Crack climbing- getting started.


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Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 26, 2011 - 12:02pm PT
The thread on slab climbing got me thinking about cracks.  Many climbers today begin in indoor gyms and then progress to sport climbing- no cracks yet. Then comes that transition to trad that creates so much consternation. Well ladies and gentleman trad climbing requires that you place your own CRACKS....and if they're there you might as well learn how to climb them. You have, of course, the full gamit from the occasional crack move on up to Indian Creek splitters where EVERY move is in a crack.
My forte has always been crack climbing which served me well when I started exploring new routes in Patagonia and Alaska. I tell people, not jokingly, that the best training for Patagonia is Indian Creek. Jeeez isn't IC in a desert? Yeah, but new routing in Patagonia often requires following long crack systems on impeccable granite and you better be able to move quickly during the short weather windows between sudden, very severe, storms. 
No other form of rock climbing is more dependent on good technique. Face climbing is more intuitive- ever watch ten year olds switch into mantles like they have been doing them all of they're lives? Face climbing is climbing what's there, crack climbing is climbing what isn't
there. The idea of sticking hands and feet into that space (crack) between rock and then
making them secure (jamming) doesn't have too many parallels in everyday life and that's
why the whole process seems so strange initially. Learning to ride a bike was the same way,
weird at first but rote later on. The same steep learning curve with cracks, from the "I'll never get it" blues to the "aha!" moment where it all comes into place.In both cases the only way to get there is to do enough repetitions to get that connection where it suddenly feels right. Super frustrating at first but then, BAM, you get it. Perseverence is the key.
This is going to be basic for most of the Taco Stand but I know there will be some helpful information for some. Keep in mind that crack climbing technique will help your face climbing with the reverse also being true.  More hints are welcome, I'm just covering the basics.

*Where do I start?
Even the Gunks has cracks....a few anyway. You will probably be able to find good cracks to
work on where you live but may want to roadtrip to get to the filet mignon. My vote for the
best crack climbing nursery (on up to grad school) on the Planet is Indian Creek. Pick a cliff, hike 10 to 20 minutes and feast yourself on classic cracks of every size within a few minutes reach. The relative absence of faceholds also leads to nearly complete dependence on good crack technique which is why you're there in the first place. Climbers at the Creek are
friendly sorts and a little small talk will usually lead to a ride on one of the many top ropes present with attendent advice and encouragement. Other venues will work fine but put the Creek on your short list if cracks are in your future.

*What about the shoes?
You want your toes flat with NO knuckling. A narrow, low toe profile is also CRITICAL. Nearly all  shoes will work in blue camalot cracks but from tight golds down thru reds on to the dreaded green camalot size, a low toe profile  is essential if you want to get your toes into the crack, which, trust me, you do.
Some like softer shoes while other's might want a little stiffness, that part is personal preference. Another thought is considering high top shoes to protect your ankle bones if you expect to do a lot of wide cracks.

*Got the shoes, what now?
The next two bullet points are probably the most important that's why I'll be redundant. You have the right shoes for your feet, now you have to use those perfectly clad appendages in an advantageous way. Keep in mind that the shoes you wear are pretty much the only piece of rock climbing gear that directly ENHANCES your performance.

*The feet, the feet and nothing but the feet.
Footwork is the most critical factor in ANY type of climbing. The saying "climb like a girl" has real meaning. Women are often better beginners than men because they don't have the testosterone induced notion that a good grip on a handhold is all that is needed, eveything
else will follow- yeah, for the first three seconds or so. Women discover early on the value of good footwork. Clearly, your legs our stronger and provide more balance than your arms. Did you ever see anyone waiting for a bus in a handstand? 
Your feet bring your large leg muscles into play. Your feet are also in performance enhancing rock climbing shoes that, like any good drug, also have a negative side effect- the shoes ROB you of the tactile feel that you have with your hands. You can shut your eyes and feel around with your fingers and discover exactly how good your handhold is- not so with your feet.That being the case, why are most climbers eyes always looking up for that next hold/jam and only rarely looking below the waist for the next foot placement?
I think that your EYES are your most important organ when it comes to rock climbing. In
crack climbing getting your weight off of your jams and on to your feet becomes even more critical and more DIFFICULT as the jams worsen. Bomber hand jams mean that the crack is also very accomodating to your feet. Get down to red camalots (tight hands for me) and you better be getting weight on your feet but,damn, the crack is getting to be a pretty tight fit. Thankfully, nearly all cracks,  even parallel ones, have subtly better places for your feet, but those nuanced foot placements can only be used effectively by precise VISUAL placement. In narrow cracks good  placement is achieved by visually identifying the best spot and then DROPPING your knee and turning your foot sideways so that you are presenting the lowest profile of your foot to the crack. Once you have the optimal amount of toe possible in the crack, turn your knee back up and (voila!) your foot locks in, your leg straightens and you are vertical over your feet weighting them the maximal amount. 

