Thin To Win- The skinny on jamming the hard
  sizes: thin hands to tips
Is that a thumbs-down or an OK sign? Steph Davis jamming Johnny Cat (5.11d), Indian Creek, Utah.

By Steph Davis (from Climbing Magazine, Issue #177, June 1998)

The crack above you runs forever. You reach and sink your hand up to the wrist, again and again, plugging cams at will. You're a hero. You're laughing. You couldn't fall if you tried. Suddenly the crack gets tigheter. You can't get a hand jam; your feet won't go in. You grope desperately, losing skin. Two hours later you've dogged to the anchors, almost as exhausted as your belayer. The scars are mostly emotional, but there is a lot of blood.

Figure One
The basic foot jam is the building block for climbing thin cracks
Unfortunately, offwidth doesn't only mean wide cracks. Several brutal sizes lurk from thin hands down. But wait- don't sell your cams to buy more quickdraws. Offwidth thin cracks don't have to be awful. In fact, they're fun, once you acquire the know-how. And technical jams can save you from strenuously laybacking or tenuously face climbing around awkward crack sections almost anywhere.

But before we get into that mysterious sizes, let's talk about sinker hand cracks again. They're so perfect, so delightful, and they're the building blocks for tighter sizes. When you climb a hand crack, you insert one foot parallel to the crack at about knee level. Your pinky toe should point straight down, and your knee should stick out sideways like a Russian dancer. Now, torque your foot by pulling your knee in toward the crack. Stand on that foot, then repeat the process with the other. Do this, and you'll barely need to pull on those perfect hand jams. This foot-torque technique is the key to climbing thin hands to fingers; it just becomes more refined as the crack gets smaller and less of your shoe goes in.

Figure Two
Jamming thin hands, with the top hand thumbs down and bottom thumbs up.
Thin Hands A thin-hand jam is one thin which your hands won't go in deeply enough to get that perfect thumb-in-palm lock. Instead, gain purchase by flexing your thumbs as though you were getting perfect jams, and by putting your top hand in thumbs down and your bottom hand thumbs up. Your hands will catch about an inch behind your knuckles. Shuffling your hands instead of crossing saves energy, as does applying just the right amount of squeeze, a skill you will develop through milage.

In a typical splitter crack I lead with my left hand because that feels comfortable to me, but you might do the opposite. I jam my left hand high and keep my right hand at chest level. The right hand acts as a lever and a stabilizing point. The left hand keeps me moving up. If, however, the crack diagonals right, I lead with my right hand thumbs down, and follow with my left thumbs up. In corners I lead with the hand that would naturally go on top for laybacking.

The true stabilizers in a thin-hand crack are your feet. This size crack (which, but the way, varies depending on your hand size), is wide enough for good foot jams. Make sure your shoes are large enough to let your toes lie flat. For hard boulder problems, I wear a size five slipper, but for hard thin cracks I wear a size six and a half, which is the same as my street-shoe size. It might sound painful to crack climb in slippers, but for thin cracks, the thin toe profile of a slipper is better. Like your hand jams, these foot jams are tight but bomber once you learn to trust them. Torque your first foot, and put your other foor in at knee level immediately. This takes weight off your hands and helps you get in balance. The hand jams mainly hold you in place while you push up with your legs. With practice, you'll find that even in a vertical thin-hands crack, you're barely pulling with your arms.

Ratchets Ratchets are the size down from thin hands, and the next step up in difficulty. A crack of this size may fool you. At first, you might believe you can get by with thin-hand jams. A ratchet-sized crack, however, is often just tight enough that trying to jam it will get you incredibly pumped, frustrated, or both.

Figure Three
A ratchet.
To climb pure ratchets, put both hands in thumbs down. Insert your hand parallel to the crack with your thumb folded under your fingers and your elbow sticking straight out. Now pull your elbow down to your ribcage. You should get a camming action between the spot just behind your index finger's first joint and the point just below your thumb joint. Make sure to tape. Like slopers, ratchets become useless when your hands are too low, usually below neck level. For this reason, crossing your hands instead of shuffling them can be helpful, as it keeps you reaching high. But in some cases, a ratchet/thin-hand-jam combo and shuffle can work even better; pull with your leading hand in a high ratchet and anchor with your lower hand in a thin-hand jam and chest level.

Again, the key to success is in your feet. This size is still big enough to accept a decent amount of toe, as long as your shoe is thin and your toes are curled. Ratchets are pumpy, so don't ever look past a subtle widening or discontinuity in the crack. A locker jam or foot edge might be just what you need to reorganize, place a piece, and depump before you plunge back into Ratchetland.

Figure Four
Taping saves skin, and lets you climb better.
Ringlocks The size down from a ratchet is the dreaded ringlock. This is a perfect occasion to tape your index, middle, and ring fingers. Wrap the tape from the base of each finger. Make sure you cover both joints, and don't tape too thick.

To climb rings, make an "OK" sign with your fingers. Now, tuck your thumb under your index and middle fingers so the tips are pressing on it. This is a refined form of the ratchet. The cam will be on the first joints and knuckles of your index, middle finger, and thumb, just above your hand (hence the finger tape). Shuffling and crossing can be equally effective on this size. IF you feel powerful, but you had difficulty fiddling in the right jam, try crossing, If you're feeling sapped, but confident you can ringlock quickly, try shuffling. As with ratchets, rings work best when your hands are high. Try not to let the locks come below your chin or they will want to pop out.

Figure Five
A ringlock.

