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Pete Whittaker’s Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide begins with a suggestion. Due to the sheer volume of information in the book, Whittaker recommends you use it like a guidebook: Find the information you’re looking for and focus on that, and mime the techniques as you read them. Having now finished the book, I agree. It’s not because the book is dry or boring—it’s not—it’s because of the incredible depth of knowledge packed into its ~300 pages. You wouldn’t retain much if you read it front to back like a novel. There’s just too much information.
The ideal way to read Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide would be to set aside a few months and drive to Moab or Yosemite. Spend each day toproping cracks with the book clipped to your harness. As you encounter different crack shapes and sizes, flip to the relevant pages and experiment with the described jams. You’d have your PhD in crack technique by the end of the trip. I, on the other hand, read the book while locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Miming moves in the air and trying the occasional appliance jam were the available substitute.
The best way to understand Whittaker’s new book is as a textbook. Like Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills or Rock Climbing Anchors, this is intended for people that want to know absolutely everything there is to know about a specific skill, in this case crack climbing. The “Definitive Guide” portion of the title is not an understatement. The information is thorough and granular. Each size of crack gets its own chapter packed with illustrated diagrams and photos. The book covers finger cracks, hand cracks, fist cracks, offwidth cracks, squeeze chimneys and chimneys (those are two separate chapters), stemming, roof cracks, gear placements, and equipment. There’s even a chapter about taping—23 pages dedicated to taping with 79 photos if I counted correctly. Not only does Whittaker explain different tape gloves for different applications, but he gets down to the nitty gritty of placing horizontal strips of tape versus vertical versus diagonal.
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As you’d expect, there is just as much detail about the jams. You learn exactly how a jam should be placed and where pressure should be applied. The book not only addresses what to do if the crack is a little wide or thin, but also what to do if it’s in a corner or roof, how to place your feet in the various situations, how to rest, how to place gear, how to rack gear, etc. Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide is comprehensive. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will finish the book with lingering questions about jamming or taping, or any other topic covered.
I came into the book as a novice crack climber. I’ve been climbing for 10 years now and working at Climbing Magazine for six, so it’s easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking I know a lot about the sport. The reality is that I don’t have much crack climbing experience. A few years back I made a point to start doing laps on my gym’s limited hand and finger crack options every session until I felt confident on them. Since then I’ve found more and more opportunities to jam or stem on sport climbs—my preferred discipline—improving my climbing overall and making me more versatile. Then I went to Moab in November and realized how little I actually know. What I know, is how to do hand jams and ring locks. That’s it. I suspect many gym climbers, sport climbers, and boulderers are in a similar situation. Without counting, I’m going to generalize and say that there were an infinite number of crack techniques that were foreign to me before reading the book.
For example, Whittaker explains a category called balance jams: “A jam that is poor; you shouldn’t expect to be able to pull or push on this kind of jam. You might use this jam to help gain purchase so that you can move other body parts.” This category includes unlikely looking options like placing your fist horizontally into a crack so that the edge of your hand contacts one side while the tip of your extended thumb contacts the other. It’s a creative solution that I never would have considered while on a route and struggling to figure what to do with a fissure just a couple inches too wide for my fist.
The book is illustrated by Alex Poyzer, and his work is key in understanding the techniques. I don’t think any amount of text would help me visualize a “reversed butterfly jam, crossed hands, left hand thumb down, right hand thumb up.” But when I can see it drawn on the page, it makes sense. “Illustrations” doesn’t really describe Poyzer’s work. They are technical diagrams. Each drawing includes symbols to highlight important details like contact areas between rock and the body; amounts of pressure and direction of pressure to exert on the rock; any twisting, rotating, or flexing necessary; the direction of pull of the jam; and more. The book is not stingy with these diagrams. They’re everywhere and much appreciated.
While there is a lot of information packed into Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide, the book is not dry. Whittaker’s quirky sense of humor, as seen in the Wide Boyz films and other media, is present throughout the tome and keeps the reading fun. For example, under the heading “More Surface Area Between Skin and Rock Equals a Better Jam,” Whittaker uses the example of a sandwich:
“Your climbing partner has made you a jam sandwich. Between the two slices of bread is a layer of strawberry jam. They pass you the sandwich, but when you bite into it you find they haven’t spread the jam right to the edge of the slice, so all you get is a mouthful of bread. You find they have only spread the strawberry jam in the centre of the sandwich and there is barely any surface area of strawberry jam touching the bread. Very disappointing.”
The eventual conclusion of this is:
“When you put your jam in between the crack walls, if there is minimal surface area contact between skin and rock when you engage the jam, then just like your jam sandwich, the end product will be disappointing. However, if you create lots of surface area contact with your jam and the crack walls, then just like your fully spread strawberry jam sandwich, the taste–of success—will be sweet.”
Whittaker spends two paragraphs on this analogy, and there’s no talk of friction or any mechanical similarities between fruit jams and hand jams. His entire point is that they’re both better when there’s more contact with the base medium, be it bread or rock. These fun moments helped me stay engaged with, and retain, the information. Beyond Whittaker’s wit, there are 15 interviews with notable crack climbers—names like Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden—spread throughout the book that break up the information. There are occassional tips in these pages, but they’re primarily for entertainment.
One thing to note is that the scope of the book is limited to skills and technique. Whittaker, along with partner Tom Randall, are known for their intense and effective training regimens that allowed them to climb routes like Century Crack after two years in Randall’s cellar, but that’s not what this book is about. Whittaker stresses that finesse is preferred over strength. He doesn’t delve into what to do if you’re just not strong enough to hold a jam. I reached out to him for some suggestions in training for my own home crack machine, but perhaps he’ll cover the topic in depth in another book.
Crack climbing can seem like an impenetrable discipline. The techniques are not intuitive and not learned in the gym. Whittaker’s new book makes crack climbing accessible. It provides the tools for new crack climbers to understand everything from the fundamentals to expert skills. Advanced crack climbers will likely find new skills and useful tips as well. Whittaker is a master of the subject, and it’s clear he put great care into imparting his knowledge into Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide. The result is a book that deserves a spot on every serious climber’s shelf, when he or she isn’t pulling it out of their pack at the base of a route.