody's toolbox.
(It’s astonishing that many otherwise competent climbers do not have the slightest idea how to this.)
Why might you want to learn this technique? The most common reason is to belay your second directly off the anchor. Belaying directly off the anchor is usually a preferred technique if your anchor is super strong, as in two bolts, but people typically do it with fancy belay devices like the ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso.
These devices generally work great. But if you ever need to lower someone while the rope is under load, they have the downside of requiring a rather complex, potentially dangerous, and easy to forget sequence of steps, known by some as “defeating the plaquette”. (If you want to learn how to do this, have a look in our video section.)
And, if you do this wrong, you can have a serious accident in a split second.
With a Munter hitch, there is no such futzing around. Your second calls for a take and needs to be lowered a few meters? They lose their mojo and need to be lowered all the way to the ground? No problem. Just release a little tension on your brake hand, the hitch will “roll” over to the other side of the carabiner, and you can lower away.
Want to make lowering with a Munter hitch even more secure for your second? Just add a friction hitch (prusik or Klemheist) to the brake strand of the rope, and clip it to your belay loop. Now, of course you should still never take your brake hand off of the rope, but this friction knot does give you a little back up.
And of course, another benefit to learning this is if you ever drop your belay device, you can still easily continue the climb.
Many people think that using a Munter hitch in any form is going to twist your rope into some evil tangle. Not if you you use two hands. Your ”feed” hand pulls in slack rope up, and the the “brake” hand simultaneously pulls it down. If you only pull on the brake side of the rope, you’re going to get a lot more friction, do more work than you need to, and potentially get some twists into the rope.
As always when using a Munter hitch, it’s best to use a large pear-shaped “HMS” belay carabiner with round metal, which helps minimize friction.
Using a thinner rope or a new one with a sheath that’s a bit slippery works best. I’ve tried it with my ancient 10 mm workhorse rope with a fuzzed up sheath, and it’s quite a bit of work to feed that rope through the hitch.
If you’re climbing with snowy or icy ropes, the munter hitch is sometimes the only belay method that can work.
NOTE - When belaying with a munter hitch, you get maximum braking friction when both strands of rope are parallel to each other. This is exactly opposite to the normal braking action when using a belay device, so this may require you to un-learn what might be ingrained in your head. Give this some practice in a controlled environment (a staircase is a fine choice) before you use it in the vertical. (This is covered briefly in the video below, starting about 2:00.)
As with most climbing things, it's a better show than a tell. Watch this short video to learn how to belay the second with a Munter hitch.