*It's all about body position.
In cracks once you get those toes in as best you can,  get up verticaly OVER your feet so that your bones are lined up and you aren't creating an isometric exercise for your leg muscles. Squats make you stronger but that's the wrong posistion when you climb. Like all climbing, crack climbing necessitates moving from a good balanced position over your feet, thru some (often awkward) transitional movement, on to the next balanced position over your feet. Don't step too high, don't reach too high, let your body sense guide you. In face climbing upward progress is usually made thru a series of discrete movements. Crack climbing, once you have it down, is more of a flowing motion than a series of discrete moves. Practice makes perfect.

*That essential building block..the HAND JAM.
Finally getting to hand jams, probably had you wondering, but without good footwork even the best hand jams won't suffice. In fact, it's probably best to think of hand jams as a way of getting and keeping your body in the optimal position for your feet to do the work. That said, you can easily hang one handed from a really good jam but the pump will come and your only real defense is using those feet effectively. 
In crack climbing failure usually comes on moves that you were doing just fine a few meters lower. You fight the pump by not over jamming, by milking rests, by being efficient placing gear and by (have you heard this before) effectively using your feet.
Back to hand jams: you can watch videos, study diagrams, read descriptions and listen to
instruction, but, until you FEEL it for yourself, hand jams will remain a mystery. Very few people go up to there very first crack, stick their hand in, tips of fingers against one side, knuckles against the other side, drop their thumb down to expand their hand and exclaim, "wow, that feels great." It takes time and a lot of repetition to get to that "aha" moment where you feel that hand jam working for you. The good thing is that nearly everyone with a little peristence will get there. Get on a top rope, hopefully belayed by a mentor, and get that basic hand jam down cold. The other jams; ring locks, tight hands, cupped hands, fists and stacks will come once you have mastered the basic hand jam.

*Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Once you have the feel for jamming you may wonder which of the above works better.  I'm sure I've done more thumbs up overall, especially in splitter, perfect hand cracks. In corners I often find it less awkward if I have the upper hand thumbs down and the lower hand thumbs up. I also get better jams in certain sizes of finger cracks- your index finger is quite a bit larger that your little finger, with the thumbs down. Often when a jam doesn't feel right one way I'll try the other but I've climbed a lot of cracks so I usually get it right the first time. Again, practice makes perfect.

*Hand over hand or one before the other?
Hand over hand can be very fast and efficient especially in splitter cracks. Often it is less awkward in corners to move one hand up and then slide the other up behind it.

*What to do about pods.
The nemesis of many a novice crack climber. You have that hand jam down and you are moving along smoothly when.....suddenly, that perfect crack leads to a wide, hideous, body length pod. DO NOT lean you upper body into the pod to grope around for the jam that doesn't exist- you will LOSE Your feet. DO drop your shoulder so that you can jam low with your hands and then move your feet high as you can in the good crack (your feet will get pretty close to your hands), now get your body vertical over your feet and either reach past or step into the pod.

*The bad sizes, we all have them.
.75 and #4 camalots for me. Don't avoid them, work on them. Bad sizes will always be more difficult but the more you practice them the more proficient you will become. You can't pick the crack size on multi-pitch climbs. You'll climb bigger numbers in cracks custom sized for you but the really good climber is the one who becomes proficient at all types of climbing.

*Lieback or Jam?
Never lieback when you can jam. Don't worry, you'll get to lieback plenty. Watching strong Euro climbers trying to lieback perfect jam cracks is one of the great spectator sports at Indian Creek. Once you know how to jam you will usually find it less strenuous and definetly much easier to place gear by jamming instead of liebacking. That said, there are plenty of places where only liebacking will work. When working on jamming skills via top roping resist the urge to lieback. Think to yourself, If I was leading and placing my own gear which would be more appropriate- liebacking or jamming?

