Crack Climbing

If there is one thing that climbing gyms do not do well (yet), it is giving people a chance to climb cracks. Climb a lot in the gym, and you may get really good at overhanging sport routes, but you may be stopped cold by a 5.8 hand crack. Crack climbing is very different from the typical face climbing found in most gyms and on most sport routes, primarily because there are not any “holds.”

Climbing cracks depends on jamming fingers, hands, feet, even elbows securely in a crack without holding onto anything. Crack climbing can be as brutally obvious as a 2-inch fissure running for hundreds of feet in desert sandstone or as devious and delicate as discontinuous fingertip fractures up a smooth granite slab. Cracks can offer easy progress or offer some of the most strenuous and technically difficult climbing imaginable.

Crack climbing techniques can be broken down by approximate size:

1/4 inch to 1 inchfinger cracks
1 inch to 3 incheshand cracks
3 inches to 5 inchesfist cracks
5 inches to 10 inchesoffwidth cracks
10 inches and largerchimney cracks

Using your feet well is the key to making any crack less strenuous. As soon as a crack is wide enough to accept your toe, it can be used as a foothold. Look for wide places in the crack where you can jam your foot straight in. If the crack is thin, turn the inside of your ankle up, stick your toe in sideways, torque hard, and stand up. On really thin cracks, look for any irregularity, offset, or possible foothold on the edge of the crack to stand on.

Finger Cracks

For many people, finger cracks feel the most natural-jamming your fingers in a crack is not that far from crimping on a face hold. A secure finger jam is made when a knuckle wedges into a constriction in the crack, much the same way that you jam a nut. If the crack is thin or shallow, you may only be able to jam a fingertip. These “tips” cracks offer strenuous and insecure jamming, and often feel more like face climbing than crack climbing.

Wider and deeper cracks allow you to bury your fingers and jam a knuckle. Spending time “working” the jam will often make it better. Cracks that allow you to jam back to the second set of knuckles can be really secure. Security comes with a price, however. Finger cracks are too small to allow you to jam your toes in as well, so if there are not accompanying edges for your feet, finger cracks can be very strenuous and often painful.

When climbing finger cracks, and hand cracks as well-you must decide whether a jam should be made with the thumb up or down. Thumb-up jams allow for greater reach between jams, but are often less secure than thumb-down jams, which are improved by the camming action of the hand position. Many jams will dictate thumb up or thumb down on their own; one way will feel solid and secure and the other will not.

On many climbs, a thumb-down position on the top jam and a thumb-up position on the lower jam is most efficient. This position allows the body to lean to one side of the crack, often adding security to the jams and making it easier for the toes to get a grip on the edge of the crack. This works especially well on cracks that lean.

Keep your body on the downhill side, thumb down on top, thumb up on the bottom, use one foot on the edge of the crack and the other on face holds or smearing below the crack. Progress is either made by shuffling your hands up or crossing one over the other-whichever feels most efficient and secure.

One of the most difficult crack sizes is called “off fingers.” While this size will vary depending on the finger size of the climber, it is always unpleasant to find yourself jamming a crack that is too wide for your fingers but too narrow for your hands. Jams in these cracks are often “rattly,” and security can be increased by making them thumb down, torquing hard, and, in some cases, opposing a thumb against the side of the crack.

Hand Cracks

Once they are accustomed to hand cracks, many people find them to be their favorite crack size. A good hand jam can be as secure as a jug hold and is often less strenuous to hold onto. A good hand jam grabs the flesh just above the wrist and holds it so firmly that all you have to do is hang from it-little muscle-flexing is required. And hand cracks often make great footholds, which can also ease the strenuousness.

A hand jam is a remarkably simple thing. Insert your hand into a crack, just above a constriction if possible, work it until it seats, then tuck your thumb into your palm and squeeze. The better the constriction and the harder you squeeze, the more secure the jam will be. A really good hand jam will go in easily and painlessly and feel so secure you would swear you could belay off it. As with finger jams, the thumb-up or -down decision will have to be made with each jam. A thumb-down upper jam and thumb-up lower jam is often the best combination.

Thin hand cracks and off-hand cracks offer complications similar to those of tips and offfinger cracks. Thin hand cracks allow the knuckles on the back of your hand but not the flesh of your hand or a place to tuck your thumb. Placing the thumb down, torquing hard, and moving quickly are keys to using these jams effectively. Off-hand cracks are so wide that no matter how hard you tuck your thumb, torque, and squeeze, the jam feels terrible. Take as much weight off your hands as possible by using your feet well, and move fast.

Fist Cracks

When cracks get wider than hands, they get annoyingly difficult because hands and feet do not jam in them easily. Fist cracks are too big to get a hand jam, but not big enough to get your arm into. Fist jams are just what they sound like-place your fist in the crack and squeeze. Since flesh is the only thing that is jamming-unlike finger and hand jams, wherein the bone structure is helping-fist jams are notoriously insecure. Your hand orientation is important. Try your palm in or out to see which gives a better jam.

In case you have to make several fist jams in a row, palm in on the top one and palm out on the bottom one will allow you to make longer and hopefully more secure reaches. The lower jam makes a good anchor while you shuffle the upper jam higher in the crack. Fortunately, fist cracks rarely go on forever.

Offwidth Cracks

Offwidth cracks are among the hardest to master. Long sections of offwidth climbing can be incredibly difficult and strenuous, and progress is often made millimeters at a time. Still, some aficionados will travel for days when they hear of the latest offwidth test piece. Science has yet to find a cure for this malady.

Offwidths range from just past fist width to those that will accept your body sideways. For narrow offwidths, a combination of fist jam and hand jam, called a hand stack, can make a jam with decent security.

However, the next move is always a problem because both hands are used on the same hold. Foot stacks and knee jams can give a moment of pause while the hands are repositioned. When the crack is too wide for hand stacks, a host of other techniques come into play, some that allow you to stick in the crack and others, amazingly, that allow some upward progress.

“Arm bars” consist of sticking your entire arm into the crack and trying to oppose your palm, elbow, and shoulder against the sides.

A little wider, and you can get a “chicken wing,” wherein the entire arm is stuffed in, and then the arm bent back out toward the front. This can actually give a very secure jam.

A hard thing about offwidths is often what to do with your “other” arm-the one not buried in the slot. Palming inside the crack at waist level, pushing against the outside edge of the crack, using face holds outside the crack, and other such contortions will often give you a chance to reposition your foot stack and chicken wing, and wiggle upward. Which side of your body you put in an off-width crack is often key to success. There is no real rule here. You will figure it out soon enough.

Chimney Cracks

Chimneys range from the ‘squeeze” type, wherein your whole body can just barely fit in, to huge cracks that take a gymnast’s flexibility to stem across. Chimneys are often not very difficult and allow for fast and frequently really fun climbing. However, if there are no smaller cracks inside to get gear into, they can be impossible to protect. Chimneys are climbed by counter pressure: back against one wall, and hands and knees or feet against the other. In any chimney, the presence of holds inside the crack helps make progress easier.

In narrow chimneys, the back and feet will be against one wall and hands and knees against the other. Progress is made by holding your weight alternately with one set of counter-pressure holds while you move the other: Back and hands hold while feet and knees shuffle up, and then they hold while the back and hands scoot upward.

Wider chimneys allow you to put your back and hands against one wall and your feet against the other. The feet walk up the wall while the hands hold momentarily as the back is repositioned. In really wide chimneys, you have to stem across, with one hand and foot on one wall and the other pair on the other.