Crack Addiction - Fissures of the West, from seams to bomb-bays

Fissures of the West, from seams to bomb-bays
A crack is an absence — a black void framed by rock. In purely geological terms, a crack can result from stress or differential erosion; it might be a joint or a fault (see “Cracks 101,” by crackmaster and research associate Alan Lester). But in climbing terms, a crack is something different.

In North America, crack climbing means selfsufficiency: gauging size, assessing your rack, and slamming in gear as needed. (Sure, the Euros sink “spits” next to splitters, but we don’t need to talk about that here.) It also means favoring technique over power, or rather, learning to harness your inner brute to cup and jam, ring-lock and foot torque, armbar, chimney, and chickenwing — because go-for-broke laybacking and praying for face holds often aren’t “technique” enough. Andrew Burr, based in Salt Lake City, knows the American West like few photographers; he’s always on the road, climbing and shooting. Over the last five years, Burr has amassed hundreds of images of the best fissures in the region, at all shapes and sizes. It was tough for us, selecting the following 13 images from the many, but with Burr’s help, we finalized this sequence showing cracks from smallest to largest — from the incipient seam to the monster bomb-bay. Dig in, tape up, and climb on.

Jason McNabb, Lieback from Hell (5.12c), Black Hills, South Dakota

For those new to crack climbing . . . well, it can be scary. And nothing is scarier than the incipient seam, a crack so tight even Sonnie Trotter couldn’t funk in micro pro. The history of the Lieback, bolted at Raspberry Rocks by Brent Kertzman roughly a decade ago, is, like most routes in the Hills, vague — it’s unclear if it’s seen a true FA. And the Lieback isn’t so much a crack as an eroded dike — the seam was once filled with calcite that’s since dissolved to leave a shallow, boxed-in micro fissure. In 2007, the FA seemed in the bag, as Jason McNabb (left) almost hiked . . . hiked, that is, until a dinner-plate-shaped foothold broke and buzz-sawed toward the ground, nearly decapitating the belayer and resulting in a head wound that took 15 staples to close.


Heidi Mackral, Deadend Dihedral (5.12a), Stawamus Chief, BC

Rising from the treed shadows of Squamish’s Grand Wall, this climb weaves with the precision of a Betsy Ross flag up a three-pitch dihedral. Micro-brassies protect the entire route but are especially key on its testy first pitch (shown here). And at this thin, thin size (your biggest piece is a Metolius #1 TCU), placing pro, though time-consuming and strenuous, is dead necessary. When you encounter sickly tips in a shallow corner, like you do on Deadend Dihedral, arête management and dicey, cornered-out foot smears are often the only way through. Folks with smaller digits may get some fingerlock relief, but those of us with Jimmy Deans pay a much heavier price.

Mike Anderson, Touchstone Wall (V 5.13b), Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is the king of mini-big walls and will leave you with more sand in your face than Daytona Beach. For most, Touchstone remains a classic aid climb, but for those capable of freeing the grade, it offers blissful fingerlocking — especially the 5.12c third pitch (right). This diamond-cut splitter has been rubbed so clean by thousands of aid ascents, you’ll feel like you’re in the Valley. Lock after lock, the 180-foot ropelength goes on.
Finger cracks are highly sought after, offering the challenge of hard grades with secure climbing on great gear, the jams kinesthetically pleasing and intuitive compared to wider sizes. And while you might have a hard time getting your rubber-covered toes into a finger crack, the locks often feel so bomber you could build a belay off them. On P3 of Touchstone Wall, you’ll also want lots of small TCUs.


Jasmin Caton, Fallen Arches (5.13a), Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

For most climbers, this crack, in LCC’s Green Adjective Gully, is slightly tighter than thin hands. It was the first 5.13 flashed by an American — the late Todd Skinner — in 1987. While I was not present (I was only 10), I guarantee Skinner’s maestro jamming skills saved his bacon on this 90-foot pitch. Thin hands is tough: with your mitts securely in and the majority of your thumb out, it’s natural to layback. On Fallen Arches, however, the crack diagonals so severely, laybacking won’t be a temptation. In fact, folks often wear two shoes — a smearing shoe on the left foot and a stiffer crack boot on the right, to combat the dramatic lean.

Sammy Burrell, Davidson Dihedral (5.11+), Paradise Forks, Arizona

Style matters. Ask any crack climber worth her salt, and she’ll tell you tape is cheating. Still, even with tape, off-fingers (aka rattly fingers, aka ring locks, aka butterfly jams) is a horror size for most — and it’s even harder when you don’t tape to fit. (You didn’t wear MC Hammer pants to the senior prom and you don’t fall asleep on park benches with a bottle of Night Train, so why wrap your fingers with enough tape to embarrass John Elway?)
To experience off-fingers at its finest, go sans tape and see what your pain threshold really is. Vertical off-fingers comes at a price, as these cracks are almost always 5.11 or harder, due to their insecure nature and the endless, complicated jamming. The recipe for this fine 5.11+, at the Pillow Wall? Start with slippery Forks basalt, add the rounded edges of the columns, garnish with 50 feet of rattly fingers, and serve well-sandbagged over brown rice.


Tim Alexander, Born Under a Bad Sine (5.10-), Paradise Forks, Arizona

Not all cracks are defined by their size. Often, shape defines the most beautiful. Whether it’s the mesmerizing pattern of salt-and-pepper granite, towering cliffs of perfect hexagonal basalt, or iron veins fingering the tops of Wingate cliffs, nature has the ability to create fantastic patterns. The meaning of this photo, taken at the Sine Wall, lies in one such pattern.

