The following article was written for Climbing Magazine and can be found in issue #317 and online here.
I was barely halfway through a 90-foot route when I used the last of my breath to wheeze “Take!” Blood from my skinned elbows leaked through my shirt, and sweat dripped into my eyes when I realized I simply couldn’t climb anymore. The route was the classic 5.9 offwidth Chrysler Crack in Red Rock, Nevada, and I was stuck. I wasn’t lacking strength, or even persistence—it was technique. I had zilch. This borderline-shameful experience encouraged me to hone my offwidth methods, because here—as in all climbing— technique and style matter. I decided to climb only offwidths in Red Rock, Vedauwoo, Wyoming, and Indian Creek, Utah, until I could easily send Chrysler Crack. When I finally finished it, there was no yelling, bleeding, or crying to myself on the hike out.
The intimidating world of wide cracks is often regarded as more work than fun. Although they do require elbow grease, the challenge also provides a satisfying reward. No matter your skill level, learning and honing the following skills will improve your chances of reaching the chains (without puking). Tape up and pull on a pair of canvas pants, a long-sleeve shirt, and some comfortable hightop shoes, and tackle that crack.
This technique is essential for offwidths of any difficulty because it provides a secure jam on everything from a 5.9 squeeze to a 5.13 invert—and like all types of climbing, having good footwork can make or break your ascent. Unlike a conventional foot jam (where you stick your toe into a crack and twist your knee to lock it in place), the heel-toe is oriented horizontally with your toe on one side and your heel on the other. To start, decide which side of your body feels more comfortable jammed in the crack. Then, with your inside leg, bend your knee slightly and point your toe downward, smearing against the crack. Lower your heel until it is jammed on the opposite side, and push down to tighten the jam. You can do the same with the outside leg, but establishing this jam with the inside leg first will orient your body securely in the crack. The outside foot’s purpose is to make vertical progress by pushing your body upward, whether it’s using footholds in the crack or out.
Arm-Bar/Chicken-Wing These two techniques require the use of your full arm and are essential for those “in between” sizes—when the crack is too wide for hand stacks but too narrow to fully squeeze inside.
This move works best on vertical terrain; it involves placing your inside hand deep into the crack. With your body oriented sideways, press your palm against one side of the crack, thumbs-up, and your elbow against the other side. Use opposing force to get a secure jam. Press your outside hand (with your thumb down) on the outer edge of the crack (the side your inside palm is pressed against). This will keep your upper body jammed in the crack as you move your feet up, generally to a higher heel-toe cam. Try to move slowly and in a controlled manner to avoid unnecessary physical exertion. Focus on relaxing the muscles you aren’t using, rest when you find a comfortable stance, and don’t forget to breathe.
This is similar to an arm-bar, but it’s a little harder to execute. Advantage? Chicken-wings are better for copping a rest. Place your arm into the crack, elbow first, with your arm bent, hand pointing toward your face, and palm facing out. Put your palm against the outside edge of the crack and push the back of your arm against the other side. Push down and outward on your chicken-wing, and it should cam your elbow and arm into place. Your body’s natural direction of push out of the crack should cause the jam to get tighter and force your palm and elbow against the sides of the crack. This technique can stress your shoulder on steep terrain, so use some caution when trying for the first time (see shoulder-strengthening exercises on p. 26).
Hand Stacks Use both of your hands to jam a crack that is too large for a regular hand jam. This method is used on narrower offwidths and is often preferred over arm-bars and laybacks because it’s more secure, a fall is less likely, and it’s less strenuous. There are three common configurations. Typically, as a crack becomes wider, the stacks become less secure and harder to use.
Hand/Hand (aka the Butterfly Stack)
Place the backs of your hands together and insert them into the crack fingers first with your thumbs up. Cup your hands to the sides of the crack and pull. This is essentially a double hand jam and works great for cracks just wider than your fist. To remove your hands, establish a calf, knee, or foot jam to hold your body as you uncup your hands and slide them upward to a higher jam.
One hand will be in a fist against the back of the other hand that is open and cupped in a hand jam position. Place the open hand palm-first against the crack, and then the fisted hand between the crack and the back of your open hand. Generally, it’s more secure to cross your arms at the wrists (rather than normal left/right orientation); crossing also allows you to reach farther into the crack.
The widest (and most difficult) of the hand stacks, this requires precision and hand strength, but once you master it, you’ll be jamming joyfully in those six-inch-wide splitters. Make two fists and cross your arms at the wrists; the hand with the thumb facing you should be underneath and the other thumb facing away. Flex your fists against each other and the crack, and then pull down. Don’t move your fists as you pull down on the jam; any subtle movement can cause it to shift and feel unstable. It may be necessary to arrange your hands differently on unique terrain, so experiment, be creative, and figure out what works best for you.
Matt Kuehl is a writer, photographer, and offwidth enthusiast who calls Red Rock home. His favorite recent offwidth pitches are Wise Guys Off Size (5.10c), Slither and Scream (5.11), and Trench Warfare (5.12d).