Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Crack Climbing Basics: Hand Jamming

Crack climbing is the one of the oldest forms of classical climbing, and in some ways a lost art.  With the influx of climbing gyms and the popularity of sport climbing, original forms of climbing, like crack climbing, fall by the wayside a bit.  Traditional climbing, where the climber places removable protection as he climbs, requires cracks to provide protection.  Knowing how to confidently jam cracks is the first step in entering the world of trad climbing.  Knowing basic crack climbing technique can also translate into other disciplines of climbing- I've been on sport climbs and boulders where knowing how to jam has meant being able to cop a rest, or has allowed me to avoid difficult gaston or lie-back moves.  Today, we will talk about different basic ways to jam hands and feet in cracks, and some ways to start practicing safely.


A climber uses a handjam to gain the belay ledge  (A. Stephen)

Getting Started

If sport climbing is gymnastics, then crack climbing is wrestling.  The over-arching goal is to find some combination of body parts that fit into the crack, and when flexed, will allow vertical mobility.  It's not quite as barbaric as it sounds, and once you learn proper technique you will be able to utilize a variety of positions that are as good or better than any jug.  The best size crack to start on is one that is a cupped-hand size, which can be anywhere from 3"-.75"wide depending on your hand size.  It seems like alot of climbing gyms have cracks of a couple different sizes, but if you live somewhere blessed with splitters and can get a rope up on one to learn, even better!  You will want to tape your hands at first.

The Cupped Hand

 This is the first jam to learn.  Not only is this one of the most secure feeling, but it is usually also a pretty decent size for your feet.  To perform a cupped hand jam, put your hand in the crack thumbs up and tuck your thumb in towards your palm.  Keep your fingers tight together and press your fingers against one wall of the crack while the the back of your knuckles and hand press against the opposing wall.  Try to flex your hand to push against the walls of the crack.  Test it out by trying to hang on it with a straight arm.  Just as in face climbing, with crack climbing restful positions are usually found on either fully extended or "locked off" (fully flexed) positions.

Thumbs up jamming

Thumbs Down 

The second jam to master is the thumbs-down cupped hand.  In many cases this provides the most secure jam to rest on.  It has the same general technique as thumbs-up cupped hands- except this time put your hand in the crack thumbs down, and this time focus on not only expanding your hand in the crack, but on rotating your elbow downwards.  This jam works great from a straight arm position, and while it feels more secure, its disadvantage is that it's harder than the thumbs up jam to move upwards on.  In straight-in (pure crack climbing technique) jamming, I have adopted the strategy to rest and place gear on a fully extended arm and a thumbs-down jam, then move upwards with a thumbs up

The author demonstrates a thumbs down resting position.

The Feet

To foot jam, insert your foot sideways into the crack by bending your knee and hip outwards.  Then,  transfer your weight onto the foot and focus on trying to rotate your foot back to a standing (flat footed) position.  Focus on dropping your heel as you stand on the jammed foot to give you extra purchase in the crack.  Foot jamming has a bit of a painful learning curve.  The basic idea of camming your foot into a crack then standing on it just sounds heinous.  It certainly takes some getting used to, and as you experiment with different sizes you will notice that the foot jam becomes more painful and less reliable, while some sizes like the hand jam to fist jam size are actually pretty comfortable.  I would definitely recommend wearing very comfortable climbing shoes such as the 5.10 Anasazi slipper or the Sportiva Mythos- tight fitting shoes with downturned toes definitely make foot jamming much less comfortable.

Hand-cracks make for great footholds! (A. Stephen)

The Technique

Go up.  Seriously!  Until you start to get into grades above 5.9, most straight-in crack climbing consists of simply following the crack.  I recommend starting in a gym or on a top-rope to get the motions down.  My strategy with hand-size cracks is to make my legs and feet do the majority of the work.  Often times crack climbing is a race against the pump clock, so I try to keep moving and whenever possible I try to make big moves, with each foot being inserted into the crack at mid-thigh height or above.  I try to stand all the way up on each foot before I move my next hand.  I look for constrictions in the crack that will allow me to "lock" my hand behind it - these will provide the best rests.  Most of all, practice as much as you can in a safe setting- it gets easier, less painful, and unlocks a whole new world of climbing potential.

--Andy Stephen, Instructor and Guide

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