This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 235 (July 2016).
My marriage almost ended with crack climbing at Indian Creek. I was on a “warm-up” 5.10 hand crack. Trouble was, the so-called hand crack swallowed my fist with room to spare. I flailed, sweated and cursed. Then I looked down to see my husband, Jay Smith, eagerly riffling through the guidebook for his next lead while belaying me. On the ground, I took my frustration out on him.
“You weren’t even watching me!” I yelled.
“I don’t know why you chose that route to warm up on,” he said. “Ratings don’t mean anything here since most of the routes were put up by men and rated for their hand size.”
Wondering why you would carry a heavy rack and munch your hands to climb cracks? Crack climbing opens up a world of opportunities for routes you can do. It also helps your sport climbing. Jamming in a solution pocket to rest will be second nature after some crack experience.
[Also Read Training Women For Upper-Body and Core Strength]
Eventually, I learned how to climb man-sized cracks and realized that women have advantages in crack climbing. (See below for overall tenets.)
So where do you start? I have learned to focus on a movement skill or two and try to perfect them, instead of just trying to reach the top of a route.
This way I climb more precisely and improve more quickly. In crack climbing, that focus could include tightening your abs on every move (they connect the power between your lower body and upper body), contracting your glutes to push up and hold body tension, and regulating your breathing (connecting your mind to your body).
Another tip is that it is easier to master hand cracks first, and then move to finger cracks, wide hands and offwidths.
Two of the most important principles are torque and opposition. Dig your toes as deeply as possible into the crack and secure the placement by bringing your knee back up over your foot and torqueing. Stand up, reach high with your opposite hand and place it in the crack. Fish around to find the best jam—the widest part of a small crack or the smallest part of a wide crack. If your hand or finger jam is a questionable fit, add torque by setting
the jam with thumbs down. Bring your elbow out, dig your hands in as deeply as possible, and drop your elbow.
Push your jams to the point of falling until crack climbing clicks, and you understand how it works. You may need a tight rope until you can start making the moves on your own. (Climbing cracks is like learning to do a pull-up. You have to get off the ground to learn.) Feel the movement done correctly, then practice until it becomes part of your repertoire. Find a patient partner (generally not your husband) and head to the crags.
The XX Benefit
Women tend to have smaller fingers and hands than men, giving us the advantage in thin and tight cracks where they struggle. A sinker finger lock for me, for example, only goes to single knuckle for most guys, and my friend Scott Carson’s wide fingers only get half a pad in there. Women can also generally get a hand jam in “thin-hand” cracks that are most men’s worst nightmare.
Women tend to have smaller feet than men. The more surface area of your toes you can get in the crack, or the deeper you can squeeze them in, the more power you will get. Chalk up another one for women.
Women tend to have a greater percentage of slow-twitch muscles, which indicates more endurance and less power. On long, sustained cracks such as those at Indian Creek, stamina matters.
Generally, women are more flexible. A woman often has more options for the contorted positions crack climbing may require, especially getting into pods or offwidths.
A woman’s center of gravity is in her hips. In the classic handbook Performance Rock Climbing, Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann wrote that this center creates “a greater capacity for torsional stability and body tension.” Body tension is key in finger or off-fingers cracks when you may have to gaston against one side of the crack and push against the opposite edge with your feet. Only body tension keeps you in the crack.
Kitty Calhoun is co-owner of Chicks Climbing and Skiing and a founding member of Friends of Indian Creek.