The darkness beckons, the crack, deep and wide like an open wound, draws me in,
Arm sinks into the depth, hand shuffles in the blackness, searching out the sweet spot,
Crystals of cold hard granite bite into flesh, Sinew strains like cable,
Rotate through the jam, gain height, Drive hard off the foot lock…
It's not letting up! Forcing me to pass its exam,
The crack widens, beyond fist now, screaming butterfly! A brutal move for such a beautiful creature,
A tentative arm bar finds a precarious wedge allowing access to stacks followed by a knee lock, breathe… place the cam,
Subtle changes in brutal technique bring me through,
It flares now, threatening to spit me out, clock ticking, dig in… DIG IN!
Nestle the chicken wing, heel toe, drive and lock, foot stack, drive and lock,
Slide the cam, Inch by inch battle, a drowning man treading water, fighting, gasping for air, fighting to be re-born, Chasing a bittersweet success.
Joy of battle, by Stu Bradbury
It could be said that the wide world of offwidth cracks is an acquired taste! Representing the obnoxious hooligan of crack sizes, they require a major physical effort, with a combination of odd and creative jamming and body locking techniques for success…
The late American offwidth master Craig Luebben wrote a superb article called "Offwidthing, The Big, Bad and Burly" in which he said…
"An offwidth requires more effort per inch of stone than any other type of climbing"
Cracks with real attitude, often despised and avoided, wider than your fist but too narrow to get your body into. It's a size that nothing naturally fits, where even rests are strenuous, and vertical height gain can be a brutal battle unless versed in the art. There will be blood, there will be bruises, there will be frustration, and there will be failure. It can be a brutal battle which sometimes feels more like a vertical street brawl than climbing as we know it, but the pay-off for tenacity and effort brings its own rewards.
I have found over the years that inspiration fuels my motivation, and for me the challenges offered by these striking crack lines and flares, with their wild and inventive three dimensional techniques, are what ignite the fire.
My introduction to this style started on Staffordshire gritstone, where I instantly fell in love with jam cracks. From there the wider side of crack climbing captured my imagination with its full body style workout and it has remained a passion ever since. The quirky 3D style movement found in this wide and wacky terrain has always held an attraction. Applying opposing external physical forces whilst at the same time being in tune with your body's internal forces I find totally engrossing.
These cracks vary from jams to offwidths, squeezes to wide flares, all the way to full body bridging chimneys, forcing the need for inventive gymnastic movement and lateral thinking. It is often not about how hard you can pull, or how strong you are, but knowing what subtle adjustments need to be made to gain height (or even stay put).
Gritstone is a great medium to hone these types of skills, and having ticked off as much Peak wideness as I could find it wasn't long before I was drawn to the more esoteric side of climbing: searching out interesting obscure routes in "off the beaten track" areas which dictated the need for these full body style techniques. Shropshire's soft sandstone, with its bold technical bridging corners, and the sandstone of the Lower Churnet valley with "Ina's rock" and its classic crack "Atlas" became favourite stomping grounds
From there my interest was ignited by the sandstone towers in former East Germany and Czech Republic, with their stunning steep wide crack lines, quirky ethics and unique knot protection. A love affair which has lasted to this day.
Having moved to North Cornwall in 2002 drawn by the isolation of the Culm coast, with its wild sea cliffs and adventurous new routeing potential, I found plenty of outlet for my exploratory spirit and climbing ideals. For a while I became engrossed in its bold slab climbing, but I have recently been looking back over my 30 year climbing journey and it dawned on me that it has come full circle; the esoteric and oddball objectives still drawing me in. I am still predominantly driven by the purity of cracks and wide cracks in particular have become an obsession within an obsession. I have always thrived on the exploration side of climbing and searching out new routes has always given me the escapism I craved, whilst at the same time appealing to my non-conformist/anti-establishment side, so over recent years I have put my efforts into tracking down the best "wide and weird" cracks that Cornwall has to offer.
