The Machard Knot

The Machard Knot

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Activities Activities: Trad Climbing



Recently my old friend André Tête from Marseille made a Power Point presentation in French of the Knot invented in 1961 by Serge Marchard, a young climber from Marseille also, then 16 years old. 

André became a very good friend of Serge and climbed with him over the several climbing years of his far too short life. Myself I nearly climbed with Serge in June 1963, days before his fatal accident. I had then a "day without" while trying to climb with him the Bertagne "Directe" and badly let down Serge. He did not live long enough to let me repair my miserable behaviour. 

Serge was incredibly gifted. At 16 he had built his own "two seats" four wheels car with a small 49 cc engine, which he was driving everywhere in Marseille. His incredible gifts as a handyman came from his father who was, as well as his mother a Physical education teacher. He played the pipe as well as Patrick Cordier who picked up the panpipes after a short trip to South America. He was also a butterfly collector and took with him a butterfly net which he used after climbing. He also knitted his socks and gloves. Quite unusual for an eighteen years old youth!

Although he died at just 18, he had the time and genius to give to the climbing community a magnificent gift, maybe today the most used auto-block, auto-jamming knot. 

Questions arose very recently about the origin of the Marchard knot to which André responded in a forum on Camp to Camp. 

We thought we owed to publish some words about this very bright young lad and his gift to the climbing community.  

So here it is: The Video on Serge Machard  

with the text, technical description of the knot and testimonials of his friends

Unnamed Image
Unnamed ImageCalanques Marseille-Cassis - Devenson - CastelViel - Cap Canaille
Unnamed Image
Unnamed Image... In alpinism
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Many of my climbing friends, French and English as well have been using the Machard knot most often in its "French variant" 

and many also did not know its name, quite a number just named it a Prusik.  

Note also an "emergency" variant that you can do with a single cord, the "single loop Machard" similar to the Valdotain knot. The difference between the two being that the Valdotain is made with one end of a rope so with the same diameter than your rope (often cut from it) and so needing roughly many spires, often 7, while with the machard using a single cord of a smaller diameter you do not need as many spires.

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Note also an "emergency" variant that you can make with a single strand cord, the "single strand Machard" similar to the Valdotain knot, this latter being much used by tree workers in its Braid variant (and in climbing it makes a good hauling system, for example when getting someone out of a crevasse). The difference between the two is that the Valdotain is made with one end of a rope so with the same diameter than your rope (often cut from it) and therefore needing many spires, often 6 to 7, while with the single loop Machard using a single cord of a smaller diameter you do not need as many spires. You need to secure the knot with a stopping knot such as a bowline.



The question put to André by Peter Holden:

"Dear sir, I have seen on the Avrenchin climbing club's site that you have made a presentation on the Machard knot, so you probably could resolve the following quarrel that you can view on this link:

Everyone seems to agree about the identity of the prussik knot, invented by the Austrian Karl Prusik before 1931.

Two other auto-blocking knots (at least) exist whereby one winds up a cord around a climbing rope: one with the lower loop slipped through the upper loop before clipping a karabiner in it 

(which blocks one way only); the second one with a karabiner slipped through directly in the two loops (whick blocks both ways). 

So two questions: 

1. which one was invented by Serge Machard and 

2. What is the name of the other knot before that date? 

My personal interest with this question is to advise an English guide and friend of mine who is writing a book on mountaineering."



This is André's answer:

"Dear Sir,

The authentic Machard knot is the one where the karabiner is clipped into the two cord' loops (lower and upper loops parallel in the karabiner).

It is Serge who showed me this loop just after inventing it asking my opinion on its reliability. This was in 1961. Climbing litterature employs usually the term "French knot" for the one where the lower loop is slipped through the upper one and where the karabiner is clipped in the lower one. It is the proper way to distinguish between the two knots. To my knowledge the only auto-blocking/auto-jamming knot known and used in climbing before 1961 was the Prusik knot. What comforts me with the idea is that at the time I knew many experienced climbers and alpinists of whom a number of ENSA teachers. None did tell me about another auto-blocking knot than the Prusik's one. Technicalclimbing books of the time did not mention any other as well.

Serge discovered his knot when he discovered the phenomenon that a cord loop winded up around a thicker rope does not slip and blocks itself when one pulls on the end loops. 

This discovery and the resulting knot spread like wildfire among the climbing circles worldwide.

It is certain that the same would have happened with any other person who would have discovered and exploited the same phenomenon. The knot would have been given his name.

No one would have heard of the Machard knot. It is therefore certain that Serge was the first to observe and exploit the phenomenon.

For the same reason, it is certain that the "French knot" appeared after the Machard knot. 

What is the difference between the Machard knot and the French knot?


Both use a cord winded up as a spiral around the climbing rope to secure. 

To obtain an auto-jamming effect, the spiral must have a slow enough pace, at least on a significant part of its lentgh when the device is in tension. 

