Stu Bradbury shares his stories from global offwidth pilgrimages...
"Vertical wide cracks showcase geology's works of art, drawing the eye ever upwards, creating inspiration and fuelling a climber's imagination in equal measure, these brutal cracks are where the spirit meets the bone!"
2019 was quite a ride and despite the fact that I'm now creaking towards 60, it just goes to show that life still has so much more to throw and the old adage "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" has never rung more true.
I have travelled extensively over the past two years, taking in the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Corsica, Jersey, Lundy and the USA exclusively in search of inspiration in the form of wide cracks, following up leads from tip offs or inspired by photographs which have ignited my interest, or finding areas with a reputation for the style.
I'm not good at dealing with the wet grey nothingness that passes for British winters, I find them depressing and don't cope well with the inactivity, so in a way the following scribblings are as much a personal therapy as a reflection, as well as allowing me to relive the journey taken, it also sows new seeds for the future. This article is a reflection and consolidation of the past 12 months (2018/2019) in my hunt to find what lurks in the shadows and my attempts to physically fill the void.
It's funny how obsession evolves...When I first started climbing in the late '80s it was all about mileage; anything and everything, climb, climb, climb, I just couldn't get enough. I guess it's all about gaining experience, fine tuning your skills, finding out what you were good at, what's fun, what really makes you tick and discovering new areas...at the end of every climbing day I was planning for the next.
Gritstone was my local rock at that time: short but full of beautiful aesthetic lines, physical, delicate, psychological - it's got it all! Grit teaches you to trust your feet to friction, to move around on rounded sloping holds, it gets you dialled into the internal body language of movement and fine-tunes your balance... AND...if you let it, it will teach you to jam! This apprenticeship has stood me in good stead though the years and led on to further adventures from Yosemite to Eastern Europe with jamming and wide cracks along with technical grooves evolving into my style of choice.
My initial love of cracks from those gritstone days really started at the hand jam size and despite the grades I have achieved through the years I often think back to those classic jam cracks in the Peak at the magical grade of HVS and the challenges which grit provides; if there is one grade or style that still gives me a warm glow of pleasure inside, then grit HVS jamming is it.
I remember one day with particular fondness...I made the decision the night before to go and solo a bunch of the classic HVS jam cracks on Staffordshire grit, so the following morning I threw some rock shoes and a chalk bag into a rucksack, kick-started the old Ducati single into life and thundered up to the Roaches with a mental tick list.
I started on Hen Cloud, which at the time was always quiet and proceeded to tick off the Whillans classic Bachelor's left hand (Steady on!) followed by Joe Brown's superb steep crack Delstree, and Encouragement - all in total isolation before taking off through the bracken to the Five Clouds to bag Rubberneck... from there it was up to the Roaches lower tier to wrestle with the delights of The Mincer followed by the upper tier for Saul's Crack and The Sloth...
After a manic flurry of action in just under three hours, I was sat at the top of the upper tier taking in the wider landscape of Staffordshire feeling pretty pleased with myself. An hour and a half's foot peg-scrapping ride back on the twisty lanes through Uttoxeter to Wolverhampton, stopping for a swift pint on the way, put a fine full stop on a perfect and memorable day.
Having lived in Cornwall now for the past 20 years I don't get to climb in the Peak much these days, but you never forget where you cut your teeth and still think of it with much fondness. (I really must make time this year as there's still a stash of wideness I need to get stuck into!)
As I have gotten older I am now more into quality than quantity, so I tend to choose my battles. My motivation comes from inspiration and if the line ignites me I give it my all. The travelling never stops; there is nothing more exciting than wondering around a new area looking for vertical treasure, not knowing what's around the next corner - it still excites me now after all these years and still keeps giving, it's what keeps me coming back for more.
So over the years I have repeatedly been drawn back to jam cracks and wider and they are always the first things on my radar when arriving at a new crag, because for me they offer the most striking objectives. Cracks of all sizes give stunning challenges, although tight finger cracks are not particularly my bag and to be honest it's always been the wider routes which have had me under their spell. It's not that I shun my weaknesses, but hell, it's good to play to your strengths, especially when you're having so much fun in the process. As my experience widened so did the cracks, and after my initial grovelling I found myself going out of my way to battle the depths of offwidths with a little more finesse (sort of).
