Friday, January 29, 2010

Offwidths Series, Part One


Offwidth bouldering. “Why would you want to do that?” Dyan asked me. “Well, its fun. Kind of…” I answered, but inside I knew that answer was far from sufficient. Many rock climbers loathe offwidths, the dreaded spectrum of crack climbing too wide for fist jamming, but too small to get in and chimney. They can be painful, tedious, and quite frustrating, especially to a generation of climbers bred on face climbing and splitter cracks.

For me, this recent fascination with the wide has come from a goal of being a well-rounded climber. My first encounter with hard offwidths came in 2004, where a co-worker on an Outward Bound rock course in Vedauwoo, WY offered to belay me an a 5.11a. Since I was climbing 12a sport routes and 11 cracks in Indian Creek, I thought I had a chance. I was wrong. After aiding the 30 feet to get to the anchor and set up a toprope, several of us worked on the crack for an hour or so, much to the amusement of our students. It was an experience in pain and frustration, of not even remotely knowing how to climb it. Needlesss to say, offwidths got put on the back burner.

As Shunryu Suzuki writes in his book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s, there are few.” Fast-forward to September 2008, Vedauwoo. I was ready to begin the learning process. After seeing several articles and lots of pictures of climbers like Bob Scarpelli, Pamela Pack, and Justin Edl offwidth bouldering in the ‘Voo, a friend and I decided to head there and try our hand at the “Dark Arts”, as he called it. We thought learning techniques a few feet off the ground would be safer, lacking the time and commitment of being on a rope. Two weeks, several rolls of tape, and one pair of Carhartts later, we felt like we had opened a whole new door of knowledge. We were rank beginners, despite our collective 25 years of climbing experience, and that may have been one of the most powerful experiences of my climbing career. Frustrating? Absolutely - but incredibly rewarding. It was just the beginning.

Winter 2009, Red Rock Canyon. I’m far from Vedauwoo, in the face-climbing mecca of Red Rock, but the desire to learn is still there. While there are a handful of offwidth routes here, it is still difficult to find partners for them, so I’ve back looking at the boulders. Between the excessively chalked-up, over-hyped crimp ladders, I’m seeing lines. Some new, some old. Maybe Joe Herbst, 70’s Red Rock pioneer and offwidth Jedi Master, played on them at some time. Maybe not. Most are new-school offwidths, overhanging cracks and roof cracks, that use Leavittation, (a hand-stacking/leg-locking technique developed by CA climbers Randy Leavitt and Tony Yaniro) to ascend them. In any case, they provide more great learning opportunities – a place to be a beginner once again.

The following pictures are from the problem Born to Bleed (5.10+ V2), Red Rock Canyon. FA – Scott Massey, 12/09. In the Vedauwoo tradition, crack boulder problems are given a YDS grade and a V-grade, so I decided to stick with that. The name is a reference to a song I was listening to at the time I was working it, as well as the result of two days of trying this roof crack without tape gloves. The rock is somewhat abrasive (90 grit or so…), and hanging off hand-fist stacks will test anyone’s pain tolerance. I finally unlocked the crux sequence on my sixth day of working it. The movement is actually quite fun, and very cerebral. All photos by AAI guide Viren Perumal. I hope you enjoy them!

Scott Massey
AAI Lead Guide, Red Rock Program

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