Learning to Climb Cracks Without The Pain
By: Danny Parker
I started climbing at Momentum Sandy one random day when I was 20 years old. I was drawn to the idea of climbing big granite walls and traveling around the world in the process. However starting this new hobby alone meant I was l relegated to bouldering in the far back room of the gym. If you’ve ever been to Momentum Sandy you’ll know that there’s one specific feature of the gym that sets it apart from all others. A massive prow overhangs the entrance to the bouldering room with a steep hand crack and an invert offwidth. Every day I’d pass under those cracks to go bouldering, and each time I would become a little more enamored with the art of crack climbing.
My first attempt at crack climbing was a thin hands splitter. I stuffed my hands in and gripped the textured wall, then crammed my toes into the crack as deep as they would go and twisted hard. Shooting pain fired from every extremity, but I was prepared for it. Everything I had heard about crack climbing up to that point involved “just dealing with the pain”. I pulled hard and ground my skin into pulp, eventually succumbing to the loss of friction caused by blood and sweat. I later wore my new gobi’s proudly as testament of myself becoming a crack climber. I was naive, stupid, and in constant pain.
A bit of tape can go a long way. Photo by Jon Vickers
Many months later as literal traces of me existed across all of the cracks in the gym, I set my attention on a route called Trench Warfare. Trench is a 60 foot granite offwidth roof crack in Little Cottonwood Canyon. If the name alone doesn’t scare you, the guidebook describes it as being leg deep in alligator jaws, while a tiger punches you in the stomach. There’s a video of Trench being climbed by a guy with long blonde hair that resembles many of the Norwegian metal music videos I would also watch at the time. Hair whipping, body thrashing, and heavy screaming sets the tone of the video. It’s some heavy metal crack climbing and I loved it. However I wasn’t prepared for another video of Trench Warfare I found linked to it. In this video Kim Csizmazia gracefully dances across the roof crack with ease. No screaming, and no bleeding were had, she looked like she was out for a casual stroll around the roof crack. It was like watching Yo Yo Ma playing Metallica. It shattered my ideas of what it meant to climb cracks, and simultaneously inspired me to master crack climbing, and not destroy myself in the process.
With Kim as my inspiration, I set out to relearn how to properly climb cracks. What I found was that proper technique often involved no pain whatsoever, and that when something started to hurt it usually meant there was something still left to learn. I also found that while I initially embraced the carnage associated with crack climbing, it was the reason that everyone else typically wrote it off.
If you like that crack climbing is often related to ultimate fighting, or feel that it fulfills some macho essence of yourself, read no further. Bleed on my friends. However if you’d like to enjoy climbing cracks, and do so without risks of a staph infection, here’s some of the major things I wish someone had told me when I started climbing cracks.
Wear the right clothes for the crack. If you’re neck deep in a squeeze chimney wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt. I wear jeans and a flannel quite often. If you’re climbing a thin seam of a crack, break out your short shorts or even less if that floats your boat. Cycling sleeves, elbow pads, and knee pads are totally acceptable and used often by offwidth climbers, you can wear them under your clothes if it bothers you
I forgot the elbow pads but Ashley still went. Photo by Danny Parker
Neglecting to tape, or tape properly is probably the most likely reason people don’t continue to crack climb. If your hands end up looking like hamburger meat it’s pretty hard to stay psyched.
I tape to cover every bit of my hand that will take pressure inside the crack. This includes taping my palm on hand cracks and offwidths, my knuckles on thin hands and ring locks, and all the way down to my cuticles on thin cracks if needed. The argument against tape is often that it increases the width of your hand and therefore provides less surface area to jam. Which is true by perhaps a quarter of a millimeter, but what I’ve found is that despite the menial loss of jamming depth, with tape I can jam significantly harder than I could without. I do sometimes negate taping up these days, but it’s only when my skin is tough and conditioned, and I’m climbing at a comfortable grade where I won’t be cranking on the jams.
This is why I tape my palms. Photos by Danny Parker
For shoes I always recommend stiff hightops, especially if you’re new to climbing. You may see a pro climber jamming with a thin slipper, but they're likely barely weighting their feet. I climb with a Butora Altura, which is a stiff leather hightop with rubber covering the top of the toes. I have the same principle as taping, where having power and support far outweighs the minor loss of jamming area. If the crack is thin however and no one is jamming inside the crack anyway, I prefer a really good edging shoe. There’s no need to cause nerve damage on the top of your toes, just find a comfortable shoe that will support your ankles and protect your foot from the sharp edge of the crack.
Wes Burdett forgot his hightops. Photo by Danny Parker
There’s a million small technical body adjustments that reduce pain and provide a better jam in the process, and I hope to share as many as I can in a reasonable format. For now I’ll keep it to one adjustment that I feel is the one of the most important, and most pain alleviating too. Foot positioning.
Oh the glamor of twisting your toes inside a crevice. I was initially taught to simply stuff my foot in the crack, then rotate my knee vertically over my foot and stand on the now crushed foot. This is technically close to correct, but horrifically painful.
First, your knee rotating back over top of your foot is entirely dependent on the mobility and strength in your ankle. Take your time and strengthen your ankles before you try to stand directly on a jammed foot. Most new climbers should have their legs between 20 and 40 degrees off of the line of the crack itself. Once your ankle is mobile enough you can finally reduce the angle and eventually jam with a straight leg (knee in line with your foot).
Second, rather than your foot going directly into the crack, try placing your foot so that your pinky toe is the first to enter the crack and your big toe last. This involves dropping your ankle down and pointing your foot up the crack. What you’ll find with this position is that in bigger cracks the pressure will be placed on the flat outside portion of the top of your foot and all the way down the inside bottom of your foot. In thinner cracks, you’ll actually get a deeper jam because the thickness of your shoe is the smallest near your pinky toe. It also uses the length of the outside rand as your jamming area rather than the much smaller toe end of your shoe. If that wasn’t reason alone to jam this way, it also orients your toes to move uniformly and naturally rather than the standard twisting across the knuckles of your toes. Try standing on your tiptoes barefoot. Move your ankles around and watch how your four small toes lay flat even when your ankles are quirked outwards, this is what your toes should be doing on a thin crack jam.
Keeping the heel low makes for a more secure and comfy jam. Photo by Danny Parker
A huge thank you to Jam Walls for having the stoke and the platform for allowing me to write about all things crack climbing.
Happy crack climbing my friends! I hope you can learn from the pain, find the right techniques, and maybe someday climb like Kim. I’m still working on it myself.