Crack climbing

Last updated

Crack climbing is a type of rock climbing in which the climber follows a crack in the rock and uses specialized climbing techniques. The sizes of cracks vary from those that are just barely wide enough for the fingers to fit inside, to those that are so wide that the entire body can fit inside with all limbs outstretched. Many traditional climbing routes follow crack systems, as they provide natural opportunities for placing protective equipment.



In the context of climbing, cracks are classified by their width in relation to the climber's body: finger, off-finger, hand, off-width, and chimneys.

The walls of crack systems rarely run parallel to each other throughout the entire length of the crack; they frequently constrict inwards and open outwards in various places. Some of the most challenging climbs follow cracks which run through many different widths. Even when a crack is uniform in width, it may require a different approach for each individual climber—a hand crack for a smaller climber may be an off-finger crack for a larger climber. [2] :p. 39


Throughout the history of rock climbing, whenever traditional climbers seek to develop routes in a new area, they almost invariably follow crack systems that offer natural locations for placing protective equipment. The use of the term "line" as a synonym for "route" derives from this practice, as cracks often form visually distinct lines that can be followed from base to top. [1] :p. 43

Prior to the introduction of spring-loaded camming devices, there was no suitable method for placing protective gear in cracks wider than a few inches, which made such routes extremely dangerous even when they were not technically demanding. It was not until the 1980s that camming devices proliferated, enabling climbers to ascend more crack systems safely. [2] :p. 51

By the 1990s, crack climbing had diminished in popularity for a variety of reasons. The advent of sport climbing allowed climbers to focus on difficulty and aesthetic appeal when developing new routes; it was no longer necessary to learn specialized crack techniques in order to lead climb safely. Furthermore, cracks are difficult to simulate in climbing gyms, so those who train indoors are limited to face routes when they climb outside. [2] :p. 35

In 2006, Canadian Sonnie Trotter made the first free ascent of the Cobra Crack (5.14b) in Squamish, British Columbia, which at the time was considered to be the hardest crack climb in the world. Since this ascent, new and perhaps more difficult crack lines have been climbed including Stranger than Fiction (5.14b) in Canyonlands National Park, The Meltdown (5.14c) in Yosemite National Park, Blackbeard's Tears (5.14c) on the California coast and The Recovery Drink (5.14c) in Norway's Jossingfjord.

In 2011, Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker completed the first free ascent of Century Crack (5.14b), a 160-foot (49 m) off-width in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. The crack was first attempted in 2001 and is considered the hardest off-width crack climb in the world. [3]


A top rope climber in the classic stemming position Trout creek stemming.jpg
A top rope climber in the classic stemming position

The most fundamental technique used in crack climbing is "jamming", in which the climber forces a body part into the crack such that it exerts force on both walls. This creates the friction needed for the climber to make upward progress. The body part used and its positioning are largely dependent on the width of the crack. For example, some cracks are just wide enough that they can be jammed with an open hand. A crack slightly wider than that may require the hand to be curled into a fist to form an effective jam. [4] :pp. 3–15

When the crack is too wide for a single limb to jam, climbers use a technique known as "stacking": both hands are placed inside the crack, pressed against each other. For example, if the crack is too wide for a fist jam, the climber may press a closed fist against one wall and an open hand upon the other in order to span the width of the crack. [2] :p. 52 The "stemming" technique, used on cracks that are wider than the climber's body, employs a similar principle. The four limbs are pressed straight outwards against opposing rock faces; limbs are moved upward one at a time while maintaining contact with the other three limbs. [4] :p. 27


A collection of spring-loaded camming devices Klim friends.jpg
A collection of spring-loaded camming devices

In traditional climbing, the climber places protective gear while ascending the route, rather than installing permanent fixtures beforehand. Much of this equipment was designed specifically for use in crack systems. The two main categories of protection are passive, with no moving parts, and active, which use springs to keep the gear fixed in place. [5] :pp. 74–76 In both categories, protective gear is color-coded by size to allow the climber to quickly identify the correct piece of gear for a given position while climbing. [2] :p. 39

