Pure crack climbing is an acquired taste. Crack addicts seek out seemingly laser-cut splitter cracks on blank walls—completely devoid of handholds and footholds—requiring the pure endurance hand and fist jamming techniques that form the foundation of Yosemite and southwest desert climbing. When compared to face climbing, which can produce a confusing array of contrived movements over various bands of rock, pure cracking climbing is elegantly simple because its options are so few—you’re either in the crack or you’re on the ground.
When I was learning to climb at the crack mecca of Indian Creek, UT back in the late 90s, I noticed that many climbers from the eastern U.S. had a hard time with this style of climbing. They would often search for the tiniest face holds outside the crack, desperate for any respite from the relentless jamming that these cracks required, typically resulting in flailing and failing when the face holds inevitably ran out.
Now that I mainly climb at the New River Gorge and other southeastern sandstone crags, this approach makes sense. If you’ve got decent footwork and crimping skills, you can finesse your way around many cracks using those miniscule edges that form so well and consistently on Nuttall Sandstone of the gorge—edges that would just break at Indian Creek. The vast majority of the NRG’s cracks are actually face climbs or ‘crack-lite’ climbs in which you can use the cracks for sidepulls, laybacks, stems, and other types of trickery, but don’t necessarily require pure jamming techniques.
However, there are some gems scattered throughout the gorge that require you to toss aside your bag of face tricks and wiggle those fingers, hands, and feet into the crack and jam. In compiling this list of the best pure cracks at the NRG up to 5.11, I eliminated routes that follow corner features (which ironically crosses the aptly-named Supercrack off the list), routes that have too many face holds, or even those routes which feature constrictions in the cracks that make the jamming too easy. Succeed on this list of NRG classics, and you’ll be ready to climb pure hand and finger cracks anywhere on earth, move on into the intimidating 5.12 cracks of South Nuttall, and even start using your new crack skills on sport routes.
FANTASY (5.8) – ENDLESS WALL
From its thrutchy, wide start, to an intimidating roof pull and the 60 feet of glorious pure handcrack that follows, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more memorable 5.8 crack anywhere. Even better, a huge caprock at the top keeps Fantasy dry in the light rain, and gets ample shade throughout the summer.
NEW YOSEMITE (5.9) – JUNKYARD
More aspiring crack climbers get routed on this beautiful splitter than any other. Hit up Junkyard Crag on a busy weekend and you’re sure to see muscle-bound gym bros struggling to layback and double gaston their way up the crack—anything to avoid true jamming! The crux of New Yosemite is a slight bulge with thin hand jams for most folks. You have to hang off these pure jams to plug gear, making it significantly more difficult than Fantasy. The only detraction to this route is that the splitter only makes up the bottom half—it’s just too short!
TREE ROUTE (5.9+) – BRIDGE BUTTRESS
It may not be as aesthetic as New Yosemite, but this route throws a wider variety of jams at you than any other 5.9 at the NRG. Hands, fists, fingers, ringlocks, even full body stems—you’ll have the opportunity to pull all these techniques out of your bag of tricks on Tree Route. Lead this and you’ll definitely be ready for 5.10.
SPRINGBOARD (5.10a/b) – FERN BUTTRESS
Once you get into the 5.10 grade at the NRG, the possibilities open up. Fingercracks take center stage, and the line between face climbing and jamming gets blurry. It’s hard to narrow down a strong list of contenders like Mushrooms, First Strike, Burning Calves, Rod Serling Crack, and more, but for elegant jamming and beauty, my favorite 5.10- has always been Springboard. A slightly overhanging wall, cruxy fingerlocks at the start, and an excellent position make this line not just a must-do but a must-repeat.
WHAM BAM THANKS FOR THE JAM (5.10b) – BEAUTY MOUNTAIN
I like to divide cracks between ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ techniques. White collar climbing is elegant—you crank on dainty fingerlocks, body lightly swaying back and forth as you float up the crack. Blue collar jamming, on the other hand, involves fists, elbows, shoulders, arms, knees, and a sort of bar-fight mentality to get up wider, steeper climbs. Wham Bam is most definitely that—with a steep wide start that builds into a hand traverse and glorious pull-around the arete into perfect handjams. You may want to tape up for this one.
INDIAN SUMMER (5.10c) – SUMMERSVILLE LAKE
This is probably the most perfect, consistent, continuous splitter crack in the region. Starting on steep handjams and gradually tapering down to ringlocks and then fingers, each move is slightly harder than the one before as your pump clock starts ticking and you try to decide just how much gear to place. The only drawbacks? Indian Summer is only about 40 feet high, and only climbable when the lake level is down in the winter.
LINEAR ENCOUNTERS (5.11a) – ENDLESS WALL
The 5.11 grade is where trad climbing all comes together and really shines at the NRG, and climbers solid at this grade have to be well-rounded in terms of technique, gear placement, endurance, headspace, and jamming skills. For some geological quirk, however, almost all 5.11 cracks in the area require some devious face skills. Linear Encounters is a textbook ‘king line’ featuring a steep off-fingers start and blind handjams around a corner, but you’ll have to pull a few insecure 5.11 face moves to reach the anchors.
CHASIN’ THE WIND (5.11b) – BEAUTY MOUNTAIN
Perched high over the New River on an imposingly blank buttress and guarded by a sketchy 5.9 first pitch, this fingercrack may be the most beautiful splitter in the state. While water solution pockets create constrictions that prevent this from being a purely parallel-sided splitter, the exposed climbing and position overlooking the gorge are unforgettable. Even better, these constrictions eat up wired stoppers, meaning that you don’t need a massive rack of cams to climb this classic.
Paul Nelson is an aging, crusty trad climber who can often be found jamming in the New’s lickety splitters. He’s also a musician who can often be found jamming in and around the Fayetteville area with his jazz band One for the Road.