It has to be said that in the UK wide cracks and offwidths of any major length or quality are in short supply and it seems - for the majority of climbers - this is not an issue, as most look upon them as a repulsive struggle to be avoided at all costs! But this is missing the point; if you can see past the initial incompetent struggle and fine tune the hard won skills the battle becomes addictive and there is no question that the strong natural lines provided by wide cracks offer up stunning climbing objectives. For me the purity and aesthetics of these cracks just draw you in.
It is true that it's a brutal climbing style and that to the uninitiated (and sometimes to the initiated!) they usually spell a blood and guts battle, often leaving the climber exhausted and frustrated with a battered body and a battered ego, but the specific skills needed to bring success take time and let's face it nothing worth having ever comes easy!
The technical skills and trickery often related to as the "dark arts" needed for success are rarely used in any other style of climbing and on top of trial and error mileage in every combination of hand jams, body jams, locks and stacks there is a major amount of internal body language going on; a sort of internal body force at work. which takes time and practice to get a feel for. Some folks seem tuned into this naturally, whilst others have to work hard to master it. Enjoying the process, which includes the pain and the failure, is a big part of its appeal. If you give up after your first beating you will never master the art, but to be fair you have to enjoy the work.
Offwidths seem to have come of age over recent years, bought out of the darkness and into the limelight in the UK by the likes of Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, who trained like loonies and took America by storm. But there have always been a small number of aficionados quietly stacking and grunting away in their own wide world, one notable "wide head" who was drawn to dark places is North Wales activist George Smith, who wrote an article for "On the Edge" magazine in 2003 called "Tightness beckons" in which he said " Bold blankness is surely only for those who have not yet discovered the quizzical world of off-width, chimney or grovel".
These routes seem now to be getting the credit they deserve as a respected and brutal offshoot, offering a unique climbing style of their own, although that said - I'm not sure how many more people are going out of their way to find and climb them and it still seems to be the preserve of a dedicated few.
I remember doing battle with my first proper long wide pitch in Yosemite valley in the late 90's. It was the top pitch of a route called "The Good Book" and the pitch was - as usual - rated 5.9 in the guide and was only protectable by huge cams. Unfortunately at the time all I had was one No.5 Camalot, which I slid all the way up the 80ft pitch! It was pretty exciting and I still remember the buzz. The whole process and effort left me with a mental tattoo and I was totally hooked. At the time it seemed that almost all offwidths were given 5.9, a bit like most of the classic jam cracks on grit getting HVS, even though these wide pitches were often stopping very strong climbers in their tracks! Thankfully this has changed and they are now given the grades they deserve with a small dedicated clan of wide heads in the US pushing the limits.
Personally I have spent the last few years travelling throughout Europe specifically in search of wide cracks to feed my addiction and got to thinking about some of the unsung gems we have hidden away in deepest darkest Cornwall, for those inspired enough to go searching.
So for those looking for the masochistic challenges, the collection in this article were all hunted down over many years on my home turf of Cornwall. So whether you're versed in the art and looking for a fight or are looking to find the love and hone your skills, I have compiled a list of 20 routes which in my opinion represent the best of their style in the area.
They cover a wide area (pardon the pun...) taking in North Cornwall, West Cornwall and The Lizard. All but one are on sea cliffs and in typical Cornish style the rock varies, from sandstone to shale and pillow lava in the north to granite and schist in the west. Most are single pitch routes and easily accessible (by sea cliff standards), whilst others are all-out committing multi pitch trad adventures.
All the routes are on the wide side and require the full armoury of techniques, including jamming, hand and foot stacks, chicken wings, arm bars and Levitation with the odd head lock and full body bridge thrown in for good measure. Many are new FA's awaiting repeats, whilst the remainder have seen only rare repeats. Despite all of these routes offering memorable and unique experiences many are devoid of stars in the guidebooks (some are not yet in guidebooks!), so I have taken the liberty of regressing the balance by allotting stars for quality and style. I hope you will agree...
Grades range from HVS to E5, but as you will soon find out, grades often mean nothing as they are all going to demand 100% effort and regardless of grade they will all extract their pound of flesh.
They may not be the longest offwidths in the world, but if you want to test yourself or hone your skills then Cornwall awaits!
