Crack climbing! What can I say about the art of climbing in between rocks that hasn't been said in the last few years? Glossy green volumes at trade shows, exploding YouTube channels, high-profile hard ascents from bridges in Sheffield to the gleaming granite of Yosemite. We have been spoiled. These days you'll often see climbers rocking their new crack gloves at Stanage, Kilt Rock, Sennen or Fair Head. But what about little old Wales?!
Wel, ffrind, I have good news! Here in Cymru, we happen to be blessed with an assortment—no, a wealth—of the most varied, adventurous, daring, frustrating, damn-bloody-awkward crack climbs that you can imagine. The rich variety of rock types and landscapes lend themselves to quirky struggles and magnificent test pieces more so than you'd think, and here I present to you a journey that spans the country and varies from style to style, from the widest of the wide to the most finicky of tight fingers. Limestone, South Wales Sandstone, Slate, Dolerite, Rhyolite: wherever you go, there will be two rocks gently leaning on each other. A rock will be hewn in two by the flow of time and the torrent of ancient rivers. There will be long scars left by a quarryman's tools—and I'm here to tell you all about them!
Full disclosure: there isn't the space here to give you a definitive list of all the proper Welsh cracks (although here is an attempt in the form of a ticklist), so rather, here is my own personal journey through Welsh crack climbing. I'm only including cracks that climb like a crack (so don't @ me about Cenotaph Corner) and ones that I feel a personal connection to that I'd like to share. I'm sure there will be some worthy ones missing (and if there are glaring omissions then please point them out to me, I'd be very glad to hear of them!).
I'll begin where it all began for me, in a way...
Herford's Crack (HVS 5a), HVS, Clogwyn y Tarw
"Indian Creek comes to Ogwen". This was the first crack I ever tried, back in the days when I was so new to climbing that I didn't even really know crack climbing was a style that existed, and specifically before I owned cams or knew to tuck the thumb when you jam! I just knew that wow, this thing is beautiful. The guidebook invoked Indian Creek (a place I'd never heard of but would one day get the chance to visit), and 'lines' don't get more line-like than this in Wales. Anyway, I jangled my hexes, set forth up the route, quickly ran out of hand-size gear, and bravely fled onto the neighbouring route. Returning many years later with cams and a bit more know-how was one of those deeply satisfying experiences that I'd describe as being similar to how I mysteriously started enjoying rugby a lot more at school after getting my growth spurt.
At the same crag, there is also the infamous Monolith Crack (HS). Several pitches of chimneys of decreasing width, the first two slots serve only to give false hope for the large.
Idwal Squeeze (V1), V???, Idwal Cottage Crag
Before I knew I enjoyed crack climbing, I knew I enjoyed watching people try and squeeze through tight holes—I have no idea what that says about me. Nevertheless, I used to take a lot of joy in taking my university friends over to the Idwal Cottage Crag and introducing them to the fun challenge of going through what can only be summed up as a 'rock birth'. Meaningless to grade, and terrifying to the claustrophobic, I was eventually guilt-tripped into giving it a go and it really is something—and it doesn't get any more roadside than this! If you want to know what it's like to push yourself through a post box slot on a 5.9 squeeze chimney in Vedauwoo, this isn't a million miles off. I tried it again five years after my initial ascent. Needless to say, I was disappointed but at least I have the cherished memory of doing it once!
Come Inside (5.9), 5.9, Rainbow Slabs
If Hereford's is the creek, then I struggle to think of a climb that I've done that bears any resemblance to Come Inside. Slate crack climbing really is something else. Flared, slightly overhanging, and ominous indeed, the mental snapshot of staring up at this is what comes to mind when I think of the word 'fissure'. Needless to say neither me nor my partner were feeling brave at the base, so a coin was flipped and I ended up getting on the sharp end. Protectable without any big gear thanks to some (admittedly quite deep) chockstones, practise your sling lasso skills before stepping up. A true exercise in friction and thrutching, this deserves a place on any chimney/offwidth (size depending) climber's ticklist.
