When I first started rock climbing, the first place I climbed outside was in the “Fat Crack Country” of Vedauwoo, Wyoming. My boyfriend at the time loved offwidths, cracks that are too big for jamming hands and fists, resulting in shoving your body parts into the crack in awkward and uncomfortable ways to make upward progress.
I’d try to “chickenwing” and “heel-toe” among other offwidth techniques, but my bony arms didn’t wedge well in the flaring granite cracks. I’d fall, sliding down the sharp crystals the length of rope stretch while on toprope, scratched up and defeated.
“How do you climb this?” I’d yell, exasperated, down to my offwidth-afficionado belayer.
“Climb it however you can to get to the top.”
At the time this advice didn’t seem helpful, but his sentiment stuck with me and has since proven to be useful. When projecting difficult routes, I’ve rarely used “standard” beta. This is probably because when I first started projecting hard routes, many of my partners were men. They were usually taller than me and had different strengths, body sizes, and wingspans, leaving me to be creative and figure out my own way—any way—to get to the top.
One “total-body” technique that has helped me a great deal, especially on steep, featured routes, is kneebarring. Kneebars involve pressing your upper knee or thigh against a chunk of rock while simultaneously pushing down into your toe to create wedging/opposition, allowing the leg to take weight off your arms. Kneebars can take a few pounds off to help you hold a small crimp or sloper (in this case, these more tenuous knee placements are called kneescums), or they can be so bomber that you can take both arms off the wall and hang upside down like a bat.
Just like any specialized technique in climbing, such as hand jamming or slab climbing, kneebarring must be learned over time. It takes a trained eye to spot flat surfaces of rock—and opposing footholds a tibia’s length from those surfaces—against which you can push your knee. It also takes strong calf muscles, some pain tolerance, and a strong core to master kneebars. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get, and pretty soon you’ll be able to sniff out kneebar possibilities on a route where a rest might be handy or where you need to take weight off to use a terrible hold.
One helpful tool for kneebarring is sticky-rubber kneepads. Commercially made pads typically strap onto your leg, or to make one yourself you can sew on or have a resoler sew on a sticky-rubber patch to a neoprene kneepad. Kneepads are best worn directly on your skin (vs. over a pant) and, if not a strap-on pad, lashed with duct tape to your upper thigh. The idea here is the pad cannot slip—it is as if it’s a part of your body, so you can trust the smallest, most insecure kneebars. For technical kneebarring, the pad should almost be so tight when you’re shoeing up that you walk like the Tin Man.
In addition to kneebars, there are many other techniques such as drop-knees and heel hooks that also help unweight your arms. The key word here is unweight, so don’t forget about using all your body parts and wedging them into or draping them over the rock. Hand, fist, and finger-jamming may seem specific to crack climbing, but they can sometimes be used elsewhere—even on sport climbs. There is also the “alpine knee”—putting your kneecap down on a high foothold to avoid a wicked highstep, letting you move your hips and/or hands up, then turning the knee into a foot. The possibilities are endless.
The more techniques you have in your back pocket, the more likely you’ll be to come up with an unconventional sequence when you’re stymied by the norm. Stay creative and open to learning, and you might just find yourself at the top.
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