Sylvie Drouillat is a climbing instructor and a nurse. Climbing is for her a real way of life and the means of discovery. Repeating quite impressive routes in “american style”, she delivers here some of the keys to explore cracks.
When European climbers first try crack climbing, they often resort to laybacking, as instructed by books by the famous Gaston Rébuffat. The French word for laybacking is “Dulfer,” in honour of the muscular German climber thought to have invented the technique. Laybacking may be functional, but it is extremely strenuous and awkward for placing gear!
During my first climbing trip to California, I discovered the surprising set of techniques widely used by all the local climbers: jamming! Jamming requires a subtle blend of technique, pain tolerance, and mental fortitude. And it only works well when you’ve mastered these three elements!
Here is a little overview of the best-known jamming techniques:
*Hand jams: these are the easiest to understand when you’re getting started. Your hand works like a stopper in the crack, with or without your thumb against your palm. When you see an American climbing a hand crack, you really get the impression that he or she is doing the crawl up a vertical face.
Good hand jams could be confortable… ©Sylvie Drouillat
*Fist jams: these are a little harder to get a feel for compared to hand jams. With your thumb inside your fingers, you can wedge your entire fist in the crack. This is a really comfortable jam.
You can either jam with your fingers and the back of your hand against the rock, or with the base of your thumb and your little finger. In this case you create a hold that can be used like an undercling, allowing you to reach farther with your other hand.
*Finger jams: these jams are painful and hard on your fingers (especially when you do them all the time for a month!). As you’ve probably guessed, they require stuffing your fingers into the crack and pulling on them. This type of jam has a tendency to damage your skin, so you may need to tape the areas that come in contact with the rock, otherwise you won’t be able to try your route more than once a day!
End of pitch on fingers in Annot ©Sylvie Drouillat
*And finally, the trickiest kind of jam to master: the famous ring lock! After years of climbing on granite, I’ve only just recently gotten the hang of this jam! Ring locks are amongst the most painful jams. This is the technique you use when the crack is too large for your fingers but too small for your hands.
A photo will give you a better understanding of this insecure jam.
There are a couple of key details about ring locks that are important to understand. Given how insecure they are, if you try to lock off and reach too far, the jam may slip! So you’ll want to lock off with your hand no higher than your chest, otherwise you may quickly find yourself getting spit out of the crack!
If you’re looking for the perfect route to test your ring locks, there is a beautiful crack in the Mont Blanc massif that requires ring locks from start to finish. The Purple Crack was first climbed by my friend Nico Potard. This slightly overhanging, sustained pitch at an altitude of 3,500 m requires lots of determination and a couple of rolls of tape!
In Yosemite, the magnificent pitch below Separate Reality is the same type of crack, as is the famous Power Line in Indian Creek (which we nicknamed the “Ring Lock Campus Board”!).
Martina Cufar in “Les intouchables” / Trident du Tacul / Mt Blanc
Up until now we’ve focused on hands and fingers. But there are rarely many footholds on these types of cracks, so you have to jam your feet, too, as best you can. At least for a couple of seconds, in order to have the time to place your hand correctly for the next jam!
And sometimes those couple of seconds can be very, very long, especially if the crack requires finger jams or ring locks! You’ll want to get into the habit of turning your foot sideways before jamming it into the crack and weighting it. With a little luck and a pair of soft shoes, it should stick! For wider cracks you’ll want a pair of big, comfortable bedroom slipper-type shoes. Your foot jams will feel much more solid! Don’t forget to tape your ankles and the tops of your shoes, otherwise you’re likely to end your crack climbing trip with bloody ankles and shoes with holes in them.
And since we’re on the subject of width, we might as well shine a little light on the types of jams used for what Americans call “off width” cracks, but which I personally nicknamed “hand to hand combat” cracks.
Simon at the start of the terrifying “Big guy” in Utah
These are cracks that are too wide for fist jams, and too narrow to fit your whole body. So you end up fighting your way up as best you can, sometimes with one arm wedged in the crack and the other hand in a gaston. For your feet, anything goes. Sometimes you jam both feet together, other times you might use a knee bar. Be careful not to get your knee completely stuck in the crack. As you can probably imagine, a couple of metres of off width climbing is enough to have you totally knackered for three days, at least when you’re just learning.
And even better than off widths… Chimneys! Here you can fit your whole body in the crack. They are often quite cramped and generally impossible to protect.
Sylvie in the famous “Harding Slot” in Yosemite
And finally, there are a couple of important details you should keep in mind. First off, depending on the size of your hands and fingers, you’ll be comfortable on certain cracks where climbers with larger or smaller hands struggle, and vice-versa.
With my small hands, I often found myself at ease on certain supposedly ring-lock sized cracks because I could often slide my whole hand in when the crack widened a little. Conversely, I sometimes found myself battling my way up 5.9s with 25 metres of supposedly hand jam sized crack, which required me to flex my hand muscles to make the jams stick.
Also, you quickly realise that it’s all a question of experience! It’s not unusual to watch experienced crack climbers casually make their way up an off-width on which you thought you were going to die at least 20 times!
“Scarface” in Utah, quite easy for small hands climbers…
We crossed paths with a climbing club from Colorado that included a group of kids ages 11 to 13, cams hanging from their harnesses. I realized that in the States they start young and quickly get a feel for this kind of climbing.
All in all, crack climbing is an incredibly rewarding experience! Personally, I find that the most appealing aspect is not the pain, nor the techniques required, but the beauty and pureness of the lines. When it comes to debates about taping, crack gloves with rubber, etc., these are personal decisions. It’s like any other debate: every climber chooses and goes along with his or her personal ethics.
Climbing is one of the last true spaces of freedom and creativity.
Let’s keep it that way as long as possible!
Have fun out there, everyone!