Figure Six
Adopt the frog position for a ringlock-size crack.
Ringlocks are primarily difficult because you can't get much shoe into this size crack. Use essentially the same foot torque as in a perfect hand crack, but make it very precise. Imagine that you are delicately inserting your pinky toe and your other small toes into the crack. Now twist the hell out of them as you pull your knee in. In this size, your feet must stay closer together, and, like your hands, they must stay high to stick. Your body position is that of a ballerina doing a plie, or a frog. Again, be smart and look sharp. One little foothold beside the crack can save you.

Rattly Fingers If you thought feet were a problem with rings, rattly fingers will have you longing for those pinky-toe torques. You will get rattly fingers in cracks that are small enough to keep you from getting your thumb in, and big enough so your fingers slide down instead of catching in a nice, secure finger lock. Don't make an "OK" sign this time. It's not OK.

If you won't be needing your hand in the future, put it thumbs down into the crack as far as it will go. As usual, your elbow will be sticking straight out. Now pull your elbow in. Imagine that your fingers are playdough, and you're trying to twist them until they come off. Flex your thum up, as though you're trying to ringlock. Sometimes, particularly if the crack is offset, you can use your thumb in opposition, pushing it against the crack. The foot torque becomes more of a rand smear in this size; only the rubber on the outside edge of your shoe fits into the crack. Twist hard. Keep your feet and hands really high to get purchase. Climb fast.

Figure Seven Figure Figure
Rattly fingers.
Opposing the thumb can help with rattly fingers.
A rand smear.
Bomber Fingers It will be a relief when you finally get some good old finger locks. Thumbs down can be good, put pinkies down can be good, too. Try both and see which feels better. These locks are incredibly secure, so make big moves instead of wasting energy on many small ones. Keep your feet high, and reach for the sky.

Figure Ten
Ahh...Bomber fingers.

Figure Eleven
Tips locks.
Tips locks If the crack tightens so your fingers catch just below or above the last joint, it's time for tips locks. If ratchets are like slopers, tips locks are like crimpers; usually secure, but strenuous. Again, experiment with thumbs or pinkies down. The thinner the crack, the more liekly oyu are to need your pinkies down. Stuff in as much finger bone as you can, torque, and pull hard. Before you start climbing, scope out potential rest stances so you'll have the confidence to punch it through the thinnest sections. While climbing, look around the crack for footholds; in this size they are crucial. For tiny tips cracks, I use a tight slipper, which lets me smear on the outside walls and edge more precisely.

The final word on all of these jamming techniques is to do what works for you. If you're feeling fast and strong, you may want to layback a 15-foot seciton of ratchets in a corner and be done with it. Or you may feel more solid jamming and getting on your feet while you place gear. Don't rule out any possibilities. Perfecting these techniques will give you more options to work with.

Knowledge is power. Now that you're armed with "book" knowledge, go practice. Build an adjustable crack machine (two 2x6's bolted together) and work through the sizes. Get on a lot of topropes. The beauty of crack climbing is that it's not about doing the same move over and over. It's about knowing when and how to apply different techniques. A technical jam can come in just as handy on a sport climb as a kneedrop can on a multi-pitch gear route. The more tricks you have up your sleeve, the less likely you are to fall when it matters. So, stock up on tape, lube your cams, and jam.

Steph Davis, 25, has learned these techniques through much loss of skin near her home in Moab, Utah.

Classic Cracks Get in Gear
Testy Canyonlands splitters Placing pro is half the battle
With perhaps the most unrelenting and pure cracks anywhere, Indian Creek offers an endless selection of splitters and corners, from thin hands to thin fingers. Sizes given are for an average male hand.
Chocolate Corner
(5.9+), Donnelly Canyon, thin hands
Gorilla Crack
(5.10b), Supercrack Buttress, wide at bottom then thin hands to hands.
Crack Attack
(5.10), Battle of the Bulge Buttress, variety with some thin hands and fingers.
Hole in the Wall
(5.11a), Battle of the Bulge Buttress, off fingers to hands.
Rock Lobster
(5.11a), Broken Tooth Wall, fingers to hands.
Cave Route
(5.11a), Battle of the Bulge Buttress, thin hands in a corner.
Jane Fonda's Workout
(5.11b), Battle of the Bulge Buttress, thin hands.
Battle of the Bulge
(5.11b), Battle of the Bulge Buttress, thin hands.
Lighting Bolt Cracks
(5.11b, first pitch), North Sixshooter Peak, fingers to hands.
(5.11c), Scarface Buttress, wide fingers to thin hands.
(5.11c), Scarface Buttress, thin to wide fingers.
Mad Dog
(5.11c), Cat Wall, fingers to thin hands.
Knowing how to climb thin cracks is one thing. Figuring out how to let go with one hand long enough to place a piece and clip it is another. Conveniently, you can use your hands to gauge which piece will fit best in the crack. You'll soon learn which cam or nut size is associated with your ratchets, rings, or thin-hand jams. How you organize the gear on your rack can make or break you. It's individual; just make sure you are organized and can get the right piece off your rack quickly. Think ahead, and, at least for the initial section you can see, try pre-racking the first few pieces.

In the best-case scenarios, the off-size will let up at some point and you'll find a great hand jam or finger lock to place gear from. Don't hang out in a ringlock crux when there's a good jam three feet above you. Go for it and place from the better stance. If there is no good stance, make do with one that's just all right. Get in balance on your feet and resist the temptation to place too high. Place the piece at nose or waist level- it'll be easier to clip the rope quickly and you'll be less likely to fall with a big loop out. Once you've got a piece, climb quickly to a better stance for the next one. Above all, make sure your cams are in good shape. There's nothing worse than a sticky trigger when you're desperate.