Let's Get Jamming! - Crack Climbing Techniques

Dave Comer on HVS leading into E1 at Millstone, Peak District

Dave Comer on HVS leading into E1 at Millstone, Peak District

Crack climbing is widely considered to be one of the most challenging types of climbing. However, I would say that climbing a fairly blank slab with a few teeny tiny holds is harder and requires more effort than climbing most sizes of crack - but nobody’s daunted by small holds because it looks more like what most climbers are used to. Let’s be honest, when people think of rockclimbing, they picture climbers on steep faces, nobody pictures a 30m high crack in the rock face and a climber trying to stuff various body parts into it! Learning to crack climb can be a steep learning curve but it’s not impossible, just different and a lot of fun!

Even if crack climbing isn’t your ‘jam’ learning the skills for this type of climbing can help you on other types of route. More skills makes us better climbers!

This post will introduce you to finger cracks, hand cracks and fist cracks and the techniques required to climb them. Ready to tackle the cracks? - let’s get jamming!

Finger Cracks

Dave King using the thumb up technique

Dave King using the thumb up technique

Finger cracks are one of the most common type of crack you will find. These are the narrowest cracks. Some climbers consider it to be the least secure-feeling type of crack climbing, because there’s so little skin in contact with the rock, but as we’re used to using our fingers in rockclimbing it’s also one of the easiest cracks to get to grips with. 

There are two jams for a finger crack - thumb up and thumb down. 

Dave King using the thumb down technique (lower hand)

Dave King using the thumb down technique (lower hand)

If you’re struggling with a finger crack, try changing a thumb up grip to a thumb down grip and vice versa. As you develop skills in crack climbing, working out how to place your hands will become more intuitive. 

Footwork

The main thing to look for when trying to find foot placements is constrictions in the crack. The parts where the crack is slightly wider are the parts you’ll want to put your feet in. When you put your feet in, slot them in sideways so you have the rubber on your sole and your toe box touching the sides of the crack. Then you’ll need to rotate your knee so that it’s parallel with the crack then you’ll be able to stand on the foot. If you don’t rotate your knee, your foot will likely slip out. With finger cracks, there are usually some sections where the crack closes, which means that you can find small footholds that look more like what we’re used to. Usually this requires using the inner or outer edge of your foot. It’s still necessary to rotate your knee to be able to stand on these footholds. On grippy rock such as granite or gritstone, it may also be possible to smear a foot. 

There are climbing shoes designed specifically for crack climbing - if you really get into cracks, this type of shoe is really good to have. See our post on the different types of climbing shoe, including those best for crack climbing.

To learn more about using the outer edge and inner edge of your foot in rockclimbing, see our post on footwork.

You can practise finger cracks at Vertical Limit in the back room. There are three different widths of finger crack, getting narrower and more challenging as you work your way up. It’s a great opportunity to practise before climbing outside and to develop your skills to get the most out of an outdoors climbing session.

Hand cracks

Chris Paines hand jamming on HVS and check out that footwork!

Chris Paines hand jamming on HVS and check out that footwork!

These are widely considered the easiest and nicest type of crack to climb as hand jams are very intuitive and feel very secure. Simply slot your hand in the crack, then expand your hand to jam it in. To expand your hand bring your thumb across your palm - it should be just below your pinky finger. This increases the width of your hand by about an inch. You also need to curve your fingers slightly - this will add another centimetre or so to the width of your hand.

The two types of hand jam follow the same concept as finger cracks - there’s the thumb up hand jam and the thumb down jam.

Footwork

Hand cracks often offer good foot placements. It’s often the case of just slotting your foot in and rotating your knee so it’s parallel to the crack. Your foot should fit snugly.

Often climbers worry that their feet will get stuck in this type of crack. If you feel like your foot is stuck, don’t panic! Twist your knee out to the side - reversing the movement you did to make your foothold secure and your foot should then slide out.

Fist cracks

Chris Paines using a downwards palm fist jam. Fist jams can feel unsecure but as you can see when applied correctly it holds very well. Chris is even able to chalk up!

Chris Paines using a downwards palm fist jam. Fist jams can feel unsecure but as you can see when applied correctly it holds very well. Chris is even able to chalk up!

Fist cracks are the hardest of the three to get used to as we don’t use our fists in any other type of climbing.  

There are three types of fist jam. 

Palms facing upwards

This technique mainly engages your arm muscles.

Palms facing downwards

This technique comes with a little more risk of injury if you’re not used to the movement. It’s the same as reaching high and pulling yourself up the crag - except you’re jamming your fist, rather than gripping onto a hold with your hand. It puts more strain on your shoulder and elbow joints so do be careful before doing an almighty pull. 

When using either of these techniques, your thumb should be clenched on the outside of your fingers (as in martial arts). Never have your thumb tucked into your fingers - you risk breaking or dislocating your thumb.

Teacup fist jam 

This technique may have a cute name but it’s considered the ultimate weapon in your arsenal for fist crack climbing. The teacup jam is for when you need your fist to be a bit wider. You can get a centimetre or two more width by pressing the pad of your thumb against the knuckle of your first finger - press hard and the knuckle of your thumb will stick out. This can be a bit painful - you may want to consider taping your thumb to save some skin. 

Chris crack climbing training at Vertical Limit

Chris crack climbing training at Vertical Limit

Off-width cracks and chimneys are the other types of crack climbing and are the most difficult to master. We’ll be covering these at a later date with video demonstrations.

Finger tape is available in the Vertical Limit shop and it’s handy to have a roll when crack climbing. Because your fingers and hands are in constant friction against the rock, crack climbing can easily rub away your skin. Slipping may also lead to some bad cuts on your hands.

The best thing to have is crack climbing gloves. These will protect your hands and the material is designed to have as much friction against the rock as your skin. They are a necessity for hand jams to avoid lots of cuts and scrapes. Vertical Limit sells crack climbing gloves in a variety of sizes.

Come practise crack climbing techniques at Vertical Limit, amongst a crowd of friendly, enthusiastic climbers!