What is Crack Climbing?


Crack climbing is a unique and challenging style of rock climbing that involves ascending vertical or near-vertical cracks in rock faces using specialized techniques and equipment. This article will delve into the world of crack climbing, exploring its history, techniques, gear, and the skills required to master this exhilarating discipline.

what is crack climbing

History of Crack Climbing

Crack climbing has been a part of rock climbing since the sport’s inception. In the early days of climbing, cracks were often the only feasible way to ascend certain rock faces. As climbing equipment and techniques evolved, climbers began to focus more on face climbing, using holds and features on the rock’s surface. However, crack climbing remained an essential skill for those seeking to tackle a wide range of routes.

The Yosemite Valley in California, USA, played a significant role in the development of modern crack techniques. In the 1960s and 1970s, climbers like Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, and Tom Frost pioneered new methods for ascending the valley’s towering granite cracks. Their innovations, such as the use of hexentric nuts for protection and the development of specialized crack climbing shoes, laid the foundation for the techniques used by crack climbers today.

Crack Climbing Techniques

Crack climbing involves a variety of techniques that differ from those used in face climbing. These techniques are based on the size and shape of the crack, as well as the rock type and the climber’s body position. Some of the most common techniques include:


Jamming is the primary technique used in crack climbing. It involves wedging a body part, such as a hand, foot, or even an entire leg, into the crack to create a secure hold. There are several types of jams, including:

  • Hand jams: Using the hand, often with the thumb down and fingers up, to create a secure hold in the crack.
  • Finger jams: Using individual fingers or groups of fingers to grip the inside of smaller cracks.
  • Fist jams: Inserting the entire fist into a larger crack, with the thumb tucked underneath the fingers.
  • Foot jams: Wedging the foot into the crack, either toe-first (toe jam) or by twisting the foot sideways (heel-toe jam).


Laybacks involve pushing with the feet against one side of the crack while pulling with the hands on the opposite side. This technique is often used when the crack is too wide for effective jamming or when the crack has a flared or irregular shape.


Stemming is a technique used when the crack is too wide for jamming and the walls of the crack are close enough to press against with the feet. The climber pushes outward with their feet while maintaining balance and upward progress with their hands.

Crack Climbing Gear

Crack climbing requires specialized gear to protect the climber and facilitate progress up the route. Some essential gear includes:

  • Cams: Spring-loaded devices that can be placed in cracks of varying sizes to provide protection for the climber.
  • Nuts: Wedge-shaped metal devices that can be placed in constrictions or flares in the crack to provide protection.
  • Tape: Climbers often tape their hands and fingers to protect against abrasion and to provide additional grip when jamming.
  • Crack gloves: Specially designed gloves that protect the hands while allowing for a secure grip in cracks.
  • Crack climbing shoes: Shoes with a flat, rigid sole and a high-top design that offer optimal jamming performance and foot protection.

Crack Climbing Grading Systems

Crack climbing routes are graded using a variety of systems, depending on the region and the type of crack. In the United States, the most common grading system for crack climbing is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The YDS assigns a number grade to a route based on its overall difficulty, with crack climbs typically falling into the 5.9 to 5.14 range.

In addition to the YDS, crack climbs are often described using a set of terms that indicate the size of the crack:

  • Finger crack: A crack that accommodates fingers or thin hands.
  • Hand crack: A crack that fits hands comfortably.
  • Off-width: A crack that is too wide for hands but too narrow for the full body.
  • Chimney: A crack wide enough to fit the entire body.

Mastering Crack Climbing

Becoming proficient in crack climbing requires a combination of physical strength, technique, and mental fortitude. Practitioners should focus on developing the following attributes:

  • Grip strength: Strong hands and fingers are essential for maintaining secure jams in cracks.
  • Core stability: A solid core helps maintain body position and balance while climbing.
  • Endurance: Crack climbing often involves sustained, strenuous movement, requiring a high level of stamina.
  • Pain tolerance: Jamming body parts into cracks can be uncomfortable, and climbers must learn to manage this discomfort.
  • Problem-solving skills: Each crack is unique, and climbers must be able to adapt their techniques to the specific features of the route.

To progress as a crack climber, it is essential to seek out a variety of crack types and sizes, as well as to learn from experienced climbers. Many climbing gyms now offer crack climbing training facilities, allowing climbers to practice their techniques in a controlled environment.


Crack climbing is a demanding and rewarding discipline that tests a climber’s physical and mental abilities. By mastering the techniques, acquiring the necessary gear, and developing the requisite strength and endurance, climbers can unlock a new world of vertical challenges. Whether ascending the legendary cracks of Yosemite, navigating the desert sandstone of Indian Creek, or exploring the granite fissures of Squamish, crack climbing offers a unique and exhilarating way to experience the vertical world.

So, embrace the challenge, tape up your hands, and discover the joys of jamming your way up some of the most beautiful and demanding rock faces on Earth.