*Placing gear
Look ahead and plan where you want to stop and place gear. Don't reach high overhead to place cams, it's far more strenuous and success in crack climbing is all about conserving strength. Usually you want to put the cam in at about waist level, this way you're not reaching up and draining blood from your arms, AND, more importantly, you are not lifting up the entire weight of the rope to get it into the carabiner. Try to plan your placements so you aren't hanging on for dear life in the middle of the crux. Looking ahead enables you to often identify better places to stop to put in gear. Putting in gear can be strenuous and, remember, conserving strength and avoiding the pump is the key to crack climbing.

*What now?
Practiice, practice, practice. If you're like me you will get totally hooked on crack climbing so that you won't have to be talked into multiple pitches of cracks. To the contrary, you'll end up driving many miles and straining a relationship or two just to feed your new addiction.
Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Nov 26, 2011 - 12:19pm PT
Crack climbing is awesome.

But not too long ago I found a crack that is a bit bigger than my fist jam, not big enough for a knee jam, too big for any foot jam, too narrow to heel-toe. I can do a part of it by lie backing with left (lower foot) smearing on one side of the crack and right high stepping, moving lower, and than moving left hand up into a lie back higher, moving right in a fist position over the left and repeating. but than it gets too wide even for that, knee still doesn't jam and I am lost...
Also, finger cracks are tough..and ring locks didn't come yet : (


Trad climber
Nov 26, 2011 - 01:27pm PT
What a stellar contribution to make, Donini!

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Nov 26, 2011 - 01:37pm PT
Vitally, that's what calf locks are for!
gonzo chemist

Fort Collins, CO
Nov 26, 2011 - 01:41pm PT

Credit: gonzo chemist

Credit: gonzo chemist

Credit: gonzo chemist

Credit: gonzo chemist


Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Nov 26, 2011 - 01:48pm PT
Patricia Bowl?
Pratt's crack?

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Nov 26, 2011 - 02:34pm PT
Feet can be key!
426 on Tripmaster monkey, Vedauwoo

Credit: Jaybro

Hang with crackclimbers and pick up tips and the vibe
PeeWee, Brad Jackson, Shanti, in vedauwoo
PeeWee, Brad Jackson, Shanti, in vedauwoo
Credit: Jaybro

Trad climber
Nov 26, 2011 - 03:11pm PT
that crack posted by locker is more like A3. that's not something you want to get your hands into. But hey, when hanging out on a portaledge for a few days, you never know


Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Nov 26, 2011 - 05:29pm PT
Jaybro, calf locks????

I was talking about that furthest crack on the left in PG (sunnyvale). In the same room with that other OW/squeeze chimney thing. If you ever want to come out there and show how to 'calf lock' up it, or attempt to, I would be glad to donate a guest is a very tough one (for me). The thing that is a deal breaker for me is that the crack is shallow. You can't extend your leg, put it in and than lock your knee (hell, on those you could rest with your hands out!), you only have 15 cm or so of room to push something in, so a knee lock is out of question, so is any type of foot jam, too narrow to heel toe. Some day..
I have seen it done, but in a way that I do not think would work for outside (if one actually wants to lead and place protection in something similar to it).


Trad climber
Yay Area
Nov 26, 2011 - 05:46pm PT
Ring locks are by far the hardest for me to figure out. Would someone explain how to get these beauties down to an art?
gonzo chemist

Fort Collins, CO
Nov 26, 2011 - 05:53pm PT

that's the Patty Bowl alright. Damn good climbing....

the other one is Pratt's crack. Now that I'm in Fort Collins, I'm salivating at the chance to climb at Vedauwoo all the time....

Social climber
Nov 26, 2011 - 07:12pm PT
Jim, After all these years I still remember my "Aha" moment like it was yesterday. It was following you on the FA of Leaning Meanie. I was dreading another confidence destroying struggle when to my amazement I was climbing the thing. Definitely a climbing epiphany. I used to teach friends how to climb by taking them to Short Circuit. My reasoning was if you can't crack climb then you won't really be able to climb in Yosemite. Most everyone thought I was nuts. But it was so perfect. It wasn't intimidating. You taped their hands up so they wouldn't get cut, showed them the technique and let them have at it. I explained it wasn't about getting to the top but rather about learning technique. The beauty of it was that they couldn't fake it: you can't face climb around it or lieback it. You have to jam your hands and feet properly to get anywhere on it. It also developed the unique hand strength required. It was a joy watching their progress. It worked especially well for girls because of their smaller hand size. After a few weeks of working on Short Circuit you could take them to Catchy or Lunatic Fringe and watch their eyes light up as they realized they knew exactly what to do and did it. One of my early pupils was Jobee. She's still going strong to this day.