Nuts and hexes are two common types of passive protection. A nut is a small rectangular piece of metal on the end of a wire cable, with a loop at the other end for attaching a carabiner. The nut is placed inside a crack, just above a constriction in width. This prevents the equipment from slipping downward or out of the crack when the climber falls. Most nuts are between 3.8 and 50 millimetres (0.15 and 1.97 in) wide. [5] :pp. 75–77 Hexagonal chocks, also called "hexes", are similar to nuts, but are designed for larger cracks; the most common sizes range from 25 to 65 millimetres (1.0 to 2.6 in) in width. The irregular shape of hexes allow them to be placed in several different orientations depending on the shape of the crack. [5] :p. 85

The spring-loaded camming device was developed in Yosemite National Park the 1970s, and is now one of the most popular forms of protection. Each camming device has three or four cams, a shaft, and a trigger mechanism. When the trigger is engaged, the cams contract, allowing it to be placed inside the crack. The trigger is then released, causing the cams to expand outward against the walls of the crack. The device is designed to convert a downward pull on the shaft into outward force through the cams. [6] :p. 89

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bouldering</span> Form of rock climbing

Bouldering is a form of free climbing that is performed on small rock formations or artificial rock walls without the use of ropes or harnesses. While bouldering can be done without any equipment, most climbers use climbing shoes to help secure footholds, chalk to keep their hands dry and to provide a firmer grip, and bouldering mats to prevent injuries from falls. Unlike free solo climbing, which is also performed without ropes, bouldering problems are usually less than six metres (20 ft) tall. Traverses, which are a form of boulder problem, require the climber to climb horizontally from one end to another. Artificial climbing walls allow boulderers to climb indoors in areas without natural boulders. In addition, bouldering competitions take place in both indoor and outdoor settings.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing</span> Activity to ascend a steep object

Climbing is the activity of using one's hands, feet, or other parts of the body to ascend a steep topographical object that can range from the world's tallest mountains to small boulders. Climbing is done for locomotion, sporting recreation, for competition, and is also done in trades that rely on ascension, such as rescue and military operations. Climbing is done indoors and outdoors, on natural surfaces, and on artificial surfaces

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spring-loaded camming device</span> Piece of rock climbing or mountaineering protection equipment

A spring-loaded camming device is a piece of rock climbing or mountaineering protection equipment. It consists of two, three, or four cams mounted on a common axle or two adjacent axles, so that pulling on the axle forces the cams to spread farther apart. This is then attached to a sling and carabiner at the end of the stem. The SLCD is used by pulling on the "trigger" so the cams retract together, then inserting it into a crack or pocket in the rock and releasing the trigger to allow the cams to expand. A pull on the rope, such as that generated by a climber falling, will cause a properly placed SLCD to convert the pulling force along the stem of the unit into outwards pressure on the rock, generating massive amounts of friction and preventing the removal of the unit from the rock. Because of the large forces which are exerted on the rock when an SLCD is fallen on, it is very important that SLCDs are only placed in solid, strong rock.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Traditional climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber places the protection equipment while ascending the route; when the lead climber has completed the route, the second climber then removes the protection equipment as they climb the route. Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing where the protection equipment is pre-drilled into the rock in the form of bolts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tree climbing</span> Ascending and moving around in the crown of trees

Tree climbing is a recreational or functional activity consisting of ascending and moving around in the crowns of trees.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock-climbing equipment</span> List of manmade gear

Rock-climbing equipment varies with the type of climbing undertaken. Bouldering needs the least equipment outside of shoes and chalk and optional crash pads. Sport climbing adds ropes, harnesses, belay devices, and quickdraws to clip into pre-drilled bolts. Traditional climbing adds the need for carrying a "rack" of temporary passive and active protection devices. Multi-pitch climbing adds devices to assist in ascending and descending fixed ropes. And finally aid climbing uses unique equipment.

