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The mental and physical demands of offwidth climbing are grueling, and part of that is due to the intimidation and difficulty of protecting them. You not only have to thrutch and grovel your body up a wide crack, but also have to haul and plug heavy gear that’s awkward to carry, challenging to place, and a pain in the butt to climb past. Many aspiring wide-crack climbers block themselves with their own pro, kick out cams as they move past, get the rope stuck behind cam lobes, realize mid-pitch they have racked on the wrong side, and waste valuable time and energy attempting to place the perfect Big Bro. In my eight years as an offwidth climber, I’ve gleaned the following tips to help you become more adept at the gear portion of offwidths, which will make you a more efficient wide-crack wizard overall.
Keeping gear out of the way
As if it weren’t challenging enough to place humongous gear, navigating around it can be just as difficult. Pinning the rope behind a knee is quite common and makes it virtually impossible to pull the rope up to clip the next piece and/or “bump” a cam. There are ways to avoid this frustrating situation: Place gear deep inside the crack. This is the most convenient, and it will keep your rope and gear out of the way. However, think about the reach of your follower; he or she might not be able to get to the trigger to remove gear. Run the rope outside the crack with long runners and/or place gear outside the crack if possible. If you are planning on bumping gear, this might present problems, as the runners may be difficult to negotiate. You may see bolts and wonder why they’re outside the crack; often the bolts are placed in order to prevent rope drag and to keep the rope from running over dangerously sharp edges. Place gear at waist level, which will prevent you from having to remove a crucial body part for upward progress. Pay close attention when moving past it to prevent tipping it out with your foot or knee. Avoid loose slings and clothing that could catch on your gear.
This involves placing a cam, clipping it, and pushing it above you as you move up. It’s an excellent solution for cracks that have a relatively consistent width (think: Indian Creek).
Pros: You can pare your rack down, reducing weight and bulk. It will also give you the mental and physical security of being on toprope.
Cons: If the cam tips out or falls down the rope, you could end up way above your last piece. Worse, it could knock out that last piece—and possibly your belayer. Be careful not to push your cam into a spot that’s too tight, too tipped out to hold a fall, or out of your reach. One solution is to push two cams, so one acts as a backup if the other cam tips out or gets stuck. It is more work to push two, but it’s safer until you’ve mastered the art of placing Big Bros as you bump your gear.
• Rope drag combined with pushing a heavy cam creates a lot of weight. Before bumping, pull a loop of rope up and pin it behind your knee or thigh. Now you can push the cam up without the extra weight of the rope.
• I push cams at the top of my reach (it keeps the rope and the cam out of my way). However, don’t push cams so far that you can’t reach the trigger.
• The leader yells down “Bumping!” so the belayer knows the leader will be pulling up loops of slack—this prevents short-roping.
Big Cam Tips
• If you have horrendous rope drag, back-clean pieces below.
• If you realize mid-pitch you have too much gear—don’t carry the weight! Clip extra gear to a solid piece below.
• Anything between the lobes and rock reduces friction and holding power. Offwidths don’t see much traffic, so they’re often full of dirt. Be wary of placements in silt-filled chimneys. Look for clean rock, or if you’re in a good stance, clean the rock with your gear.
• Big cams can rotate and fall out because of the relatively narrow head width compared to the crack size. To prevent this, place a Big Bro at the same height and in front of your cam, leaving both pieces together (fig. 1). This prevents the rope from running over the cam’s lobes and flipping it over or pinning the rope. Plus, it’s reassuring to have two pieces clipped below you.
• Long slings reduce unwanted movement and allow you to fall on a piece without putting any outward tension on a lower one. A sharp outward or sideways pull is often the cause of a cam coming out.
Placing Big Bros
These expandable tube chocks are an essential tool in the wide-crack climber’s arsenal. With one tube nesting inside a larger tube, they telescope to fit the crack, with a tightening/loosening collar to secure them, and in an emergency they are great to stand on for aid. Find a ground-level crack, wedge yourself into it, and practice placing them. They can be awkward to place at first, but they’re completely solid, lighter than huge cams, less bulky on your rack, and the smooth, rounded shape allows the rope to run easily past them. Big Bros can provide protection while bumping a big cam, too. Climb for a body length and push your cam overhead until you are in a good “rest” position. The cam will provide a reassuring toprope as you place a Big Bro below it. As you become more proficient with Big Bros, you can “Bro and Go”—that is, place them quickly in succession without having to pause. Remember to place them deep in the crack so you won’t knock them out with a knee or your foot.
