'Offwidth crack': a phrase to strike fear into the heart of most climbers. Often painful and hard work, their murky delights have been left behind by modern climbing. But Tom Randall thinks it's time you investigated this almost-forgotten art.
What is an offwidth?
An offwidth is any crack larger than your fist, yet smaller than the width that allows you to insert your whole body inside. Typically people use it to refer to any crack that doesn't allow hand or fist jamming but this is incorrect: very large (body sized) cracks are better known as chimneys.
How do you protect them?
Most people only have camming devices that cover them up to four inches, so the issue of how to protect wide cracks is, literally, a big one. There are three possible solutions to this dilemma and most enthusiasts will use a combination of these. The best answer is get your wallet out and buy some huge cams.
Wild Country and Black Diamond make the highest-quality big protection on the market. If feeling a little poor, your next option is to choose wide cracks that either have small protection on the faces around the crack or in-situ chockstones. Finally, if really pushed, try to convince yourself that a 'hand-fist stack' or 'chicken wing' is a form of protection and press on.
How do I protect myself?
One of the reasons that many people avoid offwidths is due to the pain. Skin loss from the hands, elbows, shoulders and ankles is almost guaranteed if a true struggle is encountered. The ankles and hands can be protected using climbers' tape but elbows and shoulders require so much movement that this approach doesn't work. Instead consider wearing neoprene elbow pads and, for the shoulders, a thick fleece or sweater works best. T-shirts are not an option!
Is it always painful?
Every climber who experiences an offwidth will encounter a certain amount of pain. Fortunately, this troublesome issue can be improved upon since the level of pain experienced on wide cracks is almost perfectly correlated to the number climbed; the more that you do, the less painful they will get. As your technique improves, less time is spent thrutching, cursing and sliding out of the crack, which means less abrasion to those poor limbs in contact with the rock. The real trick is to persevere through the initial learning stages so that you can eventually enjoy them.
What to do with your upper body?
Contrary to what most people experience (and probably think) the upper portion of your body is actually the least important part of effective offwidth technique. This is because the arms are almost entirely useless at gaining upward movement in a wide crack. If you do try to climb with your arms, you're going to be in for a nasty surprise and probably quite a bit of skin loss. The main role of the upper body in offwidthing should be considered as a stabilising technique so that you can move your hips and legs into a position to make progress.
What to do with your lower body?
Your legs and hips are the real key to making all those routes that you've long-dreaded seem like their original grades. Most people try to predominantly use the leg that is wedged inside of the crack and then end up scratching around uselessly with the other foot outside of the crack.
This is exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve. Try not to worry too much about the action of the leg inside, but focus 95% of your energy into wedging your outside foot heel-to- toe across the crack. Once a foot jam has been gained, simply push on upwards. To aid this movement initiating from the outside foot, ensure that your hips make a snake-like motion inside of the crack. This will make you feel more secure and not counteract all the hard work you're doing with your outside leg.
How do I practice my offwidth skills?
For those that want to explore this skill, I'd wouldn't recommend throwing yourself at (into?) the nearest wide crack route. The first step that I've found to work best is to look for boulder problems that contain offwidths. A strange concept, but search around and you'll be surprised how many there are out there. With the aid of a spotter and pad, you'll be able to practice your technique in relative safety and also have the option of throwing laps on your favourite wide crack problem without hogging a top-rope line. If you get really obsessed then there is always the option I have taken: convert your entire cellar into a crack den… literally.
Tom Randall is a professional routesetter and coach, who also happens to have a serious obsession with wide cracks. He lives and works in Sheffield.
This issue’s expert is grit climber Pete Whittaker. Pete is well known for both his hard grit routes and his fascination with offwidths and other cracks. Together with Tom Randall, he has travelled the world in search of upside-down fun. As a team, they also hold the record for most outdoor routes climbed in a day (550 each) and were the first pair to complete the Staffordshire 'Brown and Whillans Challenge'.
Q. What would be your number one tip for offwidthing?
A. The first thing you really need is a desire to want to try them! It’s especially helpful if you have a psyched partner as well because, if there’s only one of you, it’s very easy to make excuses and give up.
Q. Is there any specialist clothing you’d recommend?
A. On your feet, stiff-soled high-top boots are great. If you don’t have this type of shoe, tape around your ankles or tuck your trousers into a nice pair of long socks. For trousers, you want avoid synthetic materials as the friction is terrible. Tops always want to be long-sleeved and it’s best to avoid multiple layers, so you don’t overheat.
Q. Where do you find offwidths in the UK?
A. There aren’t really any particular UK destinations that are amazing for offwidths, but check out Wimberry, Brimham and Llanberis Pass. If you desperately want to practice wide cracks, then you have to be fairly inventive where you look. Sometimes there’ll be a great offwidth boulder problem at the base of a route that everyone ignores, or try climbing others avoiding obvious face holds.
Q. So, if the UK isn’t so great, where do I head to abroad?
A. In a word: America! Vedauwoo in Wyoming is the home of hardcore wide cracks. And then there’s Indian Creek and Yosemite.