Offwidths, cracks that are too big for fist jams but too small to chimney, are reviled by many climbers because they tend to be physically grueling, technically challenging, painful, and perplexing. Although wide crack climbing may appear to be all-body thrashing, it can actually be artful, with a lot of stylistic technique. Offwidths require creative methods for wedging and stacking body parts: arm-bars, hand-to-hand stacks, hand-to-fist stacks, fist-to-fist stacks, knee jams, foot-cams, heel-toe jams, sidewinding, calf locks, chicken wings, Leavittation, and last but not least: full-body inversions. After seven years of practicing these techniques on offwidths throughout the West, I’ve compiled my knowledge into the following primer.
When to invert?
Inverting might seem like a masochistic circus trick employed for Instagram, but in reality it’s a necessary technique to surmount steeply angled offwidths and offwidth roofs. Invert offwidth climbing is a progression of Leavittation, a climbing technique developed by Randy Leavitt and Tony Yaniro and used to tackle the four- to six-inch-wide, 20-foot-long roof crack Paisano Overhang (5.12c) on the Sunshine Face at Suicide Rock, California. Leavittation involves hand-fist stacks and leg- and calf-locks. However, some roofs are too wide for any combination of stacks, so the climber must hang upside down by her feet to advance. Hand, fist, and foot size dictate when to invert, but for most climbers it is approximately four inches wide. When learning to invert, start on offwidth boulders using plenty of crashpads. Placing gear while inverted is puzzling, and upside-down, head-first falls can be dangerous.
1. Place gear first
Ideally before inverting, place gear in the roof over your head and in front of you (place it where you’re going, not where you’ve been), in case you fall right out of the inversion. Place gear in front of your stack so that you can kick over without knocking it out of the crack when you invert. A tipped-out cam is bad when inverting. It’s far more likely to rotate as you continue climbing past it due to the sideways pull from the rope. If you fall, your cam will take a multi-directional pull when you swing under the roof. If you were to fall far above your piece after progressing out the roof and pivoting right-side up again, you could swing nearly 270 degrees around this piece. If the gear pulls, there is the chance of not only taking a dangerous fall, but also getting hit in the head with your big pro.
2. Find a good stack and release your feet
It’s possible to get into the inverted position off a hand jam, jug, or solid stacks, in combination with your feet on a ledge, in a roof, or even in a calf-lock or knee-lock. Get a bomber stack (butterflies or hand-fist stacks are the most secure) and drop your feet out from below you. When inverting, remember that you are pivoting around your stack. Experiment with which hand should be on top to prevent blocking yourself with your shoulders. Generally, you want to stack the hand or fist of the leading leg on the back wall to provide maximum room for shoulder rotation. For example, if you are leading with your right leg, stack your right hand in the back, left in front and vice versa.
3. Lift your feet
Use a combination of momentum, core strength, and your lats to pull down on your stack and wedge your feet in the crack above your head on the other side of the gear. Make a split-second decision after kicking over on how to place your feet over your head. The leading foot depends on the size of your foot and the crack, and whether you will need to “shuffle” out the roof upside down or pivot back to right-side up. Placing your toe first in the crack allows for rotation around that high foot. Placing your heel first allows for upward movement, but it is not an ideal position from which to pivot. Generally, place your interior leg first because it’s easier to get the far leg around the first leg than it is to tuck the interior leg into the small space between your arms and the exterior leg.
Kicking over takes a combination of momentum and core strength instigated from your lower abdominal muscles. Focus on that part of your stomach while kicking over for more power.
4. Lock your feet
Initially, you may feel like you’re sliding out of inverts until you get a good foot lock, which can be secure to the point where it may feel stuck. Think of your foot like a stopper. Pulling down on it might wedge it tighter. Consider pivoting around your foot. If you fall on a tightly placed foot in a constriction, you will rotate around it and “fix” it. Remain calm and think about how your foot wedged into the crack. If you placed it from above, and it locked in when you weighted it, push it out rather than pulling it down. If bouldering, have a partner push you up. If on a route, place a piece of gear to pull up on and lift your foot out of the crack.
5. Remove your hands
As soon as your feet are secure above your head, remove your hands from the crack. This “bat hang” position provides an opportunity to rest, chalk up, organize gear, and breathe. As with all styles of offwidth, the more surface area you have touching the rock, the more solidly you will stay in the inversion. On the other hand, if you are fully inverted in a squeeze chimney, with your head or chest below the lip of the roof, you might have to drop slightly lower out of the inversion to make forward progress.
One of the hardest parts of climbing in an offwidth roof is moving while inverted. There are a number of options for advancing while upside down, but the foundation is in solidly placed, locked feet.
If the roof crack is too wide to accept a foot jam, yet too narrow for a knee jam, use Leavittation. While hanging by your feet, move your hand-stacks across the roof. Drop your hands long enough to move them a few inches more and progress in this fashion from hand-stack to foot- or calf-lock.
The Wide Pony
The infamous offwidth duo Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker coined this term to describe when you employ a “frog” technique with your feet while using any combination of stacks between your legs. As Pete says, “It’s like riding a pony [upside down].”
When the roof crack becomes too wide for stacking but too narrow to chimney right-side up, you are in a squeeze inversion. If the roof is wider than your heel-toe, you will need to resort to counter-pressure between your heels and knees to remain in the inverted position, similar to a regular chimney but upside down.
Look for crimps to pull or push yourself forward. Also consider palming on the back wall, pushing your hips forward and your feet upward while inverted. Avoid sitting up to reach for crimps or the lip of the crack to move your body, as this drops your hips lower out of the crack and makes it difficult to move.
Pivoting back to being right-side up is often the crux of inverting. There are two basic types of pivots: around a high foot and around your hips. Ideally your pivot will be completed in one motion, rather than an inch of progress for every degree of rotation, but expect an arduous process. If possible, practice on a toprope to dial in these techniques.
Pivoting around a high foot
Imagine your foot is a fulcrum while your body rotates around it. Solidly lock your high foot but avoid getting it stuck as you rotate it. The most common mistake when a climber tries to pivot is to sit up to get a chicken wing or a stack from the inverted position. Focus on getting your hips up first NOT your upper body. Doing a big situp will only cause your hips to drop lower and make it impossible to pivot.
Lead the rotation with your hips by pushing them up the wall and then rotating your upper body into the crack when you cannot get your hips any higher. At this point, get a stack or a hand jam and complete the rotation. The key is to get your hips high before sitting up. One of my favorite methods is to palm down off the wall behind me (the wall you are essentially sitting on).
Pointers: Pivoting around both feet at once is difficult. Consider dropping the following foot out of the crack as soon as possible. This will provide momentum and possibly provide a low heel-toe cam, knee-lock, or leg-lock from which to push off of in order to complete your rotation.
Pivoting around your hips
This is more straightforward. The same rules apply for pivoting around a foot as around your hips. Visualize rotating around your hips with your body in a nearly straight position: that is, moving your entire body counter-clockwise around your hips. Your feet will be dropping out of the squeeze toward the ground as your upper body will be lifting with your hips as a fulcrum. Start your rotation around your hips, perhaps by pushing down on the wall you are sitting on, or by pulling on an edge. When your hips are closer to a 90-degree angle, you will find it far easier to sit up into a chicken wing or stack than when you are fully inverted.
Pointers: When you sit up, be careful not to square your hips to the crack, which will inhibit progress.
Pamela Shanti Pack is one of the top offwidth authorities in the world, with over 50 first ascents, including invert testpieces Gabriel (5.13c) and The Forever War (5.13c)