How to Climb Wide-hand Cracks

Most of us learn to feel comfortable on finger and hand jams relatively quickly. But off-hands? Fists? Corners? Those techniques don't come quite as easily.

Photo: Kiff Alcocer

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When I first learned to crack climb, I loved tight hand cracks. But when things got a little wider—around three inches—my spirit sank, and all my strength suddenly drained from my body. As I continued my Indian Creek apprenticeship, I began to figure out the dreaded “cups” size. I was finally able to succeed, and even feel a sense of mastery, on such wide-hands climbs as 3 a.m. Crack, Supercrack, and the über-classic, overhanging Think Pink.

The sequence goes like this: Slide your top hand up (thumb down) with your elbow out, and then cup and twist, bringing your elbow down to set your jam. Now slide up your bottom hand (thumb up), about six to 12 inches below your top hand, cup, twist, and then move your elbow downwards across your body to set your lower jam. Now decide which foot to move up — you can shuffle or cross your feet — and bring that knee out to the side (this will help release the foot and set it in the correct orientation for the next jam). Move this foot up and replace it in the crack with your big-toe side up, then rotate your knee over so it’s in line with the crack to reset your jam. Repeat with the other foot, and start the sequence over.

Lead hand. In general, if the crack veers to the left, you’ll want to lead with your left hand, and vice versa. In a corner, it’s usually best to lead with the hand and arm that matches the flat wall of the corner (as opposed to the side of the corner that has an edge). This allows you to put both arms into the crack all the way up to your elbows, if needed, for maximum security. You’ll notice that the more you sink your arms into the crack, the more your upper body will torque to the side of your lower arm. You won’t be looking directly into the crack, but that’s OK. Feeling your jams is what’s important.

Gearing up. Avoid the temptation to place gear as high as you can reach. Get as solid a jam as possible with your top hand, then place your gear a few inches below your jam or at waist level, depending on how secure you feel and the amount of rope drag you’re experiencing. Once you have your pro in, relax a little, and even pull one of your hands out of the crack to shake out. Then, as you move past your pro, be careful not to bump or disrupt it with your other hand or feet. In a corner, make sure you rack up with all your gear on the side that’s not rubbing against the wall.

Twister. Like most climbers, I cupped my hands in wide cracks, but this was often insecure and painful. I finally realized that it’s better to cup and twist (a good tape job helps with this). Cup your hand with your fingers straight, tips pointing into the crack. Then twist towards your pinky (clockwise for your right hand, counterclockwise for your left, regardless of whether your hand is thumb up or thumb down in the crack). When you get it right, you’ll feel the edge of your palm (below your pinky) pushing against on one side of the crack, and the back of your hand (below your index-finger knuckle) contacting the other side of the wall. This creates a torque effect, which, with practice, can feel nearly as secure as a snug hand jam.

Wide-hands crack technique
The top-hand cup-and-twister. Note the good corner-climbing technique.

Facing thumbs. Another important point is to orient your hands so that your thumbs face each other, i.e., top hand thumbs down, bottom hand thumbs up. You’ll want to shuffle your jams upward without taking them out of the crack so that one hand is always leading above the other, rather than pulling your lower hand out and crossing over. This greatly increases security, as you’ll always have both hands in the crack. How deep you place your hands depends on feel (look for useful constrictions or pockets inside the crack), but generally, placing your forearm over halfway in is good.

Tech Tip - Trad - Wide-hands crack technique

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