So what is the attraction? They have a reputation for being awkward, physical, brutal. The arrogant punk of crack sizes. They can be all of those, especially on first acquaintance, when not versed in the art of pasting yourself into the wideness and milking the nuances, but therein lays part of the reason: the fact that you can never presume the outcome from the ground regardless of grade. They demand a committed, inventive approach; climb them with an open mind in the knowledge that there is always more to learn and prepare to be humbled. The pleasure gained from having to really dig in and come out on top pays off tenfold.
Even the route names are intriguing, conjuring up images of dread and pain which will either appeal or repulse...violator, dentist's chair, wave of mutilation, where the spirit meets the bone, blood sweat and suffering, dig deep growl loud, how could you not want to at least dip your toe in the water and have a taste?
I love the sort of individual offshoot from the standard format which they provide, creating a unique oddball niche along with the buzz of passion which is radiated by the small bunch of dedicated wide heads worldwide. It has a scene and history all of its own, giving a mythical aura which paints these physical cracks as the "Ogre," "The ugly sister" and "The big bad wolf" of the climbing world and not without reason.
Don't underestimate the brutal physicality of this uncompromising style. The effort and techniques needed for success means that injury is often only a route or a move away. I have personally suffered at their hands, having snapped a biceps tendon, torn a rotator cuff and dislocated a shoulder three times and a knee once in the last 12 months! I am at the time of writing taking time out from the abuse and working with a physio to rehab my shoulders. I appreciate that I'm not selling them very well but they are strangely addictive.
So for me, after years of climbing and fine-tuning my overall skills for climbing in general to find something totally different yet in the same arena is like rediscovering the joy all over again, and you're suddenly back at the bottom of the pile getting your ass kicked! It just goes to show that there is always something new to learn.
Just think back to the early days of your climbing and the pure joy it brought, the movement, the excitement, the learning curve, breaking a new grade, achieving more than you thought you could! The crazy thing is, it's the journey that is where the real fun is, the discovery, the personal improvement, having something to work towards, it's amazing how it fuels the drive to get better.
The first time we discover anything that really hits the mark leaves a lasting impression and fumbling along that steep learning curve is where the joy lies, those initial first experiences are often the most exciting and stay with us forever, whether it's drink, drugs, sex, riding a motorcycle at 100mph or climbing, even if they aren't executed with the best skill or judgement in those early stages! In a way, we spend the rest of our lives trying to re-live or recapture those moments, that initial buzz.
It's all about enjoying the process. Finesse and limits have to be found, often via trial and error and that's where the excitement is, that's where addictions are formed. I'm sure I'm not the only one that has had to work on my finesse and limits in all departments! In fact, I still can't drink more than a few pints without falling over! But at least I know my limits and the consequences for ignoring them... So for me, therein lies the joy of climbing obnoxious wide cracks...after years of climbing, to discover it all again was a revelation!
Having spent many years picking off wide cracks as and when I came across them, I have slowly become more and more focused on finding harder routes. Over the past five years, it has evolved into an addiction that has taken over my personal climbing, so this year I decided to follow my own ideals and set about on a one-man crusade, single-mindedly driven by the aim of searching out and climbing nothing but offwidths!
It's true that the UK is not renowned for being the best venue in the world for wide cracks (but we do have some superb quality short test pieces if you are of the mind to go looking and want to improve your skills) so with that in mind I set about doing some research and hatched a plan to find the best places offering routes of character and history. It was a journey I was sure would further improve my skills in the process...It was a journey that served to deepen my enthusiasm despite the toll it took on my body.
You will notice I have omitted to add grades to any of the routes in this article and there is a good reason for this: in my opinion, offwidths almost defy grading under the standard grading system. They really could do with their own form of grading so they can be compared to each other rather than to other styles of climbing, as the style is so totally different from anything else. They cannot be graded purely on physical effort, if that were the case they would be graded in the stratosphere; it's the intricate technicalities that make the difference.
Each individual climber's attempt to fill the void is often totally different from the next. Techniques or beta that works for one can be totally useless for another, based on the width of the crack in relation to the girth, chest, hand and foot size of each climber and success will often be down to personal determination and inventiveness.
Just take it that all the routes in this article sit somewhere between 5.10 and 5.12 or E2 to E5 and if you find yourself dribbling for the challenge then go and find out for yourself!
It has to be said that it's not easy finding like-minded partners when it comes to getting on this kind of wacky shit day after day, when sometimes success from the struggle proves elusive, leaving you with no "Holy grail" but just a bunch of bruises and aching muscles for your efforts... you soon find out who your friends are (and aren't!) I have therefore shared the quest with numerous partners who were sometimes keen to get stuck in and follow me on these routes and sometimes just good enough to belay and shout abuse (Sorry! I mean encouragement) so I would like to shout a BIG Thanks to Lee Bartrop, Nick Dill and Matt George, I am truly grateful for your time, effort and friendship.
