Cracked Code

by Emily Tuesday, October 29th 2013

In the jagged basalt-lined valley of Paradise Forks, there's an orange tower that has split off the wall, leaning at just an angle to create the ultimate training climb. At the bottom, the space between the wall and the block is only a sliver to squeeze fingers into, but over 70 feet it gradually widens to a gaping maw that fits a whole body. Learning to fit hands, elbows, shoes, and knees into the crack is just the beginning; figuring out how to shimmy up the thing requires a whole vocabulary of techniques. So here, for your educational delight: a crack-climbing dictionary of how to fit your pieces into the puzzle. (And here, a programming note: I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible to write about crack climbing in a way that's not rife with double entendre. Feel free to giggle at your own pace.)


Just the Tips:


A crack that's the width of a Sharpie marker is called a tips crack because you can only get the first pad or maybe knuckle (if you're lucky) of your fingers in. The placement is very basic: stack your fingertips in a line and squeeze them as far into the crack as you can. It's not going to be a good hold, but you can make it a little better by twisting your hand to "cam" your fingers in the crack. Try it with your thumb pointing up and again with your hand turned around, thumb pointing down - the downward placement is generally more secure but harder on your wrist.

Tips with thumb



Finger cracks work on the same mechanics as tips cracks, but you'll get the whole length of the fingers and second knuckles in the crack. Keep in mind that your middle finger has the biggest knuckle, and if you can find a little constriction to wedge that knuckle in, like placing a wall nut, it'll be even more secure. 

Ring lock

Slightly wider than that, you're in the realm of ring locks. Start by turning your hand to point thumb down, and place the pad of your thumb against one side of the crack. Then stack your index finger on top of the thumbnail and wedge as many fingers as possible on top of that. Your fingers putting downward pressure on your thumb is what holds this one in place.


So much of the success of these thinner cracks is about looking carefully for the variations in the crack to take advantage of. Working the feet on these sizes can be miserable, because not much (if any) of the tip of your shoe will fit in. But work your feet the same way you work your hands: start with your foot angled more vertically to toe the nib of your shoe in the crack, and once in twist your foot back toward a horizontal step. Sometimes one side of the crack sticks out more than another, and you can toe against it like a layback; look for any little inconsistencies that you can turn into footholds.



Hand jam

"Thin hands" is a crack that fits the whole length of fingers and all the knuckles, but not the meat of the thumb. I don't have a lot of great advice for these except to move fast and try to overlap your fingers to expand your hand in the space. Hand jams, however - where the whole thumb and palm are included - those tend to be awesome. Cup your hand slightly, placing your finger pads on one wall of the crack and your knuckles against the other. Drop your thumb down to the middle of your palm to puff up the joint. More of your shoe will fit in cracks this wide, so try slipping your toe in with the sole of the shoe almost parallel to one side of the crack, then twist to tighten the rubber in the crack.

Double hands

When a single hand is too loose, try stacking your hands, back to back, with finger pads pressing against the wall. To make this jam successful, the hand that's on top needs downward pressure, so pull that elbow down and in to your side. The biggest trick: now your hands are tied up, and you'll have to find good feet to move upward.



Slide your hand horizontally in the crack, then curl your fingers into a fist. The curling action will widen your hand, hopefully enough to stick. Try with your palm facing down (into the crack) and up (out from the crack). Here again, if you can find a slight constriction to hold your knuckles, this jam will be bombproof. At this size you'll likely get the whole front of your shoe solid in the crack. Angle your pinkie edge down first and step down with your big toe.

Fist jam

As the crack widens, you can try some two-handed variations, like crossing your wrists and keeping one palm flat against the crack while curling the other into a fist; or for even bigger placements you might be able to stack two fists, wrists crossed (and remember that the hand crossed on top is the one that needs the downward pull). On these bigger sizes, the footwork gets stranger. You may be able to get your toe far in the back of the crack and edge your heel in, kicking your toe against the wall like Charlie Chaplain. 


