Crack climbing

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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 which 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 safely ascend more crack systems. [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


There are several different systems used to rate the difficulty of climbing routes. In North America, the most commonly used scale is the Yosemite Decimal System. Most crack climbs are rated between 5.0 and 5.15d, where the first "5" indicates that the route is a technical climb (as opposed to a scramble or walking trail), and the second number indicates the difficulty. A 5.6 crack is an easy climb, usually less steep than vertical, and with numerous accompanying face holds. Cracks rated 5.12 or above are considered advanced, typically due to an overhanging angle, a lack of face holds, or because the crack has poor or flaring jams. [7] At the upper end of the scale, the grades are further subdivided by appending the letters a through d. For example, 5.13c is easier than 5.13d, both of which are less difficult than 5.14a. [8] :pp. 5–6

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<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.

Climbing protection is any of a variety of devices employed to reduce risk and protect others while climbing rock and ice. It includes such items as nylon webbing and metal nuts, cams, bolts, and pitons.

<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> Style of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a style of rock climbing in which the climber places all the necessary protection gear required to arrest any falls as they are climbing, and then removes it when the pitch is complete. Traditional bolted aid climbing means the bolts were placed while on lead and/or with hand drills. Traditional climbing carries a higher level of risk than bolted sport climbing, as the climber may not have placed the safety equipment correctly while trying to ascend the route; for some of the world's hardest climbs, there may not be sufficient cracks or features in the rock that can accept protection gear, and the climb can only be safely attempted by bolting as a sport climb.

This is an index of topics related to climbing.

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

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> List of definitions of terms and concepts related to rock climbing and mountaineering

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock-climbing equipment</span>

A wide range of equipment is used during rock or any other type of climbing that includes equipment commonly used to protect a climber against the consequences of a fall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free climbing</span> Form of climbing not using aid climbing

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Style of climbing

Aid climbing is a style of climbing in which standing on or pulling oneself up via devices attached to fixed or placed protection is used to make upward progress.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nut (climbing)</span>

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<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 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> Sport in which participants climb natural rock formations

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

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

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

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

Big wall climbing is a type of rock climbing where a climber ascends a long multi-pitch route, normally requiring more than a single day to complete the climb. Big wall routes require the climbing team to live on the route often using portaledges and hauling equipment. It is practiced on tall or more vertical faces with few ledges and small cracks.

<i>The Nose</i> (El Capitan) Rock climbing route in Yosemite National Park, USA

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Slab climbing</span>

Slab climbing is a type of rock climbing where the rock face is at an angle less steep than vertical. It is characterized by balance- and friction-dependent moves on very small holds. It is often not leadable, or climbable from the ground up, unless it has pre-drilled bolts to protect the climb, making most slab climbs either top rope climbing or sport climbing. Special techniques such as smearing are necessary to climb slab. It is a type of face climbing and is distinctly different from crack climbing. Slab climbing is a relatively new area of climbing, having become more popular in the last 30 years, and some of the highest graded routes are currently being realized.


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