So with that groundwork laid down, let's reflect on the past year's discoveries. Here is a selection of the most memorable routes and areas, taking in France, Spain, Sweden, Czech, Germany and USA. Look what I found!
Annot was bought to my attention by North Devon's "Medicine man" and climbing friend Dan Gorvett who had briefly visited the area when on a climbing trip in Southern France. His suggestion was based on the fact that Tom Randall had been there and put up a wide crack which he called Bigbrophylia which instantly sparked my attention!
He said that from memory, there was other wide stuff and it might be worth me taking a look. On top of that he then produced a skinny, locally produced guidebook which he had bought from one of the local bars and he kindly lent me (only available from the local village).
My interest was further ignited once I started flicking through its pages and noticed an area marked Offwidth Paradise! so with my usual focus I sat down and mulled over each page searching for key words...offwidth... Camalot 5…Camalot 6 or Big Bro and compiled a hit list!
The route names spoke for themselves, Bigbrophylia, Root canal, Diedre Rambo, Tight fight, Fissure du trou du cul (Ass hole crack!) to name a few...I had to go! With further intricate info on the area kindly provided by strong Sheffield-based climber Sophie Whyte, a plan was hatched for a visit. Luckily my old mate Lee Bartrop from North Cornwall was up for it and in usual Bradbury/Bartrop style, a shoestring budget trip was thrown together and we flew into the beautiful city of Nice in southern France.
From there we took a chilled-out and scenic train journey and were spit out at Annot station, which as it turned out is also the start of the access trails to all of the climbing areas! The stunning fortified village and surrounding area is magnificent and the beautifully featured rough sandstone provides a unique and relatively unknown trad climbing venue situated high above the village surrounded by woodland.
We travelled light (if you can say a carrying bunch of huge cams and Big Bros is light!) and slept feral with no tent and totally immersed ourselves in the atmosphere, eating, breathing and sleeping to the pulse of the forest, the smell of the sandstone earth in our nostrils, our waking hours dictated by the sun, the moon and the local wildlife. Up with the sun, searching, discovering and climbing our fill, topped off with the taste of French wine and one-pan cooking - it felt like heaven.
The climbing was superb, mainly long single pitch trad with bolted belays and although the area is only small in the general scheme of things, the offwidth and wide cracks we found were second to none, giving striking lines which were both strenuous and technical for the style and of a quality that I have not found elsewhere in Europe outside of Germany's Elbesandstein or Czech Republic's Teplice and Adrsapach areas.
I managed to tick off 90% of the offwidths in the guidebook, plus add a new route which was a unique find, hidden inside the bowels of the crag, which we called Lost Art.
It has since been brought to my attention by Dutch offwidth enthusiast Kris Schrivjers that he has found and added more wide lines, so there will without question be another trip this year to soak up more of its delights.
Of the routes that were climbed, here is a small selection of the best...
A superb, long and strenuous excursion from chimney to squeeze to diagonal offwidth requiring a wide variety of techniques. a gold Big Bro 5 or a Valley Giant would be useful for protection lower down (I had neither). Alternatively, just dig in.
Fan de la reine
A steep, striking line which is situated on the left after entering the netherworld of Chambre du Roi just after the tunnel. It starts at Camalot 6 size, which tips out halfway when a blue Bro or a VG will keep your pulse regular, otherwise breathe deep, dig in, work your chicken wings and don't screw up the awkward exit moves! (I left my Bros on the floor thinking it was 6s all the way. It's amazing where you find energy from when you realise your last pro is at half height!)
Fissure du trou du cul
This short but gnarly beast is situated opposite the previous route and is an overhanging offwidth in a corner with an undercut bomb bay type start off a small ledge. The cramped crux start is solved by weird, strenuous moves which don't feel like they will work even when you're doing them! So to fall out after you have made the effort is both frustrating and exhausting, but once you get the gist it allows you access to further abuse higher up. It was the last route of my trip and it felt like the hardest thing I climbed all week.
Situated in an amazing spot with superb views and accessed along a very exposed crumbling "via ferrata" style walkway (old ropes in place) A great-looking route which gives some fine hand/fist stacking.
