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Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall looking at their route Century Crack
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Wild Country Collection Wild Country 'Crack School' is a series of six short videos designed to utilise the skills and knowledge of Wild Country climbers Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker to give an introduction to basics of crack climbing.
Over six episodes (shown each Tuesday on UKClimbing for the next six weeks) the guys cover all widths of crack: Fingers, Hands, Fists and Offwidths as well as looking at the skills of gear placement and taping up.
Designed for those who know next to nothing about crack climbing and who want to make their first steps, the videos are made to illustrate what the guys think are the most pertinent points for starting out on each size of crack. They look at how to use hands and feet in the crack as well as gear and overall tips on technique and the way to approach each type of crack.
Importantly, and often overlooked, is the fact that these 'crack' techniques not only allow you to climb routes defined as cracks but this new knowledge makes you a more rounded climber. So if faced with a short section of crack, or a corner or groove you have an armoury and variety of ways of placing your hands to keep you going. These techniques therefore are incredibly important if you are making a transition from indoors to out, when holds move from 'sticking out' to 'going in' and thrusting, poking, camming and jamming become more important than simply grabbing and pulling.
As Tom Randall says: 'Crack climbing well is a fantastic feeling and learning how to climb cracks opens up a world of routes, and indeed some of the best routes in the world: from Brown and Whillans' classics in the UK (try doing Cenotaph Corner or the Sloth without being able to jam) through to Yosemite and Indian Creek in the USA. And remember, the best climbers always have a variety of techniques at their disposal and having a variety of techniques always makes you a better climber!'
VIDEO: Crack School - Episode 1 of 6 - Finger Cracks
Tom Randall's Crack School Hints and Tips
Probably the most useful technique after the handjam, the finger 'jam' or 'lock' is based upon simply putting your fingers into a crack, or a constriction in a crack and pulling down until your fingers lock. At its most basic this is a simple, secure and very effective technique and the lock or jam becomes extremely good once you can place your confidence in it.
Unfortunately, it's not quite as comfortable as a jug and this technique does require an amount of pain resistance as it's the torquing or twisting action of the fingers in the crack which holds you in place. However, as your technique and your footwork improves, the potential pain should lessen as you pull less and climb more – a great reason to practice and learn!
One of the great things about the finger jam is that you will find lots of places to use it as it doesn't necessarily just appear simply as a long crack but in corners and grooves there is often a place to be able to jam your fingers to make a secure hold.
Techniques and Tips
Once you've got the basic idea of shoving your fingers in a crack and pulling down, feeling how the fingers 'lock' and how (as we show on the video) you will probably be relying on two fingers for grip as you swivel your hand, the most important thing to learn is whether to climb thumbs up or thumbs down. This is important because as soon as you are dealing with a crack which is not straight up (as well as some straight up ones) changing your hand around can be the secret to success, maintaining balance and keeping you relaxed.
In general you will probably climb 'thumbs down' in most situations and this does feel most secure on straight up finger cracks, but as they kink or turn, knowing when and how to switch hands is crucial to maintaining flow and balance.
As we demonstrate, there's also plenty of technique to placing your feet in thin cracks and once again it's wise to remember that, as in all climbing, the more weight you keep on your feet (and utilise the strength of your legs) the less you have to pull on your arms. And as we show, the basics once again involve finding either constrictions or overlaps: so either jamming your toes into pods or constrictions and crucially moving your knee upwards to get maximum rubber on the rock; or looking for overlaps, where you can apply a sideways frictional force – both of these allowing you to push up. Finally don't forget to look outside the crack for face holds, as on many easier and easier angled cracks these may be the key to success.
Overall, it's worth noting that the finger crack is possibly the most difficult crack to master foot technique on (especially when there's few face holds) and therefore the better you get the easier they will feel. Lastly, remember soft boots are generally better in these size cracks - both in terms of rubber surface area in contact with the rock and comfort.
Types of finger crack
It's also worth noting, that whether a finger crack is natural or manmade, it can make quite a difference to how you climb a crack. For example in a 'pegged' out' finger crack such as at Millstone in the UK or many of Yosemite's cracks, there will be more almost 'pocket like' constrictions where pegs have been, meaning that you must choose which to use. Testing and choosing can be slow but when you find the best one having a definite narrowing at the bottom can make these feel very secure On the flip side, natural cracks may have longer sections of a more equal width. Here it may be harder to find obvious constrictions (and unlike peg scars, no 'stop' to pull down on) but there is possibly more scope for simply shoving your hand in and pulling, which can be quicker.
Practice makes perfect
As always, the more you practice the better you get. If you can practice whilst stood on the ground this will make life a lot easier! Get plenty of trial and error in placing not only fingers but also feet and gear too. There's nothing worse than being halfway up a route you're desperate to on-sight and realise you've not learnt how to jam "thumbs up."
The Hitlist - Some of the best finger cracks around - Selected by Tom Randall and UKC Readers