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!"
Gear plays a big part in crack climbing because there are often multiple opportunities to place it. In effect, you are often climbing one huge continuous, gear slot. Although you may not need to search for gear in the same way you might on other routes, there are still plenty of reasons to work hard on your gear placement.
You must still be aware of how all the gear works and especially in larger cracks be confident in using Friends as they will come into their own for making fast progress. However, you must be aware of the implications of how much gear to take and how liberally to use it, see the 'Crack Gear Dilemma' below. In addition, it's a great idea to practice lots of gear placing at ground level before you even get onto routes. A confident climber will often be one that knows their gear placements...
This could also be termed the "over-gearing dilemma." When you are faced with a route where you can place almost limitless amounts of gear it's very hard to resist doing so! We've seen this often in beginner crack climbers and experienced this process when we first started. Placing too much gear often slows progress, clogs up the crack and tires you out. One of the secrets to crack climbing (as we imply in the film) is to be aware of the gear that you need to take and place it in such a way that it doesn't compromise progress. Obviously this is an art and like everything it takes time to master, but some basic steps can be followed:
Look before you leap – If possible, look at the route or pitch before you start to climb and try to slim your rack down to the essentials – if it's fairly obvious that if it's a finger crack don't carry a Friend 4. If you start with less gear, then you will naturally try to place less gear. It is a fine line though, so experiment with this process on routes within your grade to start with.
Below, not above – When crack climbing, the temptation is to place gear as far above your head as possible. This gives you more confidence, but unfortunately will lead to a multitude of problems. Placing gear above your head means firstly, you can't see exactly how good the placement is and also you can't see if you are putting it into the best available handhold. Secondly you have to pull the rope up further to clip (slow and tiring), and finally the rope, once clipped, also blocks handholds. The solution to this is (as we show on the video) to place gear in between your hands and feet; you can see what you're doing, it's easier to clip and leaves the next section of crack free for your hands.
Don't be a jam blocker – As we imply above, one of the difficulties with crack climbing is that sometimes the constrictions that make the best handhold also make the best gear placements – but obviously if you block a handhold with a piece of gear you can't use it!! As discussed earlier, try to place the gear below your hands, or use alternative sizes of protection that will not compromise the jams you are hoping to use.
Intelligent racking - Finally, when starting out it's worth thinking about how and when you are going to be placing gear. This means you should put some effort into looking at your system of racking gear. Although this is a subject in itself, one simple tip would be to say if you are more dextrous and confident with one hand it may be good to rack the gear you're most likely to use on the side of your harness that allows you to use that hand to place the gear.
The advantage of nuts is that they are very light for their size and less complex in their placement – a 'bomber nut' is a big psychological asset for any grade of climber. Most people starting out crack climbing on less steep cracks are placing nuts in slightly less strenuous positions and will find that both Rockcentric type nuts and big Rocks will come in very useful. The slight disadvantage with nuts is that they are tricky to place in almost parallel cracks and can be a bit slower than placing a Friend.
Friends are the backbone of a crack climber's rack and the more recent invention of micro Friends added another powerful weapon to the armoury too. The reason Friends changed climbing and are so suitable for cracks is that their mechanical spring loaded action makes them the only type of gear that functions well in parallel placements.
Friends are not simply a one stop solution and as with all gear care, time and skill is needed to get the best out of them. Some of our top tips would be:
1. Place Friends where you can see them – especially with smaller Friends and micro Friends. It's very important that all the cams are touching the rock and that they are in slots which are suitable i.e. that don't have odd rugosities which could mean that the placement can change if the Friend is wobbled or moved. If you can't see where you are placing them you can never be sure how good the placement is.
2. Direction of loading - Always try to place Friends so that their stem is angled in the direction of the anticipated load if a fall is taken.
3. Don't over cam - If possible try to place friends in the centre of their range – they will be easier to remove and this also gives a degree of flexibility if for some reason the Friend is moved. However, the beauty of Wild Country Friends is that with a constant cam angle they can be placed at their limits and still perform.
A good tip would be to download and read Wild Country's 'Cam Book' which talks about the intricacies of Friends and explains about how they work and how to place them: Cam Book
We have put together an overview of gear for each size of crack here: Crack School Gear