With the Machard knot, the cord loop must have the "right" lentgh. If too small, the number of spirals may not be enough. If too long you may need a prohibitive number of spirals. 


The "French knot" does not have this problem. The loop's length is not correlated to the number of spirals. I imagine that the discovery of the "French knot" was made by someone who, one day, wanted to make a Machard knot with too long a loop. Instead of continuing to wind up the cord, he had the idea to stop and had the rest passed in the initial loop. I cannot exclude that this person was Serge. He certainly saw this issue caused by too long a loop before everyone else. It is therefore possible that he is also the author of the "French Knot". But I have no certainty.

Both knots are as valid. The fact that one blocks in two ways and not the other one is not a decisive factor. When one uses an auto-jamming knot, one knows in which direction the effort will be exercised. Up to this day, no law, no decree, no text has taken pretence of their equivalence to make an obligation to use one more than another. The quarrel concerning them is therefore less crucial than the one which opposed the Little-Endian to the Big-Endian in Jonathan Swift's famous novel. 

This should reassure your friend and guide when writing his book..." 



Last climb - Serge first ascent takes the main roof in its midle. It is now called the "Machard roof"



At dusk, they had climbed the route. 


Serge climbs down using his auto-jamming knot on an abseil to take off some pegs while his young friend (15 years old), Jean-Marie walks down the path to the foot of the climb...                                   

Time goes by.


Serge does not climb back up.  

Jean-Marie reaches the foot of the climb and find Serge's body, his neck broken. 

Serge had just turned 18 years old.  The peg on which he had put his abseil on came off 




Unnamed Image Serge demonstrating his knot
Last photo 16th June 1963 Last photo of Serge in the Sugiton roof - 16th June 1963














Unnamed Image






"On the evening of a climb of a level never reached in our Calanques, Serge left us. What mistake had he made, Serge, the specialist of security in climbing, in abseils, and the marvelous creator of the Machard knot? But this is an erroneous way of thinking: Serge did not make an error, but what he did had to happen.

      Remember your beginnings in climbing, how many unforgivable errors, all forgiven, how many foolish actions and no penalty... Often, providence endeavours to get us out of the critical situations our clumsiness and pride get us into - often in spite of ourselves! 

      However, sometimes, providence refuses to give us a way out. COUZY had to receive this stone. GERVASUTTI - him! - had to grab one end only of his abseil; Serge had to leave us at the end of his magnificent feat.

Human beings of his quality are a scandal for this mediocrity which is the common ground of us all and I believe that God has given alms in calling them prematurely to him in order that we can assume with not too much shame our laborious lifes.

      Look at you, climbers, my brothers: what gravity, what serious, what passion inhabit us! This merciless battle we sustain against gravity, how much cunning, how many tricks, how much slowness it demands on us? Nothing of this jumble with Serge. Of an astonishing ease, daring and grace, he overcame the toughest obstacles without any visible effort. The void was submitted to him as he had enchanted it by means of ligthness and subtelty. For him climbing was only a marvelous game - but he excelled at it. And as such he made no boasting of his feats. The importance we attach to them surprised him, nearly shocking him: Succeeding? Nothing more natural? Don't we play to win?

       He fell in the euphoria of his beautiful success, aware certainly to have pushed further the limits of the game. How heavy his inheritance is! With his example, his friendship, it is now up to us to progress on the way he cleared. He will remain for ever in our hearts.

François Régis Raybaud 

(Bulletin CAF Marseille 1962 N° 151)

Right hand roof of Sugiton - First ascent on the 16th June, in 15 hours by Serge MACHARD and Jean-Marie ROZIERE.

Exceptional route. Pitch 1. V+, 3 pegs. Pitch 2. Rope throw (2 meters) on a rock peck to overtake an important bulge, then A3, A2. Pitch 3, the trickiest. After a traverse to the right - 4 m V - a 5 m roof fully horizontal, with no crack but small holes : A4, A3, then a vertical section A1 and IV to the summit. Height of the route : about 50 m.

External Links


The Machard Knot history on Daily motion (English)

The Machard Knot history on Daily motion (French)

Other vidéos in French:

Le Club alpin Avrenchin

Les Machards on Daily motion (French)

The Machard Braid demo on Dailymotion (French)

A summitpost article on hitches by Brian Note that what Brian used to call an "Autoblock" is a "Machard".

Appendix 1 - The drawings of Serge's invention


Serge sent a letter to André Tête on the 28th of December 1961 containing the explanations of his knot, the experiences he made with some of his climbing friends. Here are his two drawings:


Among the friends he climbed with and tested his knot were François Guillot, Gilbert Garigou and François Régis Raybaud who were quite impressed with it and started using it then.

Here is an extract of his letter in which he explains the principles of his knot:

"It looks like the Prusik but to me its is much handier. This is also the opinion of Mr Ramon and several other "good ones" from the CAF to whom I showed it during our last outing to Les Goudes. They have tried it and it worked even with Mr Coquillot (heavy weight). 

