Saturday, January 28, 2012

Take A Walk on the Wide Side

Jason Molina gets comfortable on Lucky Nuts Right 5.9

I couldn't tell you exactly the first time I attempted to crack climb, probably because it was so embarrassing I attempted to erase it from my mind permanently.  I can only tell you that I am not alone in being totally enthralled with crack climbing, even after my first attempts failed me miserably. But what is it that makes people love crack climbing? What makes it so special that people are willing to sacrifice all the skin on their hands, knees, and ankles just to attempt it?  Although there could never be a simple answer to this, I believe the easiest way to understand the mysterious allure of crack climbing is to go out and view some large, seemingly never ending crack climbs.  There will most likely be a deafening silence as you realize the massive size of the feature, and you'll know that you just have to interact with it somehow.   Before you know it you're addicted to the clean cut crack climbs and will soon be attempting to fit hands, feet, and body inside like some sort of twisted masochistic human zig-saw puzzle rock climb.  And that's when you'll know you're ready for real walk on the wild side, off-width climbing.

Jason Molina working a tight chicken wing on Chrysler Crack 5.9

Off-width climbing is a little of everything, and a lot of nothing you've attempted before.  The style gets its name for the off-sized cracks that are too wide for regular hand or foot jams and demand the use of specialized techniques to ascend upwards.  Typically avoided by most climbers, offwidth climbing has a cult following that loves the unique challenge of climbing using hand stacks, foot cams, and levitation.  It is well understood that while one is offwidthing pretty much anything goes, and any climbing methods or techniques conceived by the climber to make upward progress is accepted. (Except for pulling on gear of course.) Below is an interesting chart I found that illustraites common hand and foot crack techniques used in different sized cracks. "Leavittation" or "Levitation" is a term used by climbers to describe the mysterious techniques used in between hand stacks and arm bars when the climbing is most magical and tricky.  Nobody (except Randy Leavitt) is quite sure what to do, so you learn to leavittate.

Chart courtesy of 

Recently, my friend and climbing partner Jason Molina and I have been making our offwidth dreams come true. (Or perhaps I should say, our offwidth nightmares come to life.)  After starring endlessly at all the cracks in Red Rocks, and reading about the most badass and classic offwidths we simply couldn't wait any longer.  So we did our best to locate some Big-Bros (adjustable aluminum tubes used as protection for climbers in wide cracks) and set out to climb some of the classics.  The first route that we decided to attempt was the 90' tall, 6"-18" wide Chrysler Crack in the Sandstone Quarry.  Although this route is only rated at 5.9, it was one of the most difficult and physically demanding climbs I have ever attempted.  There's not really any features to hold onto or step on beside the two smooth walls of the expanding crack. Only friction can save you now, and its up to each individual climber to figure out how the hell they expect to move upwards. 

Too wide for hand stacks and too narrow to fit inside.
Matt Kuehl using foot stacks and attempting leavittation on Chrysler Crack.
Photo: Andy Reger

On my attempt of Chrysler Crack I attempted every possible contortion I could conceive.  I tried foot-stacks, arm bars, chest jams, butt locks, knee smears, double elbow jams, thigh-clings, hip cams and even stacked knee jams.  Everything worked a little bit for a little while, but nothing could work the whole time.  Often the most difficult part was transitioning from one position to another, and it seems that climbing this route will put you in a perpetual state of stuck.  Being as this was my first sustained route of this nature, it goes without saying that I was humbled by its difficulty, and it was certainly a learning experience.  My second attempt felt just as physically demanding, but I was already getting a better sense of what I could do, and what simply wouldn't work.  I squeezed and slid my way up to the top of the crack like some giant ungraceful worm wishing he had some water to drink.  An unforgettable time.

Jason Molina getting used to the view halfway inside Chrysler Crack.

After my attempt Jason also gave it a good go, using the best of his knowledge and creative thinking ability to navigate the intimidating crack.  I couldn't quite tell what he was doing half the time, but I could tell it was pretty tough stuff.   We both ended up getting stumped in the same spot, and what once was an offwidth ice breaker has now become and offwdith test piece, one that we're determined to master.  So with hopes of using what we've learned from Chrysler Crack, we decided to head to Calico Basin and get on The Last Calico, a little known crack of all trades in Calico Basin.  Although the two climbs differ greatly, they both require a large and varied amount of crack climbing techniques, and are sustained and challenge your crack climbing endurance.  Jason and I both enjoyed The Last Calico a bunch, and it was a nice confidence booster for what was going to come tomorrow... more offwidths in the canyons!

