How To Do The Wide
A collection of tips and tricks that just might let you experience the wide as it was meant to be... controlled, blood loss free, and efficient.
Leavittation: The Offwidth Renaissance, by Randy Leavitt
Pumping Cracks, by Dale Bard
Rock Craft, jamming technique, by Royal Robbins
Intermediate Wide Crack Technique, by Layne Kopischka
Advanced Offwidths, by Randy Leavitt
Offwidth Almanac, by Jay Anderson
From Mountain Magazine #106
Leavittation: The Off-Width Renaissance, By Randy Leavitt
Offwidth cracks are generally regarded by rock climbers as the antithesis of the perfect climb, generally requiring an exorbitant amount of thrashing about for the climber to succeed. This awkward and strenuous quality is due to the fact that they are indeed an "off" width to climb - too large for a fist jam, yet too small to chimney, which contrasts greatly with the perfect climbing experience: a combination of grace, strength and mental control.
Offwidth climbing has been thought more akin to carrying a heavy pack - an act not usually done for pleasure, but a necessary evil. However, if you abandon the traditional approach to offwidths and instead employ handstacking with intermediate leg locks, the climbing becomes a more rewarding and desirable experience. Developed by Tony Yaniro and myself, and dubbed Leavittation, this method combines many different existing climbing techniques. There's nothing new in hand-jam stacks, you will say, but a builder who uses standard materials can still come up with a unique design!
Even an easy offwidth is hard! The traditional offwidth climbing method involving arm-barring can turn a 5.9 effort into a 5.11 effort. Why is it then rated 5.9? Generally an offwidth of this grade is hard to make progress on, but even harder to fall out of - you must stay in the crack and patiently work (thrash?) your way up. The shortcomings of traditional offwidth climbing soon become painfully obvious, and at this point most people stop climbing them.
Leavittation, however, offers a viable alternative to the normal struggle! As free climbing standards rose, new techniques were needed to handle the potentially desperate wide crack climbs. Generally, Leavittation is only effective on climbs that are graded 5.11 or harder. Traditional offwidth technique is usually more efficient for climbs of 5.10 and below.
Piasano Overhang (Suicide Rock, California) is a five inch offwidth crack that splits a roof whose profile resembles a breaking wave. The climb looms above Sunshine Face, where some of America's best climbers were pushing standards in the early seventies. Tobin Sorenson was among those that occasionally gave Piasano a try. It was a perplexing problem because it seemed that no one was able to arm-bar such a difficult sized roof crack. Finally, John Long came up with a creative solution - he took the "off" out of offwidth. To his already oversized hands, Largo (as he is known) added a pair of gloves, then a pair of welders gloves, and finally several layers of tape, to enable him to fist jam out and over the roof. Long preplaced a dubious bong at the lip of the roof, the best available protection in the early seventies. Rick Accamazzo described the ensuing success as one of the best and most impressive climbing efforts he had seen. Piasano Overhang thus became Suicide's first 5.12.
With my early climbing partners, I would struggle up those demanding face climbs on the Sunshine Face, the majority of which top out on the ledge at the base of Piasano. I would frequently traverse out to the roof to take a look, but it didn't seem rational that someone could hand on for even one move. It was a perplexing yet enticing situation; I knew John Long had climbed it, but I didn't see how. I assumed that he had arm-barred the crack, so with a reluctant belayer, I began a series of futile attempts on the lead. Like a caveman with his club, I struggled to place bongs and wooden blocks. The roof curls down like a hooked beak so it would be erroneous to talk about a high point. Using standard offwidth technique, progress was best made by climbing feet first towards the lip. After about ten moves, I had only climbed a few horizontal feet, but the fact that I was able to make any impression on the problem at all maintained my interest in the route. A few weeks later I was back with an arsenal of gloves and tape, but I soon discovered that I couldn't get sufficient purchase even wearing three pairs of gloves! At that point I would have been willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a solution to the climb, but things weren't that easy. We even tried to neck wedges and underclings, but nothing worked.