Wow! What a line...This has to be one of the classic lines of the area. It offers both inspiring and photogenic climbing on a soaring curved crack line in a corner with a slabby right wall and although not really falling into the offwidth category, it is wide and uses hand to fist to stacks and is a must on a visit. It is situated further along the aforementioned walkway further right of "Root canal"
Spain: La Pedriza
The granite area of La Pedriza near Madrid had been brought to my attention by a guide out in Picos de Europa (Northern Spain) when I was there big wall rope soloing on the West face of the Naranjo de Bulnes back in 2008. La Pedriza was his home area and he was raving about the climbing and its beauty. I stored it up in my grey matter for a visit at some point in the future.
A few years later I had the pleasure of climbing with a pretty handy climber from La Pedriza by the name of Palan Martin whilst hosting on the BMC's International meet in Wales. As is often the case, one of the perks of these meets is the offer and opportunity to climb in new areas with new-found friends, so that autumn saw me boarding a flight to Madrid.
La Pedriza sits high above the small town of Manzanares del Real about 45 mins from Madrid and is made up of miles of granite rocks spread over the surrounding mountains looking very much like the offwidth mecca of Vedauwoo in the US. From experience, I have found it is open to extremes of weather at both ends of the scale due to its altitude.
It's a relatively unknown area outside of Spain and from my many visits seems seldom visited by climbers from elsewhere and other than large gatherings of weekend walkers it stays pretty quiet, giving a wonderfully isolated feel.
The area has a reputation for hard and bold slab climbing on its rounded domes, offering very compact and solid technical climbing of great quality and although the slabs are mainly bolted I would use the term "pport climbing" very loosely as the run-outs can provide a very intense experience more akin to the trad "head game" than sport, with potential for skin shredding falls down abrasive granite dished out to those lacking in concentration or technique. That said, I didn't go looking for the hundreds if not thousands of superb slab routes. No, I was hunting for fat cracks, trad style.
The only guidebook I could find in the UK was the one covering sport routes, which gave me a general feel and some topography but not enough depth. As it turns out there is a trad guide available but only in Spain, so once armed with that, I spent hours scoping through its photos and text for giveaway signs of wideness. It's not renowned for wide cracks, but from experience granite usually comes up trumps. All I had to do was follow up my research with the legwork and I would hopefully hit the jackpot!
I found a few gems on that trip and thanks to Palan got a real feel for the area. I climbed some superb routes which left a lasting impression to the point that I think it was in this place that the spark for exclusively searching out fat cracks was ignited (partly because it highlighted holes in my technique!) The walk ins can be long - it's certainly not a dip in, quick fix climbing area, you have to be prepared to walk, and can easily get lost or spend hours trying to find your route until you get a feel for the place.
I personally like to become immersed in an area, to be surrounded by its nature, to really feel its heartbeat. I often bivi high up in its niches where I can roll out of bed, get the coffee on and really take it all in. I became totally engrossed in a magical area high up which I feel is the soul of Pedriza called "El Laberinto" (The Labyrinth) which as the name suggests is quite complex and holds many secrets and hidden gems. It really feeds your imagination and takes you back to childhood when everything was a wonder. It also turns out to be one of the best spots for wide cracks, giving a fair concentration of the best in the area which are hidden in its passages awaiting your discovery and smoldering away waiting to kick your ass!
Here's a selection of the best...All of which are situated in or around the Hueso and El Laberinto area.
Zenit: One of my favourites which gives a powerful route of great character, solid and exhausting...prepare to heave on this beast! It has a fantastic-looking alternative start coming in from the left via a hanging, undercut wide crack...I will be back!
Rosarito: This is just right of the previous route and gives quality crack climbing over 2 pitches.
Charles Cole: This takes a fantastic diagonal offwidth line which is rarely repeated, it gives a stiff lower section followed by a breather before the final jamming roof.
La de Josechu: I've not been on this invert beast and it has not had many repeats, short and stiff with some strenuous trick moves.
Boomerang: A beautiful boomerang-shaped crack offering some ace climbing and an interesting finish.
Gustrapo: Straight-in wide squeeze, not very varied but good to get your chicken wings flapping. (Unfortunately it is bolted but can be climbed with one Camalot 6 and a Valley Giant 9)
Kamet: The wideness is the first pitch of a magnificent multi pitch route that can be done in its own right. It gives a stiff fight, as not only is it wide, it's diagonal and it's flared - all merging to give a strenuous battle.
Sangre sudor y sufrimiento (Blood sweat and suffering) An amazing, inspiring line, which after an awkward section low down gives a more straightforward but enjoyable offwidth to squeeze.
Others I did are scattered around the National Park including Urk Urk, LSD and two new routes in the Labyrinth and Yelmo areas.