Bridge Club (5b), 5b, Secret Taff's Well
I was a little unsure whether to include this one, but then I remembered this is an article about crack climbing, and that this is the only crag that I'm aware of that sits entirely within a (very big) crack. To find Secret Taff's Well, one must first accept that the climbing at Taff's Well is worth the effort of going there (it really, really is). Secondly, you must follow a faint path through saplings and brambles, weaving through the undergrowth at the bottom of the cliff. Turn right when you feel a dark presence looming above you in the trees, and head up the scrappy 'path' using the knotted rope provided. From here, enter the darkness...
Bridge Club, as you'd expect, is a pure wide chimney experience. With both halves of the climb separated by a good five feet of air, it's probably fair to expect that you'll be getting horizontal during the course of your ascent. A unique venue that can sometimes be sheltered from rain (but beware of condensation), if you love being in cracks then you can't get more in a crack than this.
Fear of Infection (E4 6a), E4 6a, Clogwyn Mawr Cwmglas
Unsure if she lost or won the coin toss, it was my partner's turn to lead when we made it up the steep, boggy approach to Clogwyn Mawr Cwmglas, and the horrifying yet topically-named Fear of Infection. It was to be my first experience of a 90+ minute belay (and for an 8m pitch at that!), and watching her writhe up was entertainment aplenty. Ranging in width from comfortable to horrible all too quickly, this climb tests most comers. Another memorable experience on this was topping seconds before a torrential downpour and thunderstorm ushered us, wet as an otter's pocket, down to the safety of the pub. Photogenic and stark, this climb once featured on posters during the launch of DMM's new offwidth cams (a few of which I'd recommend hauling up the hill with you for this).
It should also be noted that a fine crack link-up day is to stop on the way up to savour the delightful twin cracks of 'Yr Hwntw Bach' (the diminutive Southwalian) and 'The Mild Very Hard Hand Crack', both a pleasant test at E2 5c and 6a respectively.
The Clart Mountain Project (7b), 7b, Crymlyn Quarries
Described by some as South Wales' answer to Separate Reality, one only need watch the video of well-known South Wales strongman Si Rawlinson ticking this in the leafy-green summer at Crymlyn to feel the magnetic attraction of the CMP. A long horizontal roof crack, it may perhaps be blemished by the bolts on it (it started life as a neglected bolted aid route). I think it awaits the first greenpoint ascent. When I visited, it was wet in a way that I've only ever known old overgrown Welsh sandstone quarries to be, and plastered with a layer of grime. This climb is highly seasonal and condition dependent (think long summer heatwave), but there's no question that it remains the crown jewel of the Valleys' jam cracks and has pride of place on my own personal ticklist.
Freddie's Nightmare (V4), 6B, Mynydd Dinas
This immaculate steep splitter begs two questions:
There's bouldering in Pembroke?!
There's crack bouldering in Pembroke?!
Well, I'm thrilled to inform you that it's a double affirmative on that front. The bouldering in Pembroke is quite simply astonishingly beautiful. Wind-beaten grasslands with panoramic sea views and jagged dolerite outcrops protruding here and there across the hillsides. Mynydd Dinas is very pleasant indeed, and quick to dry. Freddie's Nightmare, specifically, is a gorgeous line, carved as if by a sculptor's hand, gently arcing skyward. Worth a visit.
The Expansionist (E3), E3, Llanbradach Quarry
This climb rates among my most prized ticks, and also one of my most harrowing experiences on a rope. It will be included on the list for the simple reason that if you don't approach it like I did, you'll have a much more pleasant time, and also because the climbing is genuinely brilliant. It's Hereford's crack, but even more like the actual Indian Creek: totally sheer and hewn from orange sandstone of the finest quality. If this line began at ground level, there would be hundreds of repeats and glowing reviews, however unfortunately, it doesn't. For me, the approach meant following a corroded line of bolts to its apex, and then either forging a path leftward through a totally unprotectable ~6a+ wall of loose and crumbling blocks and shale, or rightward, leading to a deep crack and chock (full of dead brambles) and up through what can only be described as a near-vertical wall of dirt. I managed to save myself (after 20 minutes of shouting "HEEEELP" to my friend Dave who was trying to drop a rope down to me from the jungle above) by using a chalk brush to literally dig vertical slots to carefully stand up on and eventually flop over, a dirty shivering mess, on to the start belay.
