Crack climbing – the dark art (or sweet science?) of rock climbing. Often when you’re at the crag, or down the wall someone will mention something about cracks. “Oh its perfect, sweet hand jams the whole way, it’s just so secure.” To which my reply is often, “Oh sounds great, I don’t climb cracks though”.
I think I speak for both Stefan and I when I say that until recently, we’ve both been guilty of being one of those climbers who just can’t be bothered with cracks. They’ve always been a mystery to me really – only unlockable by learning a secret series of limb constrictions that will miraculously suck you into the feature like a human cam.
In all fairness – I’d given it a go. Often at the Nottingham Climbing Centre, someone would try and explain jamming to me, and I’d spent a few minutes hopelessly throwing a limp hand into one of their token Crack feature panels. It seems standing on the floor and molesting bits of resin won’t teach you how to crack climb at all. And no matter how many times you watch the WideBoyz ‘crack school’ lessons, they just make it look like magic.
But how can you set off to Yosemite without knowing how to climb cracks? We’d seen concerning video of Rich Heaps and Neil Bentley climbing wide flared cracks, dragging cams the size of saucepans up the wall.
We decided to stick to our guns and do what we’ve always done. Get out, and get stuck in.
With the soggy Welsh winter well and truly set in – we went to the delightful and summery Millstone Edge in the Peak district. With many crack routes of variable width on excellent quality rock and usually at a generous angle, Millstone and Lawrencefield are perfect places to begin.
Far too early to be happy about it, I stood at the bottom of a damp crag trying to tape my hands up and wishing I’d watched that crack school video a few more times. I was throwing myself straight into ‘Embankment 2 – VS 4c’, a short route composed of two cracks. One large and fist sized, and one small and finger sized. Given our current lack of large protection, and our keenness to make things hard for ourselves we decided to climb only the wide crack and use the finger crack for protection if needed. With ‘classic’ style, I fumbled my way up the first few metres, and soon began to unlock a little bit of fist jamming technique purely through necessity.
It was a very quick learning curve, and it’s not long until jams began to feel secure. The route itself, was only 4c and our slight eliminate can’t have been much harder. But I felt like a super hero, with every fist jam feeling like I was punching into an entirely new style of climbing. What a feeling! I lowered off a large cam at the top and pulled the rope through. I could tell Stefan was nervous, but I knew that a few moves in he’d be sailing. And indeed he did, in-fact down-climbing half the route to re-climb it in better style after I told him that lay-backing was ‘cheating’.
We weren’t trying hard routes that day, just jumping into the shallow end and seeing if we’d float – but as a learning experience it proved incredibly successful and as a motivator it was simply invaluable. I big part of the trip was being unlocked, and with 7 months to practise our crack technique we have a lot of jamming ahead of us.
If you flick through the Millstone section of Eastern grit, you’ll find a route description for Crewcut (VS), It reads ‘Those heading Stateside might want to ‘off-width’ it just for the practice – a different ball-game!’. As we were going stateside, we got straight on\in it. Offwidthing this large corner feels like a very strict way of doing it, with plenty of opportunity for easy bridging and laybacking. But it’s a rewarding test of determination!
My first experience with this size of crack was harsh and confusing. I eventually decided on a very tiring chicken wing/ knee-lock approach, using fist-hand stacks to rest on. I must have been sucked out of that thing by cruel gravity about 10 times in the first few metres. Offwidthing felt desperately insecure, and I can see why it may seem a very undesirable style of climbing.
When I lowered off, Stefan was eager to get stuck in, racing up into the crack. He then continued to race up the thing, grunting appropriately and cursing loudly. Offwidth climbing really is the sort of thing you have to tackle head on, with gusto – it’ll leave you exhausted but satisfied as you fight through the unexpected series of jams and locks.
I tied in for one last lap, finishing off just as the first few drops of rain began to fall – The sky had finally given up.
So it’s started – the following months will be an absolute crackorama. Crackfest. Crack-tastic.