IntroductionOne of the great things about modern rock climbing is its many facets. I know plenty of very good climbers who are happy doing nothing other than boulder problems and hard limestone sport climbs. Some of these climbers are content to never face the burden of learning to climb cracks, much less venture up one while placing their own gear on lead. I am sure there are very good, perhaps even great, climbers like this out there who are sadly deficient when it comes to true crack climbing. A better, more rounded climber will master both crack and face climbing. Without question learning and/or improving your crack I.Q. can do nothing but good for your overall climbing ability.
Crack climbing is completely different than face climbing; their respective techniques only vaguely resemble each other. While face climbers talk about crimpers, slopers, jugs, and dynos, crack climbers talk about jams, ringlocks, ratchets, and off-widths. The good news about climbing cracks is that once you have learned the sizes and mastered their respective jams, there is very little holding you back from being able to climb difficult, amazing routes.
The following is a breakdown of differing crack sizes. The supplied gear notation is my size. Yours may very well differ. I am 5'9 with hands that are probably on the small side of average I would guess, though I have no data to back that up. This is just a general guide to the size crack that would take the gear I use based on empirical knowledge. It varies a bit depending on the crack and the orientation of the placement. The more uniform and smooth the crack the more accurate the gear. One of the interesting/appealing things about pure crack climbing is that each climb is a very unique and individual experience for the climber. No facet of climbing is more body specific. What might be bomber fingers for one climber might be rattly and insecure for another with smaller hands. For this reason perfect splitters such as those of Indian Creek can be difficult to rate. 5.10 for the first climber might feel like 5.11+ for the second. You can end your focus on numbers and just climb for the pure, beautiful serenity of it.
One way or the other, if you plan on climbing alpine, or really anything but the modern clip-and-go sport routes, you are going to need some proficiency at climbing cracks. Who knows? Once you get over your fear of that splitter or dihedral, you might even find you enjoy it.
The SizesThe great thing about mastering which size jam correlates with which size pro is that you will quickly be able to fire in the correct protection without much thought, a crucial skill when hanging from tenuous and often-painful jams. Build a crack simulator with two boards and practice at home, then go out and climb as much as possible!
|Size||Description||Jam Photo||My Protection Size|
|Tips||Growl. Some of the hardest types of cracks are these beasts. A tips crack is one where you can only get your fingers in to the first knuckle or maybe just past. While often secure, fingertip cracks are painful and strenuous. Add in the fact that you can get no feet in this crack and you could be in for a tough climb. Face holds for your feet can help, as can laybacking if you don’t feel secure with your jams.|
|Good Fingers||It's hard to beat a good finger crack! You know good fingers when you find them. Bomber, secure, not always comfortable, but steady and trustworthy. Good fingers are often led with pinkies down but either technique can work. Here you can try both and decide for yourself what feels more natural.|
|Off-Fingers||Can't get your hand in, can't get a secure fingerjam, this size range is one of the hardest. Depending on your foot and shoe style, you might not be able to get a toe in either. Off-fingers is often broken-up into sub-categories, such as Rattly Fingers, Ringlocks, and Ratchets, each of which takes a distinctly different jamming technique. You might encounter other names for jamming techniques in the range including butterfly jams and finger stacks. Depending on the exact size of the crack, you will either want your lead hand to be thumbs down and your lower hand to be thumbs up (good for shuffling) or both hands with thumbs down (better for crossing). Again, there is a bit of personal style/preference here. Perfect practice makes perfect!|
|Thin Hands||Not quite big enough for the thumb-to-palm perfect hand jam, but big enough that you can squeeze most of your hand inside. Thin hands aren’t bad, especially because the amount of toe you should be able to get in this crack. For thin hands you will almost always lead with your top hand thumbs down and your bottom hand thumbs up.|
|Perfect Hands||The favorite size for most climbers. A section or full climb of perfect hands can be one of the most serene experiences in climbing. With perfect hands you can jam either thumbs up or down with either hand, though most people find thumbs up to be more comfortable.|
