“I don’t like crack.”
I’ll avoid the pedantic analogy to Crack Cocaine except to say that, like any drug, you just don’t know if you like it ’till you try. Of course ‘trying’ to learn crack climbing often leaves the newbie in a bruised pile of humility. That’s where the failure part comes in – the road you are taking sucks, your car is fine.
This article aims to deflate some preconceived notions of The Way to crack climb in place of easier, more bite-sized steps for success. Just like any approach to training, one should check the ego at the door and keep in mind the word “Objective” when it comes to adding things to the plate (or scrapping all-together).
I started climbing in a gym in 2001, as a sophomore in high school, at Solid Rock Climbing Gym. Unlike those before me I had the advent of Climbing Gyms to train and learn the craft, and back when I began that was exactly what one did – gyms were little more than steep concrete walls with bolt-on resin holds arranged by high school kids to give weekend warriors a way to get pumped on a Tuesday. Posters all over of heroes on heroic routes – Chris Sharma on Realization, Tommy Caldwell on the Salathe, Fred Nicole on Slashface – lined the locker rooms, a reminder of ‘the real thing’ and why we were there . The gyms were uncomfortable, dirty, and run amok by birthday parties for 11 year olds, a patron that was a necessary evil to keep the bay doors open for the handful of broke climbers in the area. Real rock climbing was the point, and most everyone who shivered in the few abandoned all winter knew that.
Before my time there wasn’t a culture of gym climbing, and not long after the appearance of high-tech facilities there arose whole scores of climbers happily enjoying entire careers on plastic rock. Granted, as a form of exercise a climbing gym is a bit more rad than blandly hefting weights at 24-hour fitness or thudding on a treadmill watching TLC. The idea, however, that one must attain a certain proficiency on indoor climbs before venturing outside seems silly and a bit too progressive a thought for my taste. In the bright light and softly padded floors of a 70,000 square foot mega-gym the realities of rock climbing can seem harsh and unfriendly, and that feeling only grows the longer an expedition to the local crag is put off.
Climbers today do have tics on their side of the scoreboard, as all the steep terrain that is easily accessed in a gym makes them freakishly strong. More and more climbers are capable of climbing the BEST routes in the area, as the old-school hippies who trained by toproping laps on finger cracks don’t have the power-endurance for the relentless jug-hauls of the Red River Gorge. Grades once thought elite are being climbed by children, and there in lies the problem – grades.
My first time outdoors, my first time to Joshua Tree, my first big wall, were all horrible failures and soul-crushing realizations of what I really was as a climber. At Dixon Lake, my first day crack climbing, I huffed and gasped my way up a 5.7 wide crack despite climbing mid-5.10 at the local gym. Later on, a 5.8 slab told me I really didn’t know that much about rock climbing. The idea then was to climb the fun climbs, and walking up to a crag one wouldn’t scan a guidebook and toss aside anything naturally protected because “I’m a sport climber, not a trad climber.” You were a “Climber” and climbed rock climbs, and California is a Granite state – that means that our 500-mile long Sierra Nevada Batholith is split easily by cracks and flakes as volcanic activity echoes onto the cold rock and exfoliates itself. By looking very, very carefully one might find rock climbs that resemble the moves typically found on gymnastic rock climbs, but to do so would be to look through a vary narrow telescope and ignore the real quality and unique formations our state has to offer.
That long stretch of Granite, those hundreds of miles of splitter cracks offering the best rock climbing in the state by popular consensus, they are a drug worth toking. Trust me on that one.
I hope to shed some lights on the Do Nots and give an alternative approach – with the usual amount of callous humor and some ridicule for good measure.
So, why do you suck at crack climbing?
1. You aren’t conditioned
Would it be wise to walk into a martial arts dojo, up to a stack of thick concrete cinder blocks, and smash your forehead against them with all your might? What if a guy on Youtube did it? What if your core muscles are even stronger than his because of intense abdominal training? After you are revived and told why there is a hematoma sticking on your forehead, I’d hope the Sensei would say that the man on the video had spent years slamming his dome into a number of increasingly dull objects.
