How to Crack Climb
How to get started climbing cracks, from finger-size to the wide stuff, and the sizes in between. Also: How to use your feet in cracks.
Climbing cracks requires very different movements from face climbing (there is some overlap), and there’s also the issue of protection. Today, crack climbing is often viewed as the territory of fearless dirtbags, but after this chapter, you’ll know the basic techniques for getting up these sunken holds.
Many gyms have a crack or two, but the selection is always limited: Even the best indoor joints don’t represent the variety of fissures you’ll find outside. The gym type are usually vertical, uniform-width splitters, formed by parallel sidewalls, flat and smooth on the inside and sharp on the outer edges. Natural cracks have complex geometries: narrow and wide spots, irregular surfaces and rounded/broken edges. The inherent fluctuation of outdoor-crack features often makes them easier to climb, if you know how to read them.
SAVE YOUR SKIN
Whether scaling sandstone, granite or something else, crack climbing is brutal on your skin. Old-school masters taped their hands boxer-style, but today you can purchase specially designed gloves—or you can go with the Rocky Balboa look.
Athletic tape is the best choice if you choose to wrap up your mitts. To do so, follow the illustration above and 1) Wind the tape, 360 degrees, around your hand a few times. 2) Rip off three half-width strands, and pass each through the spaces between your fingers, leaving a tail at the top of your palm and hand-back. 3) Wrap a strip around the base of your thumb. 4) Repeat the winding process, finishing with wraps around your wrist. After your climb, cut the gloves off at the wrists on your palm-sides. Save them. Next time you suit up for a day of cracks, simply slip on your tape “gloves” and retape them at the wrist.
A crack’s width determines the type of jam you’ll use, and gives you an approximate difficulty for the climb. Every climber’s digits are a bit different, but cracks well-sized for your fingers, hands or fists are the “easiest” size, and the jams will feel natural. Intermediate sizes require advanced techniques, often using several body parts in tandem as stacks, or applying leverage or torque. Master the finger, hand and fist size first, then work on the intermediate sizes.
FINGER TO OFF-FINGERS CRACKS
For a crack climber, a finger lock is as relaxed and secure as Sunday morning. If you can insert your digits to the second or third knuckle and pull down on a constriction, that’s a finger lock. No camming or bracing action is necessary. This move can be made thumb-up or thumb-down, whichever feels natural.
Finger jam when the crack you hope to climb doesn’t have constrictions to lock on. The finger jam involves inserting your fingers and then torquing downward to create friction in the gap. A perfect finger jam usually feels natural and secure, but you will often need to adjust your technique to fit the unique contours of each crack. Placing your hand thumb-down is often most stable. Thumb-up is typically used to pull from the side (as in a lieback), or when it’s a more comfortable fit for the crack’s topology.
Remember: Your hand orientation will affect your transition into the next move, especially when constrained by the thumb-down version, which isn’t practical below chin level.
For cracks just a bit too fat to be secure, improvise by combining sunken fingers, finger cups, torquing your hand/fingers as a rigid unit, and sidepulls.
Cracks narrower than our fingers are tricky. Tips are the smallest and the worst. For semi-jams, squeeze in as much of your tips as you can and pull down, not out, to maximize friction. Think of this as more of a smear than a pure jam. Sometimes it helps to use two or more tips, either in the crack for more contact or as reinforcement. Keep your elbow low.
You’ll often lieback up these, or, if you can get your pinky into the crack, place your hand thumb-up and tug outward in sidepull style. Smear your boots against the edge of the crack as much as possible to move upward.
This is the challenging size a bit bigger than perfect fingers and narrower than a hand jam. The solution is a finger/thumb stack. Put your thumb in the crack first, then wrap your fingers over the top to form opposition wedges and drop your elbow for torque. Vary the number of digits you place over your thumb—and depth you slide them into the crack—to fine-tune your placement. This jam feels unstable at first, but can be surprisingly positive.
A thumb cam is also an option for spanning off- fingers gaps. The thumb cam is a fat version of a finger/ thumb stack, but your thumb’s pad presses against the inside of the far edge, opposite your other fingers.
NARROW CRACK FOOTWORK
Small cracks (perfect fingers or smaller) are too thin for foot or toe jams, so you’ll have to cobble together a combination of face climbing and friction-jamming moves. Smearing and edging on the faces adjacent to the crack is the typical workaround, but when the joint offers pods and flares, you should exploit them for jams.
Although off-fingers is too skinny for a true foot or toe jam, you can manufacture a friction jam in splitters by pressing the sole-to-rand edge of your shoe into the crack with your toes pointing up. Typically, you’ll use the outside (pinky toe) side. Find a feature, squeeze in some rubber, and make it stick. For corners, you can also place the sole of your shoe on one wall and force the rand into the complementary wall, which generates friction. Stemming through a corner also works well, providing the faces offer features. In corners and offsets, try liebacking if the edges are sharp.
THIN HANDS TO FIST JAMS
Thin hands is the size that’s wider than off-fingers but narrower than a perfect hand jam. Your only option here is to stick your digits as far into the crack as possible and flex your palm and fingers to make them stick. Your thumb sometimes assists as part of the jam or hooked for a sidepull action. As always, seek out the irregularities where the contours of the fissure allow for maximum friction and a chock-like effect.