The crack of Offline overhung from its start, in typical offwidth style it only allowed access for a leg and a wing but then barred the way. I made quick work of the lower section but now the crack became devious, it had its own agenda, it was going to play with me...The words "No man shall pass" rang through my head, Monty Python style, the crack staggered out right and overhung further, can things get any more awkward?
Things got strenuous, it forced me to make crazy shapes to stay in its jaws. Move right on hand jams, drop both feet out of the crack into space and use the swinging momentum to bring the right leg up above shoulder level and bury it deep in the crack up to my groin level with the hand jams. Looking like I had been half-eaten by the crag with one leg locked in place and the other flagging below on friction, it allowed me to remove my hands and replace them in a hand/fist stack in the overhanging crack above my head...
The following moves got even more wacky! Hanging from the hand stack I had to now, somehow, remove the right leg and replace it with the left so I could move further rightwards to get established in its rising diagonal wideness. I had a breather off the locked left leg and placed a Camalot 5 above. From here I hauled on the hand/fist stack, stood up on the left foot and flagged the right leg out wide off friction on the overhanging wall. From that position I placed a good knee bar and tried to advance the hand stack. Unfortunately the crack widened, quickly forcing me to make a swift move out of the stacks into a deep arm bar and a counter pressure, gaston-style position off the opposing arm. I was really digging in now, fighting just to stay in and screaming with determination!
With one leg and one arm deep in the crack desperately trying to stay locked in place, the other arm worked the outside edge of the crack whilst the foot scratched around for friction for upward drive. In small strenuous increments I gained height. I could taste success. The crack just laughed, then spit me into the air! I was well and truly Offline.
You don't get many chances at onsighting these beasts, they take everything and leave you drained. I did get back on and make the belay, but after all the effort I was gutted. Unfortunately the weather didn't give me the chance for another bout and I had to leave Sweden without the prize.
I had aims to visit the Swedish granite area of Bohuslan at some point and as luck would have it I was approached by a couple of my more adventurous clients and asked if I would be interested in guiding them on a trip. I always enjoy their company and we always get some great routes in the bag, so I was more than happy to oblige, the added benefit was that I would add an extra week on at the end of the trip so I could go and hunt down some wide cracks for myself.
The area sits close to the coast in the south west and is pretty spread out and somehow has a different feel to the rest of Europe, having a unique character of its own. We flew into Gothenbourg and based ourselves around Brodalen. I was already fairly clued-in with a tick list as I had borrowed Mark Kemball's guidebook from when he had visited the area on his way up to Norway a few years earlier. It doesn't have reams of offwidths, but it has some stiff propositions which would give me a run for my money for a week.
I was pleased to be joined by my old buddy Nick Dill, with whom I have shared some of my best climbing experiences and who is a strong crack climber in his own right. The weather didn't play in our favour, but we bagged some great routes and got battered by others, so it was well worth the effort and the area is beautiful. For those keen for fat cracks check out these and as usual take their given grades with a pinch of salt.
Offline: An overhanging and diagonal battle which is not over till the very end.
Tydliga Hornet: A fine corner of steep wideness giving some great, pushy moves.
Storebror: The obvious clean and striking wide feature in the centre of the crag gives a great outing, which is run-out and hard to protect.
Torsketaket: This is a powerful route with overhanging climbing and was the scene of my third shoulder dislocation!
Ingemars Kamin: A long and fine-looking challenge that can stay wet for a good while after rain.
Presenten: (Invert) We didn't get a chance to try this, but visited the crag on a wet day, it looks nails!
Both of these are short, but good to fine-tune technique and burn a few calories.
Layback sprackan: An ace straight in offwidth. Whether you find it easy or hard will depend on what fits and what doesn't!
Germany and Czech Republic: Elbsandstein.
A crack climbing area of utmost quality with a twist on real adventure and commitment, offering the best jamming and wide cracks outside of the USA - and that's quite a claim. No need for big cams or Big Bros here, just big balls and a belief in your own immortality! For the style of climbing these are hands down my favourite areas and to be honest they are worth an article in their own right. The routes offer a stiff challenge both physically and psychologically and leave a lasting impression on mind, body and soul. Situated in eastern Europe where the mighty Elbe river flows through the border of the Czech Republic into former East Germany between Prague and Dresden, it truly is a sensational area to climb in.
