A beginner’s guide to crack climbing
As a recreational climber who has always loved the sport of climbing, I love learning more about different variations of the sport. Until recently at Climb-Cleveland, I’d never heard of crack climbing, but Chick, the owner of the gym, always talks about it with such excitement that I figured I would give it a shot and see what all the hype was about.
There’s no one better than him to learn the basics of crack climbing from. Chick, a 64-year old climbing veteran, has climbed for over 45 years and built the gym with the intention of offering crack climbers a rare place to train indoors.
If you’re someone who loves a challenge, and whether you enjoy climbing alone or with others, crack climbing is a great opportunity. You don’t need a partner like you do with top-rope climbing, and it’s completely scalable to meet you where you are in terms of physical ability. It’s also a mental boost to realize you could hold yourself up off the ground in a way you never really imagined before.
Crack climbing also isn’t just a way of looking cool in the gym (as it’s somewhat of a lesser-known method of climbing), but is an essential skill for much outdoor climbing.
Chick, who travels all around the country on a regular basis trying out different places to climb, admits that for some climbing routes, you need to be able to crack climb to get through it. Though I’ve never done any crack climbing outdoors (or even outside of Climb-Cleveland, for that matter), I can imagine the adrenaline rush to see all the training pay off in “real life” when trying to climb a route outside.
Different from traditional climbing
Unlike traditional bouldering in which someone grabs onto rock or plastic holds sticking out of the wall, crack climbing involves sticking one’s hand, fingers, feet, or even knees into different size cracks between two large slabs of rock. I was surprised to hear from Chick that it’s possible to have a more solid hold of the body off the ground through crack climbing than even the most generous traditional rock hold.
Crack climbing may also be so named for it’s addictive quality. After only one short session of learning the basics, I could see how exciting the thought was to get back on the wall to hold myself up for just a few more seconds than last time and build from there.
Crack climbing takes a little more preparation than traditional bouldering in which climbers simply put on their shoes, chalk up their hands, and get on the wall. Crack climbing involves some hand taping to both assist with a secure grip within the crack, as well as to keep the hands from getting scraped up and hurt.
Chick offered me some insight into his full process of preparing to crack climb. He meticulously gathers his bottle of medical glue, rolls of medical tape, and chalk. He has the taping down to a science: cutting off two smaller pieces per hand, then three bigger pieces, then cutting one of the smaller ones in half.
He jokes that he buys the tape in bulk and has an entire shelf of it in his house since he goes through so much of it. Once the glue and tape is covering the most-used areas of the hands and fingers, he powders it with some chalk and is ready to get climbing.
At Climb-Cleveland, there are 9 different crack sizes a member can choose to climb from. Seven of them converge at a top point on at the ceiling, so someone could potentially climb up and down each one (14-feet tall each, making it a potentially 100- foot climb) without ever touching the ground and while getting an incredible workout. The last two cracks are on the lower level of Climb-Cleveland in what I refer to as “The Cave.” They are located on the roof of the cave portion so climbers can attempt to crack climb horizontally with their backs facing the ground, a true challenge!
I learned the basic premise of crack climbing is to insert your hand or foot in the crack by making it as flat as possible (for the hands, this means the fingers are outstretched and separated, and for the feet, sideways with the bottom of the heel facing horizontally).
The key is to expand the size of the hand or foot once it is positioned inside the crack to create a solid grip. This can involve making a cupped hand, a “downward dog” position for the hand and rotating the foot so the heel is pointed toward the ground.
Slight learning curve
I was surprised by how difficult even one of the thicker cracks was to hoist my bodyweight up with. Thicker cracks tend to be easier because they provide more room for a full fist or foot to fit, rather than relying simply on the smaller surface area of your fingers or toes.
Part of the experience is definitely a mental game in not yet fully learning to trust this unorthodox way of holding one’s bodyweight. For a few tries, I tried keeping my feet on the ground and just putting as much bodyweight as I could on my hands within the cracks.
I also experimented a few times with the bodyweight counter balance to take 20 less pounds of my bodyweight I’d need to support. By the end of my short crack-climbing introduction, I was overwhelmingly proud to have been able to hold myself off the ground —even if it was only for 5 to 10 seconds!
For anyone thinking of giving crack climbing a try, there are plenty of members of the Climb-Cleveland community who would love to offer any advice and support to get you started, and I’m sure the gym has some extra tape and chalk to use if you just want to try it out for a visit.
At the end of the day, climbing is about pushing your limits and doing things you may not have thought you could do, either because it was too physically or technically demanding. Crack climbing seems to be one more outlet for those climbers looking to test their abilities and give their bodies — and minds — a great, fun workout!
Yosemite might be in my future.