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Cracks Form Natural Climbing Routes

How to Climb Cracks


Bill Springer laybacks up a perfect crack in a corner on a granite cliff at Vedauwoo, Wyoming.

Cracks form natural pathways up cliffs--just stick your hands in the crack and start climbing.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Cracks are natural weaknesses in rock surfaces, formed by fracturing, uplift, and erosion. Many climbing routes follow cracks and systems of cracks because they are easier to protect with gear like cams and nuts than blank faces, which are usually protected with permanent bolts placed in drilled holes in the rock. From the very beginnings of rock climbing in the early part of the twentieth century, climbers learned to climb cracks to exploit these natural lines up cliff faces.

Crack Sizes

Climbers usually describe cracks by the appendage used to climb them, such as a hand crack, fist crack, or finger crack. Wider cracks are called off-width cracks and chimneys. Climbers refer to the width of a crack as its “size.” How you climb or jam a crack depends on its size relative to your body.

Difficulty Ratings Depend on Hand Size

The difficulty of jamming a crack depends on a climber’s finger and hand sizes. The difficulty rating of a crack climb is body dependent, usually determined by the size of a climber’s hands. A man’s hand crack is usually an off-width crack for a woman who has smaller hands. For example, Supercrack, one of the most famous crack climbs at Utah’s Indian Creek Canyon, is a ladder for anyone with big hands, while those with small hands have to use fist jams or resort to more strenuous off-width crack techniques.

Rating the Difficulty of Crack Climbs

When you look at the difficulty rating of a crack, don’t be fooled by the grade—it may be easier or harder for you than its accepted rating. Hand and fist cracks are usually the easiest cracks to climb. They are often rated between 5.8 and 5.10. Off-widths, even easy ones, are hard and strenuous to climb. Off-widths require a lot of technique and patience. Watch out for those 5.8 and 5.9 off-width cracks—they can feel really hard! Finger cracks are the hardest cracks to climb since they’re usually strenuous and require perfect jamming techniques. Sustained finger cracks are usually rated 5.12 and 5.13. Again remember—crack ratings depend on your hand and finger sizes.

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