So go on…Take a journey off the beaten track, dig out your big cams, tape up, pull on your long sleeve shirt and trousers and get stuck in, I guarantee you won't have to queue!
It's the best way I know of burning off your pasty and earning a pint of "Proper job"
1: BUDE PILLAR/COMPASS POINT: North Cornwall.
*Sigmoidoscopy: HVS 4c .FA: D Hillibrandt, B Rowe.
As the name implies you will be exploring the bowels of the crag via this steep, tight chimney. Expect to encounter some loose stuff, both in the chimney and your pants as you extract yourself into the daylight at the top. Large cam useful and a pre placed belay advised as the top is unstable.
Father Christmas's Nightmare: E3 5b. FA: K Darbyshire D Garner.
A serious route that should not be underestimated! The name says it all…Very rarely repeated despite its ease of access and its single pitch nature…The climbing is great until the top out! It exits onto seriously loose and steep ground making a pre placed belay with a long rope from the fence posts essential (both climbers should wear helmets)
2: MAER CLIFF AREA: North Cornwall.
*Foxman and Robin's Zawn Duel ZAWN DUEL: E4 5b. FA: L Bartrop R Galley.
A quirky little route, full of character.
Start deep inside the zawn at the steep overhanging crack, then get established into a full body bridge off the opposing wall which is maintained all the way up until forced to swing back into the crack to a precarious finish.
3: WILLA PARK CLIFF: North Cornwall
***FIGHT OR FLIGHT: E5 6b. FA: S Bradbury, L Bartrop.
A full on "trad seacliff adventure" taking an impressive and striking wide crack line through the roof of a sea cave to escape to freedom.
This route for me epitomises everything I enjoy about climbing: stunning line, amazing setting and a committed approach via a big sea level traverse or an 80m abseil, climbed onsight with no escape.
The first 2 pitches provide the meat and potatoes with some truly memorable gymnastic and contorted climbing - competence for both leader and second is a must and prusik loops should be carried. A full rack of cams 0 to 6 useful.
4: KELLEN HEAD: North Cornwall.
**SEA BADGER: E3 5b FA: N Dill, L Grant.
This little beast is as rare as its namesake and just as hard to find, it is hidden away just above the sea and needs low water and calm seas to gain access. It is a diagonal rising crack featuring some classic 3D squirm/shuffling moves and includes jams, locks and even a head bar! Well worth seeking out.
5: Luxulyan Quarry Bodmin.
***The Singularity: E4/5 6a. FA: T Last.
The Southwest's answer to "Goliath" at Burbage but harder!
This was a fine find by Tom Last and provides a short but intense overhanging offwidth crack featuring both traditional offwidth technique and Levitation on the roughest granite imaginable. It is hidden away in Luxulyan quarry on Bodmin moor and requires trespass to gain access so stealth is advised, although to be fair, it's hard to climb without making some noise and it's difficult to contain yourself when you finally extract yourself from its grip and onto the summit.
6: AIRE POINT: West Cornwall.
*Max Crack: E2 5b. FA: M Raine, J Hooper.
A wide crack in a heart of stone! Some fine creative moves through the overhang are rewarded with a tight struggle…Size is everything!
An isolated little crag in a beautiful setting.
7: SENNEN: West Cornwall.
***Superjam: E5 6b. FA: R Edwards, M Edwards.
The only invert on the list… Gaining and crossing the roof is spectacular, but achieving the pivot back into the vertical world provides the strenuous and frustrating crux.
(n.b. a hard one to onsight)
8: CARN SPERM: West Cornwall.
***"Dig deep growl loud": E4 6b. FA: S Bradbury, L Randell.
I found this overhanging test piece a few years ago and left it on the back burner until recently and it proved to be very entertaining, it is one of my favourites on the list, not just because it's my baby but because it gives a proper offwidth fight using the full armoury of techniques from arm bars and chicken wings to Levitation.
For best conditions choose an afternoon low water in the summer.
9: FOX PROMONTORY (South) : West Cornwall.