When one pulls on the knot with the karabiner, it blocks itself. When one puhes on it, it goes down and unblocks itself (even when one is suspended on it: this allows one to stop while abseiling, and let go everything, useful if the rope hurts you can move it, if you have to untangle it or make a pendulum... go down and get back up the Ermite cave in its middle on a single rope with just a karabiner is a pastime [the Ermite cave - Rocher de St Michel - Les Goudes - is 80 meters high with 50 m where you are spinning in the void far away from the rock]. 

I have done it 5 times and will do it gladly to show it to you. I will do it again to take photos... For this knot I use a sling (3 in all) made from the end of a nylon rope CABLED (braided is too stiff). It can be of the same diameter than the abseil rope. But the number of spins will vary if the rope is single ou double, depending of its diameter as well as the sling's one. On must ajust the number of necessary spins (while pulling suddenly when the knot is loose, it blocks immediately)..."

Appendix 2 - The French Alpine Club October 1962 publication 

In its August 1962 bulletin, the local French Alpine Club (Marseille - Provence) published a description of the knot invented by Serge Machard with its test results which were all positive. Below are the main drawings published.


The article also described how the name of the knot was derived. 

Serge called it the "spiral knot" but some members of the local Alpine Club who were mathematicians and hand-wringers stated that it looked more like an helix. 

As the term helix in French was not found euphonical, they searched for another name. They thought the name "helicoidal" to be pretentious, the name ""spiral stairway" was discarded.

So as there was already a "Prusik knot" why not the "MACHARD knot".

and so the Machard Knot was born!


A good friend of mine, an old ENSA teacher and also a very good sailor and engineer reminded me that the Machard as the Prusik are knots based on sailing knots which were used by sailors hundreds if not thousands years ago particularly to haul all sorts of naval or commercial objects and of course halyards and all sorts of ropes. However, it is my view that this takes nothing out of the genius applied by Karl Prusik and Serge Machard when "reinventing" them for the use of climbers.


Type of car built by SergeThe type of car built by Serge

This car which had no engine but pedals was used in the Borely Park in Marseille for visitors. Serge and his father took it as a sample and added an engine with a gear-shift system.

The car built by Serge and his father
Serge's car (like the Borely's car, its wheel was removable to prevent robbery!)


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-8 of 8

ExcitableBoy - May 6, 2015 10:49 pm - Hasn't voted


Thanks for the lovely article! I've been using this knot, previously known to me simply as an 'auto block' to back up rappels. Nice to know the true name and history.


ericvola - May 7, 2015 1:36 pm - Hasn't voted


I have added two photos of Serge (unfortunately not very good). A longer article in French will be published shortly on the French Alpine Club blog of Marseille and it may bring some more testimonials. Glad that you liked it. Many of my British climbing friends have been using this knot believing it was a variant of the Prusik knot, but that is not the case. But what matters is that it is so useful !


jacobsmith - May 9, 2015 12:08 am - Hasn't voted

Most used?

I strongly suspect that the most used auto-block knot is the prusik, which has been around a whole lot longer than the 1960s…


ericvola - May 9, 2015 4:35 am - Hasn't voted

Prusik or Machard most used ?

I only wrote "maybe". I do not know obviously and I make no argument about it. Invented by Karl Prusik in 1931 so 30 years before the Machard's, of course his knot has been in use that much longer; but for very long it was used for ascending a rope much more than for abseiling. The question between the two is more about their advantages and disadvantages. Almost all my climbing friends over time, including ENSA guides (I am talking about climbing in the sixties, seventies and eighties) when using an autoblock knot have at one time or another switched to the Machard or its "French" variant. The Prusik tends to block itself much more than the Machard particularly in wet or freezing conditions and may become more difficult to untie than the Machard.

But I do not want to make an argument about it so interesting it could be to some. My prime intent was to honour the memory of a young climber who could have become a friend of mine.


markhallam - May 15, 2015 12:30 am - Voted 10/10

Bravo Eric!

Good to see you on SP again - and thanks for another interesting but also useful piece of history. I spent much of my youth dangling from prussic knots, which can be difficult to 'un-block' sometimes. I never heard of the Machard. It looks easier to un-block. Not that I like dangling from things these days, but I am tempted to try it out.
Best wishes, Mark


ericvola - May 15, 2015 3:59 am - Hasn't voted

try it out

Thanks Mark. Try it and you will adopt it, for sure. Always have two Machard slings with you on your harness. Do not forget that with all the snow climbs you do, it will be useful to get out of a crevasse (of course provided your partner stayed on top of it).



MoapaPk - May 16, 2015 2:55 pm - Hasn't voted

back-up for rappel

That is the way I was taught to tie back-up autoblocks for rappel. If only I ever used it! ;)


CEIGE - Aug 4, 2015 4:39 pm - Voted 10/10

Great article

Really informative, very interesting, and very thorough. Excellent article.

Viewing: 1-8 of 8