Cracks 101

Rocks take a beating: the lavas that cool to form columnar basalt erupt at temperatures in excess of 1,200 C. Metamorphic rocks like schist and gneiss form deep in the Earth’s crust, where high temperatures combine with ultra-high pressure. And many of the sedimentary rocks on the surface were once buried beneath at least a few kilometers of younger rock.

Under just the right combination of temperature, pressure, and strain-rate, rocks will bend, but they more often break. Geologists call this brittle deformation, and the telltale signs are cracks. From hairline seams too tiny for even the smallest RURP, to gaping fissures too wide for full-body chimneying, it’s all brittle deformation and it all comes about due to stress.

Stress comes in a variety of styles. It can be transmitted as tectonic stress, traveling from one side of a continent to another — when plates slide past each other, sink beneath one another, or collide. Or stress can result from geologically rapid unloading, in which uplift and erosion remove a heavy blanket of covering rock. But cracks also form due to differential erosion. This occurs when layered rocks (sandstone, limestone, schist, and even volcanic ash) contain relatively weak layers that are easily eroded, leaving, say, the horizontal “letterboxes” in places like the Shawangunks, Eldorado Canyon, and American Fork Canyon.

Meanwhile, cracks that have some sort of organization, typically lining up in parallel or semiparallel fashion, are called joints. Joints form in all kinds of rock, but they are most pronounced in homogeneous (i.e., non-layered) rocks. Great examples of joints are the uniformly spaced cracks that split the Wingate sandstone in Indian Creek, the Navajo sandstone in Zion National Park, and the onionskin-like slabs of Sierra granite. Additionally, if one side of the crack gets moved relative to the other, then the crack is technically a fault (no matter how big or small).

What’s a crack to do? Because of weathering and erosion (most notably, things like dissolution and frost-wedging), once a crack forms, it’s likely just to grow bigger and bigger until one wall or the other collapses. So next time you’re below a cliff racking (and even taping!), think of all the cracks that have come and gone to reveal the route you’re about to climb.

—Alan Lester, University of Colorado



Luke Kretschmar, Spectreman (5.11c), Vedauwoo, Wyoming

first done by John Wilke in 1983, Spectreman, on the Heap, is the quintessential hand crack — well, for some. It all depends on how meaty your mitts are. That’s the unique aspect to crack wrestling: cracks fit everyone differently, especially at the all-critical hand size. In fact, you could easily say that one man’s hand crack is another woman’s offwidth. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the overhanging, diagonaling madness of Spectreman, 70 feet of “perfect hands” in the wild plains of southern Wyoming.

Luke Kretschmar, Michael’s Crack (5.11+), Black Hills, South Dakota

Forget what I said about taping — maybe it’s not cheating, especially in the Hills. While this area isn’t known for its cracks, the ones you do find are sharp . Take Michael’s Crack, at Middle Earth near Sylvan Lake. This unassuming hand-to-fist crack through a mini-roof packs a punch, and unless you tape, it’s barracuda city. In the Hills, everything is exaggerated, from the runouts to the crystals. At fist size, the cracks (and crystals inside) will tear you up if you don’t use technique. Sure, with steady pressure and no movement, the teeth only dig in a little, but if you’re sloppy and wiggle your jams, there will be blood . . . and lots of it.


Sammy Burrell, Serrator (5.11), Indian Creek Canyon, Utah

G-Yeah! Now we’re getting somewhere: blue collar, meat and potatoes, the fight for every inch — the offwidth. I love offwidths: I love shooting them, climbing them, touching them, getting stuck in them (I’m crazy that way). Most sane climbers, however, hate offwidths: these big cracks are hard work, dirty, and scary to protect. (Bumping your tipped-out No. 6 Camalot — you know, the one you’ve been shoving with you for the last 80 feet — as you move past it is disheartening, to say the least.) The infamous Serrator, at the Way Rambo Wall, opens with perfect butterflies to nice No. 5 Camalots. Shortly thereafter, the route earns its name — too big for No. 6s and too small to squeeze inside, forcing you to jam/stack/layback the razor-sharp flake. It plays with your head: if you pitch, will your rope cut first or will you simply halve yourself on the edge? It’s probably best not to find out. . . .

Desiree Cole, Forrest Route (5.8 A2+ or 5.11), Doric Column, Utah

Not so much a chimney as a mud runnel, the Forrest Route is in fact so big it’s not a crack anymore. Usually, the saving grace of the chimney is pro in smaller cracks inside — not so on the muddy Doric. Back-toknee, back-to-foot, or full-on stemming — all take guts and determination, with naught but air between your legs.


Jacques Strappe, Hyper-Crack on the Anchor Chain (5.11), Merrimac Butte, Moab, Utah

Chimneys, especially squeezers in the desert, are a sure way to earn your “been there, done that, and will never do that again/ scared as shit” merit badge. To tackle a beastie like Hyper-Crack, you need to enjoy tight spaces — exhale, inch upwards, breathe, breathe again, repeat. And if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across an old star drive, drilled angle, buttonhead, or warthog. Clip it, hope the rope’s weight doesn’t rip it, and keep on shimmying, despite any bruised knees, chafed elbows, and tears in your favorite longsleeved thrift-store shirt that might come.

The photographer Andrew Burr, of Salt Lake City, says he’s yet to meet a Western crack he didn’t love.

Check out his website:

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