Nov 26, 2011 - 07:17pm PT
Crack climbing- getting started.

Don't even start. Run away now before it's too late.

Or you'll end up like these people here.

They're all crazy .....
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 26, 2011 - 07:25pm PT
High on crack...technique!

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Nov 26, 2011 - 07:28pm PT
Spoken like a lifer, Werner..
I'd take you upon that Vitally, but for now, I'm behind the Zion curtain. But you're in luck! Hard as that one is, Alexey has it wired! And you future droogs share a native tongue even.

Too funny Gonzo, I've only been to patty bowl once, but it was great, esp for the dead of Summer! I think you'll find that Vedauwoo is also a good place to beat the heat, I'll look for you out there, next summer.
yosemite 5.9

santa cruz
Nov 26, 2011 - 07:36pm PT
Tape your big toe nails so they don't break far behind the skin and then fall out three months later like mine. It also keeps the front skin from getting shoved up over the edge of the toenail. Expect to get a few other blue toe nails and hope they don't fall off. Remember, the toe pain is only temporary, learn to put up with it. If you lose a big toenail, you find out real fast that it was important to keeping that flesh at that the end of your big toe in place. Wrap your big toes.

My goal in 2011 was to concentrate on crack climbing. I bought some hand jammies to protect the backs of my hands. The rubber rips easily so I wrap a few rounds of tape around them on my hands just to keep them tight and to prevent rips. Some people can climb cracks without damaging the backs of their hands, but I ain't one of them. Maybe some day.

That fat pad between the pinkie and the wrist contains a lot of nerves, mine was painful for a year or two after some intense thumbs up hand jams many years ago. Protect it with some tape or a hand jammie.

I ain't no great crack climber. I popped off the Direct Route on Reed's Pinnacle in Yosemite this summer near the top of the long crack and then my right arm quit on me. I had to pull on gear to finish. Oh the shame, the horrible shame. Endurance is indeed needed on that pitch that is maybe the hardest 5.9 crack pitch in the valley. But I climbed solely cracks four out of five days in the valley with my hand jammies, so I was able to maintain the training effort to improve my crack climbing. What I used to fear, I now love.

Sticky soles and rands are critical since frequently there isn't much for them to contact. I prefer Stealth C4 rubber.

Hopefully more experienced climbers will add to this thread. If you are at that stage of being frustrated by the pain, perhaps these tips may help you. Crack climbing is indeed fascinating once you learn some tricks to reduce the pain. One of the beauties of jamming is that you don't need repetitive strong grips, so you don't flame out on gripping. Your fingertips don't get ripped up by dime edges. Your calves don't have that pulling stress of being on slabs. Don't be discouraged. I am pretty good on 5.10 face, but struggle on 5.9 cracks. Don't give up.

This winter I will be working on one-arm pulldowns to lockoffs and will go again for Reed's Direct. Core (front and back) strength to stay close to the crack and adequate quad strength in the legs to save the arms seem to be important too.

I am sure more knowledgeable crack climbers have a lot to add to my meager thoughts.


Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Nov 26, 2011 - 08:33pm PT
I'm sure he'd want you to have this one as well, Ron...
Credit: Jaybro

Sorta, on topic...
Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Nov 26, 2011 - 08:50pm PT
Jaybro thank you. If you know his email or something let me know...

I ain't no great crack climber. I popped off the Direct Route on Reed's Pinnacle in Yosemite this summer

DUDE! Your screen name is Yosemite 5.9! I thought you were legit! : )

Trad climber
New England
Nov 26, 2011 - 11:43pm PT
It seems like Jim has been posting more and more advice lately. I like it!

Sport climber
Nov 27, 2011 - 07:08am PT
Nice thread. Thanks for the advice. I recognize my own shortcoming. My jamming is rather primitive. As soon as I have the chance I tend to get into a lieback positon. The consequence is an immediate feeling of control and then comes the pump...
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