You don’t do this, so don’t expect to climb cracks at your grade and not get hurt.
The idea of Conditioning shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who spent more than a few months learning to climb in a gym. When we started our skin would quickly rot on our palms with blisters and a few short toprope laps would leave us completely gassed. It hurt, then, to learn. It hurt to learn how not to pendulum into the wall, how to wear snug climbing shoes, and it seemed as though getting tougher was an accepted facet of the game. Just the same, crack climbing puts wear and tear on your body in another unique way, one that I can attest after enough practice is hardly noticable.
2. You really aren’t that great at rock climbing
Now, there are two problems going on with that last statement. One, people try to climb the same grades on varying crack sizes as on top ropes in the gym. A difficult reality, two, is that the perceived skill is actually much lower on even non-crack climbs because of the propensity of climbing gyms to inflate the ego’s of their patrons by inflating the grades on their climbs.
To put it simply, someone who climbs solely in a gym, who thinks they should climb a 5.11, should really climb a 5.9 crack – and may only climb 5.10 at best on any terrain. Just like I was shut down just as handily on an offwidth as a climb with actual holds on it at Dixon Lake all those years ago, you can’t pick a route too easy. There is just too much to learn and mileage on real rock should trump it’s difficulty for the transition stages. All forms of climbing should be practiced and a useful tool in a climbers quiver of techniques. A few trips here and there can round out a skillset, much faster than re-learning how to climb all together.
3. You dork around too much with tape gloves
It’s a classic sight, the 7am Campground Tape-Up at Joshua Tree. In fear of losing skin (likely because of reason #1 and #2) hordes of weekend warriors from the nearby cities slap ounces of sticky restrictive tape at breakfast, only to be seen all over the park climbing the flared awkward face holds that appeared from a distance like jam cracks. Buying tape, making the gloves, pulling them off carefully, discarding trash properly, are all things that get in the way of doing rock climbing – something I like to do the most of possible.
Now, before this is taken to the extreme by the Tape Religious out there, I don’t mean to say NEVER tape. I tape on hard cracks, ones at my limit where I will lose skin going for the move or forcing myself on lead, as well as roof cracks. However when top roping, running laps on classics, or getting mileage in on cold days, I prefer to leave the tape at home and learn to use my feet and finesse the route instead of bear down. Sometimes, at least on toprope, that means I’m falling – but falling and learning is much better than cleanly climbing a route wrong.
4. You don’t climb enough of them
This one should be self explanatory, but there is a short bit of information that I’d like to share. The sad reality of Trad Climbing is that it is a double edged sword, in that it takes a TON of mileage to become proficiant yet the logistics of all the gear and preparation for each route make it damn near impossible to fill a day at Joshua Tree with anything less than a handful of crowded classics. By climbing with less, and learning the craft to a quick and efficient level, there is ample opportunity to climb 3 times as much terrain in a calender year with the same amount of climbing days.
5. Your ego needs to be checked
People hate to look at their own faults. Our ego will do anything and everything to protect itself, to compartmentalize what should and shouldn’t matter into boxes of familiarity and comfort zones. The first breakup, the first job you lost – all those things likely gave you the tools to survive the next ones. If they didn’t, then you’re likely learning them to this day. The 5.14 climber who lives in San Francisco yet won’t climb The Astroman because “it’s a trad climb” is scared to fail. The rock is oblivious to how it is protected, and I’ve long held the belief that a climber should be able to do the same moves above a crash pad as a quickdraw as a well-placed Camming device. Refusing to run laps on easier routes in order to learn will hurt his chances of success, as some 5.14 climbers wouldn’t be caught dead spending time on a 5.8 hand crack.
Chris Sharma has done multiple trad climbs up to 5.13 and Daniel Woods can be seen on a North Face special learning to hand jam on a river rafting trip. Try it out, and try it out with the same open mind you used getting into the sport – you just might like it.
So, how can I get better?
