Learning new rock climbing techniques can be tricky. I remember my first ineffectual attempts at hand-jamming on an eight metre crack in a boulder (Cwm Glas Boulder) in the Llanberis Pass, in North Wales. I just couldn’t see (or, rather, feel) what to do. Most embarrassing… although Scruff and Dick, my companions on that far-off day, couldn’t have been more tactful. Maggie, my girlfriend shouted down from the climber’s hut nearby and they gave me a face-saving excuse by relaying her message – “Your dinner’s ready!”
In years to come, a solid rock climbing apprenticeship on the gritstone cracks of Yorkshire and Derbyshire, in Northern England, led to proficiency at hand-jamming. You could learn finger-jamming (locks) on the piton-scarred cracks of Millstone Edge – old routes aid climbed in the 1950s and free climbed in the 1970s. When I returned to Ireland, other climbers goggled at these hand and finger jamming skills. (Please note: it’s very different in Ireland now. Fair Head, on the North East tip, is arguably the best crag in the British Isles – miles and miles of crack-climbing paradise, with big, scary walls and arêtes in-between.)
But, back then, it was pretty much the same deal in France, where you could find relatively easy cracks at Fontainebleau given the same grades as absolutely desperate face climbs. There was no doubt about it. Gritstone and Yosemite trained climbers held a big advantage over most everybody else.
The advent of camming devices (initially Friends) in the late 70s made cracks a much less daunting proposition. You didn’t have to hang around for precious minutes getting pumped silly, trying to fiddle in hexes which often required a fair degree of skill to place securely. You simply had to depress the trigger and (carefully) push in the Friend. Interestingly initially Friends were denounced as unethical – as was chalk. Both were regarded as permissible only on the hardest to routes (e.g. Ray Jardine’s ‘Phoenix’, 5.13a, in Yosemite.) But, of course, history tells us that you can’t curb technology. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, you can never get him back in. Pretty soon, nearly everyone was using chalk and camming devices. Wires worked best for finger-cracks, although now, of course, you can get micro-sized cams even for fingertip cracks.
So nowadays, there’s really no reason to fear – or avoid – cracks. In fact, there’s usually an incentive: availability of protection. Hand jamming is a skill that’s well worth your while acquiring. When pumped senseless, a hand jam will save you, when nothing else will. With exhaustion (e.g. on huge roofs), your fingers will, sooner or late, uncurl even from the biggest of holds. But, if you can get your weight off your arms (e.g. by heel hooking), you can often hang off a jam for a long, long time. On the classic British roof climb Quietus, (5.10+/E2+), I hung for probably 10 minutes off a good heel hook for my right leg and a good hand jam for my left hand.