The point is, you should ab in.
Please be wary of bird presence and check the RAD; it's a well-established nesting spot.
Dina Crac (E9), E9 (f8b+), Dinas Rock
When I stumbled upon Tom Randall's blog detailing his efforts on this test piece, I was blown away! Real test piece trad cracks exist and, not only do they exist, they exist right down the road from me (OK, maybe an hour down the M4)! The thought of crack hall-of-famer Tom Randall spending so many nights, over three years of effort, in his van in the familiar Dinas Rock car park where I've spent so much time climbing is part of what makes climbing so great to me. That feeling of a shared canvas no matter your ability is something quite unique to climbing. Regardless, this is one that hasn't seen a repeat despite the rumoured attention of both Ben Bransby and Si Rawlinson. Apparently quite dependent on finger morphology, it costs nothing to wander upstream and gaze upwards at the little seam which saw such struggle. Calling all so-called pro climbers and mega-wads: come and give Dina some love!
Cobalt Dream (E5 6b), E5/E6 5b, Drws Nodded
We all hate to log a DNF, but it stings particularly painfully when the walk-in is as much of a grueller as this one up to Drws Nodded (although the views of Tryfan's East face are dazzling). I first spotted this while learning to multi-pitch on Grooved Arête, many years ago. You can see the maw of the mountain looming above the slabs and marshes of Nant Gwern y Gof. In summer, mountain flowers bloom here and there are some amazing rock formations to gaze at as you sweat through your shirt hauling your pack up the hill.
Regardless, on my only attempt at this, just as he swung his feet up high above his head for the inverted crux, my partner Stu let out a cry of anguish: he'd put his back out on the crux leaving no option but retreat (there is decent tat below the roof allowing such a thing). Described by the Wideboyz as "Tricky E5, or just give it E6" and "pretty good", I heard that Caff once was heard dry heaving at the belay after trying it. A cracked slab leading to a roof neatly cut in half, this route is nothing to be sniffed at, but is perfectly protectable and you'd be following in auspicious footsteps.
George's Crack (f6C+), F6C, George's Crack Area, Afon Lloer
An awkward, rising, inverted offwidth on a jagged cluster of boulders next to afon Lloer in Dyffryn Ogwen; I'm told that Pete Whittaker once climbed this in a weight vest, a feat that utterly boggles my mind. Well-known Peak District 7B invert test piece Melvyn Bragg barely holds a candle to this ferocious beast. Named for its author, George Smith, I could feature four or five more of his brilliant bouldering cracks here. Steep, smooth, a slot in the truest sense of the word, this thing requires technique, fitness, and brutal effort in equal measure if a punter is to succeed. I've tried this three times already and desperately want to return again. Part of what I love about offwidth climbing is that I attribute (perhaps wrongly) a higher proportionality between pure effort and success than in most other types of climbing. In short: you have to really want it. George's personifies that and I highly recommend it.
Liquid Armbar (E4 6a), E4 6a, Mancer Quarry
What's in a name? Well this is one of my favourites, and a really, really excellent two-pitch romp out of the depths of Mancer Quarry. Put up by North Wales local, Mark Dicken, whose many, many crack exploits should be stuff of legend. Featuring some really excellent gaston/arm bar/knee jam combos, this is one of the lines I've enjoyed most out of the entirety of this list. Just enjoyable! Slate offwidth climbing really is unique, and this is a textbook example. There's no relying on friction or just brute force (looking at you, laybackers): you simply won't get up it without at least a dollop of technique. Honourable mention to the neighbouring Stevie Haston contribution: the The Mancer Direct (E3 5b). A testing struggle requiring an enormous cam or use of the abseil rope for setting up the middle belay. Look out for loose slates, but the climbing is fantastic.