I don’t claim to be a master crack climber, yet in my time spent I’ve learned some tricks that allowed personal growth for my own game. Whether it was planned or inadvertent I came into the habits I have because they WORK, objectively – I don’t care how I look or what route I’m caught on, I just want to have the most fun possible!
1. Climb easier cracks
Climbing easy cracks, preferably of lower angle, can allow you to feel out the friction on the jams and understand how much pressure should be placed on the backs of the hands. A jug can be gripped with all your might without discomfort, yet a flared jam will only tear skin and bruise bone. It is important to learn how to hold on with jams just enough to stay in it but not too much to unnecessarily pinch nerves and, more importantly, not get too pumped. In addition the movement will help condition an athlete’s skin – and bones – to deal with the rigors of hand and foot jams.
Some of the best times I’d had climbing so far have been on cruiser splitters high in the mountains, where I wasn’t thinking “Left hand-Jug, right foot-edge, right hand-undercling” but moving thoughtfullly along a line cut across stone. Protection can be thrown in whenever and on those easy big climbs you can get the full-mountain adventure at a fraction of the cost, left skipping back to the car with energy to do it again tomorrow.
2. Toprope quality cracks of different sizes
The key word here is quality, and I have a theory on that.
Awkward crack sizes are VERY important, and being able to stuff various body parts into differing fissures with the full bag of imagination is vital to success trad climbing. However, that kind of movement isn’t conducive for learning repeatable technique. A quality crack shouldn’t be too grainy, should be fairly paralell to force real jamming skills, and should be fun – so you enjoy doing it and will do it again. Even offwidths and chimneys can be rewarding when viewed as breakthroughs in technique. Getting stuck, having the climb feel impossible, only to make a small adjustment and breeze up the route is the heart of Crack Climbing.
3. Climb when it’s colder
Slimy, slippery jams are no fun, and neither is losing skin to them. Sweat can act as a lubricant for crack climbing, sometimes much worse than steep routes with big holds. While you can go though gallons of chalk and buckets of tape to stay in the crack, it’s a better idea to walk around to the other side of the formation to climb in the shade. Crack climbing is often very physical, especially in the learning phases and in wider cracks, and the staccato, conservative movements that make progression possible favor heavy layers. Just make sure to hike up the sleeves past the wrists, lest they get in the way of a deep hand jam.
Where can I practice this?
For those in Southern California, you are in luck. We are in a bastion of crack climbs and have to our disposal a plethora of options across a wide swath of San Diego and Riverside counties. With a light rack of cams and a patient partner there is ample opportunity to get your skills up to where you’d like them.
Joshua Tree – A great place to camp and lead classic climbs
B2/B3 5.3 – Toprope or lead. Trash Can Rock has a handful of great easy cracks to start out on.
The Bong 5.5 – Lead or TR. One of the absolute best routes in the park for easy jamming.
Granny Goose 5.7 – Lead. Hand cracks, offwidths, and a bit of liebacking to boot.
Sail Away 5.8 – Lead. one of the more clean splitters at the grade. Great protection and movement, an ideal first lead for the grade as well.
The Flake 5.8 – Lead. Offwidth, hands, a chimney and face climbing. This is the graduation ceremony to 5.8 in Joshua Tree.
Dogleg 5.9 – Lead. Yes, it’s 5.9 not 5.8. Physical, long, warm – a great option for a winter day.
Popes Crack 5.9 – Lead. If you are a 5.10 sport climber as well consider the direct finish – it’s bolted and fairly easy for the grade.
Exercist 10a – Lead or TR after leading Nuurns romp. An excellent finger crack.
Left Banana Crack 5.10B – Lead or TR. A great steep hand crack through a weird flare. An easy first lead at the grade because of the awesome protection.
Illusion Dweller 5.10B – Lead. An amazing testpeice of leaning fist jams, steep hands and finger-jam layback. Worth every star the book gives it.
Tax Man 5.10B – Lead or TR. Glorious finger and hand crack with face holds to an awkward wide crack at the top.