Elbow Grease:

The only silver lining to dancing the Chicken Dance at weddings is that it gives a little primer on a crack technique: flap a chicken wing and stick it in the crack, with your shoulder and hand pressing at the outside edge. Stick a knee into the crack and shuffle up by wedging your knee up and flapping the wing. If your whole arm fits, press your palm against one side and your shoulder against the opposite wall - this is called an arm bar. 


At this size and wider, this is where the groveling begins. Different bodies have different strengths, so get creative. Keep your focus on putting outward and downward pressure against the walls of the crack; that's the only way you'll shuffle up. If you're only focused on fitting in the crack, you'll easily get stuck there. 


Do you love crack climbing? Have you come up with inventive techniques of your own? Share them in the comments!

Activities | Skills | Trips

Paradise Found

by Emily Tuesday, July 30th 2013

This is how much I love Paradise Forks, a climbing area at the upper reaches of Sycamore Canyon about an hour outside Flagstaff: when friends and I were driving the four hours from Tucson to get there, we didn't even turn on the radio; we just bounced up and down on the car seats yelling, “Forks! Forks! Forks! Forks!” It's a hysterically magical place. 


The view from the Prow at Paradise Forks shows the vast canyon network below

And it's not just for climbers. Sycamore Canyon cuts the northern tip of the Mogollon Rim into a deep V with basalt cliffs plunging 150 feet to a riparian creek bed below. It's stunning, with seasonal falls filling the Gold and Silver Ponds in each upper reach, draining around the fortress of the Prow, where the rock shifts in color from orange to black. Though the falls don't run in summer, the temperature is lovely, especially in the shade of high ponderosas. Climber trails lace the cliff edges to access climbs, but they also provide amazing views to hikers. Tagging this vista, the Sycamore Rim Trail continues in an 11-mile loop at the upper reaches of the canyon, flat until a 1,000 foot climb up KA Hill and back down. Other trails like Kelsey Springs and Little Lo explore the canyon bottom, which is 21 miles end to end and 7 miles at its widest point, hiding polished white box canyons, springs and meadows. 

Friend and climber Clare Stielstra checks out lines on the Sine Wall across the way

But Paradise Forks is, well, paradise. The basalt cliffs that line the top of the canyon are split with vertical cracks, ruled like notebook paper, and the style of climbing done here is unique. Rather than holding on to the rock, most of the time you're fitting into it, squeezing hands, knees, elbows, sometimes whole shoulders into the crevices. Equally unique, every climb can be top-roped, freeing scaredy-cat climbers like myself from the pressure of leading and letting us just play. 

A climber gets swallowed by Supercrack above the Gold Pond in Paradise Forks

Every climb is its own physical poem, a vocabulary of moves that I search for in the same way I scan my brain for the right word. A climb like Supercrack (5.9) starts with a finger-width slit at the bottom, gradually widening to a chimney you can fit your whole body inside, so that every few moves you're adding something to the space: fingers, then flat palms, then closed fists, then you're shuffling up with a knee and an elbow in a move delightfully called the “chicken wing.” Or there are climbs like Tangent (5.10) that work like stanzas: an orange corner like an open book with a thin crack in the binding, then you hoist yourself to the top of a pedestal; another, entirely different thin crack on a grey face and another pedestal; then a swooping curve next to a swallow's nest. Or Raindance (5.10), a solitary climb on a buttress between broken columns, where the rappel to the canyon bottom feels like dropping into a rainforest, lush and quiet. You pull out from under a roof onto a thin crack, a movement that seems to take a small miracle, and then you just breathe, listen, and fit your hands into the network of cracks that comes next. There's a clear-headedness that comes with crack climbing for me. Because the route is obvious, drawn on the face itself, I stop thinking about where I'm supposed to go next and just take one move at a time. And suddenly the grade doesn't matter, and the fact that I'm top-roping and not leading doesn't matter, and what other climbers are gabbing about across the canyon doesn't matter. It's just the joy of movement and the beauty of the canyon, and suspended in the middle of a rock face these are the only things that exist.