My long-term relationship with the area started in 1998/1999 and I got totally infatuated to the point that for ten years I didn't want to climb anywhere else and in the end I had to remind myself that there were other areas out there in the big wide world that I needed to visit, so with that in mind I made the effort to leave it behind and go searching elsewhere. It was only when I returned last year that I realised, after all of the climbing areas in all of the countries I had visited, that I had really found what I was looking for in the first place!
If you're into cracks, it really is that good! Beautifully aesthetic, free-standing sandstone towers up to 350ft in height, each providing their own challenge and inaccessible summit, laced with features that draw the eye and fire the imagination, looking like gritstone's big brother and to top it off, it's all situated in a magical landscape of forest and shrouded in mystery. It feels like something from a Brothers Grimm fairytale.
Aside from the aura, what sets it aside from other areas worldwide is its pure ethics. Due to its soft sandstone rock, once its hard exterior is broken through, it falls apart like dried compacted sugar! So no damaging nuts or cams here, or chalk! Protection is from a rack of soft, supple knotted rope of various sizes tied overhand style to form slings which are used in the same way as nuts and hexes to jam into the cracks, supplemented by occasional well run-out rings which look like rusty door knockers. These are placed on lead, ground-up! No top-roping to work new routes! Just pure adventure, skill and bravery - even established routes provide a stiff head game, let alone putting up new ones! The boldness, history and standards achieved by the early pioneers whilst climbing barefoot or in rope-soled shoes is staggering and with its sustained stripped-back ethics, this area still offers a pure challenge for modern climbers.
What drew me back to the area was a gobsmacking vertical offwidth crack which I had seen called Udolni, which splits the centre of the Hlaska tower and was close to 50m long. It had earned itself a legendary reputation and posed a major challenge for its style.This route was situated outside of the Elbe sandstone area itself, much further east and close to the border of Poland in the small area of Teplice near Adrspach and reached by a train ride from Prague.
It was my main objective for the trip and when I saw it in the flesh I was blown away! A perfect pure offwidth. No uncertainty of line here, no deviation, just dig in and grind and hope you have the technique and stamina. One of the best-looking wide cracks I have ever seen anywhere, period. The protection was large rusty rings (the size of large door knockers) and they were spaced to add spice to the experience, and once in the wide crack proper there were no intermediate knots and certainly No Cams!
In a way this saved a lot of hassle and weight, but it was also a double edged sword; it meant you just had to approach the climbing with commitment and determination, none of the usual bumping of big cams. It meant you had to run it out, but at least once they were clipped you were safe and could concentrate on the climbing. I decided to check out the bottom section up to the second ring to get my head around the rock and the crack size, so that I knew what was required for a proper go the following day, then I headed down to get some rest.
I pulled on to the sandy diagonal crack low down, passing an old jammed knot and some dubious-sounding flakes to place a further knot on the way to the offwidth crack proper. From there it didn't hang around getting to business! Straight into butterfly stacks and knee locks which felt solid, then it opened wider, flaring a little and giving insecure moves to reach the second ring. I wedged myself in place and tried to clip the ring at full arm's reach while the ring kept swinging in its shaft, door knocker style.
Very aware of the distance from the last ring and the fall potential should I screw up the clip, I shuffled up a little higher, heart pumping. I still couldn't get the clip! Not overly enthralled with my precarious position but with no other option, I had to make another move. I only managed to get it clipped on my third attempt after getting level with the ring off some awkward locks - I breathed a sigh of relief.
I passed one more ring right side in, then rotated and swapped sides to left side in. Progress was strenuous. I pushed on inch-worming with constantly changing combinations of stacks and locks as the crack shape undulated, fighting to stay in and puffing like a train....I reached the fifth ring where thankfully the crack widened opening to allow a squeeze then some back and footing and with relief was spat out at the top.
Each tower has a small metal box at its inaccessible summit containing an ascent book and pencil to log your efforts. I can't say I was surprised by the fact that It had only had one ascent that year, but I was surprised that I was in good company and that the ascent before that was by Adam Ondra! Flicking a couple of pages back revealed Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall's ascent from 2013! As it turned out, it had only received about twelve ascents in close to six years! Obviously a popular route.
It certainly has to rate amongst the longest and most sustained straight-in offwidth cracks I have done anywhere and although we bagged other great routes on that trip, Udolni was the real deal and well worth the trip in its own right. There are so many great cracks in these areas, but here is a bunch of ace jam/wide cracks to check out for those inspired enough to make the trip.
Elbsandstein area (Germany)
Felsensportweg (Wolfsspitze tower)
Ostrisse (Drifingerturm tower)
Talseite (Schwager tower)
Schildburgerriss (Mullerstein tower)
Teplice area (Czech Republic) I only had an old and rudimentary guide with very limited info so could not find names to some of the routes we did as we just jumped on what inspired.