Back to the drawing board, or should I say parking lot? I found a concrete car-parking building in Los Angeles that had over twenty, 5.11 cracks. Four of them are 45 foot roof cracks, eight feet off the deck: perfect training for hand, off-hand and fist sized roof cracks. More importantly, Tony and I had the opportunity to work out the hardest of them - a fist-to-Piasano sized offwidth. We soon discovered that the easiest way to hang from the roof was to place one hand next to the other to fill the width of the crack.
In this position we soon realized that it was impossible to move. If we could somehow hang by our feet, we might be able to move our handstacks across the roof. The situation was intimidating since a fall would probably have resulted in a cracked skull. To make the situation worse, but the lesson more valuable, the roof crack was too wide to accept a foot jam, yet too narrow for a knee jam. By flexing our calf muscles we thought that we could hang on. Tony was first to be brave enough to try this. His legs went in, his face contorted with strain, then his hands let go for an instant long enough to move them a few inches more. It took me a few tries to make this seemingly monumental step, but eventually I was doing the same ... handstack, calf lock, then a dynamic move to place the next handstack. This was as hard on our nerves as it was on our bodies. In a few more visits, we worked out the whole 25 foot wide section of the roof with ... Leavittation!
The next year, 1978, I was back in Yosemite to do some big wall routes. In the parking lot, Augie Klein, Gary Zaccor, Dave Diegleman, and John Yablonsky were having an animated conversation about a new offwidth climb called Bad Ass Mama. Despite the ominous stories that were circulating about how Bachar and Long ripped up their arms doing this climb, we decided to try it. On the way, Diegleman gave us a detailed account of how he thought he could offwidth it this time, but made it look more like a new swimming stroke! Once off the shuttle, Diegleman lead us down a path into the trees. This was one of my first trips to Yosemite and I was amazed how these people knew their to even the most obscure climbs. Random piles of horse dung meant we were not far from the stables. We took a left off the trail at the biggest pile and I was wondering how I would ever find this climb again, when suddenly we were there. The climb was overhanging and a bad size, but physically it wasn't as imposing as my mind had made it to be. I had my doubts though, it was rated 5.12.
After watching several admirable but painful attempts by the others, I told everyone about our handstacking technique. They were open to the general idea, but they argued that I would never be able to lead like that. I was not too confident, because I had very little to compare it with, but at least it did not look nearly as difficult as the parking lot roof crack.
I rigged a top-rope, and taped my hands in anticipation of a brutal attempt. The first few moves were fist jams widening to offwidth, but the transition to handstacks was an untried technique, so I downclimbed and re-examined my strategy. You have to let go with both hands in order to place them in a handstack, but my feet were below me not above me as with the roof climb. I reasoned that if I could get my leg locked at least as high as my waist, then I might be able to stay in the crack long enough to get a handstack. My lower foot at this point would stay low to give me added leverage. Next time up, I was mentally ready to try such a maneuver, so from the last fist jam, I leaned my body out as much as possible in order to get my right leg jammed in the crack above waist level. I found it was necessary to aim my foot directly below my lowest jam (this kept the leg jam high enough to be useful for placing the first handstack). At this point, the crack was only wide enough to accept a calf jam. As insecure as it felt, I was prepared to hang from it with confidence gained in the parking lot. With my right calf high and my left foot bracing low, I slapped my left palm into the left inside wall of the crack. Stacking my right hand next to it proved to be the hardest move because after that I could handstack with good intermediate leg locks. The crack started to widen, accepting now a fist jam stacked on top of a hand jam. My knees started locking inside the crack so well that I could easily let go with both hands and chalk up.
