I wanted to follow up on my preceding blog about the challenges of climbing in Zion with some less abstract details on what exactly is so hard about climbing out here.
When most people think of climbing, they imagine a scenario where they are holding onto handholds and standing on footholds of varying sizes. That is the intuitive concept of climbing anything. Here in Zion and many other places in the desert, the climbing revolves around ascending vertical crack systems–and this is very different because climbing a crack involves holding onto what is NOT there rather than grasping what IS there. It is completely counterintuitive.
When there is nothing to hold onto on the rock face, you must “jam” with your hands and your feet. This means inserting your hand into the fissure in the rock and expanding it by cupping your hand or making a fist so that it fills up the negative space, giving sufficient purchase so that you can pull on this jam.
A similar method is used for your feet, where you put your toes into the crack and then turn your ankle.
As counterintuitive as crack climbing tends to be, it can feel completely secure in some cases, because the crack is always there in front of you offering opportunities for secure jams as you move up, allowing you to develop a rhythm and momentum.
The difficulty is that not all cracks fit all hands the same way. Some cracks are so thin that you can only get finger tips inside and that makes for a very insecure feeling when finger jams are all you can hang onto. The equally frustrating wide cracks are rattly and are the absolute worst. You can even make a fist but the resulting fit is too loose to pull on.
The tape? Well that just helps to keep your hands from getting completely chewed up if you are climbing long crack systems that required many jams. Pain tolerance is a big part of crack climbing, since even the most secure jams can put a lot of pressure and friction on your hands and feet.
I have a love-hate relationship with crack climbing. When the jams are solid and you can gain momentum, it is wonderful. When that same crack opens up just a half inch more and your jams are rattling around inside and you are thrutching and cursing just to get enough purchase to move up a foot, then it is a purely hateful experience.
So, to put that all in context with climbing in Zion, the rock here is all steep and laced with splitter cracks, many of which are on the wider side. There is no easing into things. It’s game on from the get-go and either you can hack it or you can’t.