I would like to say a big thanks to Dominik Zalewski for taking the time and supplying the following route name info.
Udolni (Hlaska tower)
Vsechno je jak za mlada (Zabrezska tower)
Zalomena spara (Tarzan tower)
USA: Moab and Indian Creek
The deeper into the style you get the more you realise that there is a big gap in completing your offwidth apprenticeship if you haven't climbed in Utah! This is the land of milk and honey when it comes to fat cracks; the mother of all offwidth areas, with its soaring and unrelenting sandstone lines in the desert areas of Moab and Indian Creek. You are taking your wide skills to another level, now they become stamina fests...Dig in, taste the rock and revel in the suffering.
I don't know what took me so long to get to the desert sandstone, it had been a high priority since my early gritstone days...I figured I had better get out there soon whilst I can still climb at a reasonable level. My old mate Lee Bartrop joined me along with Matt George from Penzance who seemed pretty keen to share in the wide journey. It worked out well and in the end I was more than happy with my achievements, climbing close to 20 big offwidths including two new routes in a three week period and onsighting everything bar two routes. The influence and inspiration of American climbers such as the late Craig Luebben, Pamela Shanti Pack, Devin Finn, Jimmie Dunn, Jay Anderson and Pat Kingsbury played highly in my motivation and after three decades of climbing I felt it was one of my most enjoyable and productive trips.
The first week was a steep learning curve just trying to get to grips with the nuances of its smoothness, the lines often being devoid of useful holds both inside or outside of the cracks. They were hard task masters which punished you for anything other than crisp technique - that first week in Moab was a real leveller. For a start, the routes were all foreshortened, I learnt the hard way that I needed to carry more big gear, or trail a tag line to pull up extra kit. Bumping a limited rack of big cams all the way has its benefits and its pitfalls, especially when the crack pinches up or widens and you have to leave it behind, only to realise a further 30ft up you needed the same size again and you've burnt your bridges! But carrying a big rack of big cams and Big Bros is heavy and adds frustration to an already exhausting battle, it's then that you realise how small our UK offwidths are in comparison when pretty well anything can be climbed with two big cams tops!
Judging the width on these 40m/50m lines from the ground also proved difficult. Believe it or not, there are offwidth sizes within offwidths and the real nailer size on this smooth sandstone kicks in at Camalot 4 to tight 5s where you can't get knee locks for levitation and you have to deep calf lock with your leg at waist height, which proves to be pretty core intensive. The beauty is, I was learning tons with every route and throwing shapes I had only read about. I even got to use double overhead chicken wings and double knee stacks, moving up inch worm style! I was having a ball!
We planned for a week in Moab, but unfortunately a mixed bag of weather curtailed my plans as we wanted to move on to the Creek. The main area of interest in Moab was Long Canyon, which is the setting for a clutch of the best offwidths in the area, all courtesy of the late offwidth master Craig Luebben, who left a real legacy. Luebben classics such as The Major, Ralph, Done Lubin, Sidewinder and Dragon's Lair all sit within a spit of each other! To be totally honest there were enough stunning routes of the style just in Long Canyon to have held my attention for the entire trip, but going back to the same area day after day to climb "fat" would have pushed my friendships to the limit, so to be fair it was not really an option. The stars didn't really line up.
On the walk up to do Dragon's Lair I was stopped in my tracks by two of the most stunning lines I have ever seen! I knew straight away from photos I had seen that the right one was Pamela Shanti Pack's test piece Dark Passenger, which along with her other route Kill Artist were the Holy Grail of my tick list. I was transfixed; I forgot all about Dragon's Lair and got straight on the left hand line as a warm up, which was named in the guide as Tooth Fairy 5.10 - the climbing was fantastic. I battled my way up to a section about 15ft from the chain toward the end of the first pitch, only to be confronted by the dreaded calf lock. I tried it every which way but couldn't get it to stick and I eventually fell out! F*CK! In frustration I threw my toys out the pram...I shouted down "If this is 5.10 I'm f*cked!" I could see myself running back to Ol' Blighty with my tail between my legs! I tried it numerous times without success, so pulled through the difficult move on a cam and back into the climbing above to finish the pitch. Whilst I hung at the lower-off, I scoped out the second pitch. From memory, having watched footage of Pamela Shanti Pack inverting the second pitch of Kill Artist, the features above me looked uncannily like that very route! Matt also agreed with my thinking...