Tosheroon 7A+/MXS 6b, Benllech
Another well-named Mark Dicken number, and a Terry Pratchett reference to boot: "a lump of debris and rubbish made of the mud and gunk found clogged in drains. While they appear worthless, tosheroons can contain valuable items, such as old coins, lost rings and alike." An astonishing seven years in the making, this mammoth undertaking is something I'd love to draw attention to. A semi-aquatic excursion through cracks of all sizes, with barnacles either helping or hindering, this climb is on my life ticklist for sure. To attempt the climb, a low spring tide is needed which gives about 3 hours of access before completely submerging the cave. The cave will reportedly "never dry out" so leave your chalk bag at home (but bring your headtorch).
If totally unique, 3-D, technique-heavy, beta-focused climbing is your bag, then do seek it out. All the relevant information sits alongside the thrilling first-hand account.
Llanyguts (f6B+), 6a+, Neath Abbey Quarry
I didn't include this because it's my favourite first ascent, I promise! Hidden under some vines, full of dead leaves and brambles, I knew when I saw it that not only would it go, but that it would also be an opportunity for some upside-down climbing, truly a rare delicacy in the southern ranges of our country! To find such a clump of fun next to some already established boulders in a popular area, I think the message of Llanyguts is to keep your eyes open for what lies between the boulders! Stick your feet up in there if you can't get your hands in! Look for chicken wings where there are no holds! Go to Neath Abbey Quarry, ignore all the crimpy test pieces and get stuck in my upside-down crack (and give it three stars on UKC...).
If you've got this far, I congratulate you! You've come with me through choss, constrictions, bleeding fists and barnacles. Hopefully one day when I've put down my pads/heavy rack of cams/many rolls of tape, I'll be startled by the sight/sound of someone else having just made the same choice of esoteric Welsh crack climb! Maybe we can strike up a conversation about the ethics of triple-layered tape gloves (it's legit) or whether it's ok to start an invert sticking your feet up high using your head as a third foot on the ground (it's not). Some of these climbs have ascents in the single digits, and the beauty of a crack climb is that they're commonly very safe. So what's your excuse?! Get out there!
And finally, thank you to Mark Dicken, Bethan Cox, Simon Panton, Huw Brace, Stu Bradbury, Heather Osborne, Aaron Evans, Rosa Taylor-Beale, Dave Taylor, George Killaspy, Tom Randall et al for photos and information/belays/spots/company, it's been a blast.
Arm bar: Using a slightly bent arm in a crack (not as bent as a chicken wing) to stay in and move up a crack, typically most strenuous on the bicep.
Chicken wing: A technique whereby you insert your elbow into the crack, and use it to hold yourself in via opposing pressure and torque of the forearm against the back of the crack, with fingers pointing downwards. Looks a bit like its namesake, the food. Very comfortable if done right!
Chockstones: A rock caught in the act of falling: when anything from a pebble to a boulder becomes lodged in a crack. Can be used as a hold, or a piece of gear.
Choss: Poor quality rock, best avoided.
Gaston: Using a hold by pushing it away rather than pulling it towards you. In crack climbing, typically paired with an arm bar to progress.
Greenpoint: To climb a bolted route without using the bolts (using traditional protection).
Invert: The practice of climbing (typically) a crack while upside-down, usually hanging from your feet. It's fun, I swear!
Knee jam: The insertion and flexing of the knee, causing expansion and a cam-esque locking in place.
Offwidth: Arguably the best size of crack (hey isn't climbing supposed to be challenging?).
Squeeze chimney: A crack wide enough to swallow the challenger's whole body, often not by a comfortable margin though (hence the difficulties).
Splitter: A crack that holds the aesthetic quality of being quite regular in diameter. Picture a line drawn down the cliff with a fine marker, and then splitting the cliff perfectly down the line and moving one half to the side by a few inches.
Thrutching: A kind of full-body way of moving up a crack, using all limbs, shoulders, buttocks, core, and more. Onomatopoeic!
- INTERVIEW: Roy Thomas 7 Apr