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UKC Articles, May 2012
© Alex Ekins 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 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 4 of 6 - Offwidths
Offwidths are the daddy of all cracks. The brilliant 3D nature of these cracks along with the physical factor brings about a hugely satisfying (if tiring!) form of climbing, for those out there that are dedicated enough to learn this technique. All of us have been through at least one emotional experience on this size of crack, but I can promise you that it doesn't always have to be this way if you can nail some of the fundamental techniques.
Offwidths are typically known as the cracks that are bigger than your fist, but smaller than your whole body. This results in you being unable to use conventional jams (finger/hand/fist jams) or able to chimney inside of the crack. Obviously this means that offwidths are relative to body size, so don't worry if someone else's fist crack is your offwidth – aim to be flexible and bring out the new techniques you hopefully learn in this video.
Like all forms of crack climbing, there are some tricks of the trade and in this case, there is a whole bag of them! You should take into account your gear, clothing, feet, hands and general body conditioning – even on the lower grades. If can't emphasise enough, how much a small mistake in something like clothing will cost you on a route of this size.
A lot of people underestimate this factor. The masters of crack climbing from the 60s and 70s knew that a good thick woolly jumper or jeans would pay dividends once a shoulder or knee was inserted. Nowadays though, everyone seems to have gone down the route of shiny technical fabrics which are brilliant at drying and breathing, but terrible in wide cracks! Ditch the hi-tech and go old school I'm afraid. Corduroys, jeans, fleeces and cotton are the way forward.
There are 3 main techniques to use for the top portion of your body; hand stacking, arm bars and chicken wings. Hand stacking is really the reserve of advanced offwidth climbing and to be honest, you'll only find this of real use once you climb routes of E3 and above. On the other hand, arm bars and chicken wings are absolutely brilliant – learn to use these well and you'll thank yourself.
Aside from watching the video in this episode you should remember a few key pointers:
Arm Bars: the elbow should press hard into the side of the crack; if it's not slightly painful, then you're not doing it quite right. Try to keep the arm bar at below shoulder level – the common mistake is to try and use it too high, where you'll find it absolutely no use. The arm bar should mainly be considered a tool to "push" you up the crack, so keep it low and getting pushing!
Chicken Wings: this technique is mainly used as a resting aid. Your tightly bent arm produces an extremely effective camming device, which should be relied on to rest and place gear. It can be used to make upward progress in cracks, but try to learn to use the arm bar first, before falling back on this technique.
The most important thing I learned in offwidthing, by far, was the action of the outside foot. The use of this limb is like the Holy Grail of this width and if you get it right, the grades will feel soft and you'll cruise route after route. In almost every instance (apart from steep offwidths) you want to aim to jam your outside foot in a "heel-toe" position across the crack. Once jammed (it can feel very tenuous to start) thrust hard off this foot and you'll find yourself propelled upwards reassuringly fast. As soon as your have straightened that leg, try to place it as high as possible again and repeat this process. If an offwidth feels hard or you think you can go no further, it's almost certainly because of your outside foot. Never forget it!
I'm often asked what you do with the inside leg/foot - the answer is actually slightly ambiguous (as it's more of an intuitive movement). You can either use a heel-toe inside, or even press the inside of your knee against the side of the crack to gain a small amount of purchase. As you can imagine, this leg is buried quite deep into the crack and takes very little of your body weight, so keep reminding yourself that this leg is of less importance and keep thinking about that outside foot! Have I said that enough?!
Anything else I should know?
It's a bit beyond the level of basic offwidthing, but it's well worth experimenting with a technique called Leavittation. There's some basic info that you can find on google, which describes the method and even the madness.
Classic offwidth cracks /routes with crucial offwidth sections