Cracks in the hand-to-fist range are similar in that you can deeply sink your mitts, plus they offer good foot jams too. Perfectly sized hand jams and fist jams are straightforward, but the intermediate sizes require some special tactics. Although often combined in climbing texts, the jams are distinct and warrant individual and separate descriptions.
Well-sized hand jams are the ultimate in secure, fun climbing. You can orient your hand either thumb- up or thumb-down. With a thumb-down position you’ll naturally produce torque to help it stick, but thumb-up is usually secure with a moderate cupping and twisting motion—fold your thumb into your palm to fatten your hand.
You’ll find that each orientation is suited to slightly different conditions. In general, thumb-up (or thumb- out) is natural in straightforward situations with solid, bomber jams, and you can use it from far overhead down to your waist. Thumb-down (thumb-in) is useful only when reaching overhead, but is particularly useful in awkward situations like corners.
For tight situations where your hand doesn’t quite fit, wiggle in as much as you can, cup your fingers, pull down (not out), and get in tune with the friction. Finding a slightly wider spot or flare is of particular importance here. Subtle differences in crack geometry can be very advantageous. Carefully squeeze your hand in, and pull down (not out) to make it stick.
Between hands and fists is the dreaded wide-hands size, which can make your jamming insecure and strenuous. This width is also referred to as “cups,” but cupping is a simplification (and not very effective by itself).
Fill the void and generate holding force by folding your thumb in, cupping, and then rotate your hand (thumb outwards). Cocking your wrist helps too, and you can even torque by rotating your elbow down. You’ll combine all these techniques during a climb, with little variations on each to fit the situation. These hand positions complement each other, and the key is to combine them to solve different puzzles. A great trick for sinker wide-hands cracks is to rotate both hands simultaneously in opposite directions, which efficiently generates torque and balances reactions.
Your fist size is set, so the range of crack sizes you can fist jam will be limited. Fist jams can be very stable, although you’ll feel like they’re insecure placements when you first learn to use them. A well-placed fist above a constriction can be an easy jam, acting like a big hex. You’ll commonly place your fist palm-down (palm-away), although palm-up (palm-out) works well, too. As you would with hand jams, use what works best for the situation. For tight fists, relax your hand and fold it over (pinky to thumb), and then carefully slide it in. For wide fists, cock your wrist sideways and pretend that it sticks. Use your thumb like a shim to get the tightest, most relaxed fist jam—this may mean keeping your thumb outside your fingers for really wide fist jams, or tucking it inside for more narrow fist cracks.
MEDIUM CRACK FOOTWORK
Cracks sized for our hands and fists are usually user-friendly for our feet too. Your first option is to climb in-line with the crack by turning your soles inward, pointing your toes directly in or down, and putting your knees to the side, like a grasshopper. When you insert your feet in this manner and stand up, your legs naturally torque the feet, locking them in place. In this position, you’ll be directly over your feet, with a full view of the crack, and all hand/fist orientations are available. In a corner, endeavor to jam your feet in the same manner. Although your inside foot will be more contorted, and it will feel unnatural, it works well.
In some situations, it’s helpful to jam your upper foot in the opposite orientation with the sole facing away. This forces your body more to the side of the crack, but it can be better for other non-jam moves. An outward-facing sole will work in some cases, but keep in mind that you’re sacrificing other benefits.
Practice on every size of cleft your gym offers—if the cracks are adjustable, don’t shy away from asking the staff to vary them.
Start on toprope: You’ll learn the techniques faster when you experiment with your jams. Focus on efficiency and technique rather than trying to send the climb.
Once you’re comfortable toproping at your gym, transition to leading if it’s an option. Leading cracks is far more strenuous than toproping them. Toproping or following outdoor lines is a natural progression to add to your skills.
When you are on toprope, carry a rack and place gear. Squeezing into a slot and balancing your weight is much trickier when your harness is jangling with gear, so climb with a rack and practice, practice!
Crack climbing sequences are unique to each line, and usually quite cryptic. There is no standardized model for moving up, but there are two primary methods for inching your way to the top. “Windmilling” means repetitively placing one hand (or foot) above the other in alternating fashion—right foot, left foot, right hand, left hand, etc. “Shuffling” is your other option: Instead of reaching through each time, shuffle each appendage upward, keeping the same leading hand or foot on top. For most climbs we’ll integrate both in a free-form dance.
UNIVERSAL BEST PRACTICES
Scan the crack and note its shape and irregularities before you begin your ascent! Identify the best spots for resting—which may be bomber finger, hand or fist jams—and take note of the techniques you’ll probably need to get to the top. Use your jams as chocks to exploit small fluctuations in width. For parallel-sided cracks and off-size jams, try a wedging action or leverage and camming—anything but brute force. Sometimes you’ll need to make long reaches, while other times you’ll have to shuffle through in small scootches.
If you’re leading, place pro at poor jamming spots, and save the good jams for your hands. Set pro when it is convenient or practical, but always as needed before the danger zone—cracks are much more tiring when you’re not on toprope.
When you set jams, gradually slip in your finger/ hand/fist/foot in a controlled motion and briefly pause to find the best contact. Twist or cup your appendage only as much as necessary. Try to relax and let the crack hold your jam in place; you’ll not only conserve energy but also save your skin.
As with face climbing, focus on positioning your weight over your feet, then push upward, and finally relax your arms and hold your weight with your legs.
Kent Pease is the author of The Crack Climbers Technique Manual www.fixedpin.com
Revisit Climbing Technique
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