Spiderman 5.10B – Lead or TR. everything from fingers to offwidth. This one is a dousy.
Meteorite Crack 5.10C – Lead or TR. A steep burly hand crack.
Clean and Jerk 5.10C – Lead or TR. Be careful running laps on this ultra-classic, as the sandbagged route is a popular one and it sucks to walk up to a conga line on the thing (trust me).
Jumpin’ Jack Crack 11A/B – Lead or TR. Chimney and a hand crack through a roof. Glorious and tough.
Hobbit Hole Offwidte V0 – a damn difficult proposition for your average boulderer!
Mount Woodson – The best place to learn harder cracks, offwidths, and climb with only a crash pad
Elsa’s crack 5.6 – Lead/Solo/TR. A toprope often gets stuck, so if you are planning to use a rope take care.
Corn Flake 5.7 – Solo/TR. Don’t place gear behind the awesome hand/fist sized flake! Multiple crack boulder problems nearby.
Sunday Afternoon Boulder 5.7-5.9 – several topropes available, bring long slings.
Milkbar 5.8 – TR/Lead. think finger jams and layback around a roof. Sweet.
Baby Robbins Crack 5.9 – Boulder/TR. Often the scene of broken hearts.
Big Grunt 5.9 – Solo/TR. An awkward start leads to spooky chimneying…
Johns Crack 5.9+ – Boulder/Lead/TR. not to be confused with Longs crack. Low crux and flat landing make it a great boulder problem.
Robbins Crack 5.10a – Lead/TR/Boulder. A MUST do.
Blackfinger 5.10a – TR/Boulder. I actually led this the first time I got on it. I don’t recommend bothering to.
The Crucible 5.10C – TR/Lead. A good place to start using tape. An ass kicker.
Jaws 5.11A – TR/Solo. One of the best splitters at the grade in the area.
Drivin’ South 5.11D – TR/Boulder. A killer finger crack and the first of many 5.12-ish in the area.
Idyllwild – A great place for mileage on easy routes and to climb the best stone in So Cal.
The Trough 5.4 – A great first longer route.
White Maidens Walkway 5.4-5.7 – good luck staying on route, a glorious cruise up an awesome buttress. Varied, fun.
Angels Fright 5.6 – The best 5.6, but heads up – the slab at the end spooks people out, but its 5.5.
Coffin Nail 5.8 – The best 5.8 pitch in Idyllwild. Combine with Traitor Horn for an all-time classic.
Long Climb 5.8 – a great 5-pitch jaunt with offwidth, chimney, hand cracks, and even some face climbing.
Daves Deviation 5.9 – Technical fingers with a slick, thin crux.
Flower of High Rank 5.9 – Splitter crack through a roof. Climb as one pitch, or else!
Whodunnit 5.9 – So Cal’s Nutcracker, this route has it all – a chimney and thin crack crux, 5.8 roof, all on clean north-facing rock.
Consolation 5.9+ – the twin-handcrack crux will sap you, almost as much as the loose awkward 5.8 moves just below it.
El Camino Real 5.10a – The crux pitch can be reached via Coffin Nail with some trickery, and toproped. A worthy lieback.
Human Fright pitch 1 5.10a – a great warm-up for harder climbs or thing to do laps on after reaching the anchor via Angels Fright.
Y-Crack 5.10B – An awesome, steep, upside-down Y on the North Face of Tahquitz. A warm route, great for afternoons or shoulder seasons.
Johnny Quest 5.10B – more like a boulder problem on a rope, a classic none-the-less.
Super Pooper 5.10B – An awesome, long, sustained 5.10 pitch. Consider finishing on Price of Fear for an all-time classic link.
The Vampire 5.11a – Often considered the best route in So Cal, and attainable by most mortals.
Etude 5.11a – Sometimes it’s important to learn to climb things that appear impossible and hold-less…
Insomnia 5.11C – Arguably the best single-pitch in Idyllwild. Go see for yourself ;D
Remember – it isn’t what you can climb, but what people on Facebook think of you.