Self-locking devices are devices intended to arrest the fall of solo climbers who climb without partners. This device is used for rope solo climbing, for "ground-up climbing", and for "top rope solo climbing". To date, several types of self-locking devices have evolved.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Belaying</span> Rock climbing safety technique using ropes

Belaying is a variety of techniques climbers use to create friction within a climbing system, particularly on a climbing rope, so that a falling climber does not fall very far. A climbing partner typically applies tension at the other end of the rope whenever the climber is not moving, and removes the tension from the rope whenever the climber needs more rope to continue climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clean climbing</span> Rock climbing techniques which avoid damage to the rock

Clean climbing is rock climbing techniques and equipment which climbers use in order to avoid damage to the rock. These techniques date at least in part from the 1920s and earlier in England, but the term itself may have emerged in about 1970 during the widespread and rapid adoption in the United States and Canada of nuts, and the very similar but often larger hexes, in preference to pitons, which damage rock and are more difficult and time-consuming to install. Pitons were thus eliminated in North America as a primary means of climbing protection in a period of less than three years.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piton</span> Metal tool used in rock climbing

A piton in big wall climbing and in aid climbing is a metal spike that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface using a climbing hammer, and which acts as an anchor for protecting the climber against the consequences of falling or to assist progress in aid climbing. Pitons are equipped with an eye hole or a ring to which a carabiner is attached; the carabiner can then be directly or indirectly connected to a climbing rope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Type of sport

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations or indoor climbing walls. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ron Kauk</span> American rock climber (born 1957)

Ron Kauk is an American rock climber. Kauk is associated with Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, where he lived for decades, now a resident of El Portal, California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Derek Hersey</span> British rock climber

Derek Geoffrey Hersey was a British rock climber who specialized in free soloing, and was for many years an active participant in the Boulder, Colorado climbing scene in the United States.

Sonnie Trotter, is a Canadian professional climber, known for his strength in many rock climbing disciplines – particularly traditional climbing – and contributing to hundreds of first free ascents around the world.

Craig Luebben was an American rock climber and author. A climber since the early 1980s, Luebben wrote a number of climbing-oriented books, and designed the Big Bro wide-crack climbing protection device–now manufactured by Trango–as part of obtaining his degree in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University, and was a senior contributing editor for Climbing Magazine.

Hazel Findlay is a British traditional climber, sport climber and big wall climber. She was the first female British climber to climb a route graded E9, and a route graded 8c (5.14b). She did the third ascent of the Yosemite traditional route Magic Line 5.14c (8c+). She has free climbed El Capitán four times on four different routes and made many first female ascents on other routes. Climbing magazine gave her their Golden Piton Award (Alpine) for traditional climbing in 2013.

Pete Whittaker is a British professional rock climber. He is one half of the duo known as the Wide Boyz, along with his climbing partner Tom Randall. Whittaker came to notability from crack climbing, including the first ascent of the world's hardest off-width climb, the Century Crack.

Century Crack is a 120 ft (40m) long offwidth roof crack climb in the White Rim Sandstone, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, graded at 5.14b (8c). It is one of the hardest and longest offwidth crack climbs in the world. The first aid ascent of the route was done by Steve Bartlett in 2001, and the first free ascents were by crack specialists Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall, known as the Wide Boyz.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cobra Crack</span> Traditional climbing route in Squamish, Canada

Cobra Crack is a 45-metre (148 ft) long traditional climbing route on a thin crack up an overhanging granite rock face on Stawamus Chief, in Squamish, British Columbia. The route was first ascended by Peter Croft and Tami Knight in 1981 as an aid climb. After rebuffing many attempts by leading climbers – most notably by Swiss crack climber Didier Berthod in 2005 – Canadian climber Sonnie Trotter made the first free ascent in 2006. With subsequent ascents, the consensus grade has settled at 5.14b (8c) which ranked Cobra Crack as one of the hardest crack climbs in the world, and almost two decades later, it is still considered one of the world's hardest traditional climbing routes.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Long, John (2003). How to Rock Climb!. Globe Pequot. ISBN   9780762724710.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Long, John; Luebben, Craig (1997). Advanced Rock Climbing. Globe Pequot. ISBN   9781575400754.
  3. Roy, Adam (21 November 2011). "Climbing the World's Hardest Off-Width". Outside Magazine. Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  4. 1 2 Gnade, Lisa; Petro, Steve (2008). Crack Climbing!. Globe Pequot. ISBN   9780762745913.
  5. 1 2 3 Luebben, Craig (2007). Rock Climbing Anchors. The Mountaineers Books. ISBN   9781594852398.
  6. Lourens, Tony (2005). Guide to Climbing. Stackpole Books. ISBN   9780811701525.