How to get there:

Take Route 66 west out of Flagstaff and continue on when it turns into I-40 heading towards Williams. Take exit 178 south onto Garland Prairie Road, which quickly turns to gravel but is passable with low-clearance vehicles. This road takes a sharp right curve heading into a huge meadow where cattle and sheep are grazed, and in the woods beyond watch out for elk and deer. Turn left on F.S. 527, which leads to trailhead parking for Paradise Forks / Sycamore Falls and one of the five access points for the Rim Trail (for others, visit the Forest Service website here: White Horse Lake, stocked with fish, is just another minute down the road.



While the Falcon guide Rock Climbing Arizona covers most of the Forks, it excludes the Sine Wall, in my opinion the most beautiful section where the rulebook-straight cracks meld and curve into one another. For a more comprehensive guide, check out A Cheap Way to Fly: Rock Climbing Guide to Northern Arizona by Tim Toula.

Activities | Trails | Trips

The Princess & The Pinarello - Italian Travels By Bicycle

by Emily Thursday, May 23rd 2013

This hill sucks. It sucks more than the last one, but less than the ones that will come after: the fifty shades of punishment that only the Tuscan countryside can deliver. I'm slumped in the saddle of my nimble little Pinarello race bike, shoving my feet against the pedals one at a time. At the opportune moment, Andy – blessed, curly-haired, Scot-accented Andy – leans over and whispers, “We're beating the Canadians!” To which I reply by standing up and cranking on the rest of this hill.

The hills and valleys of Tuscany frame a view of the Castle of Brolio

We're not racing. This is a vacation, with ultralight bikes, crazy fast roads, and five shots of espresso per day (followed by five glasses of wine per day). But Andy has raced – mostly in the mountain biking circuit – and I feel honored that he's joined on to Team Beat the Canadians. He's my coach, my navigator, and my jet pack, putting a hand on my back when I start to gas out and pushing me up the steep slopes. The tour company hosting us want you to feel like a pro racer even if, like me, you're an amateur just trying to keep up. There's a sticker on the top tube of my sleek little bike with my name and country flag on it. And on this hill, I'm trying to do the red-white-and-blue proud.

The Canadians are two spunky and tireless folks from Vancouver. Matt is a strong rider (he added a seven kilometer climb to our ride one day “for fun”) and Bobby pedals in his draft all day, the two of them darting around like dragonflies. Also in our little peloton are Steve and Lori from London, though Lori grew up in the States and also lived in Australia for a time; her dialect is a crazy chimera mix of all the places she's been. Steve is unassuming, quiet on the bike but grinding up every hill like another day at the office (an office with fresh air, vineyards and olive groves, and stone castles from medieval times perched on every hilltop). Lori is training for an Ironman. None of these strongmen wants help up anything, which leaves the support for me. Andy rides next to me when I've slid behind and gives me a strategic push to fling me in front of the Canadians.

Cyclists enjoy the open roads and fast descents of the Chianti countryside

We're here to play, and eat amazing food at hyper-local restaurants in tiny towns that you wouldn't think to stop at, and drink wine from the vineyards we pass on the road, and soar down the fastest slopes I've ever met. We take punishing rides to coffee shops, have espresso, and ride back. Our leader João Correia, who founded our tour company inGamba, knows everyone we meet from the days when he lived in this area training as a pro cyclist. For the first time, I understand the importance and the added joy of connecting with people on my travels. It was always fun to meet people on vacation before, but here in Italy as João told me, your connections give you access to experiences you can't buy with money. In context, he was referring to some of the really unique things he does, like setting up dinner in the million-dollar wine cellar in the basement of a restaurant in Siena, or showing us around the grounds of Castello di Ama, a castle turned winery and art installation with works from prominent artists from across the world.