I discovered right off that a knee jam was twice as effective if I brought my toe back outside the crack to lever on the wall. As the crack continued to widen, I became confused as to what to do next. Hand/fist jams turned into fist/fist jams, while my knee jams got wider and less secure. Surprised at my progress, I let myself fall onto the top of the rope as I was figuring out how best to enter the next wide section that had become a squeeze chimney. On my next attempt, I tried switching from using my right leg in crack as I was Leavittating to using my left leg in the crack for the transition into the squeeze chimney. This sequence proved to be the key to the final section. After that I enthusiastically grunted up the squeeze slot to the top of Bad Ass Mama. Once I was on top, I had doubts that the climb was a 5.12, not because I had ever done a 5.12 that easily, but mainly because I had never done a 5.12 before! Yablonsky paid me a nice compliment later that night; I overheard him saying "Leavitt made it look like 5.8." A few months later, I returned back down that same horse dung trail to Bad Ass Mama and let it.
When I returned to Los Angeles that fall, I phoned Tony to give him the good news about Bad Ass Mama. We tried to think of more routes on which we might use the new method. Although Tony had thought that I was crazy for my Piasano Overhang attempts, he was now excited to go back. This time we were armed with some huge "No. 5" "Friends," based on Ray Jardine's design, that Tony had just made in his garage.
Piasano Overhang still looked infinitely harder than Bad Ass Mama, but it was a good size - perfect for double hand jams. Placing his first "No. 5 Friend" as far out as he could reach, Tony then worked for a while until he successfully pulled up onto the roof, and started slowly Leavittating feet first across the roof. His moves became more positive as he progressed towards the lip. I was amazed and excited watching him because this was something that I have previously considered impossible. Halfway out, he completely let go with his hands and hung like a bat by his feet. He looked as if he was ready to drop like a bomb from under the roof, but Tony started fumbling nervously for his second "No. 5 Friend" and it was only an hour later, when I climbed to that point, that I really appreciated how scary this position was.
Once he got the "Friend" placed in the crack, he jerked out enough rope to clip in before ejecting out of the roof. It was a great effort and as always, I was impressed with Tony's perseverance. I only managed a few feeble attempts that day as I was just getting used to the vertigo but Tony managed to climb down and out to the lip of the roof several times. He realized that getting established on the crack above the roof would be the crux. Tony managed to lead Piasano the next day after a few tries which left me the rest of the day to try the roof. I made improvements rapidly, but never managed to turn the lip.
A bad wrist injury took me out of climbing late that year, but upon my return to climbing, Piasano Overhang was the first order of business. I had thought about it so often that I couldn't wait to try it again. Getting reoriented in the world upside down took me a day, but on my second day I was successful. In my mind, Piasano is the most superb offwidth with its 400 feet of exposure and unique form.
Leavittation was catching on, and Piasano had ascents from Karl Mueller, Gary Zaccor, and Alan Nelson. I even heard that Frank Noble was able to undercling it on a top rope! This seemed mind boggling to me even though Leavittation isn't exactly a normal activity either. With our new knowledge Tony and I started searching for new offwidth climbs. In the areas we went, a good offwidth was harder to find than a perfect finger crack. Consequently we had to settle for climbs that had short sections of handstack moves rather than long sections. In Joshua Tree I found a finger to offwidth crack in a twelve foot roof. We solved the problem by employing one very hard Leavittation move to gain a horn on a lip. From an earlier attempt, I had named it Emotional Rescue (5.12b). On another offwidth roof at Joshua Tree (Comfortably Numb, 5.11b), a Leavittation move is used at the base of the roof to efficiently gain the wider section above. Yosemite Valley also has many climbs where the technique is either very useful or essential.
In the Split Rock area of Colorado, I used some Leavittation moves on a man eating crack that had remained an unsolved problem for years. After its savage nature, I named it Animal Magnetism (5.12d). This eighteen foot flared roof crack left its mark on my arms and shoulders in the form of burns and cuts. A year later, Skip Guerin suffered the same damage when he made the second ascent.
Now that Leavittation offers a new and more enjoyable solution to offwidth climbing, routes such as Bad Ass Mama are done regularly and climbers actually enjoy them. In some cases, I have even used a knee/hand jam, and in one offwidth, Tony wedged his head against his hand! I wouldn't say that the possibilities are endless, but they are more than they were ten years ago.