*A WING AND A FLARE: E3 6a. FA: S Bradbury, M George.
Short but full of attitude this wide hanging flare is hard to enter, hard to exit and easy to fall out of!
CAMARON'S DELIGHT: E1 5b. S Bradbury, M George.
A good introduction to the style, it gives a tricky offwidth stack to start but soon devours the body.
10: CHAIR LADDER: West Cornwall.
***Sea Horse: HVS 5b. FA: H Banner, DW Bateman.
A fine route on fine rock in a fine setting, traditional offwidth and squeeze techniques win the battle. Given HVS, but worth E1 for the effort.
A great introduction.
11: GREEN BAY, PORTHCURNO: West Cornwall.
Green bay is in a wonderful setting on one of Cornwall's most beautiful beaches, it provides a few wide cracks to keep you entertained with interesting abseil descents to keep you thinking.
The two routes below are both steep and impressive lines and offer a good intro to the wide, providing a good learning curve to the style although the rock is a little friable in places.
*Kunesh: E2 5b. FA:L Randell, M George.
The lefthand line. Awkward to start, the crux is high up.
*Suamico: E2 5b. FA: L Randell, A March.
A wider crack to the right of "Kunesh" unfortunately the jammed chock stones detract from the purity.
12: LOGAN ROCK: West Cornwall.
A great place to either hone your skills or get spanked! A complex area containing lots of short routes, with attitude.
***Jack Yer Body: E4 6a. FA: K Palmer, A Grieve, N Hancock, G Bultler.
What can I say! The names of the FA team speak volumes! Totally underrated, it's just a shame it's not longer. It gets no stars in the guide yet it's a classic of the style: a cruxy overhanging lower wall on finger locks guards the upper offwidth crack which is hard to get established in and hard make progress in. A car jack was used on the FA! Thankfully we now have big cams.
**Granite Grater: E4 5c. FA: S Ohly, G Slade.
A striking line in a prominent position standing proud on a towering boulder situated high above Logan rocks, maybe only E3 with big cams and crisp technique. Getting established is interesting, moving up the flared crack continues to entertain!
**LOGANS RUNNEL: E4 6a. FA: S Bradbury, L Bartrop.
Situated in a hidden Zawn on the tip of Logan's rock near sea level, this overhanging crack dictates a determined approach going from fingers to jams and finishes in a wide flare. (Best climbed after the nesting season as it's a Cormorants hang-out) The crack to its left is "Open up and bleed" E3 and also gives a fine outing.
13: CRIBBA HEAD: East buttress West Cornwall.
**SKINGRAFT: E2 5c. FA: P O'suillivan, M Dunning
A gem of a route from north coast sea cliff pioneer Pete O'Sullivan, I would recommend this as a great route to get a feel for the work - it's safe and solid if a little furry and gives a fine traditional offwidth struggle which will burn some calories.
14: LEANING PILLARS: Predannack head, Lizard.
**CORBYNS CRACK: E1 5b. FA: A March, K Gibson.
A "labour" of love! Best climbed in sandals with socks? (Sorry, I couldn't help me self guv...)
A striking line that gives some fine varied crack climbing… It has a north coast adventure feel about it as it has a peppering of loose rock which adds a touch of spice that belittles its size.
OFFWIDTH HIS HEAD: E2 5b. FA: T Penning, A Parslow.
Initial offwidth moves soon give way to squeeze (depending on girth of course). Unfortunately it is at an easier angle although it soon gets too wide for any pro!
About Stu Bradbury
Stu has been climbing worldwide for the past 30 years, leading trad routes up to E7 as well as many new routes up to E6. His personal passion is onsight trad adventure climbing, with a particular interest in sea cliffs and their wild environment. He specialises in guiding across the South West coast, including Devon, Cornwall, Lundy, Jersey, and Swanage. He holds the Mountain Instructor Award (MIA) and is the only man we know who can genuinely pull off a pixie hat in a non-ironic way. If this article has convinced you of anything it's that he's a man who can get you out of (and possibly into) trouble and that you'll have a whole lot of fun along the way.