Almost all of my friends growing up were athletic. They played soccer and softball and basketball. I did ballet and swim lessons. I don’t think I really started to notice until middle school, when school sports teams were cool and I was not on one. I was a small kid and I began to dread PE class, with all the running and throwing and catching… I am one of the least coordinated people (when it comes to conventional sports at least) that I know – when I later started playing ultimate Frisbee, it took me a solid year to learn to throw a forehand, something I’ve since seen new players learn in a matter of days.
But just before my self-esteem could take a permanent dive, I found rock climbing. I rejoiced in this activity that felt natural to me, unlike traditional sports. My natural balance and strong shoulders from years of swimming meant that I could already climb routes that challenged my more athletically-disposed friends.
I dived in headfirst and took my first trip to Joshua Tree National Park when I was 14, where I first discovered my niche within climbing. It was on this trip that I encountered my first hand crack. It was short, vertical, and rated 5.10a, and it was close to impossible without using the appropriate crack technique. I must have struggled for twenty minutes at the base of the route, but when I finally executed my first perfect hand jam, it was amazing. The route suddenly became easy, even though 5.10a was still a challenging grade for me at the time.
As the years passed and I learned to lead climb, my love for crack climbing grew. Physically, climbing cracks allowed me to use my technique and footwork, rather than requiring raw power and crimp strength. Mentally, leading cracks also appealed to me – figuring out which gear to place at each point and then fitting it in with the sequence of moves was an exciting puzzle for me to solve. It also eliminated the frustration and fear I often faced when leading sport climbs (clipping bolts instead of placing my own gear) when bolts were placed too far above a clipping stance for me to reach, or when the protection was more run-out than I would have liked.
Furthermore, crack climbing is a necessary skill for many of the most classic and awesome multi-pitch climbing objectives. Big classic routes in Yosemite, Zion, the North Cascades of Washington, Squamish, etc. – you can’t climb these without the skills to climb and protect crack climbs. Although I often prefer the relaxation of cragging, I, like many climbers, enjoy my spectacular summits, too. Climbing multi-pitch trad routes has brought me on amazing adventures in wild places – these experiences are an integral part of why I love to climb.
Through crack climbing I have become a happier, more confident person. My hardest single-pitch sends have all been on crack climbs and I have to admit, along with the adrenaline surge of sending, I love the look of awe on dudes’ faces when I get back to the ground. Before, that would have embarrassed me, but now I’m proud of my accomplishments, rather than offering up some excuse why the route was easier for me. I’m proud of the faint scars on the backs of my hands from all those pitches of jamming. I’m proud of the creativity it takes to climb a beautiful, splitter crack. Instead of a set sequence of chalked crimps, gastons, and slopers, it’s up to me to decide whether to jam my hands or fingers thumbs up or down, whether to shuffle my hands or cross-through, whether to jam or smear my feet… the list goes on. Crack climbing, to me, is the ultimate freedom of expression in climbing – just testing my strength, skills, and imagination against the rock. It doesn’t matter anymore that I can’t play soccer or catch a ball – when I’m trying my hardest, it’s an all-consuming activity physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’ve yet to find another activity that is so completely demanding and yet completely fulfilling at the same time. And that is why I climb cracks.
Lizzy is a grad student at Stanford working towards a PhD in geology. She likes to study really old (3.5 billion years old) rocks that are generally no good for climbing. You can read about the adventures of Lizzy and her fiancé Luke at their blog, Dream in Vertical, or follow Lizzy on Twitter.
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