The open central piazza of Siena hosts a neighborhood horse race twice a year

But this connection lends itself to simple pleasures too, like watching our B&B proprietress, Anna, describe the frenzied Palio horserace over breakfast in a mix of wild hand gestures and halting English. Or take Raul, the trip's Portuguese soigner who speaks the language of our sore leg muscles better than the common language of the group, who makes divine little polenta cakes and sweet pasta squares for our rides, and who dresses up in spiffy clothes on the nights that he Skypes with his beautiful wife and daughter back home. Or Luis, the Portuguese mechanic who asks, when presented with a saddle adjustment or a bottle of Limoncello, “one little more?”

It's these moments that have made this trip amazing. Moments when you feel heroic, moments when you feel crushed, moments when you laugh so hard you can't breathe. Or pedal so hard you can't breathe. Or go down a hill so fast it takes your breath away.

On the last day, I draft behind my boyfriend Logan; it's a little chilly and I'm hiding in the warm windless pocket behind him, conserving my energy because I need practice at it. To each side the hills just lay out, the quiet rows of gnarled grapevines budding with new leaves. Maybe there's only so much to say about the landscape, the subtleties between forest, grapevines, olive groves, stone towns; they just get repeated over and over. But I will say this: you can't touch the magic of this landscape in a car. A car pitches around, jittery, cage-like. On a bike the roads smooth out into sinuous curves, and the landscape unfolds one turn at a time. We ride just hard enough to feel it, how effortlessly the bikes do our bidding, how willfully our hearts follow along. I can feel mine pounding in my chest, saying its own goodbyes to Italy.


Emily will be hosting the free presentation "Travelling Off-The-Cuff" at Summit Hut (Speedway location) on Saturday, May 25th at 11am. She will be discussing ways to pack lighter and will share some tips for stress-free trip planning. She will highlight some key accessories to add light packing principles to any trip and explore how to select the right luggage for your trip. You’ll also learn ways to make your trip planning more flexible so that each day is its own adventure!


My Heart Meets the Heart of Tuscany

by Emily Wednesday, November 14th 2012

When you're trying to recount the newest most amazing trip you've taken in your life, it can be hard to start at the beginning. Details of things loved and mishaps overcome come rushing in all at once. So instead, I'm starting in the middle of Italy, with the day Logan and I saddled up in Florence and started riding our bicycles into the heart of Tuscany.


It felt so wonderful to be back on the bikes. We had spent months riding and planning and packing, all to arrive in Rome - crazy, beautiful, hectic, ancient, nutso Rome - and realize that Italy is quite a big place. We had imagined we would ride our bikes across this whole country and see everything; but it became quite clear that it would take all day just to get outside Rome, and in the process we very well might die in a compound collision with a scooter, a car and a bus all at the same time. So we took the train. And it was so accessible, so fast, that we ended up taking trains a lot, and lugging our bicycles in and out of bike cars all across Italy. But the landscape of Tuscany was far too legendary and beautiful to pass up.

Cycling out of Florence we got lost right away, thanks to a mysterious cue sheet in our terrible Cycling Italy guidebook. (Sorry Lonely Planet; I love you, but you led us astray on this one.) We had already encountered the interesting way that Italians give directions, having gotten lost at the train station when we were looking for our hotel. I walked into a newspaper stand to ask for help, and the man behind the counter was smoking a cigarette indoors, because you can still do that in Italy if you own the place. I was looking for a street called Via Fregene, and the man walked outside with me, pointed to a side street leading out between two buildings, and said in broken English, "turn here, 500 meters, Via Fregene." I thanked him in my severely broken Italian, bought a map, and we headed up the street. Via Fregene was not there. We finally found it on the map. In a similar fashion, just as we were nearing the edge of Florence our mysterious cue sheet told us to veer right "to Scanducci," so we veered right, climbed a steep hill and were rewarded with a beautiful sweeping downhill across green vineyards heavy with grapes. Several happy kilometers later, we arrived in Scanducci where the vineyards promptly faded away into out-of-place mega malls and industrial-looking buildings. We had missed a turn somehow, though we hadn't seen a turn to miss, and we were several uphill kilometers off route.

I threw the Cycling Italy book back in my pannier and we asked for directions at a gas station/pannini shop. I explained to the woman behind the counter that we were trying to get back toward a little town called Impruneta, and at the name she nodded and said, "Impruneta, yes! Take this street in front, go left, it takes you to Impruneta." I was surprised; the street in front of us ran north-south and we were trying to head east. I asked if we would need to turn off anywhere, and she said "no, take the street in front, go left, Impruneta." So we went left. We never got to Impruneta.

Luckily, Logan is a masterful navigator and through the poorly or completely unmarked snaky roads he forged a path that slithered sidewinder fashion into Chianti, bountiful land of wine and hills. It was a clear day with just enough cloud cover to keep us from getting hot. The hills were so steep that I felt compelled to strip them of their designation as "hills"; they may not be the jagged peaks of the Alps, but I would no sooner call them hills than I would give the same name to the Appalachians. They were tough and tall, but fully balanced by my love for the beautiful views that kept changing with each turn, each dip into a valley, each pull to the top.

The landscape of Tuscany is the kind that will never capture well in a photograph. A photograph can describe the perfect, neat and tangled rows of grapevines, and the silvery sage leaves of low olive groves, set in large blocks like a patchwork quilt draped over the hills all the way out to the horizon. It can show you how the small houses, either made of stone or touched with bright colors, dot the hillsides, some of them centuries old. But a photograph can never capture how familiar it feels here, how comforting, to see a landscape like this that has been so manicured, so well worked by generations, and yet it's a landscape that still retains a sense of freedom and space. Maybe it's from growing up in the Midwest, where my backyard expeditions involved tramping through the woods and the cow fields, constantly ducking under barbed wire fences. How do I describe why I felt at home here in Tuscany? Even though there was nothing wild about this landscape, I still felt the thrill of adventure. It wasn't out there, where you could see it in a photograph; it was inside my bones.

A few kilometers outside Greve, our destination, we climbed a big hill to go screaming down a bigger one, grapevines flying past and my mouth opening to a happy scream of its own accord. This kind of cycling, up and down all day, is positively delicious. The climbs would be snail-slow, but then on the sweet blessed descents, anything I'd felt up to that point - any exhaustion or titchyness, any doubts about traveling halfway around the world to climb another damn vineyard-covered hill just like the last for god's sake - all of that was immediately blown away by the speed and the view. To ride a bicycle down a Tuscan hill is to commune with God.

At the bottom of the hill we were met by a winery and stopped for a tasting, where I had the first rosé I have ever enjoyed. It was a bright crisp red, made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, as if you could distill a Cabernet to a crystalline tincture. It was incredibly refreshing after 40 kilometers of up and down cycling. This was followed by two Chianti reserves, the last one smelling like my father's garden in April. I loved that wine. Logan's last glass had a finish that was light and woody, like the way soft maple wood could taste if you tried it.

Greve was cute, but it didn't sing to either of us; it's the curse of traveling in Italy that you get to become a snob about how some little town doesn't have enough history or architecture or charm, even if said town has all three in spades compared to any cute little American town. In any case, we went onward to Radda, a medieval walled city that was 7 kilometers directly up a hill. It was a steady incline only tempered by a shot of espresso I'd had in Greve and more beautiful vineyards, farther and farther below with each turn. Then a joyful riotous downhill for a few kilometers, then bliss. We stopped in a small stretch of woods and ate pecorino cheese and sausage we'd bought at a market, plus crackers and two little jam pies we'd saved from breakfast, and a packaged pastry similar to a glorified Italian twinkie.

Soon enough we came to a small sign: Radda was up a hill, just 0.2km. So close. And yet, it was the steepest piece of hill we'd ever seen, too steep to crank through. We dismounted and walked, our heads hung, all the way up to Radda. It was charming and old and full of pretty stone buildings; just the way we liked it. Wild boar stew for dinner, with wine from a vineyard just down the hill.


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!