How to Crack Climb
“Right hand in and sticking, left hand sticking too. Now to bring my foot up and… Crap, I just popped off the route.” – Me trying to crack climb.
Crack climbing is using a crack that runs up a rock face, presenting a line to follow while climbing. The name makes sense. However, figuring out how to get up it can be challenging. The sizes of cracks vary from barely wide enough for the fingers to fit inside, to some an entire body can fit inside with limbs outstretched.
To climb cracks outdoors, usually one must place protection such as cams into the crack for falls while they are climbing. This type of climbing is called traditional, or more commonly known as trad. The practice of placing cams and other pieces of protection in the rock is understood in the climbing community as “clean climbing.” This is so that the rock one is on doesn’t get damaged in the ascent.
Now, trad climbing is an involved type of climbing that I’m not familiar with at all. I’m mentioning it briefly, so you have an idea of what it is. I recommend doing your research on the subject. Maybe in the future, I’ll write about it for the blog.
One can climb artificial cracks at an indoor gym if there’s a route designed for it like the one I’ve climbed in OKC. Not many gyms have them. One can toprope or lead the route, depending on the setup.
Disclaimer: I’m not an expert at crack climbing, so if there’s any information that’s confusing or misleading, please let me know so that it can be corrected.
First off, you need to prep for climbing crack. How to do that is taping up your hands beforehand with one of the variations I mentioned in my How to Make Tape Gloves for Crack Climbing article. Taping protects your hands from a beating and can maintain friction on the crack. Plus, keep blood off the wall or rock while you’re going up.
Doing the Hand Jam
After you’ve tied in, how do you approach climbing the crack? One must insert your hands, feet or limbs into it and expanding or torquing them to create a secure hold. Jamming can be hard and painful, but it’s often the only way to climb it.
There are various ways to jam your appendages into the crack. The easiest of these is the hand jam. To hand jam, you insert your hand into a crack, cup your hand then squeeze your thumb into your palm. (For tight hand cracks, press your thumb into the side of your index finger.)
The squeezing action is what expands your hand and creates the jam. Your fingertips, heel of the palm, and the back of the hand will be in contact with the rock. The feeling is weird and painful at first, but with practice, you’ll see that a solid hand jam is one of the most secure holds to find.
If you come across a wide hand crack: twist your hand to fill the space and cam it into place. It usually works best to twist your right hand clockwise and your left hand counterclockwise, regardless of whether your hands are thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Once you’ve found a good hand jam, keep your hand from shifting around inside the crack. Lots of movement can scrape it up.
What if the crack is smaller than hand size? Finger jams are the answer. You create finger jams by inserting some or all your fingers into a crack, ideally to the second or third knuckle, and lock them off on a constriction in the crack or by rotating your elbow down to torque your fingers into a jam.
Fist-size cracks require that you turn your hand, so it’s either palm up or down, make a fist and insert it in. Pressing the outside edge of your index finger and thumb against one side of the crack and the outer side of your pinkie finger on the other side creates the jam. Clenching your fist causes your hand to expand to lock the jam in place. As with hand jams, look for constrictions in the crack where you can slot your wrist with your fist above it.
If you think getting your hands into a crack is awkward, your feet will be even more so. One must:
- Bend one knee and turn it outward (your pinkie toe will be turned down toward the ground).
- Put your toes into the crack with the sole of the shoe touching the side of the crack.
- Bring your knee back in line with your body.
- Smear your foot into the crack.
When done correctly, a foot jam is secure. You don’t need to put your entire foot in; instead, insert the toes to about the ball of your foot. Also, be careful not to torque your foot more than necessary. Over-jamming hurts.
So, how do you get it out? You reverse the process. Move your knee out to the side, relax the ankle and pull your foot out of the crack.
Foot Jam Beta
Finger-size cracks require fancy footwork. If the crack is wide enough, turn your foot, so your big toe is up and put in your toes. You can also press your foot straight onto the crack and smear your foot on the edges, relying on friction to create the foothold. Remember to look for holds outside the crack. You don’t have to rely solely on it.
Fist jams can be challenging, so you’ll need to make sure you use your feet well. The width of a fist-size crack often allows you to insert your foot straight in and stand up without having to worry about getting your foot stuck. You can try placing your foot into the crack and torquing it like you would for a hand-size crack.
I will say this, it hurts! Cramming your hands and feet into a small space doesn’t feel right. However, learning better techniques is something I’m trying to do. It’s important to rest and shake off your hands to give them a break from the pain.
Revisiting the Crack Route
This weekend I’m going to take another crack (pun intended) at the crack route in OKC. I climb this route on toprope because I’m not experienced enough to do it lead/sport. This time though, I’ll tape up my hands before climbing, so they don’t get too damaged.
Hopefully, I’ll remember what I’ve learned about crack techniques and make it farther on the route. On previous attempts, I would start and not even get six inches off the ground. Granted, the start is right at the top of a slippery ramp that I must straddle to get up it. Then I struggle with moving upward.
Wish me luck that I don’t make a complete fool of myself. But if I do, there will be video or photo evidence of it. Until next time, happy climbing!