Let’s hear it for the Valdôtain Tresse!

Quite a few years have passed since François Dusenne first introduced the Valdôtain Tresse to the wider tree climbing world at ITCC in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1994. It received a very mixed reception and was quickly labelled with the moniker Suicide Hitch that for some reason has proven to be very sticky, seemingly prevailing in the minds of some people to this day.

Well, for the record, I would like to say that I disagree and here is why…

The V.T. (Valdôtain Tresse) has its origins in Alpine rescue, but since its introduction into tree care has proved to be very popular, it is used by many climbers in a wide range of geographic regions and environments, you will also spot it on the climbing systems of many a competition climber, it is also the hitch we used to certify Teufelberger’s CEclimb with.

Initially I bought into the rationale that the V.T. is to friction hitches what Forumla 1 (or NASCAR, depending one where you are located) is to cars. Very responsive, but unforgiving if you get it wrong. Common wisdom also suggests that for the reasons above it is unwise to start a beginner on a V.T.

In part I agree with this sentiment.

Not because the V.T. is especially dangerous, but rather because it is important to allow a beginning climber to progress through a range of hitches as his or her skill improves. Putting them straight onto a high-performance hitch robs them of this experience, which is a pity. So I still tend to start people on a six coil Prusik, subsequently moving them onto to a Blake, a Swabish or a Distel. Working your way through  this range of hitches allows you to compare strengths and weaknesses – and also to decide which one is best suited to your climbing style, weight and environment which you work in.

We applied this rationale to training courses with Baumklettern Schweiz, where the basic ascent and positioning techniques we teach is based around either two Pruik loops on both ends of the line and a lanyard or a Hitch Climber pulley and a lanyard. The Hitch Climber is used in conjunction with a Distel, as Prusiks do not work very well in this configuration and the feeling was that Distels grab well. However, recently we have come to the conclusion that the Distel is not quite as intuitive as one might like to assume: like other hitches, e.g. the Swabish or the Howard Hitch, the coiled part of this knot needs to be set in the way you want it to sit when loaded, the upper (grab) part of the knot does not self-adjust. If the upper coils of a Distel loosen up they will not automatically cinch up tight under load. This is especially true in a slow sliding arrest, such as can be the case when an overly cautious beginner very timidly sits down on an open hitch – and is shocked to see it slide. All good, you have to explain, you have to give it a bit of a jerk. Umm, yes.

So here is my beef: I do not believe that the V.T. is actually as fickle as it is made out to be, rather it is length-ciritcal. Get the length and set-up right, using for instance the four coils/ four braids configuration tested for CEclimb, and you have a hitch that grips very consistently and reliably – the trade off for this however is relatively high base friction. You can reduce this by tying a configuration with…. say, two coils and three braids. Reduced friction, true, but this is getting pretty sketchy and may well no longer grab reliably. This is however not really down to the hitch, but rather to incorrect configuration. By misconfiguring you can make any hitch unsafe.

Of course, I am not doing this complex topic justice, as there are loads of variables I have not mentioned, such as hitch cordage construction, material and diameter, the condition of the line, humidity, the weight of the climber, type of climbing and so on…

Yet, when all said and done and as described above, a well set up V.T. in the 4/4 configuration tied with the correct length of eye to eye sling has the major advantage of cinching down on the climbing line very reliably – even after having been totally collapsed, to a degree that I am wondering whether we may have got it wrong and that this hitch is actually perfectly suited to a training situation? Providing it is well described and instructed, that is.

So let’s hear it for the V.T.!

Do not believe everything you hear, but rather ensure that you really understand the techniques and gear you are working with. A hitch which fails to grab is a technique applied incorrectly. After all, in a work positioning context we do after all talk about friction hitches – and not slip knots, they belong somewhere else!