It wasn't until we met Pam a week later in the Creek that she confirmed that the route was in fact Kill Artist and it had been written up wrongly in the new guide as Tooth Fairy and that it had still not had a second ascent, to say I was pleased with my effort was an understatement as I felt that at stiff 5.12 I was definitely not far off.
A week or so after I got back to England, Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker grabbed the second ascent of both Kill Artist and Dark Passenger. Those youths are too strong for their own good (top effort boys).
I shall return. Despite not wanting to leave Moab and Long Canyon in particular with so much unfinished business, we moved on to Indian Creek. I have to say it was a breath of fresh air after the hustle and bustle of Moab with its noisy off-road 4x4s and wagons almost 24/7. The creek felt quiet, isolated and it had a proper desert aura which I fell for instantly.
As I get older I have become very aware that my enthusiasm for climbing outweighs my stamina and it was only when I arrived in the creek that I realised I really was gonna have to choose my battles; there were offwidth cracks everywhere! Including no shortage of new unclimbed lines, so for a first visit I stuck to my researched list and started picking off the classic test pieces.
At the top of my list was Dentist's Chair. The photos and comments I had seen were awesome and the shot of Pat Kingsbury in the new guide was inspirational. I had put this route on a pedestal and I really wanted to onsight this beauty. I spent time picking off a whole bunch of wideness in preparation to get my skills up to speed, on routes such as Big Guy, Big Baby, Big Red, Tooth Fairy (the real one) Bro's, Scard face, Binge and Purge. These all went onsight, it was time to give it a shot.
It didn't disappoint, it was huge! It's always easy to make excuses and put off something you know is going to be hard especially when you want it so badly, but "nothing ventured nothing gained" as they say...
The initial steep but straightforward jam crack had a peppering of loose rock. From there I entered into a squeeze-type slot reminiscent of a flared sentry box with the friction of an egg. Progress was slow, even trying to rest felt like I was burning calories, let alone gaining height. I found it best not to look up as the route went on for so long that it was easy to start doubting my staying power. The voice in my head was telling me to "just deal with what's in front of you." Coming out of the long squeeze into the offwidth proper is supposed to be the crux, but to be honest after the nauseous struggle in the flared slot, pulling over the bulge on hand stacks and into the first of a series of knee locks was a joy. I hung from a knee, had a shake out and took some slow, deep breaths to bring my heart rate down. The crack feature above fractured the wall and soared steeply upward. I ploughed on, progress was made by variations on Levitation...I could feel it, I was getting closer to the belay. I was trying to hold back my growing excitement. "It ain't over till it's over, it only has to change size a little to throw you into a whole new world of struggle." I held it together, the elation on clipping the chain was phenomenal!
I had onsighted the Dentist's Chair! I really felt that I was firing on all cylinders, all that mileage was paying off.
To top that off...Sat between Dentist's Chair and Tooth Fairy was an amazing line which was not in the brand new guidebook. I scoped it out from the ground and it had no lower-off chain. I could see it had some loose rock flakes and its edges were alarmingly, rope-cuttingly sharp, but the excitement of bagging a new route of that quality at the end of our visit would put a cherry on top of an already amazing trip, so my final route in the creek was earmarked...
We had the good fortune in the first couple of days in the Creek to meet up with a strong Aussie climber. Richard was a laid-back and quietly spoken guy who lived in Canada but had an obsession with the Creek and luckily for us knew it well. He had joined us along with his girlfriend and shared our camp ground where we had all enjoyed banter and evenings around the campfire under the amazing and constantly changing desert sky. As a kind gesture, Richard offered me the use of his Valley Giant 9 cam and give me the chain and bolts along with a lesson in how to use the hammer and hand drill to establish the lower off at the top of my new route.
On our last day in the Creek, after a ground-up fight bumping the VG 9 to its tips, Where the Spirit Meets the Bone was born. I left the Creek tired but happy.
So what next? Fix my shoulders is first on the list, then as long as my body stays in one piece and everything still works in unison, I'm not about to stop! There is still unfinished business in Long Canyon then there is Vaudawoo and Ettringen to visit...a return to the Czech, a couple of routes still to do at Annot and Liming in China and Thai Boxing in the Alps! I can see me throwing my leg over that motorcycle again and heading south.
See! There I go again, enthusiasm way bigger than my stamina, I thought I had stopped running around chasing my tail! Why do I feel like I'm running out of time! Thanks for reading...Enjoy your climbing whatever your poison.