Big Bros are also the only method for protecting squeeze chimneys, unless you own a 12” Valley Giant, and they’re particularly useful for steep sections and roofs, where cams are easily dislodged. A Big Bro at the lip will keep your rope running smoothly.
Big Bro Tips
• The collar end of the Big Bro needs to be on the right side of the crack so that the rope running upward tightens, rather than loosens, the collar.
• Big Bros are ideal in parallel-sided cracks. Maximize surface contact with the rock, as with any other pro. When placed correctly, the inner tube (the right side) should be slightly lower.
• If possible, place Big Bros with constrictions below for added security, or in dishes within the crack.
• Do not waste energy on the “perfect” Big Bro placement. I’ve spent 30 minutes trying to get an ideal placement, only to have it fall out as soon as I started to climb. If you can’t get the piece to sit properly, keep moving and try another location.
• Do not false-fire Big Bros! Place the silver end against the rock in the crack before you push the release button.
• Sling Big Bros with New England Ropes 5.5 Tech Cord, not 5mm accessory cord. Tech Cord is four times as strong. Length is a personal preference, but I like them to hang six to eight inches below my waist, preventing them from wedging behind my hips.
• Use Elmer’s Slide-All Spray Lubricant to maintain springs.
• Keep in mind where you’ll be climbing in a chimney. If moving deeper, pay attention to the direction of the force placed on the Big Bros, as it could pull them into a wider section where they might fall out.
• When racking, make sure they are fully retracted with the collar tightened so they don’t accidentally expand mid-pitch directly into your knee, or worse.
Cleaning big gear
The same rule that goes for a stuck body part in an offwidth applies to stuck cams as well: Resist the urge to panic—desperately pulling and thrashing—as it will only make the situation worse! Try wiggling one lobe at a time and have patience. It’s taken me more than an hour to remove a stuck cam at Vedauwoo, Wyoming. However, Big Bros are somewhat disconcertingly easy to clean-—look at them funny and they will fall out. The basics are to loosen the collar, push up from below on the high end of the Bro, and press down from above on the lower end. When a Big Bro does get stuck, double-check that you have loosened the collar. A good karate chop from above onto the low end usually does the trick. Or try kicking it up from below the high end. In sandstone it might be useful to grab a water bottle and pour water on either end of the Big Bro to soften the sandstone and make the piece easier to remove.
Keeping one side of your body in for an entire pitch makes racking easy, and choosing the correct side is a skill you’ll develop with experience. If you can’t tell which side is best or it looks like you might have to switch sides mid-pitch, rack on a shoulder sling so you can move gear from one side to another efficiently. Don’t put extra runners over your gear sling, which might get tangled as you switch sides. Note that for more advanced, invert-style offwidths (feet over your head) a gear sling will fall over your head and is not recommended.
Offwidth pitches are often interspersed with wider “pods.” It’s can be the crux to get out of these dreaded pods, but you can take advantage of the time you spend stuck in there by pulling up (aka “tagging”) more gear. If there appears to be a good stance in a pod or on a ledge partway into the pitch, planning to tag up gear is a great way to pare down your rack. There are two ways to do this. The first is to trail a lightweight tag line and haul up additional gear from a stance on the route or while clipped to a piece of gear. The second way is to use your lead rope. Ideally you will have a stance where you can clip directly into an intermediate anchor, and when your belayer takes you off belay, you can pull up a loop of rope and drop it so your belayer can attach the needed gear. After you have pulled up the gear, the belayer should quickly reel in the slack and put you back on belay. Use twigs as retaining pins in the lobes of your larger cams when climbing (fig. 2), which will make your cumbersome rack sleeker. Avoid using a sharp pin or dowel that could potentially spear you in the thigh as you climb. Twigs are cheaper, readily available, and conveniently break before impaling you.