Becoming A Finger Crack Lizard
By: Danny Parker
It’s October of 2016 and I’m wandering up to an unknown stretch of Wingate cliff band in southern Utah. It’s been a long journey to this wall, carving my way around crypto beds and crawling through ancient flash flood washes, but this is familiar territory for me. I’ve been scouring the desert for years in search of the next line, the next adventure. There’s a giddy excitement I get when I start wandering to new cliffs. My imagination takes over while I dodge rolling rocks and scare sunbathing lizards from their roasting ledges. Maybe around the next corner there will be an archway with an offwidth zig-zagging splitter shooting right up the middle of the steepest section of wall. Dreams of big beautiful lines make the sand in my shoes and miles of trekking absent from my mind.
This new section of wall should be a gold mine for perfect splitter cracks. It’s a steep section of south facing sandstone that has been charred black by the sun’s constant attention. In my mind, I’m envisioning another Cat Wall where one anchor could share two or three perfect splitter cracks of every size. Over the final ridge, I find a disappointing pile of sandstone choss. There are certainly some vertical cracks on the wall, but they are intertwined with horizontal breaks and plugged with sandy death blocks. There is no massive archway, no offwidth zig-zag’s, not even a grunty little squeeze chimney. Damn. The only potential line is at the far left of the wall, a low angle thin crack with foot chips everywhere and a tiny little six foot bulge right in the middle of the route.
Photo by Irene Yee
I don’t mind the occasional thin crack, they just don’t fire me up the way the movement of an offwidth crack does. A good offwidth excites me, makes me wonder what contortion of my body will unlock the next section, or drives me to push through exhaustion, hoping that I can rise to the challenge. This choss wall with its singular low angle thin crack is nothing. It doesn’t push me to venture out into the cold garage in winter for another lap on the crack machine. Or so I think.
Assuming the thin crack will be relatively easy, I decide to climb the route and write off the wall as a lost cause. I throw on my shoes, rack every tiny cam I own, and with Ashley on belay, I jump on the sharp end. Climbing the bottom is simple enough, a dance of ledges and crimping the side of a thin crack still too small to fit a single knuckle. I gain a ledge just under the steep bulge and reach high to a widening flare in the crack. I can only fit my first knuckle on my pointer finger into the crack, with my other three fingers utterly useless. I attempt to pull but find no strength, no purchase, and no idea how to move through this terrain. Baffled, I sit into my harness and resign my attempt - I’ll have to rehearse the moves fresh and try again. After a long rest and shake out, I attempt to pull through the bulge, but again, there’s no strength or ability to pull. Ashley lowers me to the ground and we switch places, she’s also thwarted by the steep section and then down aided back to the ground. Defeated, we scamper back to camp with no intention to give it another go.
Within five minutes of laying down for sleep back at home that night, my mind starts going full speed. How do you pull with a single knuckle of purchase? What do your feet do? HOW DO I CLIMB THIS ROUTE? The fire is lit inside of me and there is no stopping until I solve this problem.
Three moves, across six feet at a 20 degree overhang. It is simple, yet impossible. I buy two 2X4’s and screw them together. At the near exact distances, I take a ¼” drill bit and drill four holes in the seam between the boards. I unscrew the boards and chisel out the wood between my drill holes, making tidy little finger slots just big enough for the first knuckle on my pointer finger. I reassemble the planks and mount them on my wall at home at the precise angle. It’s ugly, full of slivers, but my only option.
Photo by Ashley Cracroft
My first objective is simply to hang from the jams alone. This takes several days of what feels like intentionally missing the nail with a hammer. I’m not sure if my nerves die or I subtly learn the best way to crank my fingertips, but soon the ragged fissures feel strangely comfortable.
It’s a long cold winter with countless sessions on the 2X4’s. I can barely recall the flappers, the blood, or the numbing cold specifically, but every minor milestone, like the first time I stuck the first move, are seared into my memory.
I return to the route that following spring. By then I can lap the movement on the 2x4’s, but I’m still wondering if the training will translate. I tie in and venture through the low angle slab. Gaining the base of the bulge, I pause and close my eyes, envisioning myself sitting on the concrete below the 2x4’s. Returning to reality, I jam the crack to find it a perfect replica of my home crack. Muscle memory takes over and before I know it, I’m through the crux and at the anchor.
Photo by Irene Yee
I decided to call the route Tiktaalik, which is the name given to the evolutionary missing link species between a fish and a lizard. This route changed my perspective on both climbing and training. I no longer only wish for the next best offwidth or massive striking lines: there can be beauty in six feet of climbing on an otherwise choss cliff. This was the first thin crack that lit a fire in me and forced me to evolve from an offwidth fish into a finger crack lizard.
I’ve also adapted my training to always replicate real movement. There is no substitute for learning how to quark your fingers, place your toes, or move your shoulders when it comes to crack climbing. Laps on a Jam Walls crack will teach you those sweet subtleties that will ultimately be the difference someday between whipping and clipping.
Photo by Jon Vickers
I’d like to thank Ashley for encouraging me on this journey and her countless belays.
Find Danny Parker on Instagram at @desertdannyp