So we convened the next day in hopes of getting on three crack climbs in First Creek Canyon.   We had our sights on two more 5.9's Lucky Nuts, and Mudterm for "warm ups" and if time allowed we'd give the 5.10d offwidth Critical Cams a try.  I racked up for Mudterm, which follows two duel finger cracks upwards for around 100'.  The rock was a little sandy but it took good gear and it served its purpose of being a good and consistent climb to warm up on.  After we all climbed that we focused our attention on the "burly" 5.9 to the left of it Lucky Nuts.  Although the guidebook said we only needed gear up to 4", the part of the climb that looked most awesome to Jason and I was the offwdith squeeze chimney to the right, which most climbers would use only briefly before heading to less strenuous climbing on fragile rock to the left.  We could tell it would take very large gear, and it looked like not even the largest Camalot would fill the gap.  So I racked up with Big Bro's and a #6 Camalot to see what we could figure out.  My first piece was a #4 Big Bro about 20' off the ground.  And although still new to placing Big Bros, I could tell that this one was bomber; I really bashed it into place.  I pulled it every which way an it didn't budge.  I now had the confidence that escaped me while leading Chrysler Crack and I continued to focus my mind on moving upwards, half squeezing and half smearing.  

Double knee bar/smear/reverse mantel/squeeze to sloper.
Mysterious climbing techniques are always encouraged.
Photo: Jason Molina

Matt Kuehl working to protect the gash with another Trango Big Bro.
Photo: Jason Molina

I eventually settled into a "comfortable" position by keeping my feet smearing out left on the featureless and sandy sandstone, while I scummed my knees against the wall for extra security and pressed my shoulder and chest into the crack on the right.  I wiggled and dragged my way up a ways like this until I was finally able to combine a series of moves to reach a slopping edge inside the wide crack.  From this position I started the awkward transition of moving my body through the bend in the crack, where I experienced much difficulty. I finally settled into a double knee bar/jam and managed to place a .3 Camalot in a small constriction inside the crack.  I slowly squeezed upwards eventually contorting myself through the bend, where I was able to stand on what my knees had been previously wedged against.  I looked around for somewhere I could place the #6 Camalot, and finally found a sneaky little spot inside the crack but almost entirely out of view.  Although on the wider side of this cam's range, it was a solid placement that I was glad to find and knew could hold a fall.

Making upward progress one pained face at a time, Lucky Nuts Right.
Photo: Jason Molina

Eventually Lucky Nuts Right meets up with the original Lucky Nuts, and you gain access to a corner just previously out of reach to the left.  This corner is helpful for stemming, and helps make upward progress and eases the difficult transition from offwidth squeeze to inside corner finger crack.   Jason gave it an attempt, and I've never see such persistence in all of my days.  Although making progress only inches at a time in the crux (only to slide back down 15 seconds later) Jason gave a commendable effort in completing the transition from the offwidth variation back to the original line.  Although this route is rated at only 5.9, it requires a physical exertion I would equate to being similar to moving a large couch up five flights of stairs.  It is extremely awkward, painful and tiresome, but once it's all said and done you are amazed and psyched you were able to do it. It was part puzzle, part strength and part stamina. The desire to attempt even stranger offwidths soon comes next...

Jason Molina between stem and squeeze on Lucky Nuts Right. 

Although this post has only been a brief encounter with offwidith climbing, I encourage all climbers to give it a shot when the opportunity presents itself.  At some point the skills you learn will be vital building blocks to progress and being comfortable on a climb that you're hoping you don't struggle on or wish you could just breeze through.  Face climbing is a small part of what the versatile sport of rock climbing has to offer, so don't limit yourself to clipping bolts and crimping edges (although these too are great parts of the sport.)  To embrace the challenge of crack climbing, especially offwidth climbing, is to embrace the true challenge and tradition of climbing.  It may not always be pretty and it's certainly not going to be easy, but it will be rewarding and one of a kind.  Offwidth and squeeze climbing to me is a celebration of the diversity of the rock itself and how humans are able to move and adapt within it.  It is a special bond, a love/hate relationship, an understanding and an unwavering respect of the natural world we choose to face.  So go out there and climb a crack, because before you know you're gonna learn to love it.

Totally thrashed! I think it's time for some tape gloves. 


Trad Ninja said...

Shall I bring my Big Bros in April?!!!?

Matt Kuehl said...

Bring 'em for sure! Any assortment of large gear will be awesome, if we can gather three #3 and three #4 Big Bros we can get on "Bros Before Holes" 5.10+. It looks wicked!

Trad Ninja said...

Sorry, flights not working out for April RR trip, but I might be in JTree again. You guys interested in mixing it up and coming down to JTree sometime?

Andy said...

I heard, courtesy of the ASCA, that Matt crapped inside Chrysler Crack?

Matt Kuehl said...

I'd like to head out to JTree, but its way to early for me to plan. Andy, I did here that a recent ascentionist dislodged and later attempted to sling a petrified turd while on Chrysler. It has since been chopped thanks to the hard and humble work of Kurt Hexley.

Trad Ninja said...

I will also be in JTree next week 2/8 to 2/17 if you guys wanna come down. I will bring the Big Bros.