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The Crack Machine

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With the (not so) recent exposure of the Wide Boyz and now Sonnie Trotter throwing in his and highlighting others’ contribution to the field, the proliferation of crack machines and their seemingly infinite design concepts is apparent. In this post, I explore my foray into the design and construction of these modern torture devices.  It should be noted that as an engineer, I often have better ideas than creations and this instance is no exception. I intend to share my experiences, both constructive and cautionary, with the hope that you can use them as a starting point to potentially improve on the design.

It all started with Astroman: that legendary testpiece with its infamous Enduro corner featuring thin hands that reach into the heavens. As a young chap on my first visit to the Valley, I was coming off a near onsight of the Naked Edge (read: a heartbreaking fall on a trivial move on the last pitch!) and was feeling confident in my burgeoning crack-climbing and gear-placing abilities. Learning of my ambitions to try my hands (pun intended) at what was once the hardest big wall free climb in the world and this being my first trip to Yosemite, our guide, the renowned Rusty Reno, took me on a tour of the granite crack training routes. His intent was to demonstrate exactly what it meant to follow in the footsteps of John Bachar, Ron Kauk, John Long, and other great climbers.  He did so and we were humbled.

As is often the case, the sting of failure was softened by the warm glow of a campfire and the resultant inhibition from gulping two-dollar wine. Despite Rusty’s best efforts to dissuade our ambitions, we decided to attempt the route, expecting at worst to take a few falls on hard sections, but finish in an acceptable style.  Realizing that we were not going to understand the gravity of our decision without experiencing the route first-hand, Rusty obliged our persistence and agreed to attempt the route.

The first time I saw the Enduro Corner, I was met by simultaneous feelings of fear and awe of the feature’s perfection and the impetuous excitement of tackling such a notable obstacle.  Needless to say, that pitch ended the climb in fumbling with inept hand-jamming, uncertain gear selection despite the obvious and continuous crack size, desperate lie-backing, and eventual retreat followed by a drive across the Valley drowning our shame in windows down, stereo cranked Jimi Hendrix sing along.

The following years would include intermittent bouts of crack training. I attempted to hone my skills at proven training grounds like the unforgiving granite of Vedauwoo, discontinuous and cryptic offerings along the Front Range, and the pump-inducing uniformity of Indian Creek sandstone.  I had committed myself to learn the craft of hard crack climbing. I would be ready the next time I faced the monster.  But another attempt last May would yield only slightly better results. Let’s face it. A climber from Nebraska simply cannot get to enough crack climbing destinations with any kind of regularity to seriously develop his abilities.  The solution is to apply the same principles that allow a flatlander to be proficient at sport climbing, that is indoor training, to crack climbing. Enter the crack machine.

As I said before, I am an engineer. Therefore, any construction project is, without fail, preceded by compulsive planning, hypothesizing, designing, redesigning, doubt, then more redesigning that really only leads to a slightly better idea of how to proceed than when I started.  Regardless, I sketched up my design, calculated my material needs, and headed off to the hardware store.

The general idea was to construct a static crack machine featuring what I arbitrarily determined to be the four most common sizes: #0.5, #1, #2, and #3 camalots.  It would parallel a 40° woody, also part of this construction project. In order to reduce flex in the boards, it would be broken into four two-foot sections with alternating pairs of sizes; #0.5 with #3 in one segment, then #1 and #2 in the next, and so on. This would also allow me to consolidate my crack machine to half the width, freeing up space on the adjacent woody.

For me, construction was spread over a couple of weekends in between the responsibilities of work and a new baby. Anyone with basic framing experience would have no trouble building this. Here are a few lessons I learned during design, construction, and use:

  • For my hand size, I found the minimum board depth to be 10” (nominal). This allows me to jam straight in and have about an inch to spare before bottoming out.
  • The angle was a bit too much at first, but over time I was able to go from basically doing dead hangs to actually linking together moves and practice placing gear.
  • Two-foot lengths are a little too long if you’re hoping to link moves between identical sizes, but again you’ll get used to it. Conversely, shorter intervals would just be annoying to construct and would not allow consecutive moves within a segment. Perhaps if you have real estate, a solution would be to construct continuous cracks floor to ceiling for all sizes. Just be wary of board flex.
  • The #0.5 size is far too difficult at the angle of my crack machine. In retrospect, I should have used something closer to #0.4 (perfect fingers for me) if anything at all. Also, I suspect that training fingers at that angle would result in some serious joint pain long-term.
  •  I didn’t texturize the inside of the cracks. I was worried about tearing up my skin and decided that the smooth texture would only serve to make me stronger (think wood grips). I found this to indeed be the case. Admittedly, I do use tape gloves. This not only restores some friction but avoids pesky hotspots that result from frequently rubbing against the smooth wood surface.
  • On the flip side, I also did not worry about sanding down the inside of the cracks. I was sure to remove any potential splinters but ended up relying on the repetitive use to smooth everything out.
  • This was a result of my poor craftsmanship, not foresight, but the cracks ended up not being perfectly parallel.  While at first, this was an annoyance, it proved to be a helpful feature in the end. I originally intended to construct the cracks at the perfect size for each camalot, but having the slight variation from top to bottom allowed me to work sizes just above and below the optimal cam size. I would emphasize that you do not need much variation to achieve this. In a two-foot segment, the size narrows or widens at most an eighth of an inch.

The Completed Crack

So the million-dollar question is, “did it really work?” I would say, “Absolutely!” If you do not have regular access to crack climbing outdoors and want to develop basic proficiency and increase strength and endurance, this is certainly an effective way to do so. I have not had the chance to test the waters of Astroman, but a recent trip to Red Rocks and romp up Cloud Tower revealed the improvements in both jamming efficiency and endurance.

In terms of how to use the thing, I found that treating it like any other training tool like a hangboard, rock rings, or 40° woody was highly effective. Here are a few ways that I found the crack machine to be the most useful.

  • Dead Hangs: Simply doing dead hangs, especially at first, allows you to really concentrate on perfecting the technique of jamming at various sizes while developing the muscles required to do so. With time, I was able to hang from a single hand and eventually add weight in the form of a rack.
  • Lock-offs: After I felt comfortable hanging from one hand, I could actually start to lock off and then start to put together one or two moves. This helps to develop other muscle groups used in crack climbing, notably the shoulders and core. These muscles, along with your thumbs, will be performing the same motions dozens of times during a crack pitch and they need to be ready to do so. By using the crack machine to practice these movements, you will be all the more prepared.
  • Practice placing gear: Admittedly you’re going to feel like a goober racking up to tackle your eight-foot indoor trainer, but I found that the rigors of placing gear on lead were best simulated by actually doing the task. In the same way you’re practicing the other skills, jamming and moving up a crack, placing gear on lead must be mastered.
  • Employ Other Hangboard Tactics: Again, this is a training tool and one that can be used in a very similar way as a hangboard. This means exercises like pyramids and intervals will be effective training regimens to increase both strength and endurance.
  • Vary the Sizes: It may go without saying, but be sure to concentrate on using all the sizes available. I found it very tempting to gravitate towards the comfort and security of the #2 size. Just be cognizant of your tendencies and be sure to not indulge them too often.
  • Forget the feet: At first I started to try to jam my toes, but I quickly found that at the angle my crack is constructed, I wasn’t gaining much. I also found that my greatest deficiencies were in my strength and endurance in hand-jamming. So very quickly I concentrated on my hands only and used other features for my feet. I would recommend the same for others. After a bit of time outside, I found that once I felt comfortable with my hands, I was free to concentrate on my foot jams. And with this improved focus, that technique caught up very quickly; within a few pitches.

The Finished Product

As I said, I am pleased with this tool’s effectiveness.  For someone without regular access to crack climbing facilities, indoor or outdoor, the crack machine has been invaluable in bringing my technique up to acceptable levels. I should stress, though, that this tool is simply used for physical preparedness. I cannot say that it will prepare you for the toughest crack climbs this sport has to offer. For that, you will also need the experience gained from negotiating the intricacies of real rock. But this may actually be good news. I mean that is just another excuse for you to get out and climb. And who couldn’t use one more excuse for that?

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