Author interview: Pete Whittaker, Crack Climbing

November 22, 2019 5 min read

Photo: Mike Hutton.

Pete Whittaker is one of the world's leading crack climbers with dozens of pioneering first ascents and hard repeats to his name including the first solo ascent of El Capitan in under twenty-four hours. Here he answers the questions you sent him on Instagram. 

How do you climb roof finger cracks? Just twist the shit out of your fingers?
Using opposing jams and doughnut jams are very useful in roof cracks that are finger width. Also keeping tension throughout the body and not sagging down is important. It helps you pull along the length of the crack and keeps the required twist, rather than your fingers and arms dropping down away from the crack and loosing twist/tension.

There are millions of 5.10 crack climbers. What makes a 5.13/14 crack climber?
Practice, failure, analysis, improvement and hard work.

How do I gain upward progress when a chimney is just too big for a heel toe cam?
Use downward facing armbars with the arms. Use legbars with the legs (outside edge of the boot on the back wall and inside knee on the front wall).

What’s the outfit for the next birthday?
Not sure, any suggestions are welcome. I was thinking maybe we should climb it big wall style. But if the leader falls off on the second pitch it will be deck out scenes onto the portaledge … it could be interesting.

What are your thoughts about dogs at crags?
I like dogs, but would never have my own, therefore I don’t mind a dog at a crag.

Is the book going to be sold in South America?
Vertebrate Publishing will sell to South America. If it's not available in shops there, then it can easily be bought from the Vertebrate Publishing website and delivered to South America no problem.

Can you give me any tactics and techniques for finger cracks with an offset?
Use the back of the hand against the offset. For pinkies down jams, you might not actually jam on the pinkie itself. You might end up in the pinkie down position but have the jam engaging against the ring or middle fingers. 

What's your approach to project trad routes at your limit? Different considerations for certain routes?
Train for them. Work sequences. Work gear placements. Make sure the risk is minimised (either by the route being naturally safe, or it can be climbed easily on top rope if it's not safe). Smash it out.

What's your gear placement strategy for trad routes that you might fall on?
Make sure it's good. If it isn’t good then place lots. If I’m onsighting and it's getting very dangerous, don’t climb into an irreversible position with awful consequences. Always be monitoring and assessing every move and your surroundings.

How are you so hardcore?
I’m not.

Have your feet ever slipped out on a mono? I want to get into cracks but I’m worried about that.
Yes they have, it was fine. But if your fingers aren’t very strong you might end up injuring yourself. Or you’ll just have no chance of holding it anyway and fall off straight away and they’ll be no worries to it. However, I have to say, if you haven’t done much crack climbing I’d stay clear of the monos to be honest.

How do you size your shoes for hand cracks and thin cracks relative to street shoe size?
Every shoe manufacturer has different sizing, so you can’t really compare it to street shoe size. However you want your toes to be very very slightly curled in a new pair of shoes. Then when the shoes wear in and stretch your toes will become a little flatter in the boot. Essentially you want your feet to be flat. No bunching of the toes and no aggressive down turns as it's impossible to put them into cracks.

How does strength on cracks relate to strength on face?
Not that well to be honest. This year I climbed 8c+, 8c and 8b in a week, on crack lines. I went sport (face) climbing ten days later and could barely get up 7c. What you train for is what you get good at, expect other elements to suffer.

Are there any psychological or mental signs that you think make a good crack climber?
No, anyone can be good at crack climbing.

What's your number one tip for new climbers?
Remember you’ve got feet.

Is it true that you have a number 5 fist?
Number 4 fist. Number 5 teacup.

How old were you when you started climbing and how long did it take you to climb 7c?
I started climbing when I was about seven, and sorry I have absolutely no idea when I climbed my first 7c …

What's your routine warm up at the crag, when there is nothing graded below your project grade?
Get the blood flowing around the body by any means, usually a bit of running or step ups. Then get on the project and climb it move by move and piece to piece, gradually warming up as you go. If the crux or moves are too hard, just pull past them until you are better warmed up from the easier moves. When trying Recovery Drink this summer, I always just warmed up on the route.

Ever had to do a thumb jam?
Never used one over something else, but I use my thumb in combination with my fingers all the time in pretty much every jam that I do.

How many grades is Tommy climbing harder because of you?
I showed Tommy the drafts of my book and then suddenly he climbed Dawn Wall. It’s amazing how many jams he’d missed up there.

Do your feet ever get stuck in a fall? Do you ever fall onto your placed gear?
I’ve never had my foot get stuck in a fall. I always fall on to my gear. Falling and failing is how you improve.

Why do desert climbers like wearing slipper climbing shoes, I’ve tried it on granite and find it quite painful.
They have a good low profile toe box which is good for inserting into cracks.

How do your hands not die?
Tape up, and tape up properly. Do it before you start climbing.

Are there any isolated strength training exercises I can do to build a base for crack climbing?
I always do lots of lock off training before going on a crack climbing trip. You want good static lock off strength so you can hold stable positions to enable you to seat your next jam perfectly. Some jams can take time to place, so you need to be able to hold the body steady for that period of time. Dynamic climbing is a bit less common in crack climbing.