|Wide/Cupped Hands||When a crack gets just a little too big for those serene perfect hand jams, you must resort to cupped or cammed hands. With this jam you press the back of your hand against one side of the crack and expand your fingers forward (cupping) to adjust to the crack’s width. A small twist for camming effect adds to the security of the jam. (note: the cam in the photo is slightly over-extended).|
|Fists||Fist jams are just under the OW designation and good fist jams can be bomber. The only catch to fist jam is its lack of size-adjustibility. If your hand is just a little too small, it might feel like you're going to fall. (note: the cam in this photo has perfect retraction)|
The dreaded off-width (often abbreviated OW on topos and in guidebooks) is one of the most feared, dreaded, and despised of crack types. On the other hand, for the hardy the off-width presents a physical and mental challenge that no other climbing mode can match. Climbs like "Lucille” (5.12+/5.13-) at Vedauwoo in Wyoming and "Belly Full of Bad Berries” (5.13) at Indian Creek are two classic testpiece OW climbs. Recently, two British climbers ascended "Century Crack" on the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park, assessing a 5.14b grade to the climb, making it the hardest OW in the world. The two climbers have repeated many of America’s and the world's hardest off-width pitches and claim “Century” to be the hardest. However, some debate their claim of an ascent as they used pre-placed cams for the send (note: using pre-placed protection on a trad climb is usually called a "pinkpoint" not a "redpoint").
Hand Stack- The next size up from a fist jam, the hand stack is when you (obvious) stack two hand jams together (crossed with both palms out) into a crack. You can cup and cam this stack to adjust to a range of sizes.
Hand/Fist Stack- A little wider and you will have to resort to the hand/fist stack. Not as secure as hand stacks, the hand/fist jam has more range than the fist/fist stack that follows.
Fist/Fist Stack- Self explanatory. This can be done with one of the fists nestled to adjust to the range of cracks that this type of jam fits. Good foot jams or heel-toes can add to the security.
Arm bar/chicken wing- When you need something bigger yet, but still cant get your whole body inside, you can resort to the arm bar or the chicken wing. Both of these jams rely on camming your arm inside a crack that is somewhere between ~8 and ~12 inches depending on the size of your arm. Chicken wings are steady and good for resting but can be painful if not locked properly.
FootworkJust like in sport climbing, what you do with your feet is as important (maybe more important) than what you do with your hands. As with finger/hand/fist jams, the foot or toe jam that you perform is going to vary by the size of the crack, however, the technique for all of the sizes is generally the same. Start by raising your foot and rotating it onto its side, forcing your knee out perpendicular to your body. Set your toe in the crack and lock into place by twisting your knee upward. This cams your toes and/or foot into the crack.
For off-width cracks you will need to use other types of jams like the heel-toe, where you jam your foot in a crack lengthwise, and knee jams, etc. Face holds can be crucial when a crack seams out or gets too small for toe jams. Smearing can also save you for liebacks and other blank sections. Keep in mind the size and profile of your shoe when climbing cracks. Having the right gear can make difference between a send and fall.
Where to Hone Your Crack SkillsThere are many great places to climb cracks in the world. Indian Creek, UT has become THE place to learn/hone/perfect "true" crack climbing skills. The reason that The Creek has become the cracking Mecca is due to its large collection of aesthetic, uniform cracks. Some cracks at The Creek are continuous in one size for an entire pitch. Others might gradually widen or pinch as you go, forcing you to run the jamming spectrum. Indian Creek deserves its reputation as a premier climbing destination, but there are other many other great places to climb excellent cracks all over the world. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most famous. Those of you that live back east or elsewhere in the world, feel free to add other areas that are exemplary of the crack climbing in your area:
Indian Creek- Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, UT
Yosemite National Park, California
South Platte Domes- Central Colorado
Various sandstone formations/walls- Sedona, AZ
Unaweep Canyon- Western Slope, Colorado
Zion National Park- Southwest Utah
External LinksThin Jamming- An excellent article by crack-climbing goddess Steph Davis, focusing on small sizes from thin hands and down.
Advanced Rock Climbing- by Craig Luebben and John Long. A well-written book that can take intermediate climbers to the next level. Includes an excellent chapter on crack climbing